How to Spot Thieves, Thugs and Terrorists

man in public place

Self-defense minded citizens and preppers both are regularly admonished to stay alert, to keep on watch, to be vigilant for the predatory humans that we know are always out there, somewhere, sniffing for their next easy mark.

Situational awareness might as well be made the 8th Virtue. Just one problem though; we are rarely told specifically what to be on the lookout for. Scumbags will rarely have a flashing neon sign over their heads.

The ability to detect and identify an attacker before they launch their attack is paramount for staying safe. While there are no hard fast rules that will allow you to do so with 100% certainty, wisdom paid for with blood has shown that time and time again the bad guys will usually display behaviors that you can pick up on, ones that will tip their hand as to their malicious intent.

This article will function as your primer for spotting pre-attack and pre-action indicators commonly displayed by the bad guys.

Avoidance is a Skill

Too many well intentioned familiars and surprisingly more than a few professionals will commonly resort to the refrain of “avoid trouble before it starts.” Sage advice, that. All you need now is a crystal ball or the gift of far sight and you’ll never be fouled by any bad happenings. As you and I both already know, and hopefully have known for some time, is that it isn’t that simple.

“Avoiding trouble” caused by two-legged critters is not as simple a matter as not going to the edge of the cliff, not touching the hot stove or leaving that beehive alone. All of those dangerous things have clearly delineated boundaries and virtually infallible rules that accompany them. Simple. Binary. Black and white.

Not so with a living, breathing and more importantly thinking human adversary. You could stay out of their way, far away from them, mind your own business and go about your day and they could still choose you to be their next victim.

The bad guy will always have a vote in the outcome, and always have the majority vote in the proceedings; when it starts, where it takes place, and potentially when it will end, if you cannot decide that for both of you.

To learn to avoid threats you must first know where they are. To do that, you must first learn what a potential threat looks like. When I say “looks like” I do not mean physical appearance or attributes, although those can be clues.

I am referring instead to their behavior, location and other actions or activities that will betray their intent and their mindset.

Collectively these indicators are very subtle, but exhibit a high degree of reliability. If you care enough to take the time and investigate incident reports with accompanying video that captured the attacker before they began their work, you will see them manifest with regularity.

With practice looking for these indicators will become second nature and automatic, allowing you to move confidently through environments on relaxed alert, what Cooper codified as Condition Yellow. You won’t be a jittery, paranoid mess. That is not a life much worth living, long term!

The next section will break down key concepts and then we’ll get into the pre-attack indicators themselves.

Understanding Terminology

Situational awareness is a term that has been used so much, in so many places and so many times by so many people, it is nearly in danger of losing all meaning because everyone talking assumes (wrongly) that people know what it means! Nonetheless it is a crucial concept.

In an effort to eliminate vagueness, I will define situational awareness thusly: your comprehensive and ongoing alertness to your immediate environment with the purpose of detecting a potential threat through pre-attack indicators.

A pre-attack indicator is itself anything about a person, a movement, their location, behavior, bearing or even their very presence that is anomalous to the situation at large. Like what?

For instance, you are walking down a commonly travelled footpath through the woods at a local park. Some 30 yards ahead of you, a man steps out from a behind a tree directly into your path, facing you. He checks back over his shoulder before he resumes staring at you as you approach.

Whoa! If that gave you chills, you aren’t alone. That is one example of a pre-attack indicator. We’ll break down why it is in a bit, but you probably need little convincing under the circumstances that this guy is bad news and wants to share it with you, eh?

Situational awareness combined with high-fidelity detection of pre-attack indicators together yields attack awareness; the ability by which you comprehend an imminent or gathering attack against you or someone else.

It is not entirely a sixth sense, a gift, or anything else. It is a skill! It can be learned, refined, improved. You can also let it go fat and flabby through disuse, just like a muscle.

Fatal Flaws

Before we get on with the identification of pre-attack indicators, you must understand two essential concepts that will get you waylaid in spite of all the alarm bells going off in your head, uneasy feeling in your guts and raised hairs on the back of your neck.

The first is that people want an infallible system for the identification of bad guys before they take action. They understandably want that crystal ball, the ability to see the trouble coming for what it is with enough distance and time to just avoid getting stuck in. It doesn’t exist.

You might see plenty of pre-attack indicators only for nothing to happen. Did the bad guy wave off at the very end? Was it just coincidental? Something else? You won’t know.

Conversely you might get zip-zero-nada in the way of pre-attack indicators, even when you are on alert. The baddie might be so quiet, so slick and so quick he closes and bags you with nary an eyebrow raised.

They are out there. Maybe you just glitched. Maybe it is just bad luck. Who knows? The bottom line is you’ll never know for certain that an attack is going to take place until the attack takes place. You have to make decisions and act anyway.

