How to derail an attack on a soft target: Experts

How to protect yourself from a terrorist attack
How to protect yourself from a terrorist attack

Soft targets are called soft for a reason — they're easy for a terrorist to strike, and nearly impossible for well meaning businesses and individuals to defend.

But terrorism experts say there are things that companies and people can do to derail a terrorist attack such as the one seen in Paris last week — well before the attackers can even fire a shot.

Part of the solution is aggressive but polite monitoring of the area surrounding a concert hall, stadium or other venue, said William Braniff, the executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and a former instructor at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. He said American companies can look to security experts in Israel for tips on how to handle inbound threats.

"Instead of just having passive security guards who stand still," he said, security teams should "engage in conversation, to move around outside of a sports venue, outside of a shopping mall, and engage with people. And by doing this you're not off-putting, you're not menacing. You're, instead, just probing a little bit."

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The idea, Braniff said, is for security teams to ask questions about why people came to the venue, who they are, all the while looking for people who may be nervous or seem out of place, or not able to provide basic answers. That way, security can intercept a potential attacker before he is prepared to strike, giving security a better chance at disrupting the attack.

Minneapolis police, in conjunction with the NFL and terrorism experts, put together a set of instructions for people in that city explaining how to intercept terrorists before they can attack. The concept is based on intelligence that suggests ISIS and al-Qaida terrorists have gone to great lengths to prepare their attacks in the past — and each step in that preparation represents an opportunity to derail an attack before it happens.

Here are the eight steps of preparation they recommend everyone watch out for.

Surveillance: Often, terrorists will observe the site of a planned attack well in advance, sometimes even with enhanced vision devices including binoculars. Experts say to watch for people taking pictures in places where tourists normally wouldn't — doors, security checkpoints, staff areas and the like.

Information Gathering: The initial observations can include asking detailed questions of people onsite, including details about shift changes or access to a facility. Watch for inappropriate interest by people who do not appear to have any business at a venue.

Testing Security: Sometimes terrorists will conduct tests, such as creating a disturbance or pulling a fire alarm to see how long it takes for officials in a given location to react. Treat any such incidents seriously and get to the bottom of who staged them and why.

Funding: Terror attacks such as the one in Paris do not cost a large amount of money, but financing has to be arranged and money sent to attackers to pay for their activities. That's an opportunity for financial experts and people witnessing the transactions to ask questions.

NFL stadiums ramp up security checks in the wake of the Paris attacks.
It can happen here: US security officials

Acquiring Supplies: Often, terrorists will have to rent cars, purchase vehicles or acquire equipment to be used in the attack. Again, keep an eye out for large cash transactions or untraceable cash card purchases — and people who don't have a ready or believable reason for making the purchase.

Impersonation: Stealing uniforms of construction workers, hospital officials or even police can often be a precursor to an attack as well — as a way of putting together disguises that will enable the attackers to slip in and out of a venue undetected. Watch for and report thefts of any such gear.

Rehearsal: Often part of a team or an entire team will conduct a dry run at a target. This can be another opportunity to intervene.

Deployment: Finally, in the last minutes before a strike, terrorists have to gather their weapons, and transport themselves to the scene. Anyone seeing people with weapons or explosives in a car, on the sidewalk or entering a venue should immediately call 911 — the faster police can arrive to the scene, the less time the attackers will have before someone stops them.