Mitigating Knife Attacks
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
On June 25, a man in Würzburg Germany, launched a knife attack against a crowd in the city’s center, killing 3 women and wounding numerous others.
The attacker was a 24-year-old Somali refugee who reportedly also suffers from mental illness.
German police reportedly found Islamic State propaganda during a search of the man’s residence and the Islamic State subsequently praised the attack.
The Würzburg attack comes in the wake of knife attacks against police officers in France in April and May.
There have also been several knife attacks in the UK in recent years, including attacks in June and December 2020.
These incidents highlight that knife attacks remain a popular terrorist tactic.
This merits a closer look at edged weapon attacks, strategies to avoid them, and ways in which potential targets can protect themselves against such attacks.
Focus on the Attack Cycle
First, it is important to recognize that, like any other criminal or terrorist attack, anyone planning an edged weapon attack must follow the steps of the attack planning cycle.
Obviously, the steps of the cycle for conducting a knife attack will unfold a bit differently—and perhaps more rapidly—from those of a more complex action such as a bombing.
But the attack cycle must nevertheless be followed, and there will be points during that cycle where the attacker can be detected—and avoided.
Like suicide bombers or other assailants preparing to attack a crowd, attackers preparing to strike with an edged weapon will usually exhibit demeanor that is odd or out of place.
While not all attackers exhibit the same characteristics, signs such as an abnormally tense body posture, outward signs of nervousness, a fixed stare, or abnormal perspiration may indicate ill intent.
Such non-verbal cues should then be considered with other contextual factors to help assess whether an individual poses a potential threat.
Sometimes attackers will also provide overt verbal cues of their intent to attack by yelling or screaming.
However, most knife attacks that are politically motivated (terrorism), are conducted in public and are directed indiscriminately against random targets, most frequently a crowd of people.
Because of this, victims who are part of the crowd will not likely be able to spot signs of pre-operational surveillance or the most obvious warning sign, the attacker’s demeanor, as he or she prepares to launch the attack.
The best way to spot unusual demeanor, and other contextual information, is to practice proper situational awareness, especially when you are out in public.
Practicing good situational awareness can literally allow you to see trouble coming and take steps to avoid it or at least mitigate its impact.
This ability is doubly valuable in a situation involving an attacker armed with an edged weapon because that assailant must be within arm’s reach to harm you.
The earlier you recognize that an attack is about to occur or is occurring, the quicker you can launch your OODA loop to react and avoid the situation.
Distance is a critical factor in such attacks because knives, box cutters, and other edged weapons are by nature an extension of the arm, and the range of these weapons extends only as far as the attacker can reach with the blade.
The threat of thrown-edged weapons is purposefully discounted here.
Throwing a knife at a moving target at an unmeasured distance to deadly effect is far more difficult than it appears in the movies.
It is simply much easier to kill someone with a knife you hold in your hand than with one you throw.
This means an attacker must be within approximately 3-5 feet to strike you with a knife or box cutter, although a trained individual can lunge several feet farther.
The surest way to protect against an attack with an edged weapon is to simply maintain a safe distance from the attacker.
The active-shooter maxim of ABC—avoid, barricade, and confront—also works in assaults involving edged weapons.
Avoid means staying out of the attacker’s range, barricade means locking yourself in some area where the attacker can’t get to you, and confront means just that—taking on the attacker.
If you must confront the attacker, it is handy to have received some quality self-defense training that pertains to dealing with edged weapons.
It is also important to understand upfront that when you confront a determined attacker armed with an edged weapon, you are very likely to get cut.
Good news is most cuts will not be fatal.
You must maintain a warrior mindset and continue to fight as viciously as possible even if you are slashed or stabbed.
Do not surrender at the first sign of blood and allow yourself to be slaughtered.
Carrying a firearm obviously gives you an advantage over a person armed with a blade, but since that is simply not possible in many places, it will often be necessary to find some sort of improvised weapon with which to defend yourself.
A club can be very effective against an assailant armed with a knife—especially if it is long enough to hit the attacker from beyond knife range.
There are a number of items such as pool cues or candlesticks that can be used as improvised clubs.
An object such as a barstool or restaurant chair can also be used to keep an attacker out of range until escape is possible or the attacker gives up and turns his attention to another target.
In knife attacks in Israel, victims have struck and disabled assailants with a variety of improvised weapons including a guitar.
During a 2016 machete attack in Columbus, Ohio, an employee wielding a baseball bat and a patron throwing chairs chased the attacker out of the restaurant.
In the 2017 London Bridge knife attack, one of the three assailants burst into a pub but had to withdraw from the establishment after being pelted with beer bottles and pint glasses.
This incident illustrates the utility of improvised weapons that can be thrown at an attacker, especially heavy items that can be thrown in volume.
There is a wide variety of improvised weapons available in most settings if you use a little imagination.
In a worst-case scenario where you can’t escape and don’t have time to obtain an improvised weapon, it is crucial to get control of the hand and arm holding the blade.
Do not try to get control of the weapon—that is very difficult, even with training.
Besides, grabbing a knife blade can result in terrible cuts to the hands that can render them unusable. Work to control the attacker’s hands and arms instead.
In the case of a larger weapon such as a machete or axe, if you cannot get away from the attacker, it is actually safer to get inside the cutting radius of the weapon as you attempt to confront and disable him.
There is also strength in numbers.
Swarming attacks against an attacker armed with an edged weapon are very effective, especially if someone can grab and control the arm and hand holding the weapon.
If you are wounded in an edged weapon attack, it is crucial to stop the bleeding until emergency workers arrive to help.
Even significant external bleeding can be stopped with pressure.
This can be applied either directly with the hands or with some sort of pressure bandage.
There is a difference between venous bleeding and arterial bleeding.
Venous blood tends to flow more slowly than arterial, which often spurts.
A victim can quickly die from a cut artery; therefore, arterial bleeding requires immediate attention.
You can’t control extreme arterial bleeding with pressure alone so use a tourniquet.
Slashing cuts to the inner thigh, the inside of the upper arm or armpit, and the neck, all could intersect major arteries.
Any stab wound to the chest threatens the aortic arch, the heart itself, and the lungs.
Other wounds may pose equal dangers, but the potential for rapid blood loss adds an extra degree of danger to these cuts in particular.
I personally travel with a “stop the bleed kit” that includes, among other items, a tourniquet, a chest seal, a pressure bandage, and hemostatic gauze to help stop bleeding.
Should you not have access to a first aid kit, there are a variety of other items, such as belts, scarves, neckties, or purse straps that can be employed as improvised tourniquets if someone is bleeding out.
Even manual pressure using a shirt or other piece of cloth can help stop venous bleeding in most cases.
Your improvised tourniquets or pressure bandages do not have to look pretty—they just have to stop the bleeding.
In addition to pressure, elevating a wounded limb above heart level can help reduce blood loss.
You should also carefully watch a victim, whether yourself or someone you are treating, for signs of shock and address it immediately.
If shock is not treated, it can kill.
Even the most basic first-aid courses teach how to detect and treat shock and how to control bleeding.
It is recommended you take one if you have not already done so.
Edged weapon attacks have been deadly—and terrifying—for most of human history, and they are not about to end anytime soon.
But with the proper situational awareness, mindset, and training, edged weapon attacks can also be avoided or defended against, and those wounded by them can often be kept from bleeding to death.