Some of the intended victims took out their phone and started filming. Taxi drivers acted quickly to clear the crowd and make way for the emergency services. One witness, a teenage girl, calmly held the hand of a friend and walked her to safety. Afterwards, she wondered how she had stayed so calm; as she thought more about it, she realised that she had watched the events of September 11, 2001, unfold on the TV and knew that she had already visualised how she would respond in the event of a terror attack.
Dr Mark Maguire is a social anthropologist at Maynooth University’s Department of Anthropology, Ireland’s only dedicated Anthropology Department. Contrary to popular belief, anthropologists don’t go merely go out in the world to study distant tribes; they study human culture, language, society and behaviour all around us, and Dr Maguire is carrying out research into how people respond in the first ten minutes of a terror attack. He has also investigated international migration including programme refugees and asylum seekers and, previously, has worked in counter-terrorist operations.
“For the past year and a half, I have been working with colleagues in different services here and elsewhere to look at how ordinary people respond in the first ten minutes,” he says. “This has also involved interviewing people who were caught up in the attacks. In most places, the public is on their own in the event of a terror attack, particularly the type of marauding firearm attacks we saw in Mumbai (2008), Norway (2011), the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi (2013), the Bataclan in Paris (2015) and recently in Las Vegas. Ten minutes is the critical window.”
Dr Maguire points out that terrorists tend to target soft infrastructure. “Wherever crowds gather, such as in airport terminals or at big events. And, where it can be hard for them to get their hands on an AK47, they might use trucks. It needs to be pointed out that most terrorism is residual - from organisations like the Real IRA or Basque separatists – or from the far-right. We often know who these people are and where they live. I’m talking instead about the type of attacks where a terrorist is determined to kill as many people as possible in the shortest window of time possible. The fear is that they may be getting better at it and that they are learning about counter-surveillance measures.”
Dr Maguire wants people to see that they have a role to play and that they can act to keep themselves safe. There is very little research into how people caught up in a terror attack respond and, as a result, international security services are interested in his work, which is funded through the Global Foresight project in Stockholm University. He is discovering that people have different responses based on age, gender, cultural background or life experience and this is where anthropologists play a crucial role.
“When security services arrive on the scene, they have a very particular job to do which is neutralise the threat and clear the field for medics," Dr Maguire explains. "They won’t be able to help the seriously injured or dying. This is why we need to increase ‘second-aid’ training, which is a more intensive form of first-aid and involves training people on blood clotting agents, packing and tourniquets until the medics arrive. At critical infrastructure sites such as airports, train stations, or border crossings and we need to ensure that some staff are trained in second aid; this can save lives.”
Terror attacks don’t always unfold as people imagine they will, says Dr Maguire. “We know that there are waves of recognition. Some people will immediately recognise the sound of gunshots; most don’t. But those who do recognise the sound will respond and others will, in turn, respond to their behaviour. During the attack, there are ‘battle pulses’; terrorists can’t fight continuously and so they stop, regroup and spiral out again. The situation is more fluid than people know, so there is a chance to escape.”
Dr Maguire’s early research suggests that female reactions are often more appropriate at sites of terror attacks. “They tend to form small groups and help the hurt and vulnerable by leading them to safety. On the other hand, people can panic – even the emergency services – if they see a man on fire running towards them. This is understandable.”
Security services are using ever-more-sophisticated techniques to identify possible terrorists at critical infrastructure sites. “They look for abnormal behaviour by sweeping the sites in search of non-normal behaviour patterns. The major question, however, is how best to deploy the resources.”
These events are exceptionally rare, he says, and most of us will never be caught up in them. “There could be any reason for a person to commit an attack and they may not always cleanly fit the definition of ‘terrorist’. They could be a disgruntled employee. We need to keep a sense of proportion and not turn into a hyper-vigilant society but critical incidents will happen and it is us, not the security services, who are most affected by them. We need to understand how people respond in these situations. We are targets, so we have to learn resilience, and this resilience could serve us well in many different situations.”