It was late in the day on August 21, 2015. The high-speed train sped through the French countryside on its way to Paris. A man slipped out of the bathroom to make his way back into the crowded passenger car. His mission was simple: kill as many people as possible. He was well equipped to deliver on that promise. With an AKM assault rifle slung over one shoulder and plenty of ammunition, plus a loaded handgun and box cutter as side weapons, he was fully armed and ready to deliver another massacre on European soil in the name of jihad.
Except that it didn’t work out that way.
It Could Have Been Another Massacre
Two Frenchmen, who were nearby, saw the guy emerge from the restroom. They tried, unsuccessfully, to subdue him. At which point a group of three American friends — two of them off-duty military men — launched a split-second counterattack. Spencer Stone (Air Force) slowed the assailant down by grappling with him, sustaining multiple slash wounds as he struggled to get him into a chokehold. Alek Skarlatos (National Guard) grabbed the rifle away from the guy and slammed the muzzle into his head, immobilizing him. Their friend Anthony Sadler helped hold him down and tie him up with another passenger’s T-shirt.
There was a lot of blood and panic — but nobody died.
Nobody died. Think about that for a moment. In these days of mass shooters and rampant acts of terrorism, a jihadist armed with an automatic rifle and nine magazines totaling 270 rounds launches himself into a crowded train carrying more than 500 passengers. Intent on unleashing a massacre he fails to kill a single person.
Here’s what I find remarkable about this. Stone and Skarlatos were not there on patrol or acting as security forces. They were not there in any official capacity, and they certainly weren’t focusing on this guy. They were on vacation. So, they were focusing on fun and sightseeing. (Hell, Stone was sleeping when the attack began.) There is one and only one reason this situation didn’t become the tragic bloodbath that it so easily could have been: these guys had a particular kind of training.
They were trained to be situationally aware. If you want to read more about this incident you can read their book.
The Incident at JFK Airport
One year after that foiled train attack, almost to the day, I landed at JFK after a few weeks in Europe. I had just cleared customs and was waiting for my luggage when I heard a scuffle of people running and half a dozen officers burst into the area shouting, “Shots fired! Active shooter! Everyone run for safety — RUN!”
I immediately took cover behind a concrete pillar (concealment is something that hides you visually but can still be penetrated by gunfire; cover is something that protects you both visually and ballistically) and began assessing the scene. I saw a mother running for her life with a baby in her arms. A man crying because he was separated from his wife and children. Hundreds of people pouring through alarm-wired security doors searching for safety. Nobody had any idea what was happening. No police, TSA agents, or security personnel showed up to tell everyone what to do. Pandemonium. The noise level was insane. It felt as if I were back in Afghanistan or Iraq in the middle of some op — only nobody had been briefed.
Leapfrogging backward, using whatever points of cover presented themselves, I found an open exit. Another wave of panicked people was headed my way. Someone had to take charge, so I shouted, “Follow me!” And out we went, down the stairs, onto the tarmac, and to a fence that separated the airport grounds from a parking lot. Throwing my rain jacket over the top of the razor-wire to create a passable avenue of escape, I helped a few people over. Some officers saw us and were not happy with me. But someone had to have a plan. The place was such total chaos it’s a miracle nobody was trampled to death by the stampeding herds of terrified passengers.
As it turned out, there was no shooter. The whole thing was a case of panic over nothing. Someone put forward the theory that the sound of people cheering on the televised Olympics was somehow mistaken for gunfire. Sounds like a bullshit rumor to me. Like something someone concocted to cover his ass. It is way more likely is that it was an accidental gun discharge. But the cause of the panic isn’t the point.
The point is this: Nobody was prepared. Nobody was situationally aware.
Total Situational Awareness
In the wake of mass shooting incidents around the world, many of us from the Spec Ops community have been called upon to help train citizens on what to do in the event of a sudden shooting rampage or another unexpected attack. We’ve covered this topic in-depth on SOFREP. Of all the advice and perspective I can possibly offer, the single most critical element in safety, prevention, and defense is the combination of skills summed up in the following three words: total situational awareness
You also need total situational awareness to survive and thrive in the world of business.
Let’s try something. Think about the last time you went shopping. Not online. I mean the last time you actually walked into a physical store. Drugstore, convenience store, supermarket, whatever. Got that clearly in mind? Okay.
Now take a piece of paper and write down a list of every single person you saw while you were in that store. Describe each person’s face, manner of movement, and the overall impression you formed of them.
How’d you do?
Rule #1: Pay Attention
Let’s say the police knock on your door tomorrow saying they are investigating a recent crime in the area. They ask you if any of the people you passed in the store had acted oddly in any way. How much information could you give them? How useful a witness would you be?
In sniper training, we have an exercise we call KIM, or Keep in Memory. There are dozens of variations of it. In one, instructors might drive you through the streets of a city to a destination and, after you get there, quiz you without warning on every car you passed along the way. In another variation, you go through a field course where objects are hidden out in the woods along the way. You’re supposed to remember them all. This means that you need to have noticed them all, even though nobody told you that you’d be tested on this later. Those students always had to be “on.” Always vigilant. Sometimes, to push the limits of our students’ memories, we would wait a few weeks after they’d been through a given course to quiz them on what they saw.
The point of these exercises is to train our students in how to pay extreme attention and cultivate total situational awareness.
It surprises most people to learn this, but being a sniper is not principally about shooting or marksmanship. As a sniper, a relatively tiny percentage of your time in the field is spent on the gun. Rather, you spend most of your active time in observation. A sniper is first and foremost an intelligence asset. Snipers are a field element’s forward eyes and ears. Reconnaissance and surveillance are the bedrock of our skillset.
Situational Awareness Carries Over to Business
The same is true in business. Do you make important decisions? Of course. Do you pull the trigger — hiring and firing, writing checks, launching initiatives? Of course you do. But not most of the time. No, the great majority of what you’re called upon to do is learn, watch, absorb, think. Reconnaissance. Paying attention.
Those three weeks I was in Europe, just before finding myself in the middle of that phantom-shooter incident at JFK? I called it a vacation, but that wasn’t really what it was. To be fair, I did a bunch of sightseeing, saw friends, flew some planes. I’m a big believer in the “work hard, play hard” philosophy. But the real purpose of that trip was to do some fact-finding. I wanted to get a firsthand read on what was happening with the economy in Europe, how our own forthcoming presidential election might affect markets over there, and what was going on globally. While I was there, I met with entrepreneurs from Berlin, Australia, Russia, all over. Reconnaissance. Paying attention.
I consume a steady diet of media industry periodicals and read a ton of books. But it’s not enough to read what’s on the page or screen. You also have to be constantly reading the world around you.
Next time you’re out walking, ask yourself: if someone suddenly mounted an armed attack, where would it most likely come from? What would be your best escape route?
Now ask those same questions about your business…
Coming up next: Rule #2 Peripheral Vision…
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This article was originally published in April 2021.