Terrorists rely on concealment in order to launch surprise attacks.
Last week’s attempted attack on a high-speed train traveling from Holland to Paris via Belgium involved successful concealment, up to a point. At that point, the passengers surprised the terrorist.
Islamist terrorist Ayoub El Khazzani managed to evade security agency surveillance in at least five countries. Despite strict Belgian and French gun- and ammunition-control laws, not only did Khazzani acquire an AK-47 assault rifle, but when the moment came to wage armed jihad, he successfully evaded rail station security and slipped his AK with 200 rounds of ammo on board an elite trans-European express.
Wait, police spokesmen are wont to say, in a free society the cops can’t be everywhere all the time. Too true. And when targeting free societies, terrorists bank on it. Concealed in the open may be an oxymoron. Yet terrorists do conceal themselves in open societies by passing as peaceful members of that society.
Khazzani passed as peaceful. He intended to surprise the train passengers, and he did, sort of. Reliance on surprise makes terror attacks a type of ambush. By definition, in an ambush, attackers strike from concealed positions. In a military ambush, where soldiers ambush soldiers, the attackers must remain concealed until the second they trigger the ambush. If surprise is lost and the ambush is discovered, the ambushers lose their advantage.
Khazzani muffed the transition from concealment to attack. A French banker, identified as Damien A., saw him in a lavatory with his weapon. He grabbed at Khazzani. Khazzani ran into the rail car where passenger Mark Moogalian (an American living in France) accosted him.
Now Khazzani is targeting unarmed civilians. Blown ambush? Shouting? No problem. He has firepower. He shot Moogalian.
But other passengers had more surprises. Instead of cowering, they responded heroically. First one, U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, got to Khazzani, and then a second, and then four were on him. He could not aim the weapon. In the hand-to-hand struggle, he pulled a pair of box cutters and wounded Stone. He drew a pistol. But Stone’s friends, Oregon Army National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos and California college student Anthony Sadler, kept battering him. British businessman Chris Norman joined the fight. They disarmed and pinned Khazzani. To emphasize his disapproval, Skarlatos used the AK’s muzzle to make repetitive metal impressions on Khazzani’s head. Did the message get through? Khazzani was a finger twitch from eternity.
The en masse quick physical assault on Khazzani was somewhat like a tactic the military calls an instantaneous counterattack on a close-in ambush. In the ambush’s kill zone, the defenders have little chance, and so they instantly turn and assault the ambushers. Penetrating the ambush positions brings the battle to the ambushers. In the resulting melee, the ambushers lose the advantage of surprise.
It takes confident, trained and well-led combat units to respond that coolly and cohesively. But the comparison is instructive. Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos are lifelong friends, a cohesive group of people who depend on one another. That’s a unit. Stone and Skarlatos have military training. Skarlatos pulled a tour in Afghanistan. He told authorities that going after Khazzani “wasn’t a conscious decision. … We just acted.” Stone said Skarlatos said, “Go get ‘im.” He and Skarlatos went; Sadler followed. Norman said he fled until he saw the three Americans tackle the gunman. Courage instilled courage. Now there were four.
Stone is an Air Force medic. He staunched Moogalian’s bleeding and saved his life.
Can you train people to respond en masse to a terrorist attack? Sure. Group action by unarmed civilians can stop a lone gunman. A suicide bomber is another matter. Best be in a state that allows people to carry personal firearms. But an effective group response to any threat requires leadership, and in most situations, that means leadership by example. On the Paris express, I count five examples of leadership. One leader jostled in the lavatory. One gave warning. Three struck in a pack. Norman had the guts to follow. Free people in free societies can surprise you.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.