Skills: PreFense for Travelers

By Steve Tarani

While traveling abroad, excited about your newest destination and thinking about a dozen things, you’re suddenly confronted by two thugs who pop out of nowhere. They’re so close you can smell their bad breath, and one of them pokes a gun in your face, grunting something in broken English that you can’t quite decipher. Your heart starts to race as your brain registers DANGER! Odds are you’re probably not carrying a firearm, but there you are standing between Scylla and Charybdis; now what?

In today’s world, bad things happen to good people more often than we’d like to admit. It’s an undeniable part of our reality and should make us consider what to do if we are caught off guard. It’s a scary topic. One that most people don’t want to think about, especially during a fun vacation or overland adventure. However, it is the cold mackerel of reality smacking you in the face, and cannot be ignored. Your personal security and the safety of your friends and family may depend on your ability to deal with it.

While an employee of the CIA it was my responsibility to support the protection of global U.S. assets including infrastructure and personnel. My activities included everything from sitting in front of a laptop at Langley, to being boots on the ground in a war zone. There was a need to implement security training that worked in high-threat areas to keep people and operations safe. It is this critical training, what I call preventative defense or PreFense, that will provide the tools you will hopefully never need; ones that work both in a war zone and on your drive to Ushuaia or Istanbul.

We often hear the term active threat, but what exactly does this mean? It could be anything from an act of terrorism by an active shooter or improvised explosive device to a knife attack. It also includes crimes such as a mugging, kidnapping, home invasions, and random acts of violence. Any physical danger that can happen to you, whether at home or traveling, is considered an active threat; it’s a freight train coming while you’re standing on the tracks directly in its path. You have only three viable options. Option one is to move off and away from the tracks entirely, which allows you to avoid the threat—your best choice. Option two is to move off the tracks while still remaining near them, which does allow you to mitigate the threat somewhat by diminishing the incoming train’s impact. Option three is to stand right there, feet firmly planted, and get squashed like a bug in an attempt to defend against the threat. The bottom line is you can either avoid, mitigate, or defend against an active threat. Going with our best choice, what can be done to avoid an active threat? Take proactive measures.

The obvious includes not putting yourself in harm’s way in the first place. If you don’t show up for a mugging then you can’t get mugged. Useful proactive measures include doing a little homework on the areas where you will be most active. There are numerous websites dedicated to dispensing this information: the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), and Independent Traveler to name a few.

It’s a good idea to stay clear of known areas with high drug or human trafficking, and avoid solo excursions in those isolated areas listed on travel advisories. Additionally, don’t invite crimes of opportunity by wearing excessive or expensive jewelry. Yes, you may have heard these proactive measures ad nauseam and think it’s all common sense, however, not following them gets people in trouble all the time. Take for example the female tourist from Chicago who was murdered earlier this year in Belize while doing yoga on a wooden deck by a river. Of course these situations are rare, but they do happen.

In addition to the obvious, there is another tool you can put in your kit—one that can stack the odds in your favor. Although it’s impossible to predict exactly when or where an active threat may occur, it is possible to know how such an event will occur. It’s this knowledge that gives you the decisive advantage over any predator.

All predators, human or animal, that pose a threat share one thing in common: they must exhibit certain attack-related behaviors by adhering to a natural pattern of events in order to be successful. This is called the attack cycle, and is basically a five-step process. To illustrate this, let’s take a trip to the Serengeti.

Step One: Look. A lion, motivated by hunger, converts to a threat for any nearby prey upon his decision to hunt. He initiates his pattern by looking for a tasty impala.

Step Two: Choose. Two impalas are grazing in the distance: one is eating with its head down in the tall grass, completely unaware, while the other has its head up above the grass with eyes and ears trained in the direction of the lion’s gaze. The lion must then choose his prey. From the lion’s point of view, the oblivious impala makes for an easier lunch because he is completely tuned out from his environment.

Step Three: Stalk. When stalking, the lion does two things: focus on prey (closely observe), and confirm that the chosen target is indeed his best choice. In protective parlance this is confirming target selection. The remaining half of the stalking phase is to plan. Upon target verification, the predator plans how to close in on his prey from where he currently stands.

Step Four: Close in. It’s now time to execute the plan by moving from his current physical position to one of tactical advantage by closing in on the prey in preparation for attack.

Step Five: Attack. Once in position, the final step in the cycle is to execute the onslaught.

Each step of this natural pattern represents an individual freeze-frame of attack-related behavior. In the animal kingdom the attack cycle is what ensures the balance of the ecosystem. These same tactics are used by human predators as well though.

It comes down to this: you control the threat or the threat controls you. The split second that you recognize your part of an attack cycle is the same instant that you gain control of that threat. The bad news is you can be caught in an attack cycle and not even know it. The good news is that every single step of these attack-related behaviors can be observed if you are trained to apply your situational awareness.

We all know that situational awareness (SA) is being cognizant of your surroundings, yet how can we use it to observe attack-related behaviors and therefore control our immediate environment?

When interviewing survivors of tragic experiences, the two most common statements you hear are, “I couldn’t believe how fast it happened” and “I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.”

The first component of using SA to control your environment is to choose your mindset. Most people decide on either it will never happen to me or someone else will handle it. The one you rarely ever run into is this is my responsibility. Of the three, which one do you think will serve you best in matters of personal security?

