Victim Selection and Surveillance

If you’ve spent any time working in the security industry, you will have spent a lot of time observing people, and you will soon have come to the realisation that most assaults follow a similar pattern/process. When you understand this, you will be able to recognise attacks before they occur, and either disengage, or prepare yourself so you can increase your survival chances. I have never been a great athlete, or benefited from an unusually great reaction time, etc.,

however I have learnt to act quickly and decisively in situations, in the moments before an assailant initiates the attack, which gives me the illusion of speed and athleticism. In this article, I want to look at four things which are common occurrences in knife attacks, and how identifying these things can help us either avoid such attacks, or get ourselves into a better position to deal with them. I would also make the argument that our training partners should replicate these things in the training environment so that we have an accurate and realistic idea of what a knife attack looks like – if we only ever train our defences, from a position where the knife is visible, and our attacker stands in front of us at distance, we will only get good at dealing with attacks that happen like this; which are few.

Victim selection and surveillance, are two of the activities that an assailant will engage in before they initiate their attack. An assailant will typically take several quick looks over in your direction, often moving their position, after each one, so that it becomes less obvious that they are looking at you – they will use their new position, to make it look like their movement is bringing you into their eye-line, rather than something deliberate on their part. This action is referred to as “Target Glancing”. An attacker is going to want to make sure that they have targeted the right victim; somebody who is unaware, preoccupied and doesn’t appear as though they will offer up much resistance. If you pick up on an individual who is target glancing at you, move out of the environment. You should also be aware of “Accomplice Glancing”. This can be seen where a group or gang are working together in a particular location, and will look to each other to communicate information, such as agreeing on a victim that one of the group has selected. These glances are typically longer and less well disguised than those directed at a target, but equally significant. You should pay particular attention, if after a look/glance, one of the members starts moving, as this normally signifies that the group is getting everybody into place before they begin the actual assault. Check to see if anyone is moving to block off entry/exit points, etc.

Attackers will also scan their environment to check for the presence of law-enforcement or security, as well as the general awareness level of those around them e.g. is there anyone who would make a good and credible witness against them, is there anyone who has identified their criminal intent, etc? The difference between this and target and accomplice glancing, is that there is no real focus when a person scans i.e. they are not looking in a specific direction, or at someone, but looking around, more generally. They are checking for people who may be interested in them. They may also be checking that an exit/escape route remains clear. Scanning becomes very noticeable when somebody looks behind them. There are very few reasons why a person would look over their shoulder, other than to check that they are not being observed.

Clothing checks and adjustments, are a good indicator, when combined with target glancing and scanning, that an individual is looking for victims, and has a weapon on them. Before just about every knife attack I’ve witnessed, I’ve seen the assailant stretch out their clothing and/or adjust it, so that they have easy and clear access to their weapon. This action is often repeated several times, with the location of the weapon being checked as they do it. An attacker armed with a knife will keep it concealed until the very moment they are going to use it. They are not going to put it out there on display and give you time to register it – many people who are stabbed in a fight don’t even see the knife, and believe that they have been punched; it’s only in the post-conflict phase when they check themselves and discover blood that what’s happened begins to hit them. If a knife is stabbed in and out repeatedly, cutting tissue “cleanly”, then the more immediate sensation is the hilt of the knife hitting the body; which feels like a punch. (It is worth pointing out that slashes are experienced more as electric shocks, etc.) Part of our training should involve defending knife attacks, where we don’t initially see the knife – and I would add in here attacks from the rear, that you have no chance of reacting/responding to, till you are initially stabbed; I can understand the reluctance of instructors to do this, as it can be a hard message for a student to swallow – that there are times when you might not be able to initially defend yourself – but if we are teaching reality based self defence, rather than just demonstrating a system, as a system, we have to be honest about what reality looks like. It’s also a good advertisement of the self-protection/personal safety piece, which teaches them how to predict, prevent and avoid assaults before they occur.

For me, the biggest pre-violence indicator, is a person’s movement. If somebody is moving around me, target glancing and scanning (possibly adjusting their clothing), there’s a good chance I’m in danger. If I move, changing my position, and they move with me, I’ve confirmed it. I now need to check for accomplice glancing, as the last thing I want to do, is to move