How to Survive a Terrorist Attack

There are many types of disasters, ranging from natural disasters, pandemics, to an economic collapse, which people can prepare for in advance. Perhaps one of the more terrifying types of disasters to prepare for is a terrorist attack.

Preparing to survive a terrorist attack is a terrifying thing because terrorism is by nature violent, unpredictable, and often random.

terrorist with a long gun

While you may believe that a terror attack will never happen near you, the truth is you can’t be too careful. A review of recent events includes numerous and widespread tragic terrorist acts in the news reports. This furthers the evidence that terrorists are capable of striking anywhere, and at any time.

A terrorist attack is one of the deadliest critical events to prep for because its main goal is to cause extensive panic, fear, and death for religious, political, or revenge purposes. If a terrorist attack happens in your city, you can expect the following:

  • The attack will likely happen, when least expected, most of the time on a seemingly normal day.
  • Many people will be wounded or die very quickly.
  • Chaos will reign for several days if not longer. Schools, restaurants, stores, etc. will simply shut down.
  • Law enforcement and military units will likely swarm the city.
  • Entire streets will be closed off, and sections of the city shut will be shut down.
  • Many buildings will be set ablaze or possibly even collapse (if the attack involves bombings)
  • The recovery period will be long and brutal. It will take months for things to return to ‘normal.’ Look no further than the state of emergency announced by France in the aftermath of the November terrorist attacks, that extended until July of the following year.
  • Your city, following the aftermath, will be permanently scarred.
  • You, your family, and your neighbors will live in fear that your city will be attacked *again* in the future.
  • If you’re nearby when the attack happens, you may contract PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

The above is just to give you an idea of what a terrorist attack will look like in your city. Experiencing the aftermath of a terrorist attack, or being caught in the middle of the attack itself, will be far worse than simply reading about it.

But remember, your goal during a terrorist attack will be no different than during any other type of disaster: to survive.  Should a terrorist attack ever happen near you, it’s important to learn exactly how to survive using the following steps:

Step 1: Be on the Lookout for Warning Signs

It is possible to detect a terrorist attack before it happens, though it might be unlikely. Obviously, everyone would love to be completely omniscient or even clairvoyant when it comes to detecting a person or a group of people who are about to unleash mayhem on a completely unprepared soft target packed full of civilians.

Unfortunately, in this endeavor as with the rest of life there are simply no guarantees.

One must also consider the possibility the even when you are on the lookout, even when you are alert and actively scanning for possible tip-offs and warning signs of an impending terrorist attack, it is possible that you will receive no such warnings.

This might be a result of dealing with extremely proficient and competent assailants or your own perceptive failings. Sometimes, your window of opportunity to react is effectively zero; the event occurs and then you have to react if you are able.

With all that being said, with advanced warning, a sharp eye and a little luck you will be caught significantly less off-guard and be able to respond more appropriately if you know what to be alert for.

Terrorist attacks are not precisely random events but they can sure feel that way when they do happen, meaning you will more than likely be surprised in some way.

Nevertheless, there are certain things you can be on the alert for in your everyday life, especially if you live in a major city that is a likely a major terrorist attack target:

Unusual Activity, Actions or Presence

It is important to start paying attention to people in regards to their context in the environment, the setting and compared to the people and events around them.

This sounds sort of circular, but we are looking for how a given person in the same circumstances, in the same time of day, in the same place should act.

A primordial tip-off that most people are familiar with is the funny feeling that some people give you when you observe them. This may be your first clue the either of their presents, or their activity, is not completely congruent with the rest of the setting.

There are too many specific instances that might alert you that something is amiss to go over here, but as a few examples consider how someone should behave when moving through a shopping mall, standing on a busy street corner we’re moving through a parking lot outside a popular and crowded restaurant.

When any person is engaging in behavior or is seen in a location that is not normal for the typical context of any of those environments oh, you should alert to it and observe them at once. More information may clear them, or it might only deepen your suspicions.

