Cutting Edge Training

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The "Unthinkable" in Boston was Predictable

by George on April 20, 2013 12:42

The April 15, 2013 bombing attack by Muslim Americans who were born in Chechnya has graphically awakened many Americans to the reality that most people in the world face:  terrorist bombs can suddenly shred their peace of mind anytime, any place.  In actuality, the US has been subject to terror attacks using Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) since at least May 4, 1886, when anarchists threw a bomb into a crowd at a labor rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago, killing seven police officers (officers firing into the crowd killed another four people).  In the 1970s, the US suffered 50-60 bombings per year, all of them politically inspired.1   Terrorists have operated since ancient history, and will continue to operate as long as one person or people believe they cannot defeat a larger, stronger enemy in confrontational warfare.  Terrorism is the tool of the weak and the motivated.

The terror-suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing are American citizens who were born in Chechnya.  Rather than the predicted al Qaeda “sleeper cells” so many of us expected, these two brothers represent what is becoming the norm, the independent operator with only loose or no ties to a greater jihadi network.  According to Brian Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, those involved in attempted and completed terror attacks are men for whom Islam is less important than the search for adventure and a desire to be part of (the) ‘epic struggle’”2 of Islam against Christianity and the West.

Based on Mr. Jenkins’ research, there have been 41 Salafist-inspired2 plots involving 204 people since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  The suspects tend to be “malleable males” averaging 32 years of age (with a median age of 27) who tend to be “loners.”  74% are US citizens, 49% are US born, and one-quarter were born with non-Muslim names, suggesting they converted to Islam prior to the plots.  Contrary to public expectations, most of these individuals are not of Arab descent—they are instead predominantly Somalis and Pakastanis.The Boston Marathon bombers fit this profile exactly:  Chechyn-born US citizens of Muslim faith, 26 and 19 year old (respectively) males who had little interaction and identification with American culture and society, and who posted Salafist messages and goals on their social websites.

These grassroots actors5 are individuals who have a romantic—and clearly earnest—belief in Islam’s historic struggle against the West—yet are not formally affiliated with any known group.  Rather than highly trained operatives with extensive combat experience, they are principally self-trained through the internet, and influenced by e-publications such as “Inspire.”6   This publication, with its sophisticated graphics, was the brainchild of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Salafist militant who was killed by a drone strike on 9/30/2011.  This e-magazine sought to mobilize unsophisticated US citizens to commit low-technology terror attacks with high public impact.  The Fort Hood shooting (encouraged and celebrated by al-Awlaki), killing 13 and wounding 32 people was just such an attack that urged a simple plan rather than a complex plot.  The Boston Marathon might have had similar or even greater numbers had the suspects employed firearms rather than bombs.

The tools they employ, whether firearms, poison (e.g., ricin or anthrax), or IEDs are simply the mechanism of their acts of terror.  Terrorist looks for soft targets that are easy to access and give them the highest body count for the least cost to them.  Bombs make better sense, as pointed out in the “Inspire” magazine, because it does not lead to confrontation and permits the Salafist to continue his personal warfare on the unbelievers.  With the success of the Marathon bombers, it is likely that we will be subject to more of these attacks.  Learning how to minimize the chance of being one of the victims of terrorism simply makes sense. 

Change your thinking

The American public has grown complacent and unthinking about the threat of terror—primarily due to law enforcement’s success in disrupting these plots since 9/11, as well as the Main Stream Media’s suppression of news events that might cast Islam in a negative light.  The threat remains, and may, in fact, now be greater due to the success of the attack and the “blaze of glory” in which the first brother,7 was killed.  While terror attacks have continued since 2001, this is the first time that one event has penetrated the national consciousness to this extent since the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.  This is likely due to the unpredictability of the attack and the targeting of a non-political, non-military event.

It’s time to change your individual mindset and take better control of your vulnerability to attack.  Whether it is an Active Shooter suspect, a Salafist suspect, an Occupy Movement extremist, a union thug, an anarchist, someone advocating violent change from the Left or the Right, it is unsafe to consider a terror attack as unlikely.  It is common place in many parts of the civilized world—and routine in less civilized countries—and we are now experiencing this same assault on our way of life and culture in a very public manner.  Beneficially, the more highly aware you become (without paranoia, which serves no one’s highest good), the less you will be susceptible to common criminal assault and robbery.

A change in thinking creates a change in actions and behavior.  Far from “bowing to terror,” this change represents a realistic response to a realistic threat.  While the likelihood of any individual being harmed by a terrorist attack (of the hundreds of thousands at the Boston Marathon, fewer than 1% were directly harmed by the blasts), it might be safe to say that 100% of those present and nearly all Americans were emotionally affected to some varying degree.  Knowing that one is statistically unlikely to be shot or disintegrated by a terrorist’s bomb does not mean it is time to sink back into the denial.  Rather, it is an opportunity to recognize that we as a society might take responsibility for our own safety as well as watching each other’s backs.

