“Eyes on Target”

Before we begin, we would like to stress the current geopolitical climate between the Iranian and U.S. government – it is at its rockiest point in decades. An even more deteriorated relationship with a nation that actively funds and employs terrorism across the globe, tightened economic chokeholds through aggressive sanctions, agent provocateurs (Nation States) in the region circling with their own interests in mind, Iran’s own internal disarray as the general population is becoming increasingly more resistant to the regime’s brutality – it adds up to some highly reactive nuts in the cupcake batter. As you read on, you’ll understand why we’ve highlighted a developing current event as a foreword for this month’s newsletter.


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November 2015 – an American band, “Eagles of Death Metal” is on stage performing at the Bataclan theater in Paris, France. 1,500 people are in attendance when, at approximately 9:30 P.M., a car pulls up outside of the venue and three men with Zastava M70 AKM’s enter the theater. Moments later, the concert is interrupted by automatic small arms fire. The attack is disgusting and brutal.

While watching these attacks unfold that day (there were several), it seemed probable that they were masterminded and sponsored by a terrorist network planning and operating within French borders. Then the surnames of those responsible for the attack at the Bataclan, specifically, began to circulate – Algerian and Moroccan descent – while various reports were confirming that they were French natives and several of the attackers had recently traveled outside of the country (to Syria). Worth noting is the history between the French and Algerians... Not exactly one of peaceful coexistence.

Critical pieces could be put together at this point. Mainly, the motive and motif of state-sponsored terrorism. This one had all the boxes checked.

Fast forward to 2020 – tension throughout the Middle East remains high and threats of global conflict are headlines that seem to be on repeat. The most recent of which – involving the United States and Iran, a country with a lengthy history of directly supporting terrorist groups – looks like it will reach a breaking point.

“… lengthy history of directly supporting terrorist groups” – driving a point here because if there is one facet of the Iranian government that sets it apart from the rest of the world, it would have to be the radically violent, radically religious side of it. And without getting into a dissertation about Shia Islamists, generally speaking, many of them are loyal to the state of Iran to a degree that they believe it to be a deity – meaning they believe the nation and leadership itself is the ultimate religious authority on Earth. This belief is has no border. It doesn't matter if said believer is in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, or Syria – loyalty to the cause has no boundaries. It is how the Iranian government has achieved influence in the surrounding region.

Iran’s history and ideology are why an eroding relationship with them lands high priority to intelligence and counter-terrorism entities here in the U.S. The Iranian government has sponsored and/or weaponized some of the world’s most notorious violent groups. We’re not beating around the bush here, there is a concern that Homegrown Violent Extremists will surface in the U.S as a result of recent events. In fact, there has already been activity on this front and in the last decade alone several individuals have been apprehended by U.S. authorities in the continental U.S. while operating under the direction and aid of the Iranian government. Their objectives have ranged from establishing weapons smuggling routes into the U.S., conducting surveillance operations on Jewish and Israeli places of worship, conducting surveillance on U.S. citizens who are anti-Iranian government sympathizers, to attempting an assassination of a Saudi Arabian foreign diplomat – just to name a few. It is reasonable to assume this pattern of activity will continue amidst escalating conflict. As citizens, we ought to be aware of this threat. It is very real.

Now, why are we talking about terrorism, aggressor nations, and current events and conflict? Well, some preface was necessary to provide context to the actual topic of discussion – which is itself a heavily nuanced subject: intelligence, surveillance, and counter-surveillance.

Surveillance is the activity of surveilling a target for all-purpose intelligence, while counter-surveillance is the countermeasures taken to detect or thwart surveillance activity. It is important to know the difference between two. 

Our object lesson took place five years ago in Paris, France. Specifically, the Bataclan attack because orchestrated violence carried out in the U.S., by an HVE or foreign state-sponsored actor, would probably employ a vehicle or firearm. The attacks in Paris are practical examples and there are lessons to learn from them.

The Bataclan…

The Bataclan shooting was carried out in a way that implied two things: A) The plan was developed over an extended period, which means it was not an attack driven by impulse alone (commonly called a “lone wolf” attack) and B) The target environment was surveilled beforehand. Evidence to support “A” can be derived by looking at the weapons used and how the shooters navigated through the theater. They were wearing Person-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (explosive vests), which take time, money, and resources to construct (not easy to do without some help). Evidence to support “B” can be derived by the fact that they were able to cover exits and other escape routes quickly as they moved through the venue with a specific intent – trapping and cornering their victims. Basically, the speed and efficiency of the attack suggested it had been rehearsed, which could not have been done without having carefully studied or reviewed the physical attributes of the Bataclan. From all of this we can ascertain a high probability that they’d been there before. This conclusion is important because it means that if that was so, it is also likely that somebody had seen them at (or in proximity of) the Bataclan long before that night (possibly even had a conversation with them). So, assuming somebody had seen them, what might have given them up?

