Terrorist Attacks and the Active Shooter - Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Chapter 12 Terrorist Attacks and the Active Shooter

Terrorist attacks such as those that occurred on September 11, 2001, the 1983 bombing of the United States and French military barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, and the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 have little in common with an active shooter scenario. But attacks carried out by just a few well-armed shooters upon an unarmed public in Mumbai, India, disarmed military personnel on the grounds of Fort Hood, and employees of the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, who were likewise prohibited from being armed do in fact resemble both the circumstance and the results of attack by active shooter. Attacks such as these are likely to be repeated again and again simply because the wreaking of terror on the unarmed is literally as easy as “shooting fish in a barrel.”

A key element of a successful terrorist attack is surprise. A box cutter with a blade barely larger than a nickel was not viewed as a weapon. Nor were the airliners themselves until they were commandeered and flown off course with two airliners hitting the World Trade Center towers, another slamming into the Pentagon, and another lost over land when a melee broke out between the hijackers and a number of brave passengers. The intentions of a small boat approaching and pulling alongside the Navy Destroyer USS Cole as it was refueling in Yemen were not known. Indeed its presence was the cause of confusion rather than action until it exploded, killing seventeen U.S. sailors and injuring many more. The two bomb-laden trucks used in the Beirut barracks attack delivered the Marine Corp’s highest death toll on a single day since World War II. Eighteen American sailors and other members of the Multinational forces were also killed. The trucks served as weapons for a then-obscure group calling itself Islamic Jihad. The element of surprise was key to the success in each of these attacks.

The success of an active shooter also depends on the element of surprise. But more important is one additional characteristic, that of the “soft target.” In the case of every mass shooting, oftentimes by a lone gunman, the active shooter has chosen a soft target, meaning people or groups of people that are unarmed. The citizenry of India, even in the teeming capital formerly known as Bombay, are forbidden the possession and use of firearms. The military personnel on base at Fort Hood were forbidden by regulation to carry loaded weapons. It was civilian police, including a female officer who was legally armed, that stopped the attack. The San Bernardino attackers were later killed after they had fled, which is highly unusual in terms of it being classified a terrorist attack.

Howard Safir, the former NYPD and NYFD Commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and now Chairman and CEO of Vigilant Resources International (VRI) was probably correct when in a FOX News Channel report aired live the day after the December 2, 2015 attack by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, California, he said that the assault “at least appears to be planned attack, maybe it wasn’t planned for yesterday and maybe the dispute at the party caused it to accelerate but certainly this is a group of people who were intent on providing a terrorist incident somewhere.”

What made the shootings appear to be workplace violence, i.e., an active shooter(s) incident was that it initially stemmed from an argument at what has been described as an office “holiday” party. The circumstance of the party, which no matter what you call it leans heavily on the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and the presence of devout followers including a Messianic Jew, was said to be an irritant. The religious aspect could certainly be considered the first clue that this was a terrorist attack, but when Farook and Malik fled the scene after the slaughter they left behind three pipe bombs. The bombs did not detonate, but the tactic of drawing professional responders to the scene of a killing for the purpose of creating an even bigger event via booby trap is MO right out of the terrorist’s playbook. A visit to their home revealed it was for all practical purposes a bomb factory and terrorist enclave.

Safir’s assessment was that the arms and ordnance taken to the scene of the party and left behind at their house was probably meant for a bigger attack or even as supplies for a series of attacks. The longer range plans for these weapons were probably short-circuited by the emotions of Farook and Malik that equated to something like, “Oh yeah, you want Jihad—we’ll show you Jihad.” According to reports attributed to the FBI, Malik was associated with Shabab, the Islamist militant movement in Somalia, and another with the (Al) Nusra Front, the wing of Al Qaeda in Syria. Malik had recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State on Facebook.1 You have to wonder what their contacts with Al Qaeda and ISIS might have expected from them longer term. Probably something much bigger had been prevented merely because they had lost their cool.

The biggest fear we face is a suicide bomber exploding not just ordnance containing anti-personnel fragmentation such as a pressure cooker filled with nails, but a “dirty” bomb that releases into the atmosphere a disease that is communicable and extremely difficult to defeat medically. Or even a chemical gas or a nuclear weapon. To this end, standing up to such attacks hand-to-hand, in a gang with or without a weapon, is likely to be ineffective. But what about more conventional terrorist attacks such as the shootings at Fort Hood or the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino?

