Beyond an Active-Shooter Scenario: Countering a Multimodal Martyrdom Operation

A local emergency dispatch center receives a frantic call reporting continuous shooting at a shopping mall. Almost immediately, dispatch center call lines light up with additional reports – with “many casualties” now included in the information provided. Dispatchers send responding officers the limited and fragmented information they received from desperate citizens.  Officers are inclined to assume that they probably will be confronting an “active shooter” situation. Fortunately, the training and tactics needed for interdicting an active shooter are now widely embedded throughout the U.S. law-enforcement community. However, the response training and tactics used in an active-shooter situation are only minimally applicable to the multimodal martyrdom-style operations that have become so frequent in recent years.  Recent noteworthy martyrdom-style operations include the multiple coordinated attacks carried out by terrorists in Mumbai, India, in November 2008, for example, and the attacks earlier this month in Kabul, Afghanistan – which included such high-value political targets as the NATO headquarters there and the U.S. embassy.

September 2011 obviously marks a very special time of reflection on the 9/11 attacks that took place a decade ago in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It also provides an opportunity to build upon one of the most poignant lessons learned from those closely coordinated attacks – namely, the need to prepared for worst-case scenarios. To date, the United States is fortunate not to have endured a martyrdom attack similar to the 2004 massacre in Beslan, North Ossetia, where more than 380 people were killed in a school hostage crisis. However, as exemplified by 9/11, the United States cannot afford to fall short in developing the local-level capacity, in communities throughout the nation, to cope with martyrdom attacks, including extreme “multimodal” types of operations.

Recognizing the Multimodal Martyrdom Attack

Globally, such martyrdom attacks as suicide/homicide bombings are now a frequent occurrence. Moreover, as devastating as they already have been in Israel and several other countries, the next level is likely to be an attack in which numerous suicide/homicide bombings are preceded by small arms fire as well as IEDs (improvised explosive devices) randomly aimed at the target population. In this type of operation, the person-worn explosives are usually (but not always) reserved for the final phase of the martyrdom operation.

Defeating a well planned and carefully implemented martyrdom attack is extremely difficult to counter, of course, particularly when it involves not just one but several small teams of suicide/homicide terrorists, working closely together in well coordinated assaults against multiple targets. The terrorists’ tactical objectives in these operations are essentially twofold: First, maximize the casualty count suffered by the target population; Second, protract the duration of the operation as long as possible in support of the first tactical objective.

The multimodal martyrdom attack usually appears at first as a single extreme criminal/terrorist incident. However, as more and more citizens report their observations, and additional ground intelligence is obtained, the situational picture becomes both more confusing and much more complex. When that happens, early recognition that a multimodal martyrdom attack is underway is particularly important for communities in position to scale up the best response as rapidly as possible.

Needed: A Coordinated Response Strategy & Rapid Situational Awareness

Very few U.S. communities have developed the essential capabilities needed to quickly recognize, and manage, multimodal martyrdom attack situations. Local law enforcement agencies at all levels, from the traditional “officer on the street” to the upper command echelons, must be prepared to escalate their operational tempo, from the routine to the extreme, in an efficient and well-coordinated manner. An effective whole-of-community law enforcement response will necessarily, therefore, require quick and continuing interagency collaboration.

To meet the whole-of-community law enforcement rapid response imperative, agencies must develop and perfect numerous efficiencies in real-time attack situational awareness that not only may involve many targets but also targets that are constantly moving from one point to another. One of the more difficult challenges facing India’s response agencies during the 2008 Mumbai attacks was identifying where the next attacks were likely to take place. The Mumbai terrorists operated in small but closely interconnected two- or three-man teams, each of which was moving, frequently and unexpectedly, from one target location to another. One of the terrorist teams even left behind, deliberately – in a taxi the team had commandeered – a timed IED that later detonated several blocks away from the attack epicenter.

