Advance Operations

Lone Wolf Terrorist Attacks and Executive Protection Concerns

By Michael Mancino CPS, EMT and Jeffrey “Sarge” Gish CPS

“Lone wolf” terrorist attacks have been thrust to the forefront of our attention recently. The Boston Bombing, the beheading in Oklahoma, a hatchet attack against NYPD, the attack against Canadian Parliament, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the most recent foiled attempt to attack the US Capital building indicate that lone wolf terrorism is increasing.

Much of the response has been met by government officials calling for increased security measures in government institutions, heightened alert statuses and calls for better intelligence gathering. What all of these measures have in common is that they all rely on government action and protection of federal assets. Except for attacks against government properties, these acts are not likely to be thwarted solely by government intervention.

Thousands of private businesses and public institutions are vulnerable to an attack regardless of how much money the US government dumps into prevention and detection. Therefore, it is paramount that private industry take steps to minimize the danger of these attacks.

Institutionalized policies for prevention of violence are widespread and, unfortunately most focus on reaction. Corporations, like governments, often exhibit bloated bureaucracies and extensive reams of policies and procedures that would put even the most hyperactive person to sleep.

Private security practitioners involved in the planning of day to day operations protecting property, assets and personnel, therefore, should consider the possibility of lone wolf attacks and plan accordingly. As we all know, if we allow an attacker to pick the time, place, and mode of attack, we will most likely lose. In the executive protection (EP) world our job is prevention, which the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center likes to define into three principal components:

Awareness: The ability to recognize actual or possible threats

Avoidance: Avoid recognized risks

Defense: Practicing a continuum of responsive force would use the first component (awareness) to utilizing intelligence to determine the range of threats that it can prevent at any time. So we can avoid these risks whenever possible.

An example we could use is the recent World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail and Beaver Creek Colorado, which Sarge had the privilege of being involved in. One of the primary concerns with the law enforcement and security officials associated with the event is vulnerability of soft targets. For any EP team or agent, a main concern will be the hotel your Principal will be staying at. Most hotels will have a security operations center equipped with fire and security controls, video surveillance monitors and recording equipment. Unfortunately, they are not always staffed 24/7.

A skilled and knowledgeable EP agent will provide an advance that recognizes the signs of any type of lone wolf attack. Here are six signs to watch for which should alert us to a possible attack, and may be helpful for future advances:

  1. Surveillance: Look for any suspicious individuals taking photos of any aspects of the security operations of the hotel or protection detail.
  2. Information Gathering: Be concerned if an individual is inquiring about any information about the hotels fire & security controls.
  3. Testing Security: If your client is part of an attack on Principal (AOP), a lone wolf terrorist may follow you around to throw you off and test your reaction time.
  4. Impersonation: Be questionable of any possible impersonators that may disguise themselves as a first-responder, mail couriers and any organizations that report any stolen supplies such as a uniforms.
  5. Rehearsal: Keep your eyes open for any pending rehearsal attack to measure emergency response time.
  6. Deployment: Lone wolf terrorists may be arranging their assets ahead of an attack.

A prime example of #6 are the backpacks left by the Boston Terrorists and used in the attack. I cannot stress the importance of the EP team utilizing the hotel security staff at all times. In larger hotels, there is typically a security director on staff. This individual will prove to be valuable due to their knowledge of the hotel and their unlimited access. They will be familiar with local events and can identify authorized and unauthorized individuals.

In addition to protection from attack at events in public places, agents must also be mindful of the security situation at the principal’s place of business. Most organizations will already have in place an operating procedure for detecting and mitigating events of workplace violence. The “lone wolf” may exhibit many of the same indicators as someone about to commit an act of workplace violence. When considering lone-wolf attacks, we can capitalize on existing practices and standards.

Where we diverge, however, is considering ideological differences that may drive an attack associated with some form of  extremism as opposed to attacks by disgruntled employees or customers. For example, a hypothetical business that is known to support animal testing of pharmaceutical products  may be especially vulnerable to a lone actor who sympathizes with groups such as PETA but is willing to use violence to express such beliefs. When considering this type of threat the security practitioners must add to their awareness specific factors that elevate the likelihood of direct targeting.

Religious institutions and organizations that support various religious groups are also prime targets. Church security, for example, is an ever increasing concern of religious leaders due to the potentially volatile emotional reactions antagonists may have and direct toward their community. It is crucial, then, that when developing operational plans, whether protecting a single principal in a bustling crowd riddled with soft targets, or protecting larger institutions from retaliation or ideological attack, specific triggers be taken into account during the threat assessment phase.

Depending on the size of your organization, the use of an intelligence analyst is very beneficial in the Executive Protection world, especially during the advance stages. By gathering various types of data from a variety of sources, from local to national news, a network of people on the ground, and open source intelligence subscriptions such as those provided by Stratfor, the intelligence analyst can then transform that data into actionable information that the EP team can use as part of their decision-making processes.

When the EP team is preparing a detail in a specific region or locale, they rely on intelligence analysts for informative briefs that help them create optimal plans for client safety. Small or medium sized companies may not have the resources or funds to employ an intelligence analyst. Therefore, these are skills that all EP agents will need to learn during their initial executive protection courses and training.

The most significant domestic terrorism threat for the foreseeable future will be the lone actor, or “lone wolf” terrorist. They may draw ideological inspiration from a variety of sources from formal terrorist organizations, right’s groups or religious extremism, but operate on the fringes of those movements. So the question of who, what, where, when, why or how will have to be diligently researched and considered by all within an executive protection operation.

Know that it is not a matter of “if”, but “when”. By using extensive threat assessment, advance work and intelligence analysis we will be better prepared to mitigate, prevent and avoid such threats.