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3 Ways to Protect Yourself in Soft Target Attacks

Recent attacks across Africa and North Africa in 2015-2016 have clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of hotels – especially in developing countries – to low tech attacks.  While hotel security in higher risk locations has long focused on the potential threat from vehicle-borne improvised explosive (VBIED) attacks such as have occurred in Jakarta, Islamabad and numerous other locations it is now becoming very apparent that bad actors no longer need to have technical bomb-making skills to carry out an effective attack.  Recent attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast have demonstrated the effectiveness that a small number of militants – in some cases only two or three – with light weapons can have in wreaking death and destruction.


It’s not only hotels of course but other target- rich environments.  We have seen this in Mumbai in 2008, in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, the museum attack in Tunisia and numerous others.  It’s not only in developing countries too as was demonstrated in the horrific attacks in Paris in November 2015, although developing countries have increased vulnerabilities.  These vulnerabilities include frequently being in closer physical proximity to conflict zones and areas where the militants are based thereby increasing familiarity and support networks and easing logistical constraints and weaker capabilities in the host nation’s security forces.  In the Mumbai attacks, the Westgate Mall, the Radisson Hotel attack in Bamako and the Burkina Faso attack in particular we witnessed slow and poor response from local security forces.  Both Mumbai and Westgate went on for days before being resolved.

What should travelers do to reduce the risk when staying in hotels and visiting soft target locations like malls, restaurants, cafes, etc.?

  1. Be familiar or become familiar with the venue.  Know where the exits are located and how to get to them quickly if necessary.
  2. Be situationally aware.  Be aware of your surroundings and know what is going on.  Watch for changes in your environment.  Don’t look to rationalize or explain away unusual events.  It has been anecdotally reported that in one of the attacks, diners heard gunshots and left the table.  There was a lull in the firing and local staff at the hotel advised them everything was okay, stating that one of the security guards fired his weapon in the air to deter trespassers.  They returned to their meals and the attack resumed.
  3. Understand and practice basic active shooter response protocols which are very applicable in these situations.  “Run, Hide, Fight” or whatever terminology you prefer (Escape, Cover, Resist) is a very simple but useful way of looking at your response options.  In brief – if a situation is unfolding and you can safely get out of the affected area then act quickly and do it.  If you cannot safely escape then seek cover and/or concealment (ideally both) and shelter in place.  If neither of these options are available or if you are discovered in the location where you are sheltering your only option is to fight back aggressively and violently against your attacker(s).  While far from a perfect solution, at least it gives you a formula for action as opposed to freezing in place and becoming a victim.

Situational Awareness and the Danger of Hypervigilance

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I recently read an article by Patrice Bonnafoux entitled What Too much Situational Awareness Does to Your Brain( that raised some great points worth considering. While I don’t agree with everything in the article, it illustrates the danger of becoming hypervigilant when striving to be situationally aware.
Hypervigilance is defined as is “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion” (Wikipedia). Hypervigilance and paranoia are contradictory to good personal security and situational awareness. They are mentally exhausting and may cause the individual to miss true threat indicators in the environment.
Bonnafoux’s article raises some good points about what can go wrong when situational awareness is presently incorrectly or misinterpreted. It’s critical that situational awareness techniques be introduced and implemented correctly or they will be counterproductive.


Cooper’s Colors
The article addresses the use of Cooper’s Colors and I firmly believe the concept behind Cooper’s Colors is critical to situational awareness. In his book Principles of Personal Defense Cooper outlined four levels of mindset (excerpted in part from my book Safe Travel Abroad ):
White: Unaware and unprepared. In this condition you are unaware of your surroundings and unprepared to respond to a threat against you. Unfortunately many people walk around at this level every day.

Yellow: Relaxed alert. You are aware of what is going on around you and you have mentally recognized that a threat may appear and you may need to respond to it. You are not however in a hyper-vigilant state. This is a relaxed state that can be maintained for long periods of time without fatigue. This is the level you should be in most of the time, in particular whenever you are in public

Orange: Specific alert or heightened alert. You have identified a particular threat and have made the mental decision that you will act if the threat takes a certain action. This can also apply to entering a location or area where there is an increased threat that requires deliberate attention. This is not a relaxed state and cannot be effectively maintained for long periods of time.