The other major fatal flaw you must work double-time to never allow yourself to develop is that of normalcy bias. Too many people’s brains are hard-wired into shoving the most innocent and mundane of explanations upon them to validate what they are seeing.

That is, seeing anything but the truth of what they are seeing. Some people see a guy stroll into a department store with an AK at port arms, mag locked in place and they’ll carry on telling themselves that that young man is just there to buy something for his BB gun. Then the dakka-dakka starts and all hell breaks loose.

Normalcy bias kills. It is innate to most of us and can only be dampened and eventually defused by long and tedious conditioning. Normalcy bias is at the core of the “this isn’t really happening!” response to violence and other dangerous events. When you see people freeze or react completely at odds with the situation at hand that is normalcy bias kicking in.

You can learn all about this subject but if you don’t squash both of these fatal flaws flat you’ll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop, your outcome more up to luck than anything else.

Universal Pre-Attack Indicators

The following are reliable, if subtle, signs that someone may mean harm to you or another. Generally, the more of these indicators that are present, the more likely it is you are facing down an actual attack.

One, as always, could be happenstance (or it might not!) two is cause for specific focus and analysis. If you spot three you need to get your ass in gear right now!

1) Unusual Action and/or Unusual Presence

Where does someone fit in to their environment? How should they be acting, and what are reasonable, normal actions to be taking in that environment. Have you ever just had a funny feeling about someone? Chances are you were triggering on something unusual about their presence.

This could take the form of our example in the paragraph above of the hiking trail baddie. He sure as hell had no excuse for being out on that trail waiting for you to come along and in no way had cover for intercepting your path of movement and cutting you off. Classic attack technique; let the prey blunder into you!

This will rarely be something as obvious as this. It could be someone loitering or hanging out with no excuse for being there. That gets harder to make the call on. What else are they doing? You must go drill down deeper into specifics.

Is someone just standing around on a street corner? Fine, maybe they are waiting for a bus or an Uber. But he keeps looking around, all around, not just in the direction of traffic on this one way street. And it is after rush hour, on a weeknight, when there should be an abundance of transport options. He is on his phone. Who is he talking to? He looks across the street to…

Another guy on a phone. They make eye contact. He gestures to a person closing on Guy #2 on his side of the street. He just made the call on someone’s evening. Guy #2 starts to trail the hapless soon-to-be victim.

What I just described is a classic example of how pickpocket and mugger teams operate in some of the world’s biggest and busiest cities. A handler will select targets and keep an eye out for trouble while he directs the actual grab team to close on and make contact with the victim.

Notice that the further we drilled down into his behavior the more we discovered that was out of place, suspicious, or problematic.

Here’s another example. You see a guy outside a movie theater. It is the middle of the evening on a weekend. He looks visibly nervous and fidgety, what pros call furtive movements, which are movements caused in response to fear, guilt or stress; a common symptom of those who are about to commit violence.

The rash of movie theater violence in recent years pulls you up short. You shelter with your partner near the corner of the adjacent building on the strip.

As you observe, he looks positively ate up: checking his watch, turning little circles, trying hard to look cool and collected as people stream in and out of the theater with the beginning and ending of showings. He pats his jacket pocket. Real quick, like he wants to assure himself something is still there. He is actually sweating.

Then, a woman appears. They embrace. His apprehension evaporates. The two enter the theater together smiling. What was that?! If you followed this dude through his evening, you’d learn he was meeting his soon to be fiancé for a dinner and movie date prior to popping the question. His anxiety bordered on outright fear!

As I said above, you won’t always be able to say for sure if an attack is imminent, even with one or two indicators present.

2) Change Coinciding with Your Action

If you are paying attention and notice that someone’s action coincides with yours, you might be watching someone take action based on what you are doing or your status.

For instance, if you are at an ATM and notice someone get out of their car (that they had been sitting in) right as you look down to fiddle with your debit card and the keypad, that is a clue.

They might be waiting for you to become distracted or otherwise encumbered so that they can approach and enter your space unawares, i.e. maintain the element of surprise. This is action triggered by your action or a change in your status.

If you suspect someone is following you, and notice that they slow down when you do, or speed up when you do, or stop when you do, that is synchronized movement.

Typically used for observation in service of finding an opportunity to attack you or to see what develops, or just to further analyze the risk/reward value of you as a potential victim.

Criminals of all stripes can be patient hunters, and you should not assume that just because someone is loitering in the background that you will not be attacked. They may be working as part of a team, or waiting for just the right time or terrain to do what they need to do. No matter what, synchronization is a bad sign.

You might pre-empt either of these by bold action. If someone is following you, or you suspect as much, and then turn around quickly to confront them with locked eye contact, what would you expect an innocent person to do? Stop, stare, sputter and act out of sorts? Probably not.