In the event of an active shooter-style attack on a soft (unarmed) target, escape is the primary goal and should be pursued as the first option. Those that act to escape without hesitation are the people you’ll see being interviewed afterwards on the news. Take your family and as many people as you can with you but get out immediately. According to police, if you are not law enforcement (i.e., a sworn officer) you have no moral obligation to engage the attackers or even to help others. If you do so, you will likely be killed.

The first secondary option is to lock down with barricade in a secure area or lock and block.

Lock the doors and windows and cover them with whatever you have available. Create a barricade even if it is just a pile of desks and chairs. Push and stack everything not nailed down against the door. At the very least you must make it not worth the time and effort for the attacker to breach your blockade.

Report to 911. Everyone should be continuing to build the blockade with the least physically able person on the phone with 911, but you still must look for a way to escape. Use a chair or whatever is available to break through a wall. Look for a way to enter the subceiling to hide or escape.

In most cases, the barricade will eventually fail. At this point, the best defense is a good offense. You will likely have to improvise a weapon. Use your imagination. Just about anything you can pick up will fit into one or more of three categories—objects that can be used to strike, puncture, or slash. Heavy objects too difficult to swing can also be dropped for concussive purposes.

Have a plan. Decide among yourselves who is going to strike with the weapon and who is going to wrap them up (subdue them). Which person is going to go high and which one is going to go low? Meaning who is going after the arms and who is going to grab the legs? Who is going to grab the weapon? Is there another person ready with an electric cord to tie them up or will it be a matter of striking until the threat stops?

Having a plan made up of individual assignments assumes that you have a team. Team building for active shooter defense is different than putting together a company volleyball team because winning is not about bragging rights or a trophy. An active shooter incident puts everyone into a do-or-die situation, which brings us to the first ingredient of survival—mindset. Everyone on the team has to be convinced that no matter what has taken place in their lives up until this moment, the actions taken in the next few minutes will determine if they live or die. At this point, you realize that it would have been smart for the office manager to have called a meeting and drilled everyone on a designated plan of action and escape. If only there were a policy of regular active shooter drills just like a mandated fire drill.

The moment you realize that a shooter is on the premises and their perception of your building interior is that of a fish tank and you are the fish might actually be the first time you’ll visualize the nearest exit as a means of escape. Or the first time you see a false ceiling as a place to hide, realize that a fire extinguisher can be a weapon, or find the strength to move desks and filing cabinets into position in an effort to block the door. What if you started looking around your office space right now? On a recent visit to the offices of a local business, I was able to make certain observations about the tactical liabilities of the interior layout and generate insights into team building.

The agency was located in a four-story office building elevated above street level to accommodate a parking garage. Access to the first floor was via stairs with an elevator located in the center of the building. The agency I visited consisted of a string of offices and meeting rooms on the first floor feeding from a main hallway that had one entrance opening directly to the street and three others leading to the central corridor. I suggested that all the doors be locked from the inside and that employees should be issued a key (electronic or otherwise). Visitors or couriers dropping off documents would need to be directed to the correct source, so why not have someone meet them at the door? Security cameras would be a significant upgrade with screens monitored from the reception desk but simply locking the doors for selective entry would probably be the simplest and the most effective approach.

Only a few of the individual office spaces had doors that locked. I recommended either installing dead bolt locks to all doors or a mechanical door jam operated from inside. Office furniture should in position so it can be easily moved to in front of the door.

Most of the meeting rooms had windows facing the hall and most of the doors to the offices had smaller windows along the sides. I would recommend being aware of the lines of sight through each window as this would describe the most vulnerable positions to gunfire. This would also help define positions of concealment. I would also suggest decorative ways to obscure the windows.

All but one of the office doors reached from floor to ceiling. I prefer a standard-height doorway. While a floor-to-ceiling door can be considered a solid barrier, attacking anyone entering the room from over the top of the door can be very effective.