A truly effective operational response must include the quick and accurate command-level analysis of real-time situational intelligence in order to effectively direct the relatively scarce resources likely to be immediately available during a rapidly changing deadly attack. The counter-attack performance objective for law enforcement agencies should be to establish intelligence-driven command and control almost immediately – i.e., within 30 seconds or so – after the first report of an attack. As is the case with an active-shooter incident, elapsed time in a multimodal martyrdom attack is measured in much greater casualties, including a high percentage of fatalities. In most U.S. jurisdictions, therefore, the co-locating of initial overall incident command with the communications center can be made most effective by reducing the time lags between intelligence collection, command analysis, and field dissemination.

Commander Guidelines: “Everything Within Their Power”

In most cases communications center dispatchers and officers on the street are the principal focal points for collecting real-time ground-level intelligence. For both the street officers and the dispatchers, distraught and frightened citizens are usually the initial sources for raw information, and for that reason the dispatchers and officers must be trained to: (a) quickly gather all relevant information possible from those citizens; and (b) relay that information as quickly as possible to the incident command center. The dispatchers and street officers also need training, and situation-tailored drills, not only in managing the distressed information source – i.e., the individual citizen, in most cases – but also in quickly relaying that information to incident command.

The dispatchers and incident commanders also must do everything within their power to create real-time geospatial awareness of the situational dynamics. Map plotting, no matter how simplistic or rudimentary, is usually the best approach – but requires that someone in a position of authority within the command element be designated, well in advance, to charting (or predicting) the most likely next steps or progression of the assailants. Establishing a lean and adaptable capability for rapid situational awareness should be achieved, ideally within 15 minutes or less, after the initial citizen report, with speed, accuracy, and agility the key objectives. The establishment of “robustness,” even within a fully developed incident command system, is a time luxury usually available only in the interdiction phase of an incident if the rapidly evolving situation stagnates because of slow and/or ineffective containment.

Another major complicating factor to keep in mind is that, in Mumbai-style attacks, terrorist controllers operating outside the “battle zone” may, to thwart the counter-attacks, be constantly briefing the martyrs/assailants with near real-time intelligence of the ongoing police activities. During the interdiction dynamic, therefore, public officials must maintain operational security, including radio silence if and when possible, to the fullest extent possible, particularly in the modern digital media age. It is also wise to assume that the assailants are capable of maintaining their own situational awareness from media sources, as well as from potential crowd-embedded observers on the ground.

Adapting Interdiction Tactics: The Columbine Paradigm

The predominant lesson for law enforcement derived from the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado is the need to rapidly deploy all officers available to quickly interdict the threat and save lives. Speed remains a core objective in countering a martyrdom attack. However, unlike the typical situation when an active shooter often, but usually as a last resort, chooses suicide over engagement, the adversary in a martyrdom attack is willing from the start to accept a potentially fatal engagement with responding forces. In the extreme martyrdom attack model, the assailants are usually pre-disposed to accept their own deaths as part of the operational design.

The typical martyr also is prepared to end such confrontations by detonating an IED attached to his own body. However, the end-game objective, up to and including the assailant’s own demise, remains homicide. Moreover, unlike the average suicide/homicide bomber, the martyrdom operational assailant is tactically and mentally prepared for a fatal confrontation with law enforcement. In short, martyrdom operations are planned, rehearsed events in which all of the assailants involved have been trained and indoctrinated to blunt and confound the law enforcement response.

For initial responding officers, the situation may appear to be an active-shooter incident, but they must be prepared to rapidly re-evaluate that assumption and revise their tactics accordingly. Interdicting a martyrdom attack is necessarily a “come as you are” operation. Street officers should be equipped and proficient with patrol rifles.  They should carry an ample supply of magazines for reloads to sustain containment efforts.

Other officers should provide protection for the small teams moving toward their interdiction objectives. Even the first three or four responding officers can form themselves into contact and cover teams in order to effectively leapfrog forward under constant protective cover. However, the opportunity to train in team-coordinated maneuvers is seldom available for the special tactics officer. Small-unit tactical training similar to that used in combat theaters is even more infrequent in the law enforcement community, particularly at the street level.

