Explainer: What to do during a terror attack

Thursday January 16 2020

A policeman carries a baby to safety after masked gunmen stormed Westgate Shopping Mall on September 21, 2013 in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE | AFP


In recent years, the threat of terrorism has risen across the world. From France to the UK and Egypt, terrorist activity has spiked as extremist ideologies spread around the globe.

Kenya has not been spared. The country has been on the receiving end of terror attacks in the last 20 years, with the frequency of incidents rising tenfold over the last decade.

The Westgate Mall attack in 2013, the Garissa University incident in 2015 and DusitD2 siege in 2019 are some of the violent ones that made headlines and had mass casualties, injuries and a lifetime trauma for victims and their families. Since December, Al-Shabaab have stepped up their attacks in the country, especially in regions near the border with Somalia.

While acts of terror always catch victims by surprise, there are a number of things that you can do to increase your odds of surviving such an incident. The goal is to come out alive and unhurt.

The Manchester City Council, British Red Cross and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York have manuals for surviving a terror attack. These manuals emphasise three key elements: run, hide and tell.



Be vigilant: being watchful while in public places such as malls, bus and train termini and airports allows you to detect possible threats and to take action before it is too late. Don't ignore your gut feeling.

Report suspicious people, objects: people who seem to behave suspiciously in public places may be up to something sinister. Report them to the police. Alert the police about unattended bags and packages as these could bear explosives.


When a terror attack is under way, there are several things that you can do to survive. Remember the idea is to buy time and to remain alive for as long as possible.

Run: once it's clear that the premises are under a terror attack, look for the safest way to exit the building or area. Do so only if it's sensible. Move quickly and calmly without attracting attention to yourself.

Explosion: if there's an explosion outside the building, do not run outside. By doing so, you risk meeting head-on with the assailants. Run away from the explosion and hide within the building.

Fire: in case of fire, avoid using doors. Look for fire exits and use those. Cover your face and nose with a wet cloth and run.

Where to hide: hide behind thick walls or pillars where a bullet, for instance, can't penetrate. Avoid glass walls, even when they are tinted. While a glass wall may conceal you from the attackers view, a bullet will easily pass through and harm you.

Remember, an attacker doesn't need to see to shoot at you. Terrorists mostly shoot in an indiscriminate manner in order to cause maximum damage.

Avoid these areas: attackers often use windows and doors to access rooms in a building. Avoid staying close to doors for possible explosions. Do not use lifts or escalators. Keep away from corridors and other areas that give the attackers any advantage.

Use of mobile phones: while hiding, turn your phone on silent mode to avoid giving away your hideout. Text only. Do not make calls. Avoid switching off your phone as this disconnects you from the world and possible help.

Locate emergency exits: when using public transport and working in a building or visiting other public places, always establish where emergency exits are to facilitate fast flight.


Sometimes, terrorists take hostages. A case in point would be the Chibok girls in Nigeria who have been held hostage for more than five years now.

So, what should you do should you find yourself in a hostage situation?

Remain calm: do not complain or argue with the captors as this only increases the threat of being harmed.

Obey instructions: do not antagonise the captors. Do as they ask of you.

Do not run: unless you have a very good chance of successfully fleeing, do not attempt it. Attempts to do so may prompt the attackers to shoot you.

Avoid sudden movements: making sudden movements may be interpreted as hostility, and could spell trouble for you. Keep your hands where they can be seen.

Observe the captors: try to gather as much details as possible from the attackers, from how they are dressed, their language, voice, height and equipment. This will help you to describe them to the police after the rescue.


When help arrives, be calm. It would be a tragedy to survive the terrorists only to be harmed by friendly fire.

This is what to do during a rescue operation:

Wait for instructions: follow all the orders given by the rescuers without defying any. This way you establish trust with them.

Do not run: running towards the rescuers may might make them uncomfortable as they do not know you, prompting them to shoot. Running away is also dangerous, and could result in injuries for being mistaken for the attackers.

Lie low: stay where you are and wait to be evacuated. Do not move about. Again, making sudden movements may be interpreted as hostility, leading to confrontation.


Here are three things to do once the siege and rescue operation is over.

First aid: help those who may have been injured. Skills in basic first aid are critical and could save lives before medical professionals arrive at the scene.

See a doctor: the trauma of a terror attack may not be obvious immediately. Seek medical attention and see a psychologist for an assessment.

Tell: share with the police everything you can remember of the attackers. Remember the most important details, including nuances. This information helps the police to establish who the terrorists are, their associates and whether there are other planned attacks.