The tragic deaths at the hands of crazed gunman remind us that we live in a very dangerous world. Because there are so many terrorist attacks and active shooter scenarios, I often get asked, “What should I do if, God forbid, I find myself in the middle of an attack?” It’s the key question that media rarely hones in on: How did the survivors survive??? That’s what we all want to know. If there’s a chance, how do we ensure that we react the best way possible in such a confusing and chaotic situation?
As a former CIA counterterrorism officer, I have dissected terrorist attacks to find clues for how I might survive such an incident. It was personal for me as several friends and former colleagues of mine were caught in the line of fire: Some were lucky enough to have survived unscathed, some were injured, and a couple of my friends died. Being prepared cost me nothing. Educating myself was one way I could take back control over parts of my life over which I had little.
Lesson #1: Duck and cover.
Get your head down and get behind something … anything. Expand your idea of places that you might hide in or behind: a car, garbage can, display tables in malls, restaurant booths, restrooms, stairwells, etc. There are many possibilities that you might not consider in the heat of the moment, so brainstorm good hiding places in locations that you frequent.
This was particularly difficult for the victims of the al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya last September who were initially unable to exit the building. One woman in the mall who felt cornered was able to crawl inside an air conditioning duct which she emerged from safely the next day. Dozens of shoppers spent much of the first day holed up in a restroom (remember, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a men’s or women’s restroom—you go wherever you need to avoid coming into contact with the attackers). At certain points, the group could hear the attackers walking back and forth outside the door shooting and killing people. The group was later found and ushered to safety by Kenyan counterterrorism forces.
Lesson #2: Once you’re behind cover, try to assess what is happening.
Where are the perpetrators, how many are there, and what are they doing? Once you ensure you are not in the direct line of fire, get off of the “X” which means that you need to run—in the right direction. This might sound obvious, but when you are in shock, it can be difficult to figure out where the bad guys are or how to reach safety.
During the 2008 attack by Lashkar-e-Tayyiba on numerous public spaces in Mumbai, India, there was incredible confusion about the number of attackers as they assaulted and moved quickly between multiple locations including two well-known hotels, a major train station, Jewish center, hospital, and police stations. This complex attack took place over a period of three days and was executed by 10 terrorists. Several unlucky individuals ran right into the terrorists as they tried to flee the violence. They were killed by gunmen who were transitioning from one attack site to another. Separately, a tourist who had been staying in one of the luxury hotels heard commotion in the hallway. He glanced out his door to see a terrorist shooting other hotel guests. He immediately closed and locked the door, and then shoved a large desk in front of it. He could hear explosions occurring and shooting taking place from what seemed like every direction. Later, he realized he could gather intelligence from his daughter over the phone and from CNN on the TV before trying to make an escape from the hotel. He was able to do so the next day when he was fairly certain the terrorists were not in the immediate vicinity.
Lesson #3: Listen to your intuition
Sometimes your intuition (your subconscious processing) is more keyed in than you can comprehend. Listen to it.
American citizen Elaine Dang was very lucky to have survived the chaotic Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya that took place over the course of three days in September 2013. When she told her story to CNN, she noted that at first, everyone began to run to the parking lot. Dang started to follow, but then she decided to go the other direction. She explained, “My instinct said, don’t go with the crowd, move away from the crowd because the crowd is going to be the most vulnerable place. And so I actually moved away and hid behind one of the silver kitchen counters.” It’s a good thing she listened to her gut because the attackers were coming from the parking garage and into the area where she and scores of shoppers had gathered for a cooking show. If she had proceeded per the original plan, she would have run straight into the attackers. Dang’s intuition may have been fed by bits of data processed at lightening speed by her brain—outside of her consciousness–which suggested the attack was being launched from that particular direction. Listen to your brain’s supercomputer—i.e. your “gut” because it is vastly more knowledgeable and reliable than you know.
Lesson #4: Do what you can to be calm and stay focused.
Per a riveting 60 Minutes interview with three of the five Americans that survived al-Qa’ida’s four-day-long attack on a BP gas plant in Algeria in January 2013—the three men kept cool despite the surge of terror they were experiencing. One man was on the bus that was the first thing to come under attack. He said that everyone on the bus quickly but calmly laid down on the floor—as flat as possible–as hundreds of rounds were pumped into the bus. Somehow, he and others lived through this hail of gunfire, and Algerian forces eventually came to their rescue and fought off the attackers.
The most senior American at the site was carefully hid by his staff behind a large filing cabinet. He sat motionless, barely allowing himself to breathe, as he heard the terrorists walk the halls and break down other doors looking for hostages. Remarkably, that office turned out to be one of only two that the terrorists did not search. The third American also hid in his office, underneath the most concealed portion of his desk where he stayed for two days. It was his extreme efforts to remain calm and motionless that helped him evade detection. He and a couple of other employees were eventually able to escape from the building and make it to safety by running through the desert to a nearby Algerian military base.
Elaine Dang kept her wits despite being in the eye of the storm. She survived the Nairobi attack by running the right way at first and then later relocating, as needed, until she could make it to safety. After she took cover the first time, Dang saw a friend stand up and raise his arms, as if to surrender. She prepared to do the same, but before Dang could stand up, another woman did. That woman was summarily executed. After a gas canister blew up near where she was hiding, Dang ran to another counter. There she laid next to a couple that had been shot and pretended to be dead. Later, when the coast was clear, she followed other victims out of the mall through a different exit to safety. Do not be one of the people that freezes and is overcome by fear—you need to move smartly if you want to survive.
Other Helpful Hints:
Shooting rarely ever sounds like you think it will. Unless very large caliber weapons are used, people usually mistake gunshots for firecrackers or “popping” sounds.
Remember that in malls, many stores have back rooms where they keep inventory, trash receptacles and secondary exits which you may be able to use to escape. Also, don’t forget that parking garages and fire exits are excellent exit points if you are able to get there safely.
There are rarely as many attackers as it appears in these complex, active shooter events. Terrorists have been very proficient at making it seem like they are greater in number by using grenades, IEDs, fires, and other diversions that distract and confuse bystanders and authorities.