What we can learn about security planning from recent civil unrest


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Many of us waited with bated breath as we awaited the outcome of the pro-Trump protest and counter protests that occurred in Washington DC on November 14. The uncertainty and tension in the air was palpable. In some ways, it was a barometer on just how divided the United States is, and how violent the resulting political demonstrations will possibly be through the year and into early 2021. It was an indication of the security situation we will all face moving forward, given the political realities. There were many failures of security and planning from which to choose. While some were unavoidable, the main failures resolved around inadequate intelligence, poor communication, and failure to plan for contingency. in retrospect we can learn from these failures and apply them to our security programs, even if it appears we are in for an extended period of civil unrest across the globe.

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Most of us in the threat and risk intelligence business knew that there were likely to be “fireworks” last Saturday night. The obvious political intensity of groups scheduled to be present was enough to signal to the most situationally unaware person that there was some risks attending any gathering within the vicinity of the White House and Capitol Hill. It’s estimated that well over 100,000 people were in the area on the day of the event. The Proud Boys, Boogaloo boys, conservative groups, liberal groups, Antifa, Black Bloc, and various factions of BLM supporters were all prepared to be in the same location for more than 48 hours. The likelihood of violence was extremely high. Less obvious were the plans and intentions of the groups, where they planned to stage, when and how they planned to act, their numbers, and what local law enforcement would do to protect everyone and their property. Most attendees and ad-hoc security elements there were unaware of these important factors, or ignored them.

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The pro-Trump groups had the superior numbers in this confrontation and, as such, moved unimpeded throughout DC for most of Saturday. Security elements in the protests largely protected speakers and “MVP” personalities. During the planned march, pockets of counter demonstrators gathered along the route, or in law enforcement protected enclaves, shouting and holding up signs. Marchers, in return, berated their adversaries. Many missed the fact that there were covert actors within the protests and counter protests who were waiting for night fall and the relative advantage of numbers to accost and attack (often physically) Trump supporting tourists. Local law enforcement largely stayed out of the several scuffles that eventually broke out across the Capitol Mall area and near the White House. As the sun went down, a largely peaceful day devolved into pockets of chaos and sporadic violence. By Sunday morning, dozens of skirmishes were recorded on video or photographed, while dozens more were reported to police or went unreported. Based on social media and observational reports, violent confrontations were often the result of supporters of the President being attacked as they exited the relative safety of the larger crowds earlier in the day. 

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There were many challenges across the board. The event organizers and security elements were outnumbered and were forced to protect in a “priority-based” approach. Only severe infractions and high impact threats were seriously considered. High value “targets” were provided more resources, and many sacrifices in security were made to accomplish this. Security forces were largely reactionary and changing locations only when event prompted a change in coverage area or numbers. Law enforcement was largely fixed and strategically placed at key observation nodes across the area and concentrated at major protest gathering sites.

Law enforcement did not largely travel with protestors or counter protestors unless providing undercover support. The main protestors themselves were scattered around the area and many were unsure of where to go. Communication was nonexistent for the other than two areas where speakers concentrated at Freedom square and the Supreme Court steps. Some of the right leaning groups were communicating through mobile apps and SMS, but they didn’t stay with the protest as the sun went down. Counter protestors, grouped tighter, were communicating through various mobile apps and were therefore slightly more coordinated. Even they had difficulty coordinating, as many of the left leaning groups and anarchists were acting separately and with different agendas. As the pro-Trump protests started to wind down, there was confusion about where to go and what to do next and for those wishing to go back to their hotels or homes, some routes and areas proved to be safer than others.


If you compare the large event to an organizational security program, the following improvements might have led to a better outcome for many people involved.

  • Better real time intelligence on groups that were planning and staging violent activities. There was little reconnaissance done before the event by some groups and especially during/after the event. The secret service and government used SIGINT (signals intelligence) and a vast array of camera systems substantially to flag major threats, but the tactical threats on the ground were not prioritized. Having a real time threat intelligence capability would have helped many before and during their visit.
  • Better communication, training, and consolidation. The chaotic nature of the event and dispersion created a nearly impossible security problem for law enforcement and other security groups. The lack of a central communication or planning tool created constant vulnerability and exposed flanks. There was also limited guidance on how to act under certain conditions.
  • Future and contingency planning. It had to be obvious that there would be opportunistic attacks by certain groups around certain hotspots. There seemed to be little recourse or security support for protestors given this high probability of incidence. ‘War-gaming” or scenario planning would have helped think through these challenges and possibly arrive at better solutions to deal with them. The event planners largely ignored risk management and should not be surprised that there were consequential negative impacts. 

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The point of this short summary article is not to condemn or condone any activities associated with the protests. Protesting is an American right and will always be a factor for security planning. The highly political nature of an election, especially amidst the backdrop of a pandemic, inevitably leads to emotions boiling over. That has led to a high level of division in the country and elevated participation in largely peaceful protests. Some groups, however, are prepared to conduct violent operations in support of their political causes. There is a duty to protect citizens and organizational staff. Ad hoc or reactionary security programs will create pains and consequences that could ultimately result in the loss of life or millions of dollars in damage to property. 

In the military, the term “shoot,” “move,” and “communicate,” is often used to teach soldiers how to survive in dynamic and hostile threat environments.  I would add the word “Know” to that list for when you are designing or planning a program.

Know your environment.

Know the participants and likely actions.

Know when the situation changes.

Know what to do when it does.

Know a plan. Know contingencies.

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Another point to remember is that it takes highly trained specialists and leading-edge technology to help with these activities. As security professionals, it is our duty to keep learning and to enlist the support of those that are more well versed in certain disciplines. Security is a large industry with hundreds of competencies. Trying to do it all yourself, or even with a small team, can be overwhelming; and failure can result in grave consequences for the people that matter most. Alpha Recon can help you understand the early threat indicators and manage your intelligence operations as you protect your assets and organization. We’re happy to help keep citizens and security groups with all of their risk intelligence needs. We love what we do and know we can help. Give us a chance to earn your business and trust.


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