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6 tips for preventing and surviving a terrorist attack

Customers dine at the gourmet emporium Eataly in New York Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. From cafes in Manhattan to a throng of football tailgaters in the heartland, Americans asked a gnawing question in the aftermath of the carnage in Paris: Can anything be done in the United States to prevent a similar "soft-target" attack, in which well-organized extremists strike at the restaurants, bars and gathering spots that stand out for being ordinary? (AP Photo/Verena Dobnik)

In the wake of attacks in Paris Friday and new threats from ISIS promising attacks in the United States, a heightened sense of fear is understandable. Terrorism experts and security professionals say there are steps the public can take to reduce the risk of an attack and to increase their chances of survival if one occurs.

1. See something, say something

It may seem cliché, but security experts constantly return to this principle: if you see something, say something.

"That's a huge benefit if people were to do that," said John White, president and CEO of Protection Management.

"It's just a matter of teaching people how to say that, when to say that."

"You don't want to panic people, but you also want to tell them to be wary of their surroundings," said Michael Wallace, director of homeland security studies at Tulane University.

"The most critical thing is the public needs to be the eyes and ears of law enforcement, of counterterrorism, of the government," said Adam Lankford, criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama and author of "The Myth of Martyrdom."

Lankford pointed to the example of the Unabomber, who was caught because his brother recognized something in his manifesto and alerted authorities. Sometimes friends, family, and neighbors have information the government does not or they understand it in a context law enforcement cannot.

The principle also applies on the internet. Terrorists do comment on their beliefs and make threats online, and those comments should be taken seriously and reported or flagged.

White also noted media reports that terrorists may be using video games to communicate online and said gamers may need to watch out for suspicious conversations.

2. Don't underreact

Experts agree that underreaction to suspicious activity is a far bigger problem than overreaction.

"Sure, overreacting is a concern," Lankford said, "But the way human beings tend to be, they tend to underreact."

People may assume there is a reasonable explanation for something that seems suspicious to them, or they may have inhibitions about getting involved, but it is always best to let police decide whether or not something is a true threat.

D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier made this point in an interview with WJLA Tuesday.

"We want people to report suspicious activity, no matter how slight you feel this activity is," she said.

Law enforcement may determine that information you provide is irrelevant or it may cause a minor inconvenience, but experts say it is better to notify them if anything seems suspicious.

According to emergency preparedness expert Eric Holdeman, the general public in Israel is typically on guard and watchful for anything suspicious and willing to do something about it.

"We just don't have that perspective here in the United States," he said.

Craig Gundry, vice president of special projects for Critical Intervention Services, also pointed to citizens in places like Israel and Sri Lanka, where terrorism has historically been more common, as being very aware of suspicious behavior and abandoned vehicles and objects.

One challenge in the U.S., according to Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab Executive Director Melanie Pearlman, is that people do not always know what they should be looking for. Her organization has created a video to help people recognize warning signs.

"I think your first step is understanding what suspicious behavior is, and then seeing something, and knowing who to report it to," she said.

3. Trust your gut

People often do subconscious risk assessments in potentially dangerous situations. White used the example of a person seeing acting strange while parking their car. They may decide to park somewhere else or call security for an escort.

Do not ignore that instinct, he said. It could prevent an attack from happening.

Other experts agreed.

"If your gut tells you something doesn't look right, you have to say something about it," Holdeman said.

When people are unsure what is happening, they sometimes make the mistake of sticking around or getting closer to find out.

"If you suspect something is wrong, get away from the area," Gundry said.

4. Know your exits

As in movie theaters and airplanes, Wallace said it is always good advice to know where the exits are in any location. If possible, you want to figure out how to get yourself and your family out if something bad happens.

When an attack occurs, the difference between life and death could be determined in the first seconds and minutes, according to Gundry.

"The people who recognized danger when it occurred and took action tend to survive."

As a broader principle, it is wise to have a plan and be prepared for any disaster. Holdeman observed that the risk goes beyond shootings and hostage situations. An attack on an electrical grid or critical infrastructure could be crippling, but that same damage could also be done by a natural disaster.

"It doesn't have to be someone shooting at people to impact our modern society."

5. Run, hide, fight

In the event of an attack, the advice experts give is similar to what the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have long advised for active shooter scenarios. Run, hide, or fight.

(Warning: The contents of this video depicting an active shooter event may be disturbing to some viewers)

"People need to, first of all, not panic," Wallace said, but he acknowledged that can be difficult.

Try to get out of the area quickly if possible, experts say. Moving and finding cover is better than standing still.

"It is much harder to hit a moving target than it is a slow target," Gundry said. Hiding behind cars, walls, or any objects that provide protection or concealment can also help.

"Your best option is to get away," Holdeman said. Once you are confronted by a gunman, running or fighting back is a better option than giving up.

The Americans who stopped a terrorist attack on a train in France earlier this year provide an example of the value of fighting.

"You want to try to secure the room you're in or make a run for it," Lankford said, or fight the terrorists if necessary.

This was not always the case. Lankford noted that in the 1970s, it was generally understood that resisting hostage-takers was a mistake because someone would negotiate your release.

"Today, we see that there don't seem to be many cases where negotiation actually occurs or peaceful resolutions are reached."

Gundry also observed this shift. With modern jihadists, the point of an attack is often to kill the hostages or use them to create a no-win situation for authorities.

"The rules are very different these days," he said.

The worst thing you can do in an attack, and unfortunately sometimes the most natural thing, is freeze. The best way to prevent that is training, which emergency personnel and police have.

Expecting the public to have such professional training for dangerous situations is unrealistic, though. Gundry said, "The next best thing to it is as least rehearsing in your own mind what you would do in a situation like this."

6. Live your life

"You don't know where terrorist events are going to happen," Wallace said.

The Paris attacks prove that terrorists may not always target landmarks and prominent locations. An attack on a random theater or restaurant may even be more effective in creating fear and panic, so staying away from the most popular and populated areas is no guarantee of safety.

The unsettling reality is that the U.S. is filled with soft targets, and law enforcement agencies do not have the resources to safeguard all of them. This is one reason why the "see something, say something" advice is so important.

Gundry noted that authorities currently have no specific information indicating an imminent threat, which makes altering your behavior to stay safe impractical.

"I would not recommend that people alter their lifestyle based upon the circumstances that we're currently experiencing," he said.

Others see Americans changing their lives and living in fear as giving in to the terrorists.

"They absolutely should not change their everyday behavior," Pearlman said. "That's where the terrorists win."

However, she added that it is important to understand physical and cybersecurity threats, and to be aware of the warning signs.

Allowing a threat to alter your day-to-day behavior may even be dangerous, Lankford suggested. He said many people in the Washington, D.C. area did change their behavior and live in fear during the sniper attacks in 2002, but research showed those who did suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder afterward.

People do still need to be careful in the current environment, though.

"Keep your head on a swivel," Wallace said. "Constantly look."

It ultimately comes down to awareness and willingness to speak out, according to the experts. Be prepared and educate yourself, but they see no need to disrupt your daily life at this point.

"Know what to do in an emergency, have a basic plan in mind, and maintain a basic awareness of your environment," Gundry said.

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