Essentially, a change in thinking creates a more tactical lifestyle, one where the blinders are lifted a bit.  Instead of walking through life with your iPod’s ear buds plugged in, your eyes down, and your mind a million miles away from your present circumstances, a habit of observing others’ behavior is created.  The upshot is that we all will make more eye contact with others, possibly facilitating more connection.  And you might make the difference between a foiled or successful plot.

Notice everyone

Creating habits of increased situational awareness is the goal.  While noticing everyone may not be possible, the goal is to maintain an “eyes-open” approach to being in public.  Who and what is around you?  Reportedly, one of the victims in the Marathon bombing (a double amputee) made eye contact with the bomber as he put his backpack with the IED down and walked away.  This is an example of the need for increased situational awareness.  Asking, “Why is this guy leaving his backpack on the sidewalk in the middle of a crowd?” may have saved this man’s legs and the lives of others.   This is a question he may be asking himself for the rest of his life.8  Rather than a criticism of him, this is something any of us might have done.  Instead, let’s change our timing and ask these questions pre-event—and then act upon the answers.  For example, the average time an unattended bag or package is reported in Israel is less than 40 seconds.  Israelis have learned the hard way to pay attention to potential threats.

Situational awareness is not about racial profiling.  Racial profiling is ineffective and does not further the goal of creating situational awareness.  Because any individual is ethnically a member of “X” race tells us nothing about his or her beliefs, intentions, or threat level.  An “Arab,” “Somali,” “Pakastani,” or even the fact that one is Muslim is not an indicator of threat.  While a suspect description of an individual of “X” ethnicity for a specific crime creates the need to critically examine others of that ethnicity, there is no jihadist “race.”  Extremely devout Muslims may wear a skullcap and their women wear hijabs (head scarf) and even burkas (a loose garment covering all of the body, including the face, leaving only the hands uncovered).  That they may be sympathetic to jihadist ideals and goals does not necessarily make them a terror threat.  Terrorists, both Salafist and secular, and Active Shooters as well, come in every ethnicity and country, including our own.

Effective observation notes the differences in behavior and affect from “normal” social conduct.  Affect defined as the outwardly observable appearance of an individual indicating mood or psychological demeanor.  We see other people moving through their days, some in good moods, many not.  Our brains are hardwired to recognize anger, threat, and fear in others.  We first need to observe their affect before we can recognize it for what it might be.  How is this person’s behavior or demeanor different from those around him or her?

Some observations that lead to questions about an individual and their potential threat level:

  • Whose affect is different from the rest of the crowd?  He or she may just be having a bad day.  Or it might be his/her last day.  Suicide bombers have been noted to have a range of affect from beatific to mournfully crying.  Active shooters have ranged from arrogant to euphoric.
  • Is he or she hyper-vigilant?  Is this person in a state of intense “startle reaction,” appearing wide-eyed or giving the impression he or she is about to be caught doing something wrong?
  • With this difference in affect from those around him/her, is there a disconnect between that person’s dress and everyone else’s?  The well-used example is wearing an overcoat on a warm day.
  • Is he or she carrying a backpack or duffel?  These objects are so common in our culture that they are unnoticed except by loss-control security personnel in retail stores.  The presence of a backpack is unexceptional except when coupled with unusual behavior or affect. 
  • Why is that property abandoned?  Observation of abandoned property is useless without the willingness to take action.  While a person leaving a bag or package in a public place may be absent-minded or careless with their property, that person may later count on someone perhaps noticing and reporting the package or bag to prevent its theft.  If you discover abandoned property  in an area where people are expected or are gathering, first gain distance from the bag, and then report it to police or security.  If possible, it is best to report it while behind cover, out of the path of the blast effects (overpressure, heat, and shrapnel).  Do not investigate the package unless you have the training to do so.
  • Is his/her chest/waist weirdly bulky for the overall body size—are the legs/arms to torso consistent or inconsistent with normal proportions?  Someone who is strangely bulky might be wearing an explosive vest.  Strangely, some suicide bombers have had wires hanging out of their clothing (this has been seen several times in Israel and helped to save countless people).  Does this person have a rifle or shotgun barrel extending below his jacket?

Remember:  observation of behavior and affect that is out of the ordinary is the goal of situational awareness.  The early warning and ability to report in sufficient time to permit law enforcement to intervene and evacuate the blast area is key to preventing multiple injuries and deaths should it be the real deal.  At worst, someone’s abandoned or forgotten property is recovered by authorities and will not be stolen. 

Be legally armed

While legally carrying a handgun will do nothing to prevent a terrorist bombing, armed individuals can positively influence and sometimes end an Active Shooter event.  According to Ron Borsch, of those events that are interrupted or stopped by someone other than the suspect, armed civilians shoot the suspect twice as often as responding police officers.  Nothing is able to confront an armed bad man as efficiently and effectively as an armed good man or woman.