Social behavior... While conducting high-risk surveillance operations this can be a tell. If the individual engaged in the surveillance operation has little to no training, they may reveal themselves through their actions, words, and/or body language. To a trained eye, the shooters at the Bataclan may have displayed some of these tells as they gathered intelligence prior to the night of the attack. Nervousness, evasiveness from human contact and conversation, possibly a quick check over their shoulder before gathering Imagery Intelligence, or even lying about their identity/story if engaged in conversation, could have been reason to look closer. Nerves are usually what gets people unless they are highly trained (or psychopathic), as there is a basic truth about all types of criminals, terrorist or not: they aren’t fond of getting caught while casing a target and human contact equates to a risk factor, which is why they are usually socially evasive. They’ll do their best to avoid social interaction because it makes them nervous when people engage or ask them questions regarding who they are, what they’re doing, or anything for that matter. They think that everything out of their mouth must be a lie or twisting of truths in order to not reveal sensitive information. This weakness can be exploited by applying pressure when they are noticed. Their paranoia, combined with their lack of self-control, can’t help but physically manifest itself when confronted or challenged. To visualize this point, imagine somebody walking up behind you as you are taking a photo in a public place, and simply exclaiming, “That’s going to be great photo!” What an interjection into your personal space, right? Now imagine how you’d feel if you were engaged in criminal activity. As a criminal, what you would hear is the statement, but your subconscious mind might translate it to, “That person is watching you closely. Don’t make eye contact with them. Reflect your feelings of vulnerability and discomfort through body language. You know what? Just leave. They know exactly what you’re up to.” The point is that direct contact with others, links to potential liability when engaged in surveillance operations. The counter-surveillance measure? Simple. Avoid contact with others – they will do this because they have to.

Intelligence gathering operations aren’t always conducted by observation or imagery either. Sometimes intelligence must be extracted by engaging an individual or object directly. This requires contact of some sort. If a person is the targeted source, for example, a conversation may be required. If it is an object, it may require physical contact. For example, a conversation overheard at a ticket booth at sporting event where an individual is buying a ticket, then asks a question regarding the security or police presence inside the venue. This would be suspicious behavior – as the intent may be to select that venue as a target or look elsewhere. An example of intelligence gathering that requires physical contact might be a police officer pulling security during a football game, and he/she observes an individual approach a strategically placed concrete barrier (set in place by the department to deter vehicle threats). The individual then pushes on it – which could be to identify it as a deterrent or defensive type of barrier. Again, touching on the nervousness of most people, in each of those scenarios both individuals – if pressed as to why they’re asking or what they’re doing – might struggle to come up with a valid explanation. Nervous responses, evasive and distancing body language, or telling an inconsistent story when asked multiple times would certainly be an indicator that they could be involved in operational planning.

Tactical intelligence gathering can also be used to understand resources needed for the attack, or to apply anticipatory countermeasures to the target’s response (basically, a false attack to understand capability of the target). For example, a bomb threat, or any threat of violence, is anonymously called into a location. If this is a tactical intelligence gathering phase, the objective is not to warn of the attack (which never makes sense). It could be to observe the tactics of the response element (do they increase their presence the following day, what type of weapons are they carrying, how many and where, etc.). Terrorists (and criminals alike) will sometimes do this to understand the operation's viability. On the common criminal side – sometimes a burglar will knock on your door during the day, several times a week, to establish patterns of behavior (when are you home or not home?). The point is that accurate intelligence is always critical to mission success. So don't give it up. Our goal, as the good guys/gals, is to look for those who may be gathering it.

Don’t overthink it, though. Take note of abnormalities, which is probably the most effective skill you can hone. Our experience says that there is usually a reason for something being out of place. However, this doesn’t mean every abnormality is a threat. It means we should take a moment and look harder.

Don’t be paranoid. Understand that certain environments are more and less risky, so it is important to be selective. Switch it on when you need to. Dial it down when you don’t. And if you’re paying attention to objects and establishments in the area, you might determine yourself what could be a target. Concert venues? Government buildings? Police stations? Military installations? Large shopping centers? These would certainly justify a heightened state of awareness. Any large public, or private, gatherings are particularly soft targets, as well as any place where said crowd could be funneled and congested during an emergency.

To close, here is a scenario to test how you might observe a situation unfolding around you. This will help you gain insight into our minds as well.

Imagine you are standing in a crowded, public place, when the overall normality is suddenly interrupted by a thunderous, chest-pounding boom. Not a second later, an entire crowd of people are rushing away from the directional source of the sound.

Take a second… and think about what you might look for that is an irregularity in such a situation.

What did you see? Where did you look?

We looked away from the source. We took note of one person in the area who didn’t seem to be panicked enough for somebody who is in fear of their life. “Everyone is running. Why is this person walking fast, with his head down? Evasive, distant, disconnected from the scene. Suspicious. Look harder.”

“Check the windows of the buildings nearby, or any other vantage points/elevated positions (a hillside, or any other overwatch position). Is somebody filming or watching from afar?”

Lastly, we understand that this is an impossible skill-set to master in a such short publication, but the idea is to provide you a baseline.

We’ve never sugarcoated anything. And we won’t now... Back to the top – pay attention to what is going on in the Middle East. Because it may (and in our opinion, should) influence that selectivity we advised earlier.

Stay Vigilant.

- AVRD, signing off