top of page

Staying Safe From A Terror Attack

The Era of Global Terror Threats

In 2007, at the Gaza stripe, an Israeli security officer was able to avert mass killing of innocent civilians when he became suspicious of a would-be female terrorist who disguised herself as a pregnant woman. Apart from her tendency to avert eye contact, hands wringing, the dead give away behavioural cue was the way she walked. Unlike real pregnant women, who tend to walk with their legs apart (as nature’s way of allowing them to balance the baby they are carrying as they walk), the suspect walked with one foot directly in front of the other as most ladies would if they were not pregnant. This observation contradicts the appearance of pregnancy as evident by a clearly protruding abdomen. When questioned by the security officer the suspect became more nervous and agitated. A body search by a female officer was to reveal explosive hidden inside a false pregnant tummy of the female suspect.

Fast forward to November 2015, when a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris, killing a total of 130 people. The attacks comprising of suicide bombings and mass shooting, took place in cafes, restaurants, a music venue and outside a football stadium, Stade de France. The death toll could have been much worse had it not been for the vigilance of a French security guard at the Stade de France who stopped a suicide bomber from entering after discovering what seems like an explosive vest during a ‘pat down’. The security guard’s heroic act led to the suicide bomber blowing himself up after being challenged outside the stadium.

In the wake of the Tunisia terror attack in June 2015 where 38 died, the British Foreign Office issued a map of ominous terror threats around the world.

Looking at the map, you will note that the threat of terrorism is truly global in scale and includes major developed countries and developing countries like parts of West Europe, Russia, Australia, parts of Africa, India, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. And these are the countries at the highest levels of threats (red zone). Few countries are truly safer at the lowest level of threat (green zone). Sadly, since then there have been deadly attacks that took place in France, Australia, Indonesia just to name a few.

What can the ordinary person do to avoid being caught in a random shooting, or worst, in close vicinity of a suicide bomber? The study of psychology in particular, predatory behavior and communication psychology offers us some useful insights that can help us stay safe from such predators.

Insights from the Science of Predatory Behaviour and Communication Psychology

Psychologists working together with counter-terrorist experts have arrived a few tentative conclusions:

  • Attempts to identify terrorists by their physical appearance (e.g. looks, clothing they wear, physical attributes, gender, race etc) is unreliable as terrorists work hard to avoid falling into common stereotypes or generalizations. For example, they may dress in corporate wear to blend in with the crowd they are planning to stage a terrorist attack. Increasingly, more women are being recruited to carry out terror attacks in recent years, as well as people who are not usually associated with terrorism such as elderly, people with disabilities, and even teenagers/ children

  • Contrary to some commonly held beliefs, terrorists differ in their motivations, and psychologists have identified at least 8 profile types of male terrorists – ranging from the Thinker/Dreamer, The Angry Young Man, The Pragmatist, The Criminal (Violent and Nonviolent), The Seeker of Glorious Fame, The Me-Too Guy and The Mentally Ill. Women terrorists have been found to be more likely to be motivated by revenge for the loss of male terrorists or from sexual violations against them. So trying to identify terrorists by their motivations is too challenging to be effective either.

So what works? The tell tale signs that you are in the dangerous company of a terrorist is by the emotions and behavioural leaks that a stranger may reveal subtly in public. These emotions include:

  • Anxiety – despite all his preparations, the terrorist will exhibit some degree of nervousness over issues such as getting discovered before he can execute his plans, or simply, dying in his own hands or the hands of the authorities. Symptoms include quick and heavy breathing, trembling hands, shaky or incoherent speech, mental confusion, avoidance of eye contact etc.

  • Anger – usually by terrorists who belong to the Angry Young Man, the Criminal or the Mentally ill profile type, look out for individuals who show symptoms of excessive anger such as grinding of teeth, clenched fists or jaw muscles, furrowed forehead, puffing of chest, tendency to talk ‘at’ you, rather than talking to you, high pitch in voice etc

  • Fear - this emotional state is related to anxiety but more intense. People who are afraid will physically distant themselves from those around them, and generally maintain a greater area of personal space than normal. They may also attempt to psychologically soothe themselves by holding objects like bag pack, briefcase etc closely to themselves. Sometimes, they will subconsciously hunch or slouch to make themselves smaller or inconspicuous. Other symptoms include rapid eye blinks, excessive sweating, especially around the eyebrows, upper lip area, clammy hands, and large sweat stains on the back and the underarms.

