Suspicious Signs — Recognizing Pre-Attack Indicators

In the past we have discussed the importance of pre-incident indicators with regard to detecting surveillance and other activities.  It’s also important to recognize when an incident such as an assault, robbery or other violent crime may be about to unfold.   Even crimes with a short or compressed operational cycle give off some pre-incident signs.

What constitutes suspicious behavior?  To determine that you need to have at least a basic understanding about what is “normal” in your environment (although arguably some types of behavior would be deemed suspicious in almost any setting).  With this foundation you can more readily determine if someone’s behavior in incongruous with the location.  People on the verge of committing a criminal act will invariably nervous – nervous about being caught, nervous about being hurt, etc.  Some may be able to hide this better than others but invariably there will be some leakage.  Most people know what behavior is normal browsing in a shop, sitting in a restaurant, riding in a subway car, etc. and this is even more true the more familiar with the environment you are.  Therefore your attention should key on people whose behavior is abnormal or incongruous with their environment.  This doesn’t mean people exhibiting “abnormal behavior” are automatically a threat but they are certainly worthy of your attention.

Beyond exhibiting abnormal behavior there are some specific actions that may indicate an attack is imminent.  Some have been mentioned before but are certainly worth mentioning again:

  • Signaling between people – in particular people who otherwise appear disconnected.  This signaling may be as subtle as a nod or gesture but often marks the “target verification stage”.  Target verification is the point where the assailants determine you are the correct target in a pre-planned attack or kidnapping or that you are a suitable or attractive target in a more opportunistic crime.
  • Correlation of movement – as with surveillance detection, persons that appear to be moving when you move, perhaps in parallel to you or perhaps perpendicular to cross your path.
  • Movement to interrupt your path – building on the bullet above, persons move toward you so that they will interrupt your path of movement.  This is often done on a diagonal such as someone crossing the street in a diagonal path towards you.
  • Focusing on you intently or inappropriately  – people (and in particular people who previously appeared to be disconnected) suddenly focusing on you intently or appearing to take an interest in you in a way that’s inappropriate given the circumstances.
  • Concealing hands/awkward movement – when hands are concealed in pockets or under clothing they may be concealing a weapon.  Also an arm held tight against one side of the body may be to secure a firearm in the waistband.  Likewise an awkward or unnatural gait may indicate a concealed weapon under clothing.
  • Pressing forearm against side – in line with the bullet above this may be a covert check to ensure that weapon, most likely a firearm, is in place.
  • Nervous glances/looking over their shoulder – this is often a last minute check by assailants to ensure exit routes are clear and that no third parties such as police are in the area and may interfere.  This type of movement often immediately precedes an attack.

You can only recognize these activities if you are paying attention so awareness is essential.  We have discussed previously times to heighten your awareness and that obviously applies here.  You should also watch for these behaviors in conjunction with each other or occurring in a group.  One by itself may not indicate a threat but if you notice several it may be a signal to prepare yourself for flight or fight.

The 21 Foot Rule and Over-reliance on Firearms

First off let me say there is a definite need for firearms in personal and third party security in certain environments and situations.  I firmly support the right to keep and bear arms and also recognize their utility in many different scenarios. That said some people put too much confidence in their ability to use their weapon to protect themselves against a myriad of threats.

This over-reliance can cause them to downplay or ignore skills like situational awareness, avoidance, de-escalation, less than lethal weapons and unarmed combatives.  There are good legal and ethical reasons for considering and training in skillsets across the use of force continuum.  Obviously using a firearm is not the best response to every situation.  Beyond that there are also good tactical reasons to use other options.

Consider the 21 foot rule.  Originally presented by Dennis Tueller, a sergeant in the Salt Lake City, Utah Police Department in an article called “How Close is Too Close?” published in SWAT Magazine in 1983, the 21 foot rule posits that a police officer with his or her weapon holstered will not be able to respond in time to stop an attacker armed with a knife attacking from 21 feet or less distance.  In other words someone with a knife can cover 21 feet (7 meters) of ground and attack the officer before he or she can draw their weapon and shoot the attacker.

