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Print Story : 8 pre-attack indicators of terrorist activity - PoliceOne.com
Page 1 of 2
with PoliceOne Senior Editor Doug Wyllie
8 pre-attack indicators of terrorist activity
As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is a very useful exercise to
remind ourselves about some of the most basic — and most visible — signs which can help police
officers thwart a plot
There are observable behaviors and activities prior to a terrorist attack which generally represent the best
opportunity to detect and disrupt the terrorists’ plans. What follows is a synthesis of versions of this list that can
be found online as well as information gleaned from a variety of books I’ve read on the subject. This is far from
a complete or comprehensive list — it’s a starting point for a much larger discussion — so add your own
thoughts on this in the comments area.
1.) Financing Activities — Watch out for evidence of transactions involving large cash payments, deposits, or
withdrawals. These are not just signs of criminal enterprise, but also may indicate terrorist funding efforts.
Collection/solicitation of financial donations and “white-collar” criminal activities are potential warning signs.
2.) Surveillance — Not just glassing a target with a pair of binoculars, a long camera lens, or a laser range
finder, this can include timing the movement of vehicles and persons within an area, as well as simply transiting
the area at various times of day and recording the activity levels at the target. Evidence of surveillance
operations can also be found at totally different locations — if there are hand-drawn diagrams or building plans
in the house you just did a warrant entry on, ask yourself “Why is this here? What could this be used for?”
3.) Active Elicitation — A tactic often ignored is sending spoof “surveys” via fax and email to target locations
with questions about security, numbers of employees, and whatnot. Activities in this area can also include inperson or phone inquiries. A parent interested in enrolling their child in a school and asking, “Do you have police
officers guarding kids here?” may really be someone looking to commit a Beslan-style attack here in the United
4.) Probing Security — This may include abandoning suspicious packages in a target area, breaking and
entering a target building, or simple trespass on the target’s property. It’s entirely possible that the person doing
this activity has no idea that they’re testing security response — a terror cell with decent operational security will
send a low-level person on this task who knows nothing of the attack plan itself. Obviously, this can also include
phoning in false alarms to a location and watching the tactics of the arriving first responders (as well as timing
their response times).
5.) Acquiring Supplies — In addition to the acquisition of conventional weapons like guns, ammunition, and
knives, terrorist cells and individual lone wolves are still seeking to obtain explosives or precursor ingredients.
Legally-obtainable but equally-hazardous materials include pool chemicals, fuel, and fertilizer. Further, what are
the security considerations at your local hospital regarding the radiological material — including waste products
— stored there. With a set of scrubs, a stolen key, a forged ID, and a confident stride, an interloper can gain
access to even highly-secured areas of a medical facility.
6.) Suspicious Persons — Perhaps the best possible application of the word “hinky,” all officers are already on
the lookout for people who just seem to be out of place. While a lone adult at a playground screams for
attention, a middle-aged student enrolled in a chemical engineering class with a bunch of 19-year-old college
kids seems to slip a bit beneath the radar. Trust your gut, and ask the question, “What is this person really doing
7.) Conducting Dry Runs — It has long been my personal belief that Richard Reid was unwittingly conducting
a dry run when he attempted to light his shoe ablaze on American Airlines Flight 63 in December 2001. Ever
since then, travelers have been striding sock-footed through the airport scanners. It’s well known that the 9/11
hijackers racked up frequent-flier miles as they conducted dry runs to count numbers of passengers and time out
the best stage of the flight to mount their attack. Dry runs can also be as simple as mapping routes and timing
the sequence of traffic lights.
8.) Deploying Assets — By the time the personnel and materiel are put into motion for a terrorist attack,
stopping it becomes considerably more difficult. Once a suicide bomber starts rolling toward target, they’re about
95 percent successful in carrying out their mission. However, there are still viable opportunities to intervene
during the final moments before a terrorist act occurs. Never give up!
Many Hands Make Light Work
I’ve been studying terrorism now for more than two decades. My first “desk job” was as a low-level analyst with
the U.S. Department of State in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait — my
primary area of focus was Middle East terrorism and military history. Despite dedicating a significant portion of
my life to studying this stuff, I still work hard to educate myself further about the changing landscape of
I know there are thousands of like-minded law enforcers and law-abiding citizens who are doing the same thing.
I’d bet a waist-high stack of green money that if you’re reading this final paragraph, you’re one of those great,
modern-day American Patriot warriors. With hard work, and a measure of luck, we’ll keep winning this battle
against those who want to destroy us.