What to do in a terrorist attack

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by Dr Adrian Dwyer, counter-terrorism risk adviser
Terrorism

The attack that spilled out of Fishmongers’ Hall and on to London Bridge on 29 November 2019 was a chilling reminder of how acts of terror can arise unexpectedly.  Those events are still being investigated but the Chief Coroner’s report[1] concerning the previous attack in London Bridge and Borough Market in June 2017, makes many pertinent observations. His summary describes the beginning of that tragic event:

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Talking with children and young people about what to do in a terrorist attack ‘…the  three  men  quickly  left  the  van. They  were  armed  with  the ceramic knives (strapped to their wrists) and were wearing what appeared to be suicide vests  (but  which  were  in  fact  reasonably  convincing  fakes).  They began stabbing people at street level, before descending to the courtyard of a restaurant… There, they attacked many more people.’

In the initial phase of the assault alone, five people were wounded fatally. Although in the UK terrorist attack events of this type can still be described as exceptional, awareness of ‘international’ terrorism has been raised to a level unprecedented in modern history. Children and young people are exposed to unremitting and often graphic output from social and news media platforms — leading to a potentially distorted view of their own vulnerability. So it is important to discuss terrorism-related risk with them as honestly and comprehensively as is feasible.

When speaking to pupils, staff and parents in independent schools, I have found they invariably display a healthy curiosity about what terrorists do, why they do it and how well-prepared we are to stop them (and why sometimes we can’t).  Government initiatives to develop a bespoke PSHE-led framework for ‘discussing terrorist attacks’ are therefore to be welcomed: but do they missing something fundamental?  In ‘deconstructing events’ and exploring how we ‘feel’ about terrorism (key aspects within the PSHE approach) we only progress so far. Can more tangible steps be taken to equip students to evaluate their own exposure to risk and to make meaningful decisions when, if for them, the unthinkable becomes a reality?

Following the London bombings terrorist attack of July 2005, many of the conversations I had dealt increasingly with the practical elements of what to do ‘if’.  The questions asked by pupils demonstrated a level of maturity well beyond those encountered within the PSHE framework. For example, consider the government’s ‘Run Hide Tell’ advice (published in 2015).  Although this is now encountered widely, attempts to rationalise the anglicised (and watered-down) version of the harder-hitting US-developed message ‘Run Hide Fight’ expose fundamental challenges. For example, what to do when:

At this point it is informative to contrast lessons drawn from the Bataclan incident in Paris (November 2015) and the Thalys train incident of the same year. In the former, many of those who were unable to run hid inside the venue; but they were found and became casualties. During the latter (involving people on a moving train), the lack of options meant some passengers took positive actions in an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, confronting and overcoming the attacker. Many will (and do) argue this is not ideal, but what other credible alternatives or variations exist? The report into the 2017 London Bridge and Borough Market attacks noted that running from the scene and barricading buildings against the marauding terrorists saved lives[2].  However, the Chief Coroner also observed that such attacks are attended by high levels of uncertainty[3]. Generalised advice, however well-intentioned, needs to be applied in context.

The importance of context

Addressing difficult questions in context is a mainly missed opportunity within the PSHE framework. In late 2015, I spoke to a sixth-form group in the wake of the Bataclan attack in Paris. Much time was spent discussing the benefits of running away, of not standing with a ‘selfie’-taking or otherwise paralysed crowd, and having a plan for staying in contact (or re-establishing contact) with friends and family during periods of significant disruption. This led to associated questions about:

It also inspired a sensible debate about what to do if a terrorist with a gun shouted at you to ‘stop!’. Again, evidence from the Bataclan is instructive: there, as elsewhere, compliance by victims served mainly to improve the attackers’ accuracy of aim. Dealing with hypotheticals, but always in a given context, allowed difficult questions (of which there were many, because perceptions of risk are not homogeneous) to be addressed as part of a coherent narrative.

Some six months or so later, I received an email from two of the girls who had attended the session. They had been in Nice on 15 July 2016 as the devastating vehicle-as-a-weapon attack began. They had been walking along the boulevard where 86 people were to be murdered: they heard the screams; they saw the oncoming truck. Having thought about their options already, and given some consideration to their attitude to risk-taking (and survival), they ran: they ran without hesitation, without doubt and in the clear knowledge of what actions they needed to take next. They kept running and survived.

As sensible and resourceful young women, departing the scene would undoubtedly have been a high priority – whatever they had been told. However, in extreme and unusual circumstances, people can become unsure about how to react. They may simply follow the crowd or just submit to debilitating decision inertia (that is, the failure to recognise existing experience and expectations have just been overtaken by events). Those able to process information rapidly and act accordingly will therefore possess a distinct advantage when vital binary decisions need to be made.

So, as a parent, how confident are you that your own child — whether in the care of their school or out on their own —would know:

Dealing with such questions convincingly requires the application of context, consideration of relevant case studies and willingness to addresses difficult issues without obfuscation. Speaking openly about challenges and limitations promotes deeper understanding and improves the chances of being able to revert to ‘first principles’. It means that if the unexpected and ‘unthinkable’ does happen, hard-pressed cognitive processes have a valuable resource upon which to draw. Knowing how we ‘feel’ about terrorism is one thing, knowing what to do during the utter confusion of an evolving terrorist incident is something very different. The two elements are related but we do our children no favours by allowing them to become conflated.

A version of this article first appeared in a Girls’ Schools Association publication.

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