In the years since the idea was first introduced it has been debated and some have argued the distance is actually more than 21 feet – proposing 30 feet or some other number.  We don’t need to dwell on this – suffice to say that there is a very real concern that a motivated assailant could attack an armed citizen / law enforcement officer / protective agent, etc. before they have an opportunity to use their weapon to defend themselves.  Additionally, it’s important to realize the attacker doesn’t need to have a knife or some other edged weapon.  An impact weapon or even bare hands can constitute a very significant threat if the attacker can rapidly close with and engage the victim.

For this reason its critical that persons involved in daily weapons carriage, either for personal protection or professional reasons practice awareness and have some level of skill at unarmed combatives – at least enough to defend against the initial assault and create a gap where they can safely draw their weapon.

Unfortunately too many people believe carrying a firearm in and of itself is a “magic bullet” – excuse the pun.  As we see illustrated in the 21 foot rule – having a firearm is no assurance if it can’t be deployed in time in the face of an oncoming threat.  It’s critical that defensive skills be more complete than just firearms skills for a variety of reasons.  Not the least of which is the tactical reality than you might not get your weapon into play in the face of a sudden threat.

Key Points of Personal Security


This presentation entitled Key Points of Personal Security  (click on the link above) covers some of the important elements needed to reduce risk.  Most of the elements mentione dhere are discussed in greater detail in the articles on this blog.

Situational Awareness and Being Present

We have frequently emphasized the importance of situational awareness as the key component of personal security whether at home or overseas.  We have discussed various levels of awareness and discussed when to raise our level of awareness such as during arrivals and departures, when entering known danger areas and so forth.  It’s also important to mention the importance of being present and at those key times when we need to raise our level of awareness we need to be acutely aware of what is going on Now.  Gavin de Becker (author of The Gift of Fear) discusses this fairly extensively in his book Just 2 Seconds which discusses the dynamics of attacks – in particular attacks on public figures.

While Just 2 Seconds is a book geared towards close protection specialists there are some very valuable take-aways about the dynamics of an attack and ways of detecting and responding to it that are useful across the spectrum of personal protection and security.  The need to be able to focus on the present is one of the most useful.

As we have said before – constant one hundred percent vigilance is exhausting and probably actually detrimental.  The important thing is to maintain a reasonable level of awareness at all times when in public areas and have the ability to ratchet it up when circumstances require it.  At those key times you should not be thinking about your plans for later that day, not thinking about what happened last night, not checking emails or text messages but rather be totally focused on your surroundings and in particular on the people in your surroundings.  There are several things (to include an conducting an internal narrative) you can do to assist in this process but one that de Becker recommends assessing people in the area and choosing your “best suspects” – i.e. those who are most likely to present a threat.  Of course most of the time – those “best suspects” will be completely harmless and innocent of any bad intentions. This will however force you to focus on other people in your environment and assess their behavior.  Notice I said “focus” and not “fixate” – you don’t want to linger too long on anyone individual but rather continually scan the area and come back to a person who may be exhibiting any anomalies or behavior that could be a concern.

Like any other activity this requires practice to make it a habit but consider employing it – especially at those key times when you may be most vulnerable to being the victim of a crime or some type of targeted violence.


Combat Sports, Traditional Martial Arts and Defense

While we generally limit our discussion of hard skills, as mentioned previously there are some subjects that need to be addressed and building on our discussion of combatives we are going to discuss the relationship between combat sports, traditional martial arts and functional self defense skills.

First off this is a contentious and controversial subject.  There is much misinterpretation, misinformation and differing opinions.  Hopefully we will be able to find a middle ground and give you some food for thought and some things to consider regarding physical self defense training.

