Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Thwarting Terrorist Bombings Through Awareness

Thwarting Terrorist Bombings Through Awareness

On July 7th 2005, my brother (Andrew Abernethy) was onboard one of the Tube Trains involved in the London Bombings. He suffered numerous wounds and needed medical attention to remove shards of glass from his body. However, he was ultimately one of the lucky ones. Upon finally escaping from the tube, he was one of the first to give an interview to BBC television and radio. Many of you saw or heard that interview, both in the UK and overseas, and got in touch to express your concern. Thank you for that.

Unfortunately, many others were not as lucky as my brother and I'd like to express my deepest sympathies to all those who lost loved ones in this tragic event.

As martial artists, a key part of our study is how to protect ourselves from dangerous situations. But is there anyway in which we can protect ourselves from bombs and other instruments of terrorism? The awareness that effective self-protection and martial arts training develops can certainly help. Sometimes we are unfortunate enough to be in the 'wrong place' at the 'wrong time' and it can be difficult to see what anyone could have done to change the outcome. However, if we maintain a constant state of vigilance we will undoubtedly stand a better chance of spotting potential acts of terrorism and therefore making things safer for ourselves and all those around us.

Awareness is some thing we should all have; fear and paranoia is something we must avoid. The terrorists who carry out such appalling acts wish to promote fear and it's vital we never allow their actions to have any kind of effect.

Lawrence Kane - a martial artist for over 30 years - has written a superb piece on awareness and what to look out for with regards to potential acts of terrorism. The piece also makes the important distinction between a healthy vigilance and awareness, and a thoroughly unhealthy fear and paranoia. I'm very grateful to Lawrence for kindly offering to share this superb and illuminating piece with members and visitors to this website.

All the best,


 Thwarting Terrorist Bombing Through Awareness

by Lawrence Kane

"One man willing to throw away his life is enough to terrorize a thousand."

- Wu Ch'i, Chinese Philosopher (circa 400 BC)

Publicity surrounding the recent attacks on the London transit system combined with statements by security professionals and government authorities that it is impossible to completely guarantee safety in an open society may lead many to feel helpless in the face of terrorist threats. After all, no matter how well trained a martial artist you are; you simply cannot fight a bomb or a bullet with your hands or feet and expect to survive unscathed. It is natural to be fearful, yet truly not necessary. There things you can proactively do remain safe from such attacks.

Before we get into the details, however, it is useful to put these things into perspective. Despite the fact that they get a lot of news play, terrorist attacks are actually quite rare in most parts of the world. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, there were 3,192 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2004, for example, with 6,060 people killed, 16,091 wounded, and 6,282 taken hostage for a total of 28,433 victims. Every death is one too many and 2004 was a particularly brutal year for terrorism, well above the historical average. Despite this appallingly high number of victims, it is important to point out that we average 41,962 automobile accident related fatalities in the United States alone every year, roughly seven times number of people murdered by terrorists worldwide.

To put it another way, you are in a lot more danger driving your car down the street than you are from any terrorist threat. That does not mean that the threat is not very real, of course, only that it is more manageable than many folks realize. Furthermore, you can proactively defend yourself against terror simply by becoming aware of and avoiding people and situations that are likely to cause trouble. Seems overly simple, doesn't it, yet the best defense against such attacks is a good sense of awareness.


On the street it is important to pay attention to unusual behaviors, particularly anything that makes you feel nervous or uncomfortable. True fear is a signal in the presence of danger, a built-in warning system we all have but all too few of us pay attention to. Unwarranted fear, on the other hand, is always based upon our memory or imagination. Always listen when you feel fear or any intuitive signal, taking action as appropriate. When you don't feel fear, on the other hand, don't manufacture it. If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

You cannot walk around in a state of constant paranoia, yet you should be cognizant of suspicious activities. Behaviors that should be a legitimate cause for concern can include people who appear to be conducting surveillance of sensitive areas using a camera, cell phone cam, or video recorder, anyone abandoning an item then leaving the area quickly, someone openly possessing a weapon or any prohibited or dangerous item, or anybody who looks nervous, irritated, or is sweating profusely beyond what you might normally expect with the prevailing weather conditions.

Awareness has two key components-environment and timing. When environment and timing converge, your level of alertness should be at its highest.