An innocent person would probably take notice, perhaps even react depending on how intensely you were mad-dogging them, but they would continue on their path of travel, especially in a crowded area.

Someone who was tailing you, though, and keeping at a distance will probably slam on the brakes, look away sharply and generally act a nervous fool; remember what I said about anxiety and furtive movement?

A clever person will notice anyone keeping an eye on them grow eager or more anxious the closer they get to a transitional space of choke point (see #6) and then prepare to move.

Anyone whose movement or action coincides with you becoming distracted or preoccupied should be bumped to the top of your list unless they have a strong excuse for such action. The former occurring with any additional indicators in tow is a red flag.

Be ready! As prepared as you are, as serious as you are about self-defense, we all have to live our more or less normal lives to, well, live, and that means a certain amount of distraction or preoccupation is unavoidable.

3) Interception or Intersection

If someone is bee-lining for you, that is interception, moving to close with and make contact with you. This is not patently a sign of an attack; it all depends on context for their presence (see #1).

A person handing out flyers and coupons outside of a store or on a busy sidewalk in a commercial area will be flitting from person to person. A man in a suit doing the same thing at a restaurant could be the owner or manager making sure the guests are satisfied.

This is a little harder to justify outside of particular venues, though, as someone approaching you for an innocuous purpose (needing directions, the time, or a light) could be setting you up to tee off on you using the request as a false premise.

It does not sound very nice or neighborly, but you must be on guard anytime someone even approaches your personal space in a public setting. If you are wrong about their intentions, you could be sucker punched or worse. Sad but true; it happens all the time.

One clear cut example is someone making for you in a mostly empty parking lot, especially at night. What reason would they have to be approaching you as you prepare to enter your vehicle?!

That’s a warning sign in itself; transition points are always dangerous ground, and perennially favored by predators for pouncing on prey.

This can be a tough thing for good, decent and helpful people, especially Christians, to accept and act on. That person approaching you at night all alone may in fact be having the worst day of their life, in need of help and a Good Samaritan.

You might be their one hope, the one that can carry off a little darkness. Or, they might be counting on that to kick a field goal with your gullible ass. This is something you’ll need to suss out ahead of time as best you can.

If you are unable to control the encounter’s pacing, or you are unable to approach and interact with them on your time and place of choice, you are probably bests served by fending off such advances wholesale no matter what.

Another major pre-attack indicator is intersection, whereby a person moves to where you will be; cutting you off, etc. This is a classic technique for laying an ambush and springing a trap.

Our scary mugger man in the initial example intersected your path on the trail, for instance. Intersection, done properly, is harder to detect than someone simply bee-lining in on you. Again, context matters.

If you are travelling down a thoroughfare, whatever it might be, that is populous and regularly travelled, say a sidewalk in a busy city that is dotted with cafes and shops, should you be unduly alarmed if someone steps out of a building directly ahead of you and stops? Probably not without other indicators; the law of averages alone dictates this will be a regular occurrence.

But let’s remix it: what if they step in front of you, stop and look right at you? What if this happens after you already noticed someone shadowing you from across the street that is now closing to intercept you at the same time? And right next to a panel van… Yeah, it does not take much imagination to see where this is heading now.

4) Hands are Hidden

The eyes may be the windows to the soul and indeed can betray much about a person’s attitude, intent and mental state, but it is their hands that will kill you.

Anyone, anyone, whose hands are out of sight must have a valid reason or else you need to be weary of them. Anyone who is already indicating in some other way who has hidden hands is to be watched like a hawk.

Consider how people move their arms when walking. A gentle, swinging pace, right? Right. If someone is not holding something, their arms will be moving.

If their arms are holding something, you need to be able to see the hand. Is it gripping the item naturally, or in such a way that they could be gripping something inside or under the item being carried? Either is a warning sign.

Also pay close attention to anyone with a hand inside a bag, coat pocket or some other voluminous container as it is easy to have a knife or gun ready to go inside. A cold, blustery winter day is one thing. A hand inside a pocket any other time must be accounted for.

Be extremely suspicious of anyone with a hand held behind their hip or under an arm or carried coat as this is almost always a sure indicator of something in the hand, especially if they are closing in. This “chambering” of the weapon early ensures your assailant will not have his draw fouled or stuffed when he gets closer to you.

One ingeniously devious street technique for concealing a weapon is to simply carry it down the street inside a thin plastic grocery bag or a fast food sack.

Such things raise nary an eyebrow and can go almost anywhere. In the case of the former, it is entirely possible to fire a gun (especially a revolver) through the bag from the outside. A knife can be deployed as a lethal surprise through either.