Offices on the perimeter of the building were fit with exterior windows consisting of heavy laminate glass. This glass would likely prove very difficult to break even with the heaviest items typically found in an office space such as a fire extinguisher or a hard drive. As a result, window escape in this environ would be unlikely.

One of my first questions upon meeting the staff was, “Does anyone here have a black belt in Karate or Jiu-Jitsu?” I then asked, “Is anyone here a Golden Gloves champion? Yes, no? When was the last time you were in the ring and won a quick decisive victory?” The point is that even an elite fighter’s skills are perishable. Of the dozen or so employees that were present, only one of them had ever fired a gun of any kind and had little subsequent training.


There simply aren’t that many secure places to hide inside the typical office. Hiding behind a door can be a losing proposition unless you can reach over the top with a weapon that can project. A handgun offers the most stopping power in this situation but the first shot might be blind so you’d better make sure it’s the bad guy behind the door and not someone else trying to escape.


When immediate escape is not possible, blockading is essential. Any resistance to entry means the shooter will have to expend more time without knowing how long they have until first responders arrive. Any time spent banging on one door means less time taking out easier targets, frustrating the active shooter. But your mindset in forming the blockade must take into account that the blockade will likely be breached. Therefore, a plan of counterattack must be formulated. Here the group is huddled away from the windows and on the hinged side of the door. The gentleman is pulling the table against the door to provide greater resistance. Note that he is pulling with his back to the wall rather than pushing against the table from the other side. This position offers greater safety because it is further away from the possible line of fire.

If everyone in the establishment were armed, then it would just be a matter of taking up a position that provides the most safety from rounds coming their way and shooting the intruder. But any establishment where people are known to be armed or possibly be armed is rarely, if ever, a target for terrorists or an active shooter. I then asked them if they knew what it took for two or more unarmed people to overcome a well-armed active shooter or terrorist. In my view what it takes to overcome them is not entirely about your individual fighting skill. At least not in the sense you might think about fighting in a one-on-one “put up your dukes” scenario. In this case, the team must assault like a small army unit. Each member of the unit must take an assignment and finish that assignment. In addition, each member of the unit or team must be ready to transition to another assignment depending on the flow of the fight.

Short of a one-shot lucky hit, such as knocking out the shooter with a baseball bat from behind as he passes you in the hall, there are at the very least two primary assignments to fighting an active shooter—trap the weapon with the muzzle facing in the direction so that if the weapon is fired it will not injure you or anyone else, and incapacitate or effectively restrain the shooter.


During the process of building the blockade, make up your mind about what your role will be when the blockade is breached. Think only of your assigned task to block out fear. When the breach has begun, it’s difficult to know exactly when to make contact and help the intruder into the trap. But the sooner you can control the direction of the muzzle of the gun, the better. Hold on tight and be prepared to grip harder should the gun go off just as we grit our teeth when we experience pain. Use the shooter’s own forward motion to bring him in and expose more of the gun. The object is to trap the weapon and keep the shooter from backing out at all costs. Should the shooter be allowed to move to his rear, you will all be in the direct line of fire.


Everyone in the group formerly huddled in the corner is part of the counterattack. But take note the strongest member of the group is not the one delivering the blow. The decidedly-beefy man is concentrating on locking up the weapon. But instead of relying on grip strength to grab the weapon, he is trapping the gun with his arm wrapped around the weapon with his own hand locking down on his shirt. He appears to be trying to control the shooter’s body, but trapping more of the weapon by wrapping his other arm over the weapon and gripping his left wrist would be more secure. The shooter is not going to let go of the weapon so maintaining control of the weapon is imperative. While the shooter is trying to hold on to the gun he is wide open to a blow from an improvised weapon directly to the eye. Objects such as a letter opener or, in this case a screwdriver, are items typically found around the office that can be devastating weapons when directed at highly vulnerable parts of the anatomy, regardless of the operator’s strength or ability. A third member of the team could likewise wrap their arms around the shooter’s legs at knee level to bring them to the ground. The fourth member of the team can be on the phone with 911 or tasked with tying the shooter up.


A two-person team should consist of someone trapping the weapon and the second person either delivering a blow with a weapon or helping to get the shooter to the ground. In this photo, a belt which could be used to tie up the shooter once on the ground is being use to destabilize. But the act of pulling might cause the lady with the belt to stand up and be in front of the muzzle, putting herself in danger of being shot. A better technique would be to move in and wrap her arms around the shooter’s legs behind the knees, causing his legs to buckle.


