Active terrorist response: Tactical considerations for SWAT teams

The Boston bombers taught the international terrorist audience an important lesson: American law enforcement will not stand for active terrorism in our cities

Tactical teams seeking their terrorist prey in the greater Boston area did so in great numbers — numbers that would make military commanders in Afghanistan envious. Video footage showed the American law enforcement warrior looking for a fight. 

Citizens cheered as the second terrorist was captured, jubilation spread across the country. We American Law Men were especially proud as our brothers in the Boston area took the fight to the terrorist. These men and women are true American Patriots — a testament to the “Warrior Spirit” in law enforcement — as tactical teams and uniformed officers brought swift justice and victory. 

As we bask in pride and bury our heroes, the terrorist leadership overseas is probably viewing the Boston incident as a major victory along the lines of 9/11. Terrorist planners witnessed the “success” of the small-cell terrorist group in America, and they are planning and training for the next battle as you read this article. 

There is no doubt in my mind that these terrorists gained some valuable intelligence that will be used against us in the future. The terrorist leadership watched the events in Boston unfold on live TV and you can bet they took copious notes on what tactics worked, soft targets and what to avoid next time.  

What can tactical teams do to prepare another such incident? 

Necessary Training
Prepare your SWAT team to train for “active-terrorist incidents.” Many trainers over the years have been pleading for tactical thinkers to keep a broad mindset when planning tactical response to what I call the active terrorist incident. 

The typical active-shooter incident involves one or two gunmen who stay isolated in their stronghold and don’t move within a neighborhood or city. They are most often neutralized by first responders. 

Research conducted by Texas State University and the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) group indicates that when an active-shooter incident is still “ongoing” as police arrive, first responders engage and neutralize the active shooter threat with deadly force in 56 percent of those incidents. 

Their research also indicates that the active shooters stopped their violent onslaught in 49 percent of the incidents before law enforcement arrived. The event concluded by the shooter killing himself in 49 percent of those active shooter incidents. 

As we all know, active shooter incidents are typically a patrol response (in the initial stages) and these incidents typically are concluded within minutes of the start. That has been the active shooter model for some time. 

An “active-terrorist incident” is much like combat for military units. The tactical threat can be numerous, well trained, and well planned. You should anticipate that the battle won’t be isolated to one position or location. 

The enemy won’t have one weapon system. Assume they will have the tactical advantage when it comes to weapons and explosives. The terrorist’s objective will be to create chaos and carnage over an extended period of time for maximum effect and exposure.   

As you witnessed in Boston, the active-terrorist incident is fluid, dynamic, and much more lethal than the typical active shooter incident. Boston proved that tactical teams need to be well trained in small squad military tactics to battle small cell terrorist units in locations that are soft targets like sporting events, malls, and schools.  

Here are some the tactical problems SWAT teams will encounter when dealing with active-terrorist incidents.

1.)    The terrorist will be well armed.
2.)    They may have body armor.
3.)    Explosives and IEDs are common.
4.)    Planning and training will be extensive.
5.)    They will know the target locations better than most responding officers. 
6.)    Terrorists fight like soldiers and not common criminals. 
7.)    Terrorists will blend in with landscape.
8.)    Constitutional rights of our citizens.
9.)    Search and seizure laws and regulations.  
10.)    Terrorists will engage law enforcement in open combat preferably in populated areas.
11.)    Unity of Command will be a challenge.
12.)    Communications with assisting tactical teams may be difficult for smaller agencies.
13.)    Tactical teams won’t have enough medics available to triage everybody.

Small-cell terrorist groups are not the same as your typical static barricaded gunmen or suicidal subject. This enemy combatant is ready to fight law enforcement with rifles, explosives, and military tactics learned in the sandbox against our military comrades. 

Can you say with great confidence that your tactical team is prepared to conduct a combat operation in an American city, subdivision, mall, or hotel? Can your tactical commanders conduct combat operations if the terrorist strikes all of these locations at once? 

Tactical commanders must prepare tactical teams for the most extreme combat environments in the most unthinkable locations. 
Progressive tactical teams will train in small-squad infantry tactics such as wedges, columns and bounding over watch. They should also understand and train to use tactical options such as the pincer, the hammer and anvil, as well as swarming tactics.

All of the small-squad tactics (and larger maneuvers) can be utilized in large open areas such as major cities and suburbs and even smaller areas like school hallways and shopping malls. Get creative with your training and tailor these tactics to your resources and capabilities. 

Too often I witness tactical teams still walking in a tight linear stack like a row of ducks crossing the highway. If you witness a tactical team use this formation every time they have to move, this is a statement about their tactics and leadership. 

Tactical movements must provide security and immediate threat suppression which is not attainable with that linear stack which teams so often use.  

Necessary Equipment
Equipping tactical officers is just as important as the tactics we deploy. I am still astonished by the number of tactical teams that don’t have or use night vision optics. Night vision is a critical tactical advantage allowing you to gain control of the dark. If you own the night you rule your adversary. Don’t give the terrorist combatant that significant advantage when it’s so easy to equip your operators with night vision.

The scene in Boston speaks for itself. Every tactical team should carry an individual first aid kit and have the training to use it. Many teams will have one or two TEMS operators — which is great — but one or two guys can’t triage 100 people very effectively. If you want to save lives, get the training and equipment needed for combat casualty care.

We have only discussed some of the problems associated with “active terrorism response” for tactical teams and we will discuss tactical options in the near future. Tactical Commanders and Team Leaders please push forward and prepare your teams for urban combat and “active terrorism response.” 

Stay safe.
Sgt. Glenn French

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