If you see someone carrying a bag, check the hands! It is not the bag itself you need to inspect or assess; you need only to see how their hand is interacting with it. Any kind of odd hold or seeing the hand hidden inside the bag is immediate cause for discernment.

5) Preening and Patting

Falling squarely into nervous or anxious movement, be on the lookout for anyone who seems preoccupied with rubbing their face, neck or head, or seems to have a tic whereby they adjust a piece of clothing, pat a location on their body or do a “wedgie fixer” plucking and smoothing at something only they can feel. Any of the above indicates nervousness, with the latter ones likely betraying the presence of a weapon.

When people, especially men, are under stress, anxious or mentally cycling up to violence they will commonly touch their face, neck or head. The “why” is complex and deeply ingrained in us on a psychological level.

Suffice it to say that it is a reliable indicator of someone in a stressed or anxious state; just like people are when preparing to perpetrate a crime with a chance of reprisal or incarceration if caught.

Now, people like our nervous paramour above will surely exhibit these behaviors too unless very composed and confident. You must, as always, examine the situation in totality.

Guns, knives and other weapons are heavy, uncomfortable and shift around all the time. Less skilled carriers or those carrying without proper equipment will often need to readjust them on the fly to ensure they do not fall off or come loose.

Also pay close attention to anyone who runs or jogs for any reason; a hand clamped to the body or a pocket at the same time is definitely securing something from tumbling free.

Scumbags on approach will often do a pat or flip of a concealing garment as a security blanket thing; it gives them comfort to know that the weapon is still there and also accessible.

Anyone moving to intercept or intersect you who is screwing around with their clothing and acting shady must be watched closely and a decision made before things get too bad to withdraw from.

6) Loitering Near Choke/Transition Point

Keep one eye on anyone who is near a chokepoint or transition point. Predators go where the food is, and furthermore always try to apprehend prey on ground suitable for the task.

This could be anyplace that makes escape difficult, funnels you into a tightly cordoned space, sets them up for success with a quick route of egress or otherwise distracts you, like getting into or out of a car, entering or leaving your home, pumping gas, using the ATM, etc.

Take the time to assess your vulnerability and exposure at such places, especially if there are blind spots and cover around the transition point where baddies could spring their attack quickly and easily from ambush.

You ever hear how so many victims of violence always seem to say the same things? “He came outta nowhere!” “It’s like all of a sudden he was just there!” “I never saw him coming!”

Noticing a trend? You got it. For some of these people we can chalk up the attacker’s quick, clean and undetected approach to the victim’s tragic but total lack of awareness. But surely for some of them the attacker simply chose their ground very well and reaped the benefits.

A choke or transition point that can eat up your attention for even 3 seconds can allow plenty of time for someone who means you harm to get in your bubble quietly and quickly. Not good.

Stairwells and elevators in apartment and tenement buildings are another notorious location for ambushes since you cannot quickly advance or retreat once you commit to entering them.

You must be doubly cautious anytime you must move into or through a transitional space or choke point! Don’t give anyone a pass who is hanging out near them.

Think Like a Bad Guy

Before we leave off, I should remind you that it is immensely helpful to tap your inner villain and think like a bad guy. Put yourself in their place, as cliché as that sounds. If you were going to stalk and attack or ambush some hapless shmuck, how would you do it?

I’m not talking Snidely Whiplash cartoon antics, I am asking you to consider how you’d do a job. How would you set yourself up for success while putting your quarry at maximum disadvantage? How would you do it to minimize risk to yourself from resistance, outside interference, observation and so forth?

If you’ll sincerely apply yourself to this exercise in a given environment you’ll probably start coming pretty close to the mark. Now, next time you are in that environment set yourself up somewhere you can observe the comings and goings of people and just watch.

If you are in a larger city or tourist hotspot especially you’ll probably notice people precisely where you decided you’d be.

This is a darkly entertaining exercise, but more importantly enlightening. By striving to understand how our foes think, we can get inside their decision making and victim selection processes and hopefully short circuit them, saving ourselves from having to fight at all.

Conclusion

With the right mindset, knowledge and a modestly high level of awareness it is possible to pick up on the tells and cues most bad guys will display, consciously or not, prior to engaging in their attack.

Study up on the pre-attack indicators presented in this article and make it a point to start actively scanning for them while you are out in the world. If you see trouble coming from far enough off, you’ll have ample time to get out of the way or thwart it.

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  1. Good article.
    It should go without saying that people need to get their face out of their smartphone. I spend a lot of time looking for people in airports, generally with the barest of physical description; some of whom don’t really want to be found in the first place. Consequently, I have to observe a lot of people and assess whether they are the individual that I’m seeking. Based on these observations I would estimate that as few as 15% of the general airport population possesses any level of situational awareness about their surroundings or the actions of others around them.

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