Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Violence Attack Methodologies

We have been researching national and global trends regarding emerging attack methodologies used by terrorists, hate groups and active killers while writing a university textbook on the subject. Our research thus far has indicated emerging trends relevant to the higher education setting. One point that jumps out at me when reviewing thousands of attacks is that behavioral training to help campus employees spot behaviors that do not fit the place, setting and typical behavior patterns has greater value than strategies that are specific to a narrow range of threats.

Recognizing Behavior

For example, while valuable, training people how to recognize patterns of behavior that can indicate that a person is carrying a concealed firearm is not always effective in detecting attackers using other types of weapons. Though I have trained people who have subsequently used the techniques to stop campus shootings, behavioral training that can be used to spot potentially dangerous individuals regardless of the weapons they plan to use can help not only to protect against a broader range of threats, but can also enhance training on visual weapons screening as well.

While firearms remain popular for acts of extreme violence, it is important to note that explosives, fire and edged weapons also remain popular and, in the case of edged weapons, appear to be increasingly favored by attackers for a variety of reasons including the urging of Islamic State for those who support them to use edged weapons when carrying out attacks. During simulations in 38 states, we have found that campus employees who have been trained with a focus on active shooter attacks score very poorly on scenarios depicting aggressors armed with pocket knives, butcher knives, swords and other edged weapons.

Motor Vehicle and Other Attacks

Like edged weapons, for several decades using motor vehicles to ram victims has been periodically selected as a method to carry out acts of extreme violence. I helped investigate a failed attempt by an intoxicated student to run down a group of students when I was a university police officer in the 1980s. However, the recommendations by Islamic State that attackers use vehicles as a weapon, combined with numerous highly publicized attacks, are significant cause for concern. Graphic video of events like the recent August 13 vehicle attack during a protest against racist hate groups in Virginia that resulted in a life lost, and the combination vehicle and edged weapons assault at Ohio State in 2016, indicate that we can expect other similar acts of extreme violence in the future.

Fire also remains popular as a weapon. While building codes, fire detection and fire suppression systems reduce the risks of the types of highly lethal attacks we regularly see in developing countries, the risk of fire as a weapon is still of great concern, even in modern facilities. This risk can involve the use of smoke to kill if attackers disable systems by sabotaging them, use hacking to disable them, or by the use of smoke to kill people who are trained to barricade doors to the point they cannot readily escape upon hearing gunfire. As there have thus far been four combination fire and firearms attacks on U.S. K–12 campuses, this is not simply a hypothetical threat. Similarly, there is a viable concern that mildly sophisticated attackers can utilize easily obtained chemicals to use in a similar manner.

Acid Attacks

Finally, the rapidly emerging threat of “dosing” attacks are of significant concern. While attacks using battery acid thrown on one or more victims have been relatively commonplace in Vietnam, India and a number of developing countries for decades, the more than 1,800 such attacks in the United Kingdom in recent years should concern us. A simple Internet search for acid attack victim photos will provide a good illustration of how quickly one or two such attacks could alter what many people in the U.S. fear.

This partial listing of the emerging threats could find many higher education protection strategies wanting. However, if an institution has a viable approach which fully incorporates the all-hazards planning model, none of these emerging threats should pose insurmountable challenges. The flexibility of a good all-hazards approach allows organizations that embrace it to more easily adjust to changes in the occurrence of almost any new threat more effectively.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at

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