Red: Condition Red is fight. This is pretty self-explanatory. You are in a personal combat situation or a survival/self-preservation mode.
Cooper’s Colors and variations of it have been adopted by numerous entities, instructors and so forth, sometimes with minor modifications. Some also use a fifth condition call Condition Black that refers to a breakdown of mental and physical performance due to being overwhelmed by a situation – for example moving from condition white to red as the result of an ambush attack.
You don’t want to be in Condition Black and Condition Red is largely situationally driven which means your primary focus should be on the other three colors or levels of awareness.
That also does not mean there are not gradations of each level. We don’t talk about light yellow, dark yellow, etc. but that does not mean there cannot be variations or gradations in each category. The color concept is only a guide or frame of reference.
In my opinion the key points to take away from the Cooper’s Colors concept are:
(1) Awareness levels are scalable.
(2) Condition Yellow is arguably the level we should all maintain most of the time.
(3) We will likely move back and forth between levels yellow and orange as we encounter different people and situations in our daily routine.
(4) There are some inherent dangers in Condition White. We should recognize Condition White and not use it when we are in public.


When to raise your level of awareness
Understanding where you are most likely to be attacked and knowing how to ratchet up your alertness level appropriately is a key component of personal protection — probably the key component.
You can’t walk around hyper-alert in condition orange all the time. You’ll be exhausted and at some point – probably pretty quickly – it will become counterproductive.
Whether you are an at-risk person who may be specifically target for attack, kidnapping or some other crime for whatever reason or whether you are – like most of us – more likely to be the victim of an opportunistic crime you should recognize that you are more vulnerable and the likelihood is greater at certain locations and at certain times.
I’ll exclude mentioning the more obvious places and times like late at night and in a bad neighborhood or secluded area — although of course these are places and times that call for heightened vigilance.
Here are some of the times when you should avoid distraction and focus on your environment:

  • Arrivals and departures: whether you are leaving or arriving your home, office, supermarket, gym, shopping mall, etc. you should take a moment to look around and observe the people and vehicles in the area and assess if anyone might present a threat to you. This is particularly true if you are entering or exiting a vehicle.
  • Boarding Mass Transportation: when stepping on to a subway car, bus or even an aircraft cabin you should look at your fellow travelers and assess which ones, if any might present a potential threat.
  • Areas where you are channelized or your options for maneuver or movements are restricted: These might be bridges, narrow roads with a blind curve, etc. Often referred to as chokepoints these are locations that are well suited for ambush-style attacks.
  • Identified Danger Areas: these are locations that have a past history of violent or criminal incidents occurring. In some overseas locations where civil unrest and rioting are practically the national pastime these can be focal points where crowds form or protests regularly occur.

The above list is far from exhaustive but should give you a good starting point.
When in these locations you should put away the Android, the iPhone and whatever other distractions away, stop compiling the shopping list or planning your weekend and focus on the environment around you – in particular people or things that might cause you harm.


Living in Condition Yellow
It’s totally possible to live in Condition Yellow and in fact it’s arguably the condition you should maintain when you are in a public place. Condition Yellow is relaxed awareness and should not be confused with hypervigilance.


The Driving Analogy
I have found one of the best ways to think about and explain situational awareness is to compare it to driving. It’s not an original idea but I have found it works pretty well. Most adults drive and many of us drive pretty much every day. When we go out on the road we are practicing situational awareness as it relates to our driving. For the most part you are in Condition Yellow. You are aware of what is going on around you, the position of other cars, whether the light is changing or not. You take this information in and adjust to it but it is not mentally exhausting and you can often carry on a conversation at the same time. A car pulls out in front of you suddenly – potential imminent danger – you go up to Condition Orange, perhaps take some evasive action to avoid and accident. The situation passes and you drop back to Condition Yellow. You can maintain this level for an extended period of time, operate effectively and not find yourself hypervigilant, paranoid or mentally exhausted.
Now apply the same mindset to your daily (non-driving) life and maybe consider criminal threats as well as road hazards when you are driving.
You leave your home – that’s a departure. You ratchet your awareness up to see what other people or vehicles are on the street. Nothing out of the ordinary, you continue on your way. You reach an isolated underpass that you need to pass on your route and you recognize it as a potential danger area and raise your alertness. There is a man standing near the entrance to the underpass. He is trying to look nonchalant but not doing anything or appearing to have any purpose there. You acknowledge his behavior as a potential threat, raise to Condition Orange and take a different route or some other action.


