Terrorist Surveillance Detection for Houses of Worship


Jim McGuffey, M.A., CPP, PSP, PCI

In recent years, global viewers of churchsecurityconsultant.com website, have asked me to share security countermeasures to help prevent terrorist attacks on Houses of Worship (HOW) using Improvised Explosives Devices (IED). I decided due to emerging terrorist threats against places of worship, especially Christian Churches, I must respond now.

While serving in various leadership roles within churches, it became obvious to me that many HOW’s operate on a shoe-string budget and that only in recent years has there been any serious effort to improve security within churches to mitigate criminal threats. It is also obvious that no remarkable efforts have been taken to mitigate terrorist attacks.

The timeliness of this article is appropriate since open source data point to an increase of attacks against Christian Churches by ISIS and other terrorist organizations in places such as the United States, France, England and other locations that had not until recently been previously targeted by ISIS.

Focusing on the fact that many houses of worship operate on a shoe-string budget requires non-traditional solutions to meet emerging threats and improve safety and security. This article cites one cost effective and proactive security strategy, that being Surveillance Detection for Houses of Worship.

Terrorists plan attacks and although significant pieces of their information is collected from open sources, physical surveillance is required to finalize a plan of attack.

Part of the terrorist attack cycle includes initial surveillance of the target to determine the best target to attack. Terrorists may look for a target that will bring instant publicity or a target that can be penetrated with ease, but regardless of their reasoning for the selection, once a target is selected, terrorist will send their more skilled members to collect additional information.

It is during these surveillance cycles that you have the best chance to identify surveillance activity and alert law enforcement to the possibility that adversaries are conducting hostile surveillance your facility.

In order for the adversary to blend into your area, they may use ruses and props. A few ruses or props might include: Beggar or homeless person; Delivery person; Construction workers, Power Company Line-men or other schemes.

During this surveillance, terrorists seek locations to position themselves in what are referred to as red zones which meet the following three requirements:

Red Zones

Red zones are where adversaries position members to conduct hostile surveillance on your facility, looking for vulnerabilities to exploit, preceding an attack. Hostile surveillants will normally seek the following three criteria.

1) View of the target. Terrorists want to observe vulnerabilities so they want a good view.

2) Cover and concealment. Terrorists need to be able to apply cover and concealment tactics using ruses as noted above.

3) Safety and Exit. Terrorists need a safe route to enter and exit the site.

Green Zones

Once you identify where red zones (hostile surveillance positions) are most likely to be located, you can now identify the green zones.  Green zones are where you position your team to best observe adversaries without being observed. At places of worship with professionally trained security teams, security members receiving intelligence information relating to a possible attack will position themselves in green zones to observe those in red zones.

Houses of Worship without security teams will want to at least be cognizant of surveillance detection and suspicious activities to report to law enforcement. Staff and other members could benefit from training to recognizing suspicious indicators as noted in the following paragraph.

Following are a few suspicious activities you might observe around your facility:

  • Someone taking notes or photos who stops abruptly when you observe
  • Bending down to place or retrieve a camera or microphone
  • Pointing at the target
  • Sudden glancing away when approaching
  • Casually looking around
  • Pacing off distance
  • Circling the block in a taxi or vehicle
  • Stopping to tie and shoe and looking around
  • Car parked nearby with occupants taking note or photos
  • Multiple sightings of same people and activities
  • Interest in security systems
  • Someone looking around when when turning a corner or entering a facility
  • Drawing pictures/maps
  • Nervous behavior when approached

One or two of these activities alone may not indicate that your location is under surveillance but they should raise a red flag that additional observation may be warranted. Under no circumstance should anyone approach people acting suspicious. Approaching the suspicious person could result is death or serious injury.

Report to law enforcement immediately who may have had other reports of suspicious activities and want to conduct covert surveillance to see what other information can be learned. Also, if law enforcement is able to observe those conducting surveillance, it could result in lives saved by collecting and sharing intelligence information. Otherwise terrorist will just move onto the next facility which could result in many casualties.

Article Posted: October 25, 2016: Revised June 2017