Surviving a Terror Attack

by Bryan Mennie

Originally published in Gun Africa on 23 February 2015.

I am sure that everyone who has a passing interest in current events is aware that on the 7th of January 2015 two brothers walked down a street in Paris, into the offices of a magazine and killed 12 people, wounding another 11. The two brothers armed with AK47’s which they obtained despite the fact that France has incredibly strict gun laws which require background checks as stringent as those used by the US Secret Service to vet White house employee’s.

Initially the two attackers had gone to the archive building for the Charlie Hebdo magazine, but upon realizing their mistake, took a member of the magazines staff and her young child hostage forcing her to open the code control door of the magazine offices itself. Upon entering the complex they shot and killed a man who was sitting at the visitor’s reception desk. They then walked up a stairway to the second floor office area where two more victims were shot, both of them hiding at their desks. The terrorists then moved to a third office where 15 staff members had gathered, convinced that the sounds of the AK47’s were firecrackers thrown by a prankster, over a period of 5 minutes they systematically executed 8 of them before leaving. The extended time period taken showed how confident they were with the absolute compliance of their victims. They then fairly calmly exited the building and whilst moving to their getaway vehicle shot and killed an unarmed police officer who confronted them. This disgusting act was caught on a mobile phone video camera, ironically in almost a perfect firing position.

Thereafter followed a well televised search, pursuit, barricaded siege and termination operation by French Special Forces. Additionally another attacker targeted a kosher supermarket resulting in a further siege and immediate action release by French police when hostages were killed.

These attacks were as simple as a takeover style armed robbery in their application. Indeed they differed only in terms of motivation from many armed robberies which occur fairly frequently in South Africa.

Now this event has raised some very real and much needed debate. I would like to pursue some of those issues.

Why did it happened and what could have been done differently?

So what happened? Firstly let me put this out here, if anyone thinks that the attack on the magazine was due solely to their publishing of a cartoon satirizing religion, then they are sorely mistaken. The attack that took place at the magazine was purely a convenience factor for the two brothers. If the magazine’s offices were better secured, as indeed they should have been given the threats and the previous bombing, then I can almost guarantee you that they would have targeted a different location. If it was known that the staff were all armed, then the terrorists would likely have decided that the chances of them completing their massacre were far slimmer and the media impact far less than they would have liked.

However, this wasn’t the case. The staff at Charlie Hebdo relied upon gun laws and electronic locks to protect them, neither of which could.

The two brothers followed the already well established pattern of extremist attacks in a large urban centre with maximum public impact being their main target selection criteria.
In 2014 and 2015 to date, 32 attacks occurred which have been confirmed as initiated by religious extremist terror groups. Only 4 of those were explosive attacks where the attackers were not present when the effect was created.

So why am I concerning myself with the motivation of the attack? Because the motivation is the goal. The goal of course is to cause societal change through terror. Using the media hype created by the attacks and especially when attacks occur in a location not known to be specifically targeted. This means that no major urban centre from Los Angeles to Lahore can ever truly consider themselves as exempt from such attacks. Such attacks truly could happen in any major urban centre.

South Africa forms a part of the global community. We are a recognized tourist and business destination. There are significant operational factors present which could support such an operation, and indeed, if anyone thinks that we are exempt due to political policy or the fact that we may or may not serve as a transit point, has failed to recognize that it’s not about politics, or even the relationship a government may have with another organization.

The new model for terrorism

Engaging targets where the terrorist is based or lives. A place where he is part of the community and knows the lay of the land. Where he has had time to pick out the soft civilian targets.

Aside from the fact that such attacks could happen here, in practicality the major difference between a terrorist attack and a criminal attack, is that criminals are somewhat mitigated by the consequence of their own actions TO A POINT. This serves to temper what they are prepared to do. A criminal wants to get in, get what he wants and leave.

The amount of violence that they will be prepared to engage with is determined by their timeline and their willingness to obtain the goal. With attacks that fall into the realm of either terrorist inspired assaults or incidences perpetrated by mentally ill people, that threshold is inevitably far lower, the violence is the goal.

Why is it important that we understand the motivation? Because the general messaging that government organizations put out as guidance to all of us about what we should do, should we become trapped into such an attack? Do we run, hide or comply? In my opinion this is simply the worst type of advice that can be given. If I am faced with an armed robbery and I resist them sufficiently, then I have impinged the robbers’ timeline to the extent where it is likely that they will fail to press home their attack, and as their motivation is obtaining something, will likely disengage.

In the military construct, I would have taken the initiative and imposed friction upon their plans, in other words, I have thrown a spanner in the works.

When faced with a spree shooter, be it terrorism or mental illness, we can look to the same concepts. No action by a human is truly unplanned, indeed even in the realms of mental illness the planning and action cycle is still actively being engaged by the perpetrator. We as the people caught up in the events are of course not privy to how the individual threatening us sees that end goal which he or she is pursuing.

We have to either remove ourselves from the environment, or if that proves impossible, then provide sufficient friction upon the subject for help to arrive or for the subject to divert from his or her planned course of action. Once the subject is forced to rewrite their playbook on the fly, the quality of their action will deteriorate.

Dr. Pete Blair, director of research for the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Centre (ALERRT) and an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas State University seems to agree with me. His study examined more than 100 shootings between 2000 and 2012, investigating factors such as the average response time of law enforcement and the outcomes based on the actions taken by civilians at the scene.