Condition Orange and Hypervigilance
Remaining in Condition Orange for an extended period of time can cause mental exhaustion. Again using the driving analogy this is similar to driving on an icy road or in a blizzard or a torrential rainstorm. Your visibility may be reduced, traction is poor and you need to give your full attention to driving your vehicle. You arrive at your destination alive but exhausted.
It’s very difficult to remain in Condition Orange for extended periods of time without having negative effects. Therefore it’s very important to assess your risk profile as accurately as possible and adjust your alertness level accordingly.


Its critical to remember that situational awareness is scalable based on your risk profile, the location you are in and what you are doing. People who are at-risk or operating in high risk environments need to be more vigilant that those who are less at risk (we discuss at risk persons here: and here:


Situational awareness is the cornerstone of good personal security. Spotting potential danger in advance increases your ability to avoid an incident or when unavoidable at least prepare for it. Even in a situation like the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California it may help you detect a problem seconds earlier giving you a better chance to seek cover or escape the area.

Paris, Bamako and the Value of Active Shooter Training


The recent terrible events in Paris and Bamako illustrate the importance of active shooter awareness and response training for the average traveler. In the US active shooter training is frequently presented in the context of a workplace violence incident. This is just one possible scenario however. Even within the US there is a good chance if you encounter an active shooter it may occur outside the workplace in some other republic space like a shopping mall.

While Paris is not thought of as a high risk destination is has been the site of several notable terrorist attacks recently the Charlie Hebdo attack and the multiple target attacks of 13 November 2015. In these events as in the Mumbai attacks, the Nairobi Westgate Mall and the attack on the Radisson Hotel in Bamako there is an increasing shift by terrorists away from using explosive devices to team attacks using small arms and basic tactics. This has proven very effective for terrorist groups as the attacks are relatively low tech, can produce high casualty counts and can continue for a sustained period of time, especially in locations where law enforcement and security forces are less capable.

Therefore it’s important for travelers to understand and be able to implement active shooter response methods.

The basic model for active shooter response is the “Run-Hide-Fight” protocol. This is described in this video produced by the City of Houston:



We also discussed this here back in October 2012:

Additional resources are available from the US Department of Homeland Security and can be found here:

Reviewing and understanding these basic concepts can be the difference between living and dying in a violent event. While there are no ironclad rules that will keep you safe it’s important to have a framework and options for response should you find yourself in the middle of one of these events.

Review – Left of Bang


If you are looking for a resource to improve your ability to be aware of your environment and identity threats before an attack occurs then look no further than Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley.
While there are other books that discuss reading body language and detecting potential threats none really address it as comprehensively and in such a user-friendly, applicable way. In my opinion this is the definitive work on situational awareness, yet it also readily complements other books like Gavin De Becker’s Just 2 Seconds (which we will review separately in the future).

The material in Left of Bang is taken from the US Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program. The Marine Corps implemented the Combat Hunter Program to better prepare Marines for counterinsurgency environments like those found in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the counterinsurgency environment the enemy hides among the civilian population, which presents a real challenge for warfighters. The material used in the combat profiling portion of Combat Hunter is also incredibly useful for the average person in terms of their personal security.

The term left of bang refers to the time before a violent incident. If you are looking at a timeline and “bang” is the attack, the IED detonating, the ambush, the kidnapping or whatever, the left side is the time preceding the incident. Right of bang is the time following the incident, the reaction, the response and so forth. While it’s important to be ready to deal with the incident and its aftermath, if you can deal effectively with the time before the incident you may be able to prevent the incident from occurring or at least remove yourself from the scene before the incident occurs. Getting “left of bang” means being ahead of the threat, seeing it coming and recognizing it and taking the appropriate action, this book gives you tools to do that.

In the book you will learn about baselines and anomalies, the six domains of profiling, the combat rule of three and how to make decisions based on your observations and make them quickly. I have not found this level of detail or techniques that are as useful anywhere else. The book in available in paperback and e-book version through Amazon:

I also had the great opportunity to take a tactical analysis training class with Patrick Van Horne prior to the book being published and found that to be incredibly insightful as well. Van Horne’s company CP Journal (Combat Profiling Journal) now also provides an online training course now too. More information about CP Journal and their programs can be found here:


Resources You Might Like – Staying Safe – a blog by Christopher Pendas

In the coming weeks Protective Concepts will highlight various resources that may be of interest to readers and will also do some additional book reviews.