In facing the active shooter one-on-one, it’s actually better if you can get right up next to them. Otherwise it is certain death. Since the shooter will likely enter the room leading with the weapon, engaging immediately from the edge of the doorway may be the best option. Pushing the barrel away and trapping the weapon, wrapping it with your arm while striking with a pen, a ruler, or anything that can jab, will be effective if you can strike them in the eyes. Even fingertips will do. Aim for the top of the cheekbone and the funnel of the eye socket will lead you in. Striking to the top of the cheekbone into the eye will also likely bypass any glasses or goggles the shooter may be wearing.

Faced with the gravity of the above assignment, it might be appropriate to once again visit mindset or more specifically how to deal with fear. Fear releases the gift of adrenaline into our veins, giving us increased strength and sharpening our senses. Fear is thus useful so long as it does not cause us to give in to the impulse to freeze and not fulfill the assignment. The message is to fill your mind with concentration on your assignment so there is no room to worry.

I am sure you have just asked yourself, maybe even said aloud, “What if I am alone?” First of all, escape remains the primary goal. The sooner you can leave the building, the better. A secure hiding place may be the next best choice but it must be fairly sophisticated such as inside a venting system, drop ceiling, or false wall. Hiding beneath a desk or inside a closet is more likely a trap than a place to hide safely. If you cannot leave nor effectively hide, barricading your position becomes all the more important. Block the door with the heaviest item you can move. If you cannot pick up a desk or filing cabinet, it’s important to remember that you may be able to slide it by pushing against it at a point below its center line. Stack anything you can against the door. If the shooter has trouble opening the door he may only open it enough to look in and see only one side of the room so whatever position you take it should be to the hinged side of the door. Or, he may be discouraged altogether as time is not on his or her side. The longer he lingers, the better chance he has of being confronted by first responders.

The object of barricading is first to block entry but it can also provide a moment of distraction that can be capitalized on. You may be alone but the strategic advantage of surprise does not require a lot of people. The sound of chairs and boxes, etc. screeching or crashing out of the way may or may not be a surprise to an active shooter. Keep in mind that any extra effort in opening the door means less physical effort is being devoted to supporting his rifle, shotgun, or pistol. This could create an opportunity to gain an advantage.


The melee in open space shown here brings to light the importance of situational awareness, transition, and control. Let’s assume the plan among the three office personnel was for the man to trap the shooter’s AR-15 and the lady with the bottle was to strike the shooter while the blonde woman contacted 911. The man in the plaid shirt has successfully trapped the shooter’s carbine. In response, the shooter then released his right hand from gripping the weapon. It is absolutely critical that you recognize that any time an active shooter is willing to let go of his weapon by either hand, that hand is about to draw a secondary weapon. In this case it’s the black plastic training knife. The woman in the light colored dress reacted by transitioning from her assignment of providing communication to that of trying to control the hand with the knife long enough to create an opening for the striker to land a series of blows with the bottle.

The active shooter is likely to enter the room with the muzzle of the gun leading the way. Grabbing and redirecting the barrel of the gun may be one possibility but the other hand must present a weapon. Grabbing it with one hand and striking with a pen, ruler, or anything that can jab will be effective if you can strike them in the eyes. Even fingertips will do. Aim for the top of the cheekbone and the funnel of the eye socket will lead you in. Striking to the top of the cheekbone into the eye will also likely bypass any glasses or goggles the shooter may be wearing.

The team approach to barricade, trap, and overcome can be difficult to replicate by a single person. But there is really no alternative if you are discovered. If you have the ability to decorate your office space, start planning now. Every desk should have a heavy paperweight and a letter opener. A plant with heavy pot is good for barricading and so are filing cabinets that can be moved independently. Keep a couple of doorstops in your desk and an aerosol can of bug spray or oven cleaner. If you can deflect the weapon long enough to spray their eyes, you have a good chance of surviving. When you begin with the premise that anyone can be ambushed, it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine yourself prevailing against just about anyone.