Someone who looks or dresses differently from most other people in your area should not be seen as automatically suspicious, but anything that is gravely out of the ordinary such as coats or jackets in the summertime, extremely baggy fit, a lumpy, misshapen appearance (suicide bomber “S-vest”?) or luggage that could haul bombs or weapons should have your attention.

Anyone who is packing an unusually large backpack in any setting outside of a serious hike should attract your attention a well.

Always carefully consider what possible reason someone might have to be where they are and doing what they are doing.

If someone is standing in the middle of a parking lot, not moving towards the entrance of the store or facility nearby, and not moving toward, getting in or getting out of any vehicle what reason do they have to be there?

Even if they are doing something innocuous like talking on a phone (or pretending to) they might be doing that as a cover to not stand out. The fact of the matter is that most people won’t hang around in a parking lot for no reason.

Other examples abound, and will be sprinkled through the remainder of the section.

Look for Signs of Tampering

Terrorists may take steps to prep the area in which they are planning their attack in order to maximize casualties or bog down rescuers.

These preparations could take many forms; be on the lookout for doors that are propped open, wired closed, chained or otherwise held shut buy something on their handles or on the arresting mechanism of self-closing doors.

Also keep your sense of smell sharp, as unusual odors could indicate the presence of explosives, incendiaries, dangerous liquids or gases.

Also pay attention to spot signs of tampering with security cameras, such as aiming them in ineffectual directions or disconnecting them. Public infrastructure may similarly be targeted for interference.

Contact a police officer or your local authorities immediately if you find any signs of such tampering.

Hands are Hidden or Obviously Holding Something Out of Sight

This might sound fairly innocuous, but if you cannot see someone’s hands you must double your caution. It is their hands, not that flinty look in their eye that will kill you.

Hands are what access weapons, carried either on the body or in luggage. It is hands that will access the detonator that sets off a bomb on remote.

If someone does not have definitive cover for having their hands in their pockets, for instance cold-weather, keep one eye on them. Pay close attention if the hand inside the pocket is bulging as if grasping something.

Also pay special attention to the way that the hands move when someone is walking or running. A typical walking or running gait is largely rhythmic, and predictably asymmetrical.

The arms move with gentle swings while walking or a rhythmic back and forth motion while running. If one or both of the hands are pressed to a place on the body or inside a pocket they are securing something there, perhaps a weapon.

Any obvious staging movements of the hands- a hand clutching something at the waistline, held beneath an arm, held behind the hip or back, obviously grasping something inside any piece of luggage- is an immediate red flag and a nearly certain tip-off that someone is about to produce a weapon or worse.

One technique that is increasingly common with street criminals in America you should look out for is the carrying of knives or handguns inside typically non-threatening bags like fast food takeout sacks, or plastic grocery bags. Using this technique the weapon can be deployed without ever being seen initially.

Look For a Group of People Who Appear Coordinated

If a group of people seems to be working together by coordinating themselves into position, as if they are preparing themselves for an attack, it’s probably a sign that something big is about to happen and you should alert the authorities as quickly as possible.

Avoid large crowds, protests, concerts etc. Trust your gut. If something just doesn’t feel right, or you get that “gut feeling” that something bad is going to happen, listen to it.

This doesn’t mean that you should cause a panic if this is the only warning sign you observe, it just means that you should open up your senses, and be more observant. Moving away from obvious target areas would also be a good idea during this time.

Loitering Near Chokepoints

Any person or group of people you notice loitering conspicuously near a choke point in or around any building or near any venue should be watched closely, especially if they don’t have some obvious reason to be there, and watch them double-close if they are exhibiting any other pre-attack indicators we have covered in this section.

The reason is simple, terrorists will as a rule strike where they can inflict the most casualties in the shortest amount of time with the minimal amount of effort. That means you need lots of juicy victims crammed together cattle-car style.

These are often areas of extraordinary vulnerability not just because of the density of potential victims but also because the hustle and bustle of so many people being in the same space provides a considerable amount of visual cover for ingress and egress from the target site.

Some very popular choke points for terrorists include crowded sidewalks, packed cafes, theaters, shops and storefronts, schools, stadiums and generally any area where people congregate in multitudes.