Awareness of Environment

Awareness of environment includes being aware of what is going on around you and listening to your intuition as danger signals arise. Good situational awareness can let you predict and avoid most any potentially difficult situation. It is something all of us instinctively have yet few really pay attention to. In most cases, we should be able to spot a developing situation, turn around, and walk (or drive) away before anything bad happens.

Many self-defense experts use a color code system to help define and communicate appropriate levels of environmental awareness. The most commonly used approach, codified by Colonel Jeff Cooper, was based in large part on the color alert system developed by the United States Marine Corps during World War II then later modified for civilian use. These color code conditions include White (oblivious), Yellow (aware), Orange (alert), Red (concerned), and Black (under attack). While it is possible to skip conditions (e.g., Yellow directly to Black) most encounters cycle up or down all of these levels. Here is how it works:

Condition White (oblivious):

People in Condition White are distracted or unaware, not only perceiving no danger in their immediate area, but also not alert for any that may be presented to them. A good example is someone who is engrossed in reading a book, talking on a cell phone, or listening to music (particularly when wearing headphones). In this state you become an easy mark for just about any pickpocket, mugger, rapist, deviant, or terrorist bomber you come across. If you are attacked you are very likely going to be hurt before you are able to react appropriately to defend yourself.

On March 11, 2004 , thirteen bombs were abandoned on crowded commuter trains in Madrid (Spain) by suspicious-looking people, many wearing ski masks, yet no one took action before it was too late. Ten of the devices exploded killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,800 innocent victims. Police found three other unexploded devices hidden in backpacks that same day and a fourth on the high-speed rail link between Madrid and Seville on April 2nd. Tests later showed that the explosives matched the type used in the March attacks so it was likely connected to that event.

This tragic incident is a graphic reminder that you should never operate in Condition White while in public places. The only acceptable spot for Condition White is within the confines of your own home and then only if you are safely behind layered security appropriate for your situation.

Condition Yellow (aware):

Although you are not looking for or expecting trouble in Condition Yellow, if it comes up you will have a very good chance to know about it in time to react. People in this condition are at ease, not immediately perceiving any danger, but generally aware of their surroundings. You should constantly be scanning your environment and be able to identify, without re-looking, generally who and what is around you at all times. In Condition Yellow you may spot a suspicious person, situation, or object that warrants further scrutiny.

Body language is important. Predators typically stalk those they consider weaker prey, rarely victimizing the strong. By simply walking confidently and remaining alert you will not only have a good chance of avoiding terrorist bombers but also common criminals and mundane troublemakers, the kind of people you are most likely to tangle with on the street. Anything that stimulates your intuitive survival sense, suspicion, or curiosity should be studied more closely. Examples might include a crowd gathered for no apparent reason, someone wearing heavy clothing on a summer day, a person studiously avoiding eye contact, anyone whose hands are hidden from view, a person moving awkwardly or with an unusual gait, or someone who simply stares at you for no apparent reason.

Condition Orange (alert):

People in this condition have become aware of some non-specific danger (via Condition Yellow) and need to ascertain whether or not there is a legitimate threat to their safety. The difference between conditions Yellow and Orange is the identification of a specific target for further attention. You may have stumbled across a suspicious package, heard a nearby shout, or become aware of an unidentified sudden noise where you would not have expected one. You might also have seen another person or a group of people acting abnormally, someone whose demeanor makes you feel uncomfortable, or somebody whose appearance stands out as unusual.

In this state you should focus on the nebulous danger, but not to the exclusion of a broader awareness of your surroundings. Trouble may be starting in other places in addition to the one that has drawn your attention (e.g., ambush situation). If the danger is real, you will elevate to Condition Red. If it turns out to be a false alarm, you simply revert back to Condition Yellow.

Condition Red (concerned):

People in this condition have been confronted by a potential threat or adversary or are in close proximity to someone who is becoming very aggressive and is near enough to confront them quickly. Condition Red means that you have every reason to believe that someone or something poses a clear and present danger to you or someone with you.