Trapping the weapon so that the any wild shot will not hit you or anyone else not only offers protection but also causes the active shooter to fight for the gun, leaving him open to being hit, cut, taken down, or choked. The lady pushing down and away on the weapon is grimacing but the personnel in these photos are not actors but members of the office staff. That she is injecting emotion into a staged scene with deactivated weaponry is valuable because she is visualizing the struggle, imagining herself holding on to the gun even tighter should the gun go off.

There may be more attackers so overcoming one attacker means that you should either attempt an escape to the outside of the building or reset the barricade and prepare to repeat the process of attacking the attacker. Be prepared to implement this over and over until contacted by first responders.

Options for Surviving an Active Shooter-Style Event

Preparation for Active Shooter Events

Know where all the exits are.

Designate alternative escape routes:


Thin walls

Ventilation systems

Recognize which furniture or other objects can be used to barricade.

Suggest additional furnishing, floor mounted plants, etc.

Improvise weapons:

Furnish desk with letter opener and heavy paperweight.

Keep a screwdriver and hammer in a desk drawer.

Keep an aerosol can of bug spray or oven cleaner.

Visualize an ambush style plan of action based on halls and doorways.

During an Active Shooter Event


Lock down and barricade.

Continue to look for escape route.

Consider breaking through walls, ceilings, or windows.

Report to 911.

Plan an offense for when your barricade is breached.

Use improvised weapons.

Designate tasks:

Who will strike, puncture, slash, etc.?

Who will immobilize arms or legs?

Who will go for the active shooter’s weapon?

Once one active shooter is apprehended or subdued, prepare for the next active shooter.

Report to 911.

Escape or:

Refortify barricade and debrief.

Restock or reload weapons.

Provide honest feedback.

Analyze how the defense worked/didn’t work.

Reset and prepare offense for when your barricade is breached again.

Continue to look for escape route.

Report your progress to 911.

Addendum: Firearms and the Psychological Edge

Both the terrorist strike and the active shooter are looking to kill the maximum number of victims with the smallest probability of meeting resistance. The ability to scare and strike terror into their victims is based primarily on drawing from their victim’s sense of hopelessness, making it clear that their survival is strictly in the hands of the attacker, with no means of stopping the attack in reach. To ensure the maximum amount of terror the active shooter/terrorist invariably picks a soft target, meaning a business, a school or any other type of facility where the possession of a firearm is forbidden or punishable by law. The “gun-free zone” is what encourages the active shooter/terrorist to complete his mission.

Conversely, any area where people are likely to be armed does not extend a psychological comfort zone to a prospective active shooter or terrorist. It is well-known that James Holmes, the shooter who murdered twelve people and injured fifty-eight others in the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, bypassed other movie houses because they recognized the rights of citizens licensed to carry concealed handguns. The management of the theatre where the slaughter occurred somehow arrived at the conclusion that patrons would be more comfortable if no one was allowed to legally carry a concealed handgun. Of course, this ignores the fact that if a gun were concealed they wouldn’t know it was there (being carried legally or otherwise). All the prohibition did was draw the attention of Holmes and accommodate his intentions by offering a very real comfort zone for him to carry out his plan.

Nadal Hassan, the perpetrator of the Fort Hood shooting, was a member of the United States Army stationed there. Aware of the regulations that rendered the soldiers helpless, he knew from the start there would be little if any possible resistance. If the soldiers had been permitted to carry their weapons in at least a preliminary state of readiness (such as loaded magazine inserted into the weapon but chamber empty) the comfort zone would be in favor of the soldiers, destroying the actual advantage, and awarding the psychological edge to the would-be victims of the active shooter.

Avoid being a victim of the Active Shooter


Do not patronize businesses that prohibit the private citizen from carrying a firearm.

Do not work in a facility that prohibits the private citizen from carrying a firearm.

Do not elect officials that promote legislation that prohibits the private citizen from carrying a firearm.

Join the NRA and state or local groups that support the right of private citizens to keep and bear arms.

Join local groups and initiatives that promote the legal right to keep and bear arms, especially in theatres, schools, shopping areas, and small businesses.

Support the incarceration of career criminals.

Work with national, state, or local groups that seek to refine and reduce the treatment of at-risk patients with psychotropic drugs.