Detecting Vehicle Ramming Attacks

A vehicle ramming attack is exactly what it sounds like: a motor vehicle, typically a large and heavy one, is used to strike and run over as many people as possible and is typically executed where a crowded sidewalk or some other thoroughfare is packed with pedestrians, one that a large vehicle will have easy access to. These attacks can be difficult to spot before they begin, so quick reactions are a must.

First, always make it a point to walk against the flow of traffic if you can, in order to better enable you to spot any vehicle that is behaving erratically.

Typically, terrorists will not want to cross multiple lanes of traffic, a divider island or some other median that might slow down or immobilize the vehicle in order to reach their victims.

Second, always be alert the sounds of revving engines, squealing tires and other auditory indicators that might tip you off that a vehicle is preparing to make major maneuvers at speed.

Lastly, try to remain acutely aware of how vulnerable you are in a given area where motor vehicles are operating continuously nearby or could potentially gain access.

A comparatively cozy alleyway that is lined with shops and bistros, but protected by heavy duty anti-vehicle bollards or concrete planters at both ends likely will not have much to worry about.

A double wide sidewalk common to most major metropolitan areas that otherwise has no protection except for parked cars is extremely vulnerable. Just as you would when preparing to defend against a ballistic threat, always keep in mind the nearest obstruction or barricade that you can rely on to absolutely stop a speeding motor vehicle.

Lastly, do not let your guard down once the vehicle is stopped or comes to rest, as the driver is likely to bail out and start shooting or even detonate explosives carried on his person or within the vehicle itself.

Beware Normalcy Bias!

Knowing what you know now after reading through the section just presented, you must ever be vigilant about allowing yourself to develop an Insidious and oftentimes fatal flaw in your awareness and your assessments. That flaw is called normalcy bias.

Normalcy bias manifests itself as a cognitive glitch in your brain, a brain that is almost hardwired to see things the way that it has always seen them based on past evidence and learned pattern recognition.

Things that don’t look innocent, that don’t look everyday and don’t look harmless might , to your brain, be perceived and classified as innocent, mundane and harmless. Your brain can rationalize away almost anything it is seeing.

For instance, a guy carrying a bulky gym bag near a crowd of spectators watching a race or some other event who then set’s down and hurriedly walks away is definitely not planting an IED; no, of course not! He simply sat his bag down and forgot about it as he walked off to take care of some errand.

The guy carrying a rifle into a crowded restaurant is just in costume, and the gun is his prop. Yeah, right. You and the other people around have the rest of their lives to contemplate how wrong you are…

Normalcy bias can result in your death, and regularly results in the death of other people that fall prey to it.

Defeating normalcy bias is not as simple as being aware of it and reminding yourself to “not do it.” Normalcy bias is always engaged in our minds at one level or another. It can only be confounded by correct training and observation, perception and decision-making.

Whenever you see someone freeze, seemingly in shock at what they are witnessing, that is normalcy bias in part telling their conscious mind that what they are seeing is not actually happening, not actually what they are seeing. The perception and expectation of reality and reality itself are at odds; many people die in the gap.

Step 2: Try to Escape

The moment that you see something suspicious, you should leave the area, even if nothing comes of it.

Better safe than sorry has merit in the case of a terrorist attack. It’s not imperative to run, but it’s a good idea to put some distance between yourself and the area without looking like a lunatic.

Regardless of whether you were able to detect the attack before it happened or not, focus on getting away from the site of the terrorist attack as quickly as possible. The ability to get out of the area quickly is what will increase your chances of survival.

With chaos and destruction surrounding you, it will be difficult and dangerous to get out of the area. If you know how to respond and can stay focused, your odds of making it out alive are better than nothing.

Get Out of Your Building Now

If you are inside a building, whether a restaurant or your office, when the terrorist attack happens, your goal is to get out of the building as soon as possible.

This only applies if the attack is localized inside of your building. Trying to escape the building while knowing there’s more chaos outside can be potentially devastating. Make sure you analyze all critical factors prior to making a movement decision.

It’s critical to know in advance where the exit doors are in any building so that you can get out as quickly as possible. It’s also a standard practice to use the stairs instead of the elevators in a crisis.

As you move toward an exit, check your corners and hallways before moving down them. Focus on moving from cover object to cover object rather than allowing yourself to be carried by the mass of panicked people also trying to escape.

Keep Your Face Covered…

…but not with your hands. You’ll need them to move around and keep yourself balanced.  Instead, take a piece of clothing and wrap it around your nose and mouth to keep dust and debris out.

It’s a good idea to carry a bandana as part of your EDC for this reason, but if you don’t have one, use a shirt.

Stick Close to Cover

Keep the amount of time you’re out in the open to a minimum. In fact, the only time where you should be exposed is when you’re in the process of moving from cover to cover.  Hiding behind furniture does not count as real cover, as it can’t stop bullets.  Instead, you need to get behind walls.

Make sure, however, that when you’re moving to cover you don’t “hug” the wall. Bullets will “ride” most concrete or brick walls, meaning they can ricochet off of the wall if shot at an angle along the wall.

Another reason to not hug the walls, is debris. If an explosion goes off near your wall, your chances of being killed by shrapnel are very high. Stay at least one foot away from the walls that you’re moving along.

Play Dead

If you are unable to escape the site of the attack for any reason, the next best thing for you to do would be to play dead. Running around still trying to find cover will make you an open target for terrorists. Acting as if you are one of the fatalities could cause them to walk over you and then give you another opportunity to escape later.

This should only be used as a last resort, because if the terrorist has enough time, they might “double tap” their victims as they move. They also could be equipped with a suicide vest in order to cause the most collateral damage and not be apprehended.

In the Muslim extremist culture, suicide vests are very common in terrorist attacks. If you must play dead, try to lay under an already deceased victim. I will warn you, they will smell terribly. Keep your eyes closed.

Dan’s note: I read that some people survived after playing dead. I believe at least one was during the Paris November attacks in the Bataclan theater.

Step 3: Get in Touch With Your Family

Once you’ve safely escaped the immediate area of the attack, your next priority will be to get in touch with your family. Having a written emergency communication system in place in advance, instead of relying on memory, is very important because of the impact that stress, panic, and shock have on your memory.

Everyone in your family should have written emergency contact information for everyone else in the family, to maximize your ways of connecting following a terrorist attack or another widespread emergency.

Whether by phone call, text, social media, e-mail, or even via walkie-talkie, you need to get in touch with family members and confirm the safety status of all family members.

Hopefully, you have agreed in advance upon an emergency meeting place. Meeting up at your home is a good idea because everyone knows where it is and your supplies should already be there.

It’s also good to agree in advance upon a backup meeting place in the event your home is compromised or inaccessible due to the attack.

Once you’ve gathered your family at your house, choose your next course of action, such as bugging in or out.

If you have children in school, you should already have a plan in place to get them out and to your house as well (assuming your children don’t have a car to drive home from school). Either you or your spouse/significant other needs to be in charge of getting your kids home.

Step 4: Fight if You Must

In a terrorist attack, be prepared for the possibility of having to come face-to-face with a terrorist and fighting for your life if you must.

A terrorist is going to show you no mercy and will kill you, but only if you let them. If you know how to fight back, you stand a much greater chance of survival.

Have a Concealed Weapon In Your EDC (if legally allowed)

Carrying a concealed weapon as a part of your EDC is a fantastic way to fight back.  Make sure your gun is reliable and chambered with a round capable of stopping someone.  A .38 Special or 9mm hollow point is often recommended as the lowest caliber to carry for self-defense.

Improvise If You Must

If you don’t have a concealed weapon, or if it gets knocked away, you’ll have to improvise to save your life. Go for the terrorist’s weapon, pick up something to use as a weapon, such as a rock or a fire extinguisher.

Use your bare hands if you have to. Investing the time and effort into learning hand-to-hand combat skills in advance, will come in handy in this scenario.

Control Your Breathing

With your heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, it will be extremely difficult to control your breathing, but allowing panic and fear to control you will only work against your survival.

Learn and practice techniques for breathing control, so you can keep yourself calm and utilize common sense to get you out of this situation alive.

Only engage in hand-to-hand combat with a terrorist if you absolutely must. Your chances of survival greatly decrease once you decide to engage the terrorist without a weapon if they have one.

The only thing that will increase your odds is the hopes that more people will run to help you subdue the terrorist. However, I wouldn’t count on this.

Step 5: Keep Your Family Safe

Let’s say you’ve run or maybe fought your way out of the attack area and meet up with the rest of your family at your home.  Your only priority at this point is to keep everyone in your family safe.

Remember that in the aftermath of the attack, your city will be on lock down, authorities will be searching for any remaining terrorists still on the loose. The danger is far from over following the actual attack itself.

Only you can decide whether bugging in or bugging out is the safer option.  Your decision also needs to be largely based on what the authorities recommend. If the authorities order an evacuation, then obviously bugging out is your only option.

Hopefully, you already put an evacuation plan in place. Your evacuation plan should include a clearly defined bug out location, a safe but drivable distance outside of your city and several different evacuation routes for getting there.

You also need a bug out vehicle that is capable of holding everyone in your family and your gear. The best bug out vehicle will be reliable, well-maintained, and capable of going off-road if necessary.

Thousands, if not millions, of other people, will be attempting to evacuate your city at the same time, so having multiple backup evacuation routes is essential.

When one route becomes cut off or clogged with traffic, you must always have a planned alternative route. Without a planned alternate route, precious time is wasted figuring out which way to go.

But if authorities don’t call for an evacuation, or if you feel that bugging out presents too many risks, then bugging in will be the safer choice. By bugging in, you have immediate access to your survival stockpile, complete knowledge of the area.

Also, you know your neighbors, and you can set up a defense around your home against terrorists, hungry mobs, and raiders, rather than allowing yourself to be exposed out on the open road.

Survivor Accounts

Surviving a terrorist attack might feel like little more than a lottery, like you’re caught up in the cruel machinations of fate, but never forget that so long as you are alive you get a vote in the outcome!

Below you can read about the accounts and testimonials from some people just like you and me who survived deliberate acts of terrorism to tell the tale.

Helen Wilson, Survivor of the Bataclan Theater attack, Paris, France

Helen Wilson was wounded in the coordinated terror attack on Paris in November of 2015. She was struck in both legs when a team of terrorists gunned down the attendees of a concert in the Bataclan theater. A friend she was attending with died in her arms.

Watch Helen’s interview here:

Hemant Oberoi, Survivor of the Mumbai Terror Attack, Mumbai, India

Hemant Oberoi was the former head chef at the Taj Mumbai hotel when it was attacked by coordinated terrorists who stormed the hotel killing indiscriminately in 2008. He and his staff were instrumental in saving lives of potential victims, and the hotel staff, including his coworkers, paid a heavy toll.

Watch Hermant’s interview here:

Alicia Suarez, Survivor of the Ramming Attack in Barcelona, Spain

One of the many victims of the ramming attack carried out in Barcelona in the summer of 2017, Alicia Suarez suffered severe injuries after being struck and, later her sister was killed after being stabbed to death by the terrorists who dismounted the vehicle.

Some footage from that particular terror attack:

Conclusion

A terrorist attack is extremely hard to survive, but thankfully it’s less likely to affect most people. It’s not impossible to survive it if you know what you’re doing.  It all comes down to the preparations you make to increase your chances of survival.

As we have explored in this article, your chances of surviving a terrorist attack increase if you:

  • Are alert for the signs of a terrorist attack before it happens
  • Know how to remain calm and get out of the immediate site of the attack quickly.
  • Get in touch with your family once you have escaped the immediate vicinity of the attack
  • Be prepared to fight your way out if necessary
  • Decide whether bugging in or bugging out will be safer for your family’s survival

One last thing worth noting is that it’s also imperative for you to remain calm and use common sense during a terrorist attack.

While the goal of terrorists is to spread fear and panic, by controlling your adrenaline and using your head to think, you will do what the terrorists don’t expect you to do, and thus your chances of survival increase.

last update: 07/29/2020

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