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Police officers need to prepare to tactically resolve a mass hostage siege

By Lt. Andrew Esposito

The threat of an international terrorist attack against our country is not to be taken lightly by law enforcement professionals. In fact, I see it being taken very seriously in the New York Metropolitan area; agencies are meeting, communicating and taking proactive steps to counter potential terrorist efforts.

As professional police officers we are all aware of the threat. The training is out there to provide information and resources on how to deal with terrorism, whether it is domestic or foreign. In this article I would like to address one area that I feel we in law enforcement need to take action on immediately. The immediate employment of police officers to a terrorist attack as first responders is inevitable; I believe that the one thing that is not being addressed is what is going to happen to those first responding officers. We train our police officers in rapid deployment tactics which will serve them well against a violent act by a lone gunman, or even the likes of Harris and Klebold (Columbine shooters). But let’s face it, police officers employing rapid deployment tactics against a hardened target defended by a determined enemy with automatic weapons, interlocking fields of fire and hand grenades will not fare well. There is a high likelihood that the assault will be turned away, and at a bloody cost.

We often speak about the recent terrorist tactic of a mass hostage siege. This is when a group of terrorists take and hold some type of structure, stabilize the target area and hold a prolonged hostage event. Examples of this tactic are:

Beslan – 2004 a Platoon size terror element seized and held a school in the small town of Beslan, North Osetia (Russia). During a three-day mass hostage siege, 700 people were wounded and 338 killed, including 172 youngsters. .
Mumbai – 2008, a squad-size terror element conducts an amphibious raid on the city of Mumbai, India. Subjects utilized shoot and move tactics throughout several locations in the city to disorient the Indian response. The attackers worked their way into separate locations, took hostages and made their last stand.
Lahore – 3 March 2009, Pakistan, a squad sized terror element conducts an ambush on the Sri Lankan cricket team.
Lahore – 30 March 2009 Pakistan platoon sized terror element conducts an assault on Pakistani Police academy.

The above incidents were conducted as raids a military tactic in which speed, surprise and violence of action are used by a smaller force to harass, shock, and keep a larger force off balance. The goal of these types of terrorist attacks is to establish a foothold (assault), stabilize (delay for the purpose of barricading), and then hold out as long as possible (mass hostage siege) for media exposure. Usually, they end with a self initiated finale (body count) on their terms. The response in some of the aforementioned examples where as follows;

Beslan, final assault conducted by Russian special forces.
Mumbai, final assault conducted by Indian special forces.

The countries in which these attacks occurred, permit (and expect) their military to operate within their borders. We, on the other hand, follow the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (meaning “the power of the county”), which was passed following the civil war after the federal government used troops to uphold the law, or “occupy”, the south in an effort to stabilize the country. Due to this statue, which was passed over one hundred years ago, our country is now more vulnerable.

An attack by international terrorists on our soil is an act of war. Our military is prepared to act on such an attack, but unfortunately due to Posse Comitatus, their response will be slow, and too late. If the military is not allowed to properly prepare to conduct a tactical resolution to a mass hostage siege, then that mission is left to local law enforcement.

In order to tactically resolve a mass hostage siege on a target structure, in which a handful of terrorists are holding hostages, you would need to make the following assumptions:

You will need to out number your enemy at least two to one.
You will need to be able to assault from several attack positions.
Your assaulters will need to be well versed in the principles of fire and maneuver, moving forward and bringing the fight to the enemy.

In other words, they are not necessarily conducting a rehearsed hostage rescue (even though this is the mission); they are actually involved in an ever changing infantry battle. They will need to locate, close upon and destroy the enemy in order to save as many hostages as possible.

Are we ready for this? We talk about it. We assume that our first responders rapid deployment tactics will resolve, contain, or mitigate the terrorist attack. However, I say that we are not. Our brave first responders will be out gunned, funneled into interlocking fields of fire (kill zones), and repelled. Our SWAT teams will become fragmented and disorganized, unable to communicate properly enough between elements to mount a coordinated assault, and the situation will eventually stabilize, after enough cops die. We will then have to wait for federal resources or the Military to responded to hopefully resume the attack.

I believe SWAT as infantry is a solution to this. In effect, we will be training our SWAT officers to conduct infantry tactics that will enable them to mount a well organized attack against a fortified position. This is a concept that is being ignored, not due to a lack of concern, but, I believe due to a false misconception of confidence. Just imagine a rookie quarterback starting his first NFL game. He was the man last season in college but now the stakes are higher and the speed of the game just doubled. We all know there is no replacement for actual experience. That same quarterback we just discussed can, with actual game experience, get better. In order for us to get in the game we need to look at ourselves and what obstacles we need to overcome to be a viable solution.