Unlike terrorists, active shooter spree shooting perpetrators (as opposed to workplace shooters who then might take hostages or attempt to flee) tend to be shallow, emotionally frail individuals who are not willing to fight with a capable adversary, and they tend to fold immediately.  90% of spree shooters (those who attempt to murder as many unarmed strangers as possible in the shortest possible time) commit suicide at the first sign of resistance.  For example, in the December, 2012, mass shooting in the Clackamas County Mall (Oregon), the suspect immediately committed suicide when a man with a concealed weapon permit pointed his handgun at him.

Your tactics will include finding a corner to fight from, and firing at the shooter at the earliest possible moment.  Even if he is too far for you to effectively hit, firing at him will let him know that he is not the only one with a gun in the location.  If you cannot fire directly at him for fear of hitting innocents behind or around him, fire into a wall near him, or even the ceiling above him.  Statistically, this tends to end the event.  If he begins to target you, this has two benefits:  1) he’s no longer murdering the unarmed innocents, giving the police more time to effectively respond; and 2) you’re fighting from a corner and he has to hit a small target.

Also, be prepared to be met by anxious, fearful police officers.  Do what they tell you to do immediately.  Realize that they don’t know you are the “good guy,” and they want to make it out of this situation alive as well.

Have a plan

While one would ideally avoid crowds during terrorist times, it is not practical.  This threat is with us for the duration of Islam versus the West, and there is no way to avoid crowds in shopping for food, celebrations, watching a game—your child’s or the pros—or watching the end of a marathon.  Whether an attack by terrorists consists of one or more IEDs as seen in Boston, or it is a direct assault with firearms, having an idea of what you might do should something happen will be vital.  Additionally, knowing areas to avoid can create a safer situation.

Active Shooters, like terrorists and criminals in general, love “gun-free zones.”  If you are in one of these high-danger zones, make sure your situational awareness is in over-drive.  The early observation of unusual affect and threat behavior is essential to increasing your safety from all types of threat.

With family members, planning is key to increasing everyone’s safety.  My wife and I have an explicit agreement if something happens and we are with our grandchildren:

  • If we can get out as a family, we move immediately away from the threat.
  • If the family is threatened, she takes the grandchildren as I address the threat.
  • If we are without the grandchildren, we play it by ear.

With this planning explicitly agreed upon, there are fewer decisions, which means less time is spent in neutral while the events play out around us.  Having a plan permits quick modification rather than figuring something out in the middle of someone shooting at you, in the midst of an explosion, or criminal assault.


Americans are joining the rest of the world in being forced to have an awareness of vulnerability to a threat.  While “gun-free zones” assist Active Shooters in their targeting and execution of their mass murders, terrorists strike soft targets where maximum infliction of severe injury is possible for the least amount of effort.  We will never be able to prevent individuals and groups who believe their grievances justify the murder of anonymous innocents.  Even in a police state like Russia (even when it was the Soviet Union) and China there are still terrorist attacks and mass casualties. 

We can, however, make it more difficult for the terrorist and Active Shooter suspects to operate.  Early observation and reporting, as well as avoidance of items typically used to transport or hold IEDs can make a difference.  Legally carrying a handgun (and being able to use it) will stop an Active Shooter, or, at least, slow him down.

It’s time to pay attention and change how we do business as a people to make us safer while preserving the freedom we cherish.  As our good friend Gordon Graham says, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”  It is predictable that we will remain the target of terror attacks.  While law enforcement may not be able to prevent or interdict every terrorist act, we as individuals and a society are able to better observe and act to upon the indicators of threats to protect ourselves and others from the results of these attacks.


1.     “A Desire To Be Part Of An 'Epic Struggle' -- A New Profile Of Jihadis” by Judith Miller, 4/19/2013,

2.     Ibid.

3.     “Salafism”’ is a militant segment of Sunni Islam.  Salafists believe only they are the correct interpreters of Islam and the teachings of the Qu’ran.  In their view, all non-Salafists Muslims are infidels who must be converted, and the entire world will someday be dominated by their fundamentalist beliefs.  The Wahabi tribe’s strict interpretation of living one’s life only through the Qu’ran and the Hadith Qudsi ("Sacred Hadith," a recording of the sayings and actions of Muhammad) are the basis of the militant Salafist movement.

4.     Op.cit.

5.     Stratfor Global Intelligence, “Boston Bombing Suspects: Grassroots Militants from Chechnya,”


7.     Please note, Cutting Edge Training never refers to terror and active shooter suspects by name.  We will not participate in the process of generating copycats by glorifying these individuals.  These individuals deserve the ignominy of anonymity and being ignored by history.

8.     This is a teaching point only and not a criticism of this individual who was maimed.  I have great compassion for the victims of this attack and their families and loved ones.  We must learn from events such as these to help mitigate these senseless losses.