Why is it so Hard to Count Terrorists?

It was around 5.30pm in New York on June 3rd when I received the first news alert about the London Bridge attack. That first report was vague: at around 10.00pm London time, a white van had plowed into pedestrians on London Bridge and its passengers had starting stabbing people. No one knew exactly how many assailants there were.

At home, we urgently flicked between CNN and BBC TV coverage and trawled Twitter and Facebook, seeking for clues as to whether our London friends might be affected. Horrific stories began to emerge of at least three assailants, possibly more, stabbing patrons in Borough Market.

Around midnight London time (7pm New York time), the media reported three assailants shot dead by the London Police. But that was not the end of it. No one knew if there were other assailants. The media speculated wildly as reports came in of armed police storming bars and restaurants near London Bridge.[1] Stunned bystanders were marched by police out of the Borough area with their hands in the air, amid fears the terrorists could have been trying to mingle with them. Terrified guests huddled in restaurant basements and behind security grills[2].

 Photo: Neil Hall/ Reuters

Photo: Neil Hall/ Reuters

It wasn’t until 4am London time, 11pm New York time, that the Metropolitan Police confirmed that there had only been three assailants and they were all dead but not before brutally killing 8 people and hospitalizing a further 48. Still, some witnesses were not allowed to leave the area until 6am London time the following morning.[3]

This is not to criticize the Metropolitan Police, emergency services, government or mayor in any way – they did a remarkable job handling an agonizing situation. The suspects were dead within 8 minutes of the first emergency call. But I am struck that despite all of London’s smart city surveillance technology, it took 6 hours for authorities to have the confidence to publicly announce that there were no further assailants. During that time the city, and its friends around the globe, were gripped with the fear of other knife-wielding lunatics. Perhaps authorities knew after the first 8 minutes. But it did not seem like it.

This problem is not limited to the UK. On January 6 this year, US law enforcement struggled to count how many shooters there were at a Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida. At 12.53pm that afternoon, Esteban Santiago collected his case from a baggage claim carousel at Hollywood International Airport’s Terminal 2, entered a restroom, withdraw a semi-automatic from his luggage, loaded it, and returned to the baggage claim area where he started firing. Santiago killed 5 passengers and wounded 6 more before throwing down his gun and surrendering to police within 80 seconds of firing his first shot.[4]

 Photo: Wildredo Lee/ AP

Photo: Wildredo Lee/ AP

However, at 2.23pm false reports came over police radio of additional shots fired in Terminal 4, Terminal 1 and the Southwest Airlines areas. Panic spread through the entire airport: a stampede broke out, people dove for cover, sprinted onto planes, and hundreds poured out of emergency exits onto the airport tarmac. The Federal Aviation Administration immediately closed the airport to flights.[5]

 Photo: Lynne Sladky/ AP

Photo: Lynne Sladky/ AP

he Broward County Sheriff’s Office called for backup - some reports suggest 2,400 local, state and federal answered the sheriff’s call and descended on the airport.[6] To make matters worse – the plain clothes officers scared the hell out of the travelers: running into groups with weapons raised, not immediately discernable to onlookers as law enforcement. People thought they were shooters. Even the police were confused.[7] In addition to the 11 people Santiago shot, a further 40 others were injured in the panic that ensued.[8]

At 3.25pm, some 2.5 hours after Santiago’s first shots, the Sheriff Scott Israel, announced on TV there were no other shooters.[9] But as the hours wore on, authorities failed to inform terrified passengers about what was happening or when they would get help.  “Nobody knew anything” said Gary Bryant, a Canadian tourist who was stranded on the Fort Lauderdale tarmac and in a hangar for more than 10 hours.[10]  It wasn’t until 7pm that officials gave the “all clear” and started clearing the airport, although many couldn’t depart the airport until long after midnight.[11] In the intervening hours, calls to 911 for medical help for passengers included a 2-year-old described as lethargic, a heart patient with no medication, an elderly woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease in distress, an 8-year-old vomiting and an 88-year-old woman who had collapsed.[12]

At AlphaPrime, we are pondering this status quo. Why - in this era of unsurpassed smart-city and airport surveillance do authorities need so many hours to confirm the number of attackers? And why does it take so long to release traumatized onlookers?