Nonetheless, the interdiction of multimodal martyrdom attacks requires the tactical coordination of multiple small-unit law-enforcement teams. In an extreme situation such as a Mumbai-style attack, those teams usually will have to be assembled on short or no-notice from multiple precincts and neighboring jurisdictions. When that happens, team cohesion and tactical coordination are particularly important to avoid blue-on-blue force situations.

The Planning Script for Countering Martyrdom Attacks

Interdiction effectiveness in rapidly defeating multimodal martyrdom attacks is achieved through concerted planning and preparation. Therefore, planning and preparedness for such incidents should be both internal and interagency.

Internally, all state and local law enforcement agencies should examine their communications and dispatch capabilities to determine if existing capacity is enough to serve as both an intelligence collection point and a hasty command and control center, while continuing to manage the routine and cascading call volume from the rest of the call center’s service community. In recent years, usually as a consequence of budget cuts, many agencies have moved supervisory law enforcement officers from the communications centers to the street and/or other operational divisions. Those same agencies should now determine how to meet an operationally acceptable, but at the same time realistic, time-performance objective to provide the competent law enforcement operational presence needed inside the communications center.

Agency-level planning also should include the identification of likely targets and routes of movement for small martyrdom-attack teams. In meeting the terrorist tactical objectives for such operations, the most likely targets may well include, but not necessarily limited to:

  • Locations where people gather (e.g., the Nord Ost Theater Incident – Moscow 2002);
  • Sites of iconic value (e.g., Nariman House, a prominent Jewish Center – Mumbai 2008);
  • Critical infrastructure (e.g., the Cama Hospital, another Mumbai target; also Budyonnovsk Hospital – Russia 1995);
  • Tourist targets (e.g., the Taj and Oberoi/Trident Hotels – Mumbai 2008; and the Inter-Con Hotel in Kabul, Pakistan, earlier this year);
  • “Special” targets that might hold political or emotional compelling significance (e.g., the Beslan School, North Ossetia – 2004).

The planning should include reviews, between and among mutually supportive law enforcement agencies, of mutual-aid agreements as well as compatibility analyses of response tactics, training, and procedures (TTPs). Harmony between agency TTPs provides a vital foundation to operational cohesion in countering coordinated martyrdom attacks. The development of interagency training on numerous types of situations, not only those considered to be critical incidents, helps develop interagency operational cohesion.

Stairways, Room-Clearing Situations & Intergovernmental Collaboration

Such training programs should be designed, developed, and used to focus on countering and interdicting the multimodal martyrdom attack methods. Training should prepare officers and first-line supervisors with much greater awareness of terrorist tactics, coupled with local environmental relevance as well as operational methods and the tactics likely to be needed for a successful interdiction. The context for such training should leverage existing tactical capabilities as the baseline, with various situational adaptations added to counter the most likely martyrdom threats. Here it is important to remember that the initial calls for assistance may seem to warrant an active-shooter or explosion-incident type of response.

Officer-level tactical training should include small-team assembly, covered movement, and interdiction tactics incorporating the primary tools that most officers have at their immediate disposal. Essential training should strengthen such core skill sets and/or incident scenarios as firearms proficiency, weapons transition, room-clearing situations, the use of stairways, IED awareness, shooting “on the move,” and rapid citizen-debriefing techniques.

The testing and validation of whole-of-community preparedness for defeating multimodal martyrdom attacks also should include intra- and inter-agency drills and exercises that extend to all levels of response and command. Effective counter-martyrdom responses are based primarily on achieving swift and seamless intergovernmental collaboration with real-time situational awareness and adaptive interdiction capabilities on the ground. Preparedness exercise programs inclusive of this threat are invaluable to broadening existing community-wide resilience.

The attacks on U.S. soil one decade ago this month offer an abundance of watershed lessons for the U.S. emergency services community – not only to proactively anticipate the changing dynamics of the terrorist/criminal threat but also to defeat such threats, no matter what their origin, from domestic and foreign enemies alike.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



No tags to display


Translate »