RESPONSE TO TERRORISM: Are SWAT Teams Prepared for a Terrorist Attack in America?


The following article is based on the responses to a questionnaire given to SWAT team officers recognized as subject matter experts on SWAT tactics and SWAT team training. The experts are a combination of current and retired officers. They provided recommendations, opinions and possible solutions to several SWAT-related issues. Their responses to the author’s questionnaire, along with the author’s thoughts on these critical issues, guide the information presented here. It begins with a terrorist incident at a school and covers the subsequent law enforcement response. Of primary concern are issues related to multi-agency cooperation, command decisions, response time, tactics and training.


As SWAT team members arrive to the scene, the on-scene commander analyzes the collected information provided by multiple sources. The sources include witnesses, students, current policy and procedures, both teams attempted to find the suspects and stop any further violence. Both teams have been neutralized: one team of four is pinned down by automatic machine gun fire, and the second team of five suffered two dead and three wounded by rifle fire and what is believed to have been fragmentation grenades thrown by the suspects inside.
The incident commander quickly ascertains that his current resources at the scene are not adequate and that his officers are not properly equipped nor tactically trained to effectively handle this quickly evolving incident. The special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team along with additional resources will be needed to stop the escalation of violence wrought by the suspects fortified inside. The agency’s SWAT team trains twice a month for scenarios such as this. It is equipped with assault rifles and body armor, has a truck load of tactical equipment, and is readily prepared to do what is necessary to end this school siege . . . or are they? Are SWAT teams prepared to deal with a terrorist attack on our schools?


Throughout my research for this topic, several major issues were discovered that should be a concern for law enforcement agencies confronting the scenario proposed in this article. Many were pointed out by the subject matter experts (SME) in their responses to the SME questionnaire.

The number one concern was the expected difficulties in coordinating a multi-agency response to a terrorist attack of this magnitude. These concerns over inter-agency cooperation may stem from personal experience during other major events where difficulties working cohesively with surrounding agencies was experienced. Varying departmental policies and procedures that dictate the actions of officers may also be a factor. One agency’s actions may be prohibited by department policy in another agency.

Radio communication issues, preventing one agency from communicating via police radio due to a lack of proper channel or frequency, will also contribute to interagency coordination problems.

A second major concern rested with command staff or the decision makers present at this incident. There are two main issues identified as anticipated problems by those with final decision–making responsibilities for response tactics. The first concern was that the person in charge will be so hampered by any liability or political repercussions that he will simply fail to act appropriately. Decisions may be based solely on expected consequences, resulting in an ineffective tactical response that will inevitably cost the lives of hostages and/or officers. Launching a rescue attempt that will most likely result in the injury or death of peace officers and hostages is not a decision many law enforcement administrators may be ready or willing to make.
The second issue involves the concern that those at the command level are not educated on current terrorist ideologies. This includes the tactics