Blair said, “Fewer people were killed or injured in the events that ended before police showed up at the scene, either because civilians took action, or because the shooter spontaneously stopped or committed suicide.”

The deterioration of their actions provides the opportunity for those willing to take it. But of course all of these are concepts and principles, how would they be applied?

Make a decision

Well I cannot answer what you should do, I can merely say what I would do based on my context and my principles. I absolutely believe that we as law abiding citizens need to stand up for the law. We owe it to ourselves, our community and indeed our children to take a stand against violent criminals and protect ourselves and others.

I don’t believe that the reasonable man is one that should cower down whilst around him people are killed and he had the capability of doing something but didn’t. Yes I do understand that there are practical limitations. If I am with my own children and I can get them to safety, then yes, I need to do that. Nor does it mean I go around looking for a fight to live out any hero complex which might be unjustly ascribed to me, but if the bell tolls then I believe we need to be human enough to answer it. We need to acknowledge that if we want to make sweeping statements such as “we are Charlie” then we have to make readiness for the action of standing up for Charlie as well. I would certainly wish to use the example that Charl Van Wyk brought to us when he stood firm and tall for all of those in St James church on the 25th of July 1993 forcing the attackers to flee and saving hundreds of lives.

This concept serves to underscore the duty all of us have of standing up for that which we believe in. We need to realize that laws cannot defend society from bad people. They are merely words describing concepts written on paper. They are the concepts which need defending by those of us who cherish society, not the other way around.

Use your environment

If the Charlie Hebdo building was in South Africa and I was one of those employee’s I would absolutely have found a position on higher elevation if possible, or behind solid cover to engage the terrorists. Know your environment, especially your office. Walk around and know the escape and evacuation routes. Know what makes for hard cover and where concealment is. Know how to get to the roof or the parking lot. Get to know the neighbours and understand your environment.

Know the time lines

Recognizing that they need to accomplish their goal within the parameters of police response time and response procedures, I would certainly feel that time is on my side. Get to know the area you work in. Where is the closest security, police, fire or medical support? What are their capabilities? Get to know the individuals if possible. Be aware of how and when help will arrive.


If that attack had happened in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg or Pretoria, I would have hoped that should one of my fellow gun owners be in the position of the person who filmed the police officer being shot, that they would have engaged the terrorist, either terminating that threat right there, or delaying the terrorist until police reinforcements arrived. Don’t be shocked into submissiveness. Make a decision and act upon it.

Don’t be stupid

If, and this is a fairly important if, I came upon the situation once the police were there, I would have left it to them to resolve it. Do not add confusion to a situation that the police are trying to resolve by being a hothead. You are an unknown factor to them and speaking from my time as a full time police officer, if I was in a fight for my life with armed robbers and some Joe whom I had never seen before suddenly pulls out his pistol, well then Joe might be getting three in the centre mass!

Firepower is great. Willpower is everything

Is it that simple? Yes it is, you do not need to be a member of the Special Task Force or indeed any highly skilled individual to defend yourself. You need to make a decision and act. You need to have the willpower to fight back and the determination to know that you are the one going home, not the criminal who wants to harm you.
Now of course, aside from the will to never back down and prevail the training and having your firearm with you are of course fairly helpful, but never look past the fact that criminals, terrorists and the mentally unstable are not immortal, nor are they endowed with super powers. They have the same frailties that you or I do and we should never back away because we were simply too scared of them!

Drill – Shooting range

Here is a cool drill to practice.

Start sitting at a table, with your pistol holstered in your normal everyday carry rig. Have three standard IDPA targets set up at 3 meters from the table, with 1 meter between each target. Number the targets one to three. Take a deck of standard playing cards and shuffle them well. Place the deck face down onto the table. Pick up one card, if it is an even number value, you shoot the nr 2 target with 3 rounds to COM. If it is an odd number value, you shoot the nr 1 and 3 targets with two rounds each. If you turn a jack, queen or king, then you engage all three targets with 1 round each to COM. An ace requires a single headshot to target 2.

This drill helps create the movement required from your upper body whilst transitioning before targets and applies the requirement to make decisions.

Bryan is a former police officer and following a stint conducting protective work in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and the Sudan, he joined the corporate world as an incident management specialist. 

2 thoughts on “Surviving a Terror Attack

  1. How safe do French people free in a Gun Free Country?
    Do they feel safer with army and military running around with Automatic rifles?
    What happened to the High security alert after Je suis Charlie attack?
    What happened to the high security after 3 men disarmed one person on a train (bare handed) after Je suis Charlie?
    How safe were the president with his body guards at the soccer stadium?

    Will there be more of the same in the future?
    The terrorists promised that there will be more.

    So where is the lunacy?
    Allowing only criminals and the police and military to carry arms?
    The army and police cant be all over the place 24hours 365days.
    Expecting police and army to look after each and every person to make them safe from terror attacks is sheer lunacy.

    This was an attack in a Gun Free country. Two attacks in one year with terrorists promising more.

    Could armed civilians have prevented the massacre?
    But a few armed civilians could have killed the terrorists.
    And that would have saved at least some lives.
    The terrorists had to reload, and reload, and reload, until their ammunition ran out.
    And the terrorists died at their own hands.
    There was nothing for the Police to do but comfort the survivors and arrange for the victims to be taken away.


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