The answer is concurrently simple and complex – with all of our sensors, video feeds, social media and millions of cell phones, our law enforcement and emergency responders are over-whelmed with data, but not insights. We still can’t automatically detect, count and account for teams of assailants. Human beings are still needed to manually assimilate information across multiple video and other data feeds, in order to be certain of who and what happened. There is an unavoidable time lag to this work. Additionally, our infrastructure for accurately and contemporaneously recording witness identities and testimonies is antiquated and manual. Consequently the “lock down” periods are inevitably extended, the panic and terror of the original incident is amplified, and witnesses suffer collateral damage and trauma.

London Bridge and Fort Lauderdale are harsh reminders that we need more innovative solutions to reduce the terror effects of these attacks. We need solutions that can accurately detect assailants irrespective of their weapons. We need systems that can process and analyze massive video data feeds in a cohesive fashion despite isolated inputs. And we need on-demand information gathering platforms that can host contemporaneous witness accounts and digest, analyze and prioritize this information to escalate pertinent points to investigators.

The moral and a financial case for these solutions is overwhelming. Aside from enabling law enforcement to more effectively respond and defend its citizens, or avoiding the panic and damage caused by false shooter reports, there is also the cost of delayed information. Consider the London Bridge attacks – had they occurred in the middle of a trading day (and not in the middle of a weekend), financial markets could have been plunged into turmoil (which unethical but prepared protagonists could have profited from). And in Fort Lauderdale – not only did inaccurate information cause a stampede, but the airport was closed: hundreds of flights were diverted to other locations, to the unrecovered expense of airlines, diverted passengers, and their insurers.[13]

Never before in our history, have we had the number of cameras and other sensors at our fingertips to answer the pertinent questions of “how many attackers” or “what happened”? The ability to collect, analyze and see the patterns in this data in real-time is an essential part of the fight against assailants and the consequential terror and collateral damage. Never before in history have we been so well informed, and paradoxically so utterly un-informed. It’s time to change that. 


About AlphaPrime:  In an increasingly complex and dangerous world, threats to people and assets are escalating in diversity, frequency and magnitude. The need and ability to anticipate and respond to these threats is essential and universal. AlphaPrime invests in companies that address this need, and manage and protect people and assets. It’s not part of what we do, it’s everything we do. Find out more at www.alphaprime.com .


[1] [2] David Bond, Peter Campbell and Naomi Rovnick. "A night of terror in London Bridge attack". Financial Times, June 4, 2017

[3] Rachel Roberts. ”London attack: Heroic restaurant owner and staff led 130 people to safety as terrorists charged towards them” . The Independent. June 4, 2017

[4] Fort Lauderdale Airport Shooting”. Wikipedia. Retrieved June 12, 2017 

[5] "Fort Lauderdale airport shooting: Five people shot dead by Florida gunman". BBC News. January 6, 2017, Megan O’Matz, David Fleshler and Stephen Hobbs. ”What went wrong: How the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting spun out of control”. The Sun Sentinel, April 23, 2017.

[6],[7],[10] Megan O’Matz, David Fleshler and Stephen Hobbs. ”What went wrong: How the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting spun out of control”. The Sun Sentinel, April 23, 2017.

[8] David Fleshler; Susannah Bryan; Paula McMahon; Linda Trischitta, Contact Reporters (January 6, 2017). "Esteban Santiago: Details emerge of suspect in airport shooting"South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved January 6, 2017.

[9] [11] [12] Gary Leff. "When Man Shot Passengers at Baggage Claim in Fort Lauderdale, the Airport Response was a Giant Cluster". View from the Wing, April 23, 2017.

[13] Steve Helling and Lindsay Kimble, "5 Dead, At Least 6 Injured in Shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport, Suspect in Custody", People Magazine, Jan 6, 2017.

  Photo: Matt Dunham/ AP

 Photo: Matt Dunham/ AP