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Swarming: How to defend against and utilize a common terrorist tactic

“Swarming” is to use multiple attackers to target either one adversary from multiple sides at once, or to attack multiple adversarial positions at separate locations simultaneously


Whether you are attacked by one, or swarmed by many, you must prevail.


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“Swarming” is to use multiple attackers to target either one adversary from multiple sides at once, or to attack multiple adversarial positions at separate locations simultaneously. When it works, swarming confuses an opponent and leads to fright, flight or submission. It is a tactic that is used for good and evil.

Swarming has been a tactic used by the military since long before Genghis Kahn’s Mongol Hordes swarmed across the Russian Steppes in the 13th Century.

In more recent history, U.S. Marines faced and defeated the tactic from Guadalcanal to Okinawa as Japanese soldiers launched wave after wave of banzai charges.

In 2008, terrorists used swarming tactics to inflict major casualties in Mumbai, India, where they hit the airport and hotels at the same time, creating chaos and carnage. On September 11, 2001, radical Islamic terrorists turned four commercial airliners into bombs, inflicting more casualties on this nation than the Japanese did on December 7, 1941.

Criminal swarms have swept into stores on hit and run retail thefts that have proved lucrative, while leaving store employees feeling stunned and helpless. Rioters can be seen using this tactic in an attempt to overwhelm police officers and loot businesses.

Advantages of swarming

A group of swarming compatriots with no training, a loose plan, inferior weaponry and a common purpose can often overcome a superior adversary. It has been used many times for good, when implemented as a last resort by unarmed potential victims of active shooters. These good citizens have time and again turned from victims into victors.

Law enforcement applications

SWAT and investigative teams have used focused-swarming in many tactical situations, by hitting multiple targets at once to take down related organized criminal enterprises such as drug dealers, gangs and even terrorists. These take downs are accomplished by highly trained teams, who have practiced the skills and rehearsed the movements necessary to achieve success.

A swarming tactic used heavily in corrections is called the Star Technique. When utilizing the Star Technique, a specially trained and equipped team of officers confront a problem subject and attempt to negotiate for cooperation. When this fails, on command they move as one to their pre-assigned target. One will control and protect the suspect’s head, and four people are assigned to control one limb each. The team of five make contact simultaneously, lift and set the suspect down – controlling him immediately and minimizing injury to all.

Less focused applications of swarming can be seen in law enforcement after high-speed pursuits. In these cases, many officers are on scene at the time the arrest is made. When these circumstances are unplanned and spontaneous, the swarming officers’ efforts can sometimes take on the appearance of ants on a cake.

It behooves officers to anticipate these inevitable scenarios and train to apply focused and defensible techniques, which can be dynamically applied.

Defeating swarm attacks

Success against swarm attacks used against law enforcement comes by first preparing officers to either prevent or defeat the swarm. Preparation consists of a career-long training effort to develop and maintain effective empty hand skills, crowd control tactics, and firearms skills. Boyd’s OODA Loop is a critical swarming countermeasure. Here’s a breakdown of how it applies here:

1. Observe
The quicker you observe and recognize a swarm developing, the better. In the case of terrorists, for example, it is best to uncover the plans for the swarm – as a result of human intelligence gathering efforts – before it takes place. Identify the threat by paying attention at all times, especially when policing a crowd.

2. Orient
Once you identify the swarm directed at you, you must orient yourself to avoid, resist or defeat it. If alone, that might mean to disengage immediately by the most direct route of retreat. For a surrounded group of officers, one option is to immediately form a Defensive Diamond.

3. Decide
The decision to fight might be conscious, or thrust upon you by the circumstances. If you must fight, identify which person presents the most imminent and dangerous threat and decide how to neutralize the threat they present first. Then act.

4. Act
The tactics you use will be more effective if you have trained for this moment. It is critical to be decisive, highly visible, effective and justified. The reason for a highly visible response is because an effective response to one swarm member may deter others. In other words, ignoring looters will encourage looting, while on the other hand arresting just one looter may cause the others to abandon their ill-gotten-gains and flee.

In the case of a physical attack, I have personally discovered that decisively, yet legally, taking the fight to the persons posing the most imminent threat has inspired others to back off.

The tactics I used in these cases were effective, trained and empty hand. Once again, I strongly suggest considering martial arts to prepare for a swarm of multiple attackers.

Prepare now

Whether you are attacked by one, or swarmed by many, you must prevail. The key to surviving the swarm physically, legally and emotionally is to always be the most prepared, yet honorable person in the struggle.

How prepared should you be?

As you face multiple attackers and you are about to pull the pin on your skills, you want to be so proficient with those skills that you can sympathetically repeat the words Col. Chesty Puller, who said of an enemy that once surrounded his beloved U.S. Marines, “Poor bastards.”

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.