Terrorism: Business Continuity, Behaviour and Barriers
Written by Peter Power   

Peter Power considers how recent attacks have altered views on terrorism and considers the role that BCM can play in countering the threat to life it poses


In the closing months of 2015, two particular acts of terror in different western countries had an important effect on the international and domestic threat landscape. BC practitioners working within the sphere of organisational resilience should be aware that the consequences of these events will probably impact on their responsibilities. The following article comments on the prevailing threat background, current ideas on response, notes on situational awareness and concludes with some lessons for all of us with a responsibility for BC.

The change face of terror

On 13 November 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris, leaving 130 dead and 368 wounded (similar to the attack in Mumbai in 2008). None of the victims were personally known to the attackers. Seven of the perpetrators also died during the deadliest terrorist assault within the EU since the Madrid train bombings in 2004. France had been on high alert since the January 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 17 people.

On 2 December 2015, a married couple living in California, shot and killed 14 people at an office party in San Bernardino and injured 22 more. Many of the dead were personally known to at least one of the attackers who was a co-worker in the same office. The perpetrators also left three explosive devices connected to one another at the scene in the hope that casualties would be even higher after the initial shooting.

It is particularly worrying that the terrorists behind the Paris attacks combined an element of substantial planning (large public targets, substantial weaponry and a suicidal endgame) with the unpredictability of a marauding assault, meaning that we now have in Europe gun attacks, marauding or focused, as an enduring security challenge, rather than just a random one-off event.

In the case of the San Bernardino shooting, what appeared to be yet another active shooter incident in America (US 2015 – 353 shootings of more than one person, 62 shootings at schools, 12,223 people killed in gun incidents, 24,722 people injured in gun incidents) turned out to be a terrorist attack that has now changed how such events are categorised in that country.

In the US, almost 100% of active shooters are male, just over half occur in office environments and in roughly 80% of such incidents there is a connection between the shooter and at least one of the victims (family, academic, professional etc.). Syed Farook was known at work to occasionally use anti-Jewish rhetoric and with the benefit of hindsight, exhibited some characteristics of a potential active shooter, noting that his profile on a dating website called iMilap includes ‘reading religious books’ and ‘hanging out in back yard doing target practice’. But it was the involvement of his wife and fellow assassin, Tashfeen Malik, who changed things.

According to a relative in Pakistan “she started taking part  in religious activities and also started asking women in the family and the locality to become good Muslims”. She was also the first to pull the trigger when the couple shot her husband’s work colleagues and reportedly swore allegiance to the leader of so called IS on Facebook, the day before the murders. Moreover, the equipment used by the pair (homemade pipe bombs, military vests and heavy calibre weapons), was similar to IS terrorist attacks elsewhere. As a result, it is now difficult to make reasonable distinctions between an active shooter and a terrorist to help predict and deter such separate types of attack and their impact in the work environment, especially when the threat level in the UK for example, remains high.

Some current ideas on response

At the time of writing this article the official UK terrorist threat level is ‘severe’, meaning an attack is thought to be ‘highly likely’. Scotland Yard say there have been at least six attempts to carry out an attack of some sort in 2015 where arrests for suspected terrorist offences are running at an average of one a day. The UK has been warned.

In which case, what is the current advice in tackling this type of menace and what in particular should a BC practitioner be thinking? I have outlined here the difference between the US and UK, plus an idea from Paris post November 2015 and what at least one of our own BC clients is already doing.

In the UK the advice when confronted by an active shooter is ‘Run, Hide, Tell’. Run, if you can, if you can’t run, hide and then, when you can, tell the police what’s happening so they can get help there quickly. UK Government advice (www.npcc.police.uk/staysafe) also includes the sentence “if someone is in immediate danger and their life is being threatened we would never criticise their actions if instinct takes over and they feel the need to fight back”. A somewhat British understatement in the extreme drama of an active shooter, compared to advice from other countries which, in some cases, have more experience than the UK when it comes to such atrocities.

In the US and some other countries, the advice is ‘Run, Hide, Attack’. In short, fight before tell, unlike the UK, although suggestions on stacking chairs/tables as barriers in a hopefully safe room are common to each (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VcSwejU2D0.).  The American advice is the result of analysis of 160 active shooter events which showed that in 21 cases unarmed civilians managed to overpower a gunman. However, in most UK offices, there is seldom a pair of scissors or blunt object at hand to use against the assailant, since fighting an armed attacker has to be with considerable/deadly force. Also, most office workers simply would not think this way, but they would use a phone if possible (noting it should be switched to silent to avoid giving a hiding position away). Yet, on the other hand, some heroic people have suddenly done extraordinary things, quite unexpectedly, when faced with a real life or death situation. To tell or to fight is therefore debatable. So what do the French now advise?

In Paris you are now likely to see a poster in many public places (e.g. shopping centres, museums, stadia) which illustrates how to respond to a terrorist attack (www.gouvernement.fr/reagir-attaque-terroriste). Modelled on the ‘in the event of emergency’ cards for airline passengers, the poster suggests first fleeing, then hiding and then raising the alarm. One picture, on helping fellow victims, even shows a man pulling up a woman who is dangling from a window ledge, recalling an incident that was caught on CCTV in November. Useful to know, but what should an enterprising BC practitioner now be thinking of in terms of actual planning in advance?