  • Numbness - numbness or an unnatural serenity is usually found amongst the Thinkers/ Dreamers and the Seekers of Glorious Fame types – those who believe that they are about to advance a higher or greater calling. This state of mind is also more likely to be found with terrorists who operate within a group than a lone wolf type. The security of numbers and camaraderie, coupled with intense training and preparation, help to bring forth feelings of serenity in the face of danger or death. Another reason why terrorists may appear numb is due to the use of mind-altering substances such as cocaine, anabolic steroids, LSD, alcohol etc to fortify their resolve. Obvious symptoms are for examples, glazed, watery or bloodshot eyes, confused state of mind, excessive sweating, acute anxiety etc.

Another set of behavioural cues comes from the study of communication psychology, or specifically body language and their respective behavioural leakages. Here are some useful cues to look out for and their respective implications:

  • Presence of firearms – when carrying a concealed weapon, the terrorist often carries his gun in his waistband (front, slightly off centre, or in the small of his back). To facilitate this concealment, the terrorist often wears clothing that is inappropriate to the time, place or weather. Furthermore, in an effort to ensure his weapon is properly secured, one give away cue is the periodic subtle patting and touching of his weapon through his clothing. The third give way cue is the unusual gait and way one swings his arms due to the presence of a concealed firearm. For example, if the terrorist carries a weapon on his right side, he is likely to walk with a shorter leg stride on his right side due to the weapon weighing heavily on that side. If the terrorist is required to run or walk briskly, the give away behavioural cue is that he will further secure the concealed weapon by pressing his forearm or hand against it. The fourth give away cue that an individual is carrying a concealed weapon is that he will turn his weapon bearing side of his body away as people approach.

  • Presence of a shooting stance - minutes or seconds before the shooting starts, a behavioural give away is the shooter getting into a shooting stance. The concealed weapon may not have been drawn or stay hidden, but the shooter will adopt a popular shooting stance known as the ‘isosceles stance’. The feet are spread to about shoulder width and the entire body of the shooter faces the target in a slight crouching posture. While there are other shooting stances, the key point to note is that there is a drastic difference between a ‘regular’ versus a shooting stance.

  • Pre-attack behavioural cues - all terror attacks require some degree of reconnaissance, rehearsal and preparation prior to the actual time of attack. The preparatory training will give rise to pre-attack behavioural cues that will give you some forewarning that you are in imminent danger. For example, as many terrorists have undergone some degree of military training, they may adopt an upright military posture, especially reflecting the stress and tension they may be experiencing in the build up to the actual attack. As they move into positions for the attack, they often walk briskly in a purposeful and almost aggressive manner. There will also be attempts to block exits and entrances, create choke points and ‘kill zones’ etc to encircle and trap in civilians. Look out for unusual human traffic or loitering men and women who are excessively nervous, fearful, or even angry. One way to quickly detect excessive anxiety is the presence of self-soothing behaviour such as heavy upper chest breathing, rocking back and forth, patting of one’s body, hand wringing or fidgeting.

  • Terrorist pattern of speech and rhetoric – as earlier noted, in many instances, terrorists are given mind-altering substances such as cocaine, anabolic steroids, LSD, alcohol etc to fortify their resolve. These terrorists, in an altered state of mind, have a different pattern of speech. For example, those drugged with cocaine and amphetamines tend to speak loudly, rapidly and sound obnoxious or hostile. Other drugs like alcohol, hallucinogens and barbiturates cause speech to be slower and slurred, while steroids cause a person to sound loud, harsh and aggressive. Those who were not drugged but experienced intense ‘brain washing’ often speak in a robotic tone, devoid of any emotion or inflection. Alternatively, the individual’s conversation is often punctured with ‘hate talk’ such as negativity and hostility towards a particular race, religion, country etc.

The best strategy an ordinary person can do to stay safe, or thwart an imminent terror attack is to develop the observational skills and instincts to detect body language and communication patterns that suggests subtle leaked signals of deception, fear and anxiety - specifically observing body language, facial signals, voice and speech patterns. Once suspicion is aroused, it is important for the ordinary person to quickly move away to safety, while at the same time, reporting what you have observed as clearly as you can, to the authorities.

While some people might dismiss the use of such knowledge of predatory behavior and communication psychology to help detect and prevent terror attacks, it needs to be noted that the Israelis have been cultivating this sense of awareness (behavior analysis) for more than 3 decades - with a 100 percent success rate in terms of airport security. While a terrorist can hide explosives, he cannot hide his body language.

Learning from the success of the Israeli authorities, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and TSA have implemented specially trained “Behaviour Detection Officers” to look out for travellers who exhibit physiological or psychological signs that suggest that you may be in the presence of a terrorist/ predator.

In analyzing failed and successful terrorist attacks in the United States between 1999 and 2009, the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, reported that 80% of foiled terror plots were thwarted as a result of tips from the public and law enforcement, while approximately only 20% were actually thwarted by intelligence agencies themselves. This study validates the critical role ordinary citizens can play in stopping one of the worst kind of predators in modern societies today – the terrorist.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page