First, let’s look at the average municipal SWAT Team of 12 to 16 members (that’s the equivalent of one infantry squad). If a small element (4 to 6) of terrorists were to take hostages, the 12 or 16 SWAT officers assaulting would only outnumber their adversaries by a margin of two to one. The terror attack on Beslan was a platoon strength unit, requiring approximately a company strength assault by Russian Special Forces. If we are to assume that our enemy will attempt to follow the Beslan model as closely as possible (due to its success), then the first obstacle is that there are not enough SWAT operators. I would suggest that to overcome this issue, there are several options.

First, share resources and train with neighboring teams, establishing SOP’s with them on infantry type tactics (assaulting to establish a foot hold, enveloping an enemy’s position and coordinating fire). Another option is supplementing a SWAT assault with other available resources; patrol officers, detectives, what ever it takes. If this is your only option, then these supplementing officers need to be familiar with the SOP’s and tactics that will be utilized to resolve the crisis.

Second, let’s look at SWAT tactics and experience. In order to resolve a hostage crisis, for the most part, SWAT teams rely on the situation stabilizing, allowing them to gather information, conduct rehearsals and then conduct an assault, if needed. This, as we well know, is the recipe that our adversaries in the terrorist attack want us to follow. So, I ask all the SWAT commanders or incident commanders “who is” making the call to assault? You get to the crisis site, the patrol officers have the site surrounded and the situation stabilized. You as the tactical commander turn to your chief and say, “Chief this is terrorist attack on our citizens and I believe the only way to resolve this and save any hostages is to assault the target as soon as possible.” How many incident commanders are going to make the call to start that operation right now? They might if they are aware of your teams’ training together with other teams for this type of attack and having a coordinated rehearsed solution, just as we have done for a criminal hostage taker.

Let’s look at SWAT experience in the realm of infantry tactics and assaults. I would venture to say that almost every team has some members with Military experience; some even with combat experience. This is a great benefit to have especially in the arena we are speaking about. But what we are really talking about, is tactics, SOP’s, command and control. How many teams are lucky enough to have members that served as platoon commanders / sergeants, or company commanders? Most police officers with military experience only served in the lower ranks and then, after completing their service honorably, left the military to become cops. Another question is how many also served as infantry men? And how long ago was it. We make these assumptions when we talk about our SWAT operator’s military experience. The solution to this is to turn to our brothers in the military and send our operators and SWAT commanders to Military schools that instruct infantry tactics and command.

Third, let’s look at our equipment and weapons. How many teams have automatic weapons, night vision, EOD, armored vehicles, or extended tactical operating equipment, and most importantly, hand grenades? SWAT was created and is still equipped to resolve civilian criminal crises. Most teams do not possess automatic weapons to help establish fire superiority over their enemy; most teams cannot outfit each operator with night vision to mount a stealth approach to attack positions. Most teams do not operate with EOD techs to mitigate IED’s encountered during an assault, and I don’t know of any team that has been authorized the ability to use explosives in offensive operations, let alone hand grenades. Let’s face it; if we are going to consider under taking infantry tactics, we have to have the tools. If we send our operators into an assault to locate and close with the enemy, they are going to have a hard time advancing once they move into hand grenade range. Hand grenades have been known to ruin a perfectly good attack. The solution to this is probably our most difficult. Police Officers are held accountable for every round we fire, or every piece of shrapnel we produce. Using automatic weapons and fragmentation is not in our tool box. There are alternatives such as using Police Snipers as a base of fire to suppress the enemy or creative tactics to assist in closing with the enemy.

We certainly live in troubled times. I realize the difficulty of the issue that I have proposed we all have to fight for training time, equipment, and support just to fulfill our primary mission as Law enforcement SWAT. I firmly believe the biggest obstacle we have to overcome after accepting the fact that there is a real threat of a mass hostage event happening within our country, is working together at all levels of law enforcement and with the military to train, plan and coordinate our response to such an attack.

Lt. Andrew Esposito is the Operational Commander for Rockland counties REACT (Rescue Entry and Counter Terrorism) team. He is a retired Gunnery Sergeant with 21 years of service in the United States Marines. He has held every specialty infantry occupation over the course of his career and has served in several combat and training operations abroad. He is a certified instructor in the following areas: Defensive tactics, firearms and the Cooper Institute law enforcement fitness trainer. He has served as the Chief Drill Instructor at the Rockland County Police Academy for several years and has been employed by the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department for 20 years.

The New York Tactical Officers Association (NYTOA) is a not for profit corporation established to promote training, professionalism and the exchange of information between members of law enforcement, tactical units and crisis negotiation teams within, and surrounding, New York State.