One of our UK clients (also with a responsibility for security) has already enacted some logical steps for the various offices that he is responsible for. These include:

  • Restrict access to building areas;
  • Immediately ground all lifts – without resorting to setting off fire alarms;
  • Ensure you are able to quickly communicate with everyone in the building. This includes pre-recorded (or at least prepared) messages;
  • Reduce people becoming greater targets for an active shooter in the reception and/or ground floor where an attacker might use a previously seen tactic of breaking the fire alarm glass and thereby triggering an unnecessary evacuation. This means putting ground floor break glass on ‘double-knock’ where an initial alarm is effectively silent for a brief while, allowing a double check and cancel a false call if confirmed; and
  • Organise a rapid assessment and decision making framework where directions can be quickly disseminated.
  • Organise a rapid assessment and decision making framework where directions can be quickly disseminated.

The last point about assessing, deciding and disseminating has a direct link to one of the key response ingredients to this type of scenario and indeed, all types of crises – situational awareness.

Situational Awareness

BS 11200 (Crisis Management) explains in some detail the essence of situational awareness which is to try and understand:

  • What is going on
  • What the impacts might be
  • The degree of uncertainty
  • The level of possible/probable containment
  • What exacerbating issues might exist
  • What might happen next

However, getting answers to these questions is inherently difficult in crisis scenarios because:

  • Many things are probably happening simultaneously
  • The situation can change rapidly
  • Priorities alter
  • Different interpretations of cause and effect might be equally plausible
  • Information might not move freely
  • Technical knowledge might be required to interpret certain information
  • Terminology might not be commonly understood
  • Some pieces of information might deliberately be withheld
  • from others for whatever reason
  • The possible spread of impacts is almost certainly going to be unclear

It should be noted that for most organisations the ability to create shared situational awareness in a crisis cannot be assumed on the basis of normal operations that function at a routine or ‘slow time’ tempo (www.bsigroup.com). In any crisis, a ‘quick time’ decision-making structure should  be applied (which is one reason why running at least one scenario exercise in advance is strongly advised).

Lessons for BC practitioners

Responding to these threats requires more than whatever corporate security might exist where you work. The impact and ramifications of scenarios such as Paris and San Bernardino require a much more resilience-focused reaction to anticipate, respond and recover (as shall be discussed at the next World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto, www.wcdm.org where the BCI are ‘Diamond’ sponsors) and this is where any effective BC professional has a key role to play alongside HR, security, risk and other disciplines. The latest BCI Horizon Scan Report featured terrorism as one of the top ten threats that BC professionals worry about for the fourth year running. Here are a few actions to take now:

Understand the threat – If we didn’t know before, it’s clear that terrorists such as so-called IS have now come to us. They have gone global with attacks that are not random or indiscriminate. In less than a fortnight last year, IS carried out three organised acts of mass murder in as many countries: downing a Russian plane Egypt, a suicide bombing in Beirut and then attacking Paris once more as active shooters. In September 2014, the leading public ideologue of IS called on followers overseas to launch attacks without waiting for permission or specific direction. This call to action – IS styles it a ‘fatwa’, or religious ruling, so they can convince followers of their divine righteousness – had a profound and immediate effect. It can be directly linked to a series of other attacks so far in Canada, Belgium, Australia and Denmark. On 29 December 2015, a husband and wife team were found guilty of plotting a terror attack in London ahead of the 10th anniversary of the 7 July bombings.

Understand how your people will behave – Many survivors  of the Paris attacks said they mistook the first gunshots for fireworks and took no notice. This is very common in many active shooter events as the sound of fireworks is probably the nearest memory reference point for most of us on hearing such noise. Numerous socio/group experiments and real-life situations demonstrate that up to 20% of people exposed to a sudden drama might react in a way that probably helps them survive, but the remaining 80% will remain bewildered, looking to other people to act first. Therefore, your plans (refer to the links in this article) must factor in how people will actually behave, rather than just look impressive on paper.

Understand what you can do now – I have referred above to two separate sources where you can at least download training videos and advice based on run, hide, fight, or run hide tell. These are www.npcc.police.uk/staysafe and www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VcSwejU2D0. In addition, I have copied five key ideas from one of our UK-based BC clients.

However, it is the core purpose of BC that should be at the centre of any response to these types of threat. To quote from the BCI GPG “BC helps an organisation to build and improve resilience and provides the capability for an effective response to (any) threatening events”. To which I can only add two further comments: First, prepare something now. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.” So said one of the UK’s greatest parliamentarians, Edmund Burke in the 18th century. Second, convert that action to include at least an exercise in advance, to walk your people through what to do if the worst was to happen. Get them to understand how they and their colleagues ought to react.

So in conclusion, business continuity certainly, behaviour absolutely and barriers maybe.


About the Author
Peter Power BA FIRM FBCI JP has been the head of Visor Consultants (UK) Limited since 1995. He is Chairman of the World Conference on Disaster Management, is coauthor of BS guide 11200 on Crisis Management and is a past member of the UK National Security Commission (IPPR) under Lord P Ashdown.


1 Shooting tracker, Gun Violence Archive


Reprinted with permission from Continuity Magazine (Q1, 2016).  Continuity is a magazine of the Business Continuity Institute. Visit the BCI's website http://www.thebci.org/