In Considerations for Combatives we discussed some of the functional and effective elements of physical self defense to include: mindset, use of gross motor movements, tools such as palm strikes and hammer fists, realistic scenarios, etc.  Unfortunately the reality is this type of training is difficult to find and may not be available in many or most areas.  What is available most places can be generally grouped into two broad categories: combat sports and traditional martial arts.   We’ll look at each of these individually starting with combat sports

Combat sports comprise of activities such as boxing, kickboxing (Muay Thai and other variants such as Savate), Brazilian Jiujitsu, mixed martial arts and wrestling.  Judo can correctly be classified as both a traditional martial art and a combat sport but for our purposes we will group it with combat sports.  Combat sports offer some great benefits that can translate to self defense skills but they are after all sports and sometimes their applicability for self defense is grossly overstated by practitioners.  Perhaps the best way to look at it is by addressing the pros and cons:

Combat sport pros:

  • Practitioners apply their skills full contact in a live environment against a resisting opponent.  They learn very quickly what will and will not work – at least within the parameters of their sport.
  •  In training participants get hit, thrown, taken down, choked, etc. and get the opportunity to do this to someone else as well.  It provides an opportunity to learn to take punishment and keep going, something that is very important in a real physical confrontation.
  •  Some – though by no means all – of the techniques used in combat sports are transferable either directly or with minor modification – to a street scenario.

Combat sport cons:

  • Combat sports are sports with rules and competitions in these sports are a “mutual combat” situation where both participants are prepared and are willingly engaged which is very different from an assault on street.  There are also safety rules that do not exist in a violent confrontation.
  •  Combat sports are on-to-one contests between two unarmed opponents where as many real encounters will involve multiple opponents and weapons.  Sports do not require the combatants to focus on anyone but their opponent where as in a real situation there are more variables and situational awareness is key.
  • Some techniques used in combat sports such as closed-fist punching to the head, intentionally going to the ground and high kicks are usually not good options in an encounter on the street.
  • Combat sports competitions and sparring tend to emphasize a back-and-forth type of flow trading shots or looking for openings.  This is the opposite of the full-on, all-out aspect of a street confrontation and can breed bad habits.
  • Training is focused on an opponent applying the same skills or methodology as you (with the possible exception of MMA).

Traditional martial arts (TMA) encompass a wide variety of disciplines and almost any blanket statement will not be applicable to some of them.  With traditional martial arts in particular much depends on the instructor and his or her ability to tailor techniques and elements of the particular art to be street effective.  Traditional martial arts include most styles of karate, Japanese forms of jiu-jitsu, aikido and aikijutsu, various Chinese styles of kung fu, Indonesian and Malaysian arts such as silat and bersilat and many Filipino martial arts as well as many others. Suffice to say that many traditional martial arts were developed at another point in history where threats were different and many have changed or perhaps been diluted with the passage of time.

Again a very brief look at the pros and cons in a very general way (perhaps much more general than our look at combat sports due to the wide variety of systems that could be included in “traditional martial arts”):

TMA Pros:

  •  Many techniques in TMA were designed to cripple or kill without regard to the safety element found in combat sports.  If these aspects can be extracted they are very useful.
  •  Some TMA incorporate hard contact drills or full contact sparring that can inoculate practitioners to pain and provide mental conditioning much as combat sports can.
  •  Many TMA address issues such as multiple opponents or weapons – elements that are absent in combat sports.  However some TMA that do train this do not train in well – especially with regard to weapons.

TMA Cons:

  • Many TMA are taught by practicing against a compliant opponent and many emphasize a tool box of techniques that are either not effective or are simply not the best choice in a violent confrontation.
  •  Often a lot of time is spent on archaic or ritualistic activities that have little or no applicability to realistic self defense.  There are several respected instructors that still claim that forms or kata have utility but I have never been convinced of this.  The positives they cite can be better developed by doing shadow boxing or shadow fighting in a more dynamic, realistic way.
  •  There is often an environment of obedience or subservience where students are expected to accept the instructor’s teaching with blind faith.
  •  Emphasis on belt rankings, promotions and learning set curriculum often takes precedence over realistic training.

We have touched very briefly on some of the pros and cons of training in combat sports disciplines versus traditional martial arts when instruction in more realistic combative systems is not available or accessible.  This is a topic that could fill a book and as this is only a short thousand-word article we are forced to make many generalities that I am sure some readers will take issue with.  The goal is to give a person with little or no background in this subject and who is seeking training in physical self defense skills some framework with which to make a decision when the only options available where they live or work are combat sports and traditional martial arts.  For me – faced with that choice I would probably select a combat sport.  The important thing is to apply critical thinking and not accept things at face value.