At this point it is prudent to begin moving away toward escape routes, locations with strategic cover, or areas of concealment if you can do so, being prepared to fight your way to safety as necessary. Concealment (e.g., a bush) keeps bad guys from seeing you but does not provide much physical protection, while cover (e.g., a stone wall) can keep the bad guy and/or his weapon from getting to you should he or she wish to attack. Many types of cover can insulate you from a bomb blast or at least offer a degree of protection against shrapnel. If the threat is a person rather than a suspicious object you may be able to withdraw or otherwise diffuse the confrontation through verbal de-escalation techniques.

Condition Black (under attack):

People in this condition are actively being attacked. Verbal challenges and de-escalation attempts are no longer useful. You must flee or fight back, using any appropriate distractions and/or weapons at your disposal. If the threat is a person, your intent must be to stop the assault that is in progress so that you can escape to safety or otherwise remain safe until help arrives. Your goal is to be safe, not to kill your attacker or teach him/her a lesson. If the attack is an explosive device it is too late to find cover since it has already gone off, another reason why early awareness and avoidance are so important.

Awareness of Timing

Awareness of timing has to do with the time of day during which attacks are most likely to occur. Terrorists are very conscious of media attention, timing attacks carefully to achieve the highest possible level of public impact. Consequently, attacks typically occur during "rush hour" when and where the highest numbers of potential victims are congregated.

For example, the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States all took place during the workday. Similarly, the London subway and bus bombings on July 7, 2005 and the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004 also took place during peak traffic hours. A crowded mall in daytime, therefore, is much more likely to be hit than the same location late at night or just before closing simply due to the presence of more potential victims during the day.

Suspicious Objects

Terrorist threats are frequently indirect, delivered via remote explosives rather than via direct personal attacks. Unlike a typical mugger or common criminal, these folks are looking to cause as many casualties as possible with the least amount of effort. It's hard to create mass havoc through one-on-one attacks.

When traveling through public places or using public transportation it is prudent to look for and report any suspicious or unattended packages, devices, or baggage that could be used to deliver an explosive charge. There are many instances where alert civilians have been able to thwart potential remote bombing attacks.

For example, on January 23, 2005 a young boy playing in the village of Barangay Malisbong, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold in the Philippines, discovered a powerful explosive device concealed in a two-liter plastic soy-sauce container packed with shrapnel and rigged to a timing device. He reported his discovery to the authorities who disarmed the weapon and subsequently arrested two terrorist suspects. Similar devices were retrieved unexploded from a packed public market in Midsayap and the Cotabato City Cathedral the next day.

If you discover a suspicious package it is best to avoid using a cellular phone or radio transmitter within 50 feet, however, as your transmission could cause a bomb to detonate. Some specific things to look for can include:

• Hidden or abandoned packages of any kind, including large items left in garbage containers.

• Packages that are connected to wires, timers, tanks, or bottles.

• Items that appear to be releasing a mist, gas, vapor, or have any unusual odor.

• Packages containing canisters, tanks, metal boxes, or bottles.

Suspicious Vehicles

Vehicles can be suspicious too. They are, after all, frequently used to deliver explosive charges (e.g., Oklahoma City bombing). Once again, there are many instances where alert civilians have been able to thwart potential vehicle bombing attacks.

For example, on February 28, 2005 an astute villager in the city of Arabe notified Israeli security forces of a commercial truck with a long cable protruding from it. Upon closer examination, the cable was attached to a battery and a video camera, most likely intended to document an impending terrorist attack. IDF forces discovered a large amount of explosives packed in the back of the vehicle which they subsequently detonated in a controlled manner to dispose of the threat.

According to the FBI Bomb Data Center, six pounds of explosives (cigar box) has a fragmentation range of 832 feet. For reference, the London subway bombs were all less than ten pounds each. Forty pounds of explosives (briefcase) has a fragmentation range of 1,129 feet. One hundred and sixty pounds of explosives (suitcase) has a fragmentation range of 1,792 feet. You can imagine how devastating a truck bomb twenty times that size could be. Potential vehicle bombs can often be identified by:

• Mismatched or precariously hung license plates.

• Attempts to abandon the vehicle in an inappropriate spot near a high value target.

• An extra heavy load in the back.

• Attempts to evade roadblocks or security checkpoints.

• Refusal to slow down or comply with legitimate commands by law enforcement authorities or security personnel.

Suspicious People

In addition to remote explosive devices or vehicle-delivered bombs, suicide attacks can also be a concern. This tactic has been used by Al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezballah, the Kurdistan Worker's Party, and the Tamil Tigers, among other groups, affecting countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, China, Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Panama, the Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

While anyone can blow him or herself up for a cause, the typical suicide bomber is male, unmarried, in his late teens or early 20s, and fanatical about his beliefs. He is often well educated, coming from a middle class background. Security experts are becoming adept at identifying such individuals through their suspicious behavior. Warning signs can include:

• Unseasonable dress, particularly when conspicuously bulky.

• Protruding bulges or exposed wires under clothing, potentially seen through the sleeve.

• Attempts to wear a disguise or blend into a crowd where the person does not seem to belong.

• Repeated and nervous handling of fashion accessories or clothing.

• Slow-paced movements with intense focus.

• Profuse sweating in excess of what might be expected due to environmental conditions.

• Nervous muttering, mumbling, or praying.

• Attempts to maintain distance from or otherwise avoid security personnel where present.

• Exuding a faint chemical odor.

Countervailing Force

While awareness can help you avoid terrorist attacks altogether, it can also help you thwart one before it can be pulled off successfully. Because the trained martial artist is far better prepared than the average citizen to take action in these cases, we should be prepared to intervene when necessary. Prudent application of countervailing force can be very effective.

For example, on March 8, 2002 a Palestinian youth in his 20s walked into the crowded Caffit coffee house in Jerusalem and asked for a glass of water. This was nothing unusual as that particular part of town was a popular hangout for Palestinian teenagers many of whom frequented the café. What was unusual, however, was the fact that he was carrying a large black school bag, appeared nervous, and was sweating profusely.

An astute waiter, Shlomi Harel, became concerned by the youth's behavior, noticed a suspicious wire leading from the backpack, and took immediate action. Pushing the youth outside, Harel and a security guard who also worked in the building snatched the bomb from the assailant's hands, yanked the wire from the detonator, wrestled him to the ground, and held him until police could arrive. Their quick action averted what Police Chief Mickey Levy said would have been, "a major disaster."

Parting Thoughts

Terrorist attacks are, by definition, terrifying. It is easy to feel hopeless in the face of such danger yet it is also possible to hone your sense of awareness, identifying and avoiding peril before it becomes too late. Good situational awareness means having a solid understanding of time and place and how they relate to you, your family, friends, and others around you at any given moment. Any time you are near others, especially strangers, you must be vigilant. If you can sense danger before stumbling across it you have a much better chance of escaping unscathed.

While the odds of encountering a terrorist bomber are remote, a refined sense of awareness can be beneficial in any type of hazardous encounter, be it with a person, place, or thing. Violence almost never happens in a vacuum, after all. There is always some escalation process-even a really short one-that precedes it. Consequently there are always physiological, behavioral, environmental, or verbal indicators that you can spot to warn you of imminent peril. By constantly surveying and evaluating your environment, you achieve more control over what ultimately happens to you.

About the Author

Lawrence Kane is the author of Martial Arts Instruction: Applying Educational Theory and Communication Techniques in the Dojo (YMAA) and co-author of The Way of Kata: A Comprehensive Guide to Deciphering Martial Applications (YMAA, September 2005). Over the last 30 or so years, he has participated in a broad range of martial arts, from traditional Asian sports such as judo, arnis, kobudo, and karate to recreating medieval European combat with real armor and rattan (wood) weapons. He has taught medieval weapons forms since 1994 and Goju Ryu karate since 2002. He has also completed seminars in modern gun safety, marksmanship, handgun retention and knife combat techniques, and he has participated in slow-fire pistol and pin shooting competitions.

Since 1985 Lawrence has supervised employees who provide security and oversee fan safety during college and professional football games at a Pac-10 stadium. This job has given him a unique opportunity to appreciate violence in a myriad of forms. Along with his crew, he has witnessed, interceded in, and stopped or prevented hundreds of fights, experiencing all manner of aggressive behaviors as well as the escalation process that invariably precedes them. He has also worked closely with the campus police and state patrol officers who are assigned to the stadium and has had ample opportunities to examine their crowd control tactics and procedures.

Lawrence lives in Seattle, Washington. He can be contacted via e-mail at

Copyright © Lawrence Kane 2005

Article category: