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Steps to Avoid a Terrorist Attack in the United States

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By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, In Homeland Security

In October 2015, American Military University alum and former U.S. Marine Dan Foster wrote a compelling article for In Homeland Security entitled Preparing for the Next Terrorist Attack in America. And, Mr. Foster knows a thing or two on the subject because he was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician with the Marines and currently teaches anti-terrorism principles to military personnel.

In November, the two major terrorist tactics that Mr. Foster mentioned in his article – mass shootings and bombings – came to fruition in horrific circumstances in Paris when more than 120 people were slaughtered in cold-blooded fashion in near-simultaneous attacks by the Islamic State in the French capital.

Given that U.S. authorities investigated more than 100 Islamic-related terror plots and arrests in 2015, Americans are on edge, especially given the fact that the U.S. is set to allow more than 10,000 unscreened Syrian refugees into the country. Why? One of the Paris attackers was a confirmed Syrian refugee who arrived in France via other European countries.

Paris Terror Attacks is the US Safe
The latest ‘Terror Threat Snapshot’ (House Homeland Security Committee)

I grew up in England during the height of the IRA terrorist attacks in that country. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when it seemed that an explosion took place every few months – each attack grisly and appalling. However, British citizens did not close themselves off behind their home’s front doors and nor should Americans or any free citizen on the planet. When we do that – the terrorists win. Notwithstanding, we shouldn’t jump to the immediate conclusion that an attack is imminent. However, it pays to be vigilant and on guard.

The first line of defense is to stay proactive rather than reactive. One must always be aware of what is going on in the near vicinity – especially in highly populated areas.

On May 1, 2010, a deadly car bomb explosion in the heart of Times Square in New York was thwarted, thanks to vigilance by both the general public and NYPD. Two street vendors saw smoke coming out of a parked car on a crowded street and alerted the police, who subsequently found that the smoke was from an undetonated crude explosive device. Bomb disposal experts made sure the device would not explode, and a major tragedy was avoided. There are other examples of thwarted terrorist events – hundreds in fact – but it’s always the actual attacks that make the headlines.

Times Square car bomb
Scenes from the thwarted Times Square car bomb

So, what can we do to avoid seeing more horrific headlines in the coming months? Being proactive is the first step, and here are a few things to be on the lookout for:

Monitoring and Surveying
Anybody seen photographing or filming building entrances, crowded areas, shopping malls, transit stations and other similar locations is always suspicious. It’s not necessary to call 9-1-1 in such situations, but a call to local authorities is prudent.

Practicing or Dry Runs
The bad guys often gauge how quickly law enforcement arrives at a scene by performing dry runs prior to actual attacks. By calling in a fake bomb threat – for instance – terrorists can see how quickly authorities react to what might be a deadly situation. Terrorists often perform trial runs by putting their actors through the paces – getting ready for the real deal.

Unusual Purchasing
If you’re in the retail industry, it’s vital to report any suspicious purchasing of certain goods. Terrorists require a lot of supplies to administer attacks. Therefore, anybody who obtains weapons in high volume (or groups of people who obtain weapons from one city) should be reported. The same goes for unusual purchasing of everyday items used to make explosives. A mass purchase of one-time disposable cell phones is also suspicious. Any theft of official uniforms or insignia is a huge red flag – especially uniforms worn by airport or other transit personnel.

The FBI states that if anybody answers ‘yes’ to the following questions, it should be regarded as suspicious:

  • Are you aware of anyone video recording or monitoring activities, taking notes, using cameras, maps, binoculars, etc., near key facilities/events?
  • Are you aware of anyone attempting to gain information in person, by phone, mail, email, etc., regarding a key facility or people who work there?
  • Are you aware of any attempts to penetrate or test physical security or procedures at a key facility/event?
  • Are you aware of anyone attempting to improperly acquire explosives, weapons, ammunition, dangerous chemicals, uniforms, badges, flight manuals, access cards or identification for a key facility/event or to legally obtain items under suspicious circumstances that could be used in a terrorist attack?
  • Are you aware of anyone who does not appear to belong in the workplace, neighborhood, business establishment, or near a key facility/event?
  • Have you observed any behavior that appears to be preparation for a terrorist act, such as mapping out routes, playing out scenarios with other people, monitoring key facilities/events, timing traffic lights or traffic flow, or other suspicious activities?
  • Have you observed abandoned vehicles, stockpiling of suspicious materials, or persons being deployed near a key facility/event?

Ultimately, terrorism will fail. Prevention and vigilance are both vital to safety. Every citizen in America should remain cautious – not frightened.

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