The next component is to be determined. Accept the fact that bad things happen and could happen today. Not in some far-off distant future, but right here and now or in the next few moments. Have the willingness to take action against your attacker(s). Always have a plan or make one up on the fly.

Last, but certainly not least is threat recognition. Instead of having your face buried in your cell phone, look up every once in a while and stay attuned to your immediate environment. You’d be surprised at what you can observe by surveilling your surroundings.

When in a car, if the driver pulls their foot away from the brake and toward the gas pedal, this is a visual indicator that the car is about to move faster. If someone moves their hand toward a doorknob, we know that the door is about to open. We see thousands of such event indicators every day. When it is something that gets your attention and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up—such as a closed fist or someone giving you the hairy eyeball— then it is called a threat indicator.

Threat indicators can be body language, nonverbal signals, a danger feeling, behavior that piques your interest, sixth sense, gut feeling, or intuition. If something seems out of place or just doesn’t look or feel right, then it’s probably not right. You need to pay full attention, as these can be early warning signs. Take advantage of this opportunity to determine what is wrong.

To defeat an attack you must first dissect its anatomy. How an attack works is much like archery. To hit the red dot in the middle of a target with an arrow, you need three items: First, a target. Second, an archer. And lastly, a means or process by which the archer may hit the target; in this case, by leveraging a bow and arrow. It is important to understand that if even one of these three items is missing, then it’s not possible to accomplish the task.

The same applies to executing a successful attack. The bad guy (BG) MUST have the same three required items: a target, a bad guy (himself ), and the means (the attack cycle). Analogous to the archery example, take away any one of these elements or disrupt any single step along the way, and you disrupt the BG’s plans and stop the attack. Believe it or not you can affect any or all of these items.

At the very beginning of the cycle, the predator has no other option except to follow step one and look for a suitable target. He must then choose his target (step two) and verify that he has made the best target selection (first part of step three). How can we break the attack cycle between step one (look) and the middle of step three (stalk) by using proactive measures?

At the earliest stages, the odds of stopping the attack are stacked in your favor. Here’s what you’ve got going for you: Throughout the first half of the cycle you are alert and attuned to your environment. As such you have unlimited options, the maximum amount of time with the least amount of effort to execute your proactive measures. You are afforded the opportunity to affect the target by not appearing like food. To prevent this it’s simply a matter of eliminating soft target indicators.

Compared to global travel 20 years ago, just the fact that you’re an American makes you a potential target. The last thing you want to do is draw attention to yourself. If you wear a New York Yankees baseball cap with a “USA all the Way” T-shirt you’re going to automatically draw more scrutiny in certain countries.

In addition, from the predator’s optic, they look to see if you appear weak, unaware, or alone. You can be any one of these and even any two of these; if you appear to be all three though, to a BG that’s like pulling up a triple seven on a slot machine in Vegas—he just hit the proverbial jackpot. Again, it’s okay to appear weak OR unaware OR alone, but all three combined screams, “Hey, over here, pick me!”

If you look like prey, then you’ll be hunted as such. You want to blend in with the scenery and become the gray man. The main objective is to not appear an easy target to a terrorist, predator, or opportunist.

A determined predator will use whatever means he has at his disposal to carry out his attack; all he needs is the opportunity and denying him that pulls the plug on his plans. Using active measures to break the cycle anywhere between the middle of step three (stalk) and step four (close in) will afford you the time necessary to influence the bad guy, leaving the odds of stopping the attack in your favor.

There are three ways, what I call the “three Ds,” to deny a BG his opportunity. The first “D” is to de-escalate. If someone raises their voice and starts to get into it with you, lower your voice, walk away, or change your body language—or any combination thereof. The second “D” is to deter. Roll up windows, lock doors, keep your purse held closed, pay attention (look confident), and keep your valuables out of plain sight; these will all contribute to deterring a would-be attacker. The third “D” is to defuse, or verbally judo your way out of the situation. One example is Antoinette Tuff, who talked down an active shooter after he cranked off two rifle rounds in the foyer of an elementary school just outside Atlanta, Georgia. The attacker was in the process of pointing the muzzle in the direction of the kids, and Antoinette was the only line of defense between the gunman and 800 children. She talked the shooter down and called 911, saving the lives of all involved.


Paranoia sits at one end of the spectrum and unpreparedness at the opposite. You don’t want to spoil your experience, but on the other hand you want to do everything you can to not render yourself vulnerable or unprepared.

Let’s go back to our opening paragraph, having appropriately armed you with PreFense training. On an expedition, you are careful to not wear national- or religion-affiliated clothing, and you blend in with the environment. Taking proactive measures, you exhibit no soft target indicators, so nothing about your appearance attracts a BG’s attention. You didn’t meet the predator’s prey criteria of being weak, unaware, and alone. Instead of popping your head out of the sand and noticing a gun up your nose you maintained good situational awareness and observed your immediate environment. Perhaps the predator noticed you looking at them, or by using active measures you placed yourself in a condition which denied the BG his opportunity to move against you. As a result of your newly-gained skills, though some unsavory street urchins may have given you a brief glance, you failed to register even as a blip on their radar; they are now on their way in search of softer targets.

Applying your PreFense training, you avoided the incoming freight train, stepped off the tracks completely, and are now free to explore and experience your adventures with the skills and confidence to prevent bad things from happening to good people.

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