If you find the articles on Protective Concepts interesting and helpful you will enjoy the Staying Safe blog by Christopher Pendas. Christopher takes a proactive approach to personal protection and self defense that provides the reader useful tools and ideas that can be implemented immediately. His approach to developing and enhancing situational awareness goes well beyond the usual prompts to pay attention to your surroundings that are given by so many instructors without really explaining how. In particular he makes a good use of videos to illustrate preincident indicators and other aspects in the context of a real world situation.

The philosophy and approach outlined on the Staying Safe blog complements our approach at Protective Concepts and is highly recommended. The blog can be found here: and Christopher also has a Facebook page here:

When Avoidance Fails

When looking at personal security we constantly preach the importance of awareness, avoidance and prevention over reaction or physical response. The last article discussed the limitations of physical self defense and the importance of avoiding a situation when these types of skills might come into play.
While awareness and avoidance are the best and most proactive approach, we have to recognize that there may be times when they fail us. Maybe despite our best efforts we are still caught unawares or maybe do to good planning by our attackers or physical conditions we are not able to detect preincident indicators.
If we find ourselves in a situation where we need to defend ourselves what are the best methods to use? While Protective Concepts generally focuses on soft skills, we would be remiss not to consider what to do if preventive measures fail.
There is so much about physical self defense that is misguided or just wrong that it might be useful to look at some concepts of effective physical self defense that hopefully will assist the reader in selecting training or if already training evaluate what they are doing and whether they need to augment or adapt it. This is not a “my style/system is better than yours debate” – which is all too common when this subject comes up. Rather it is a high level discussion of principles and concepts to consider.

  • Gross motor movements: Techniques should be practiced which can be employed using only gross motor skills. Technical, fine motor techniques that may work in controlled training are not likely to work in a high stress, adrenaline – fueled event
  • Use high probability techniques and tools: Keeping with the theme of gross motor movements, techniques should also have a high probability of success while limiting vulnerability. This means having a core of tools that will work in multiple situations, are difficult to defend against and do not leave you too exposed.
  • Soft tissue targets: Attacks should target the eyes and throat and in some cases when accessible the groin. A strike to the eyes will likely cause a flinch response at the very least and create an opening for you. This does not mean you should seek pinpoint targets as this is unrealistic in a dynamic situation.
  • Train against resisting opponents: While it may be necessary to learn fundamentals by practicing in a more controlled way – as soon as possible training should be against a dynamic, resisting partner. Training partners should conduct realistic attacks to allow you to pressure test your skills.
  • Add emotional content: Role playing and introduction of realistic emotional content such as cursing, insults and aggressive body contact help replicate the feelings created in a real situation.
  • Use of preemptive striking: Train to gauge when and how to strike preemptively. There are legal and ethical as well as tactical considerations to consider but realistically striking first, when appropriate, may be the difference between success and failure and even life or death. Too many self defense programs base everything in reacting to an assailant’s attack. Many if not most times this is too late, especially against a hardened, experienced attacker.
  • Use of distraction techniques: Whether throwing hot coffee in the eyes, feigning illness or using a verbal pattern disruption – distraction techniques can provide the opening needed to launch a preemptive strike.
  • Training against multiple opponents: It’s important to recognize that in a real situation there are likely to be multiple assailants and they may be armed. This should be reflected in training scenarios.
  • Use of improvised weapons: Training should include identification of improvised weapons in your environment and their use. Improvised weapons usually fall into three categories: impact, edged and flexible although this can be expanded to include projectiles and sprays. Improvised weapons should be items you can realistically use with a minimum of training and practice. Flexible weapons as an example can be difficult to master. Conversely a palm stick or kubotan type weapon such as a pocket flashlight or pen can be employed using the same movements and body mechanics that you would use for striking with a hammer fist in empty hand combat. This allows for greater transferability and less training time.

Unfortunately good training in realistic combatives can often be difficult to find. For a variety of reasons this type of training often doesn’t translate well to the commercial environment. For that reason you may need to seek out informal groups the train in garages, basements or parks or train in a combat sport or traditional martial art and augment your training with the principles discussed here.

As always – avoidance and prevention are best – but should they fail be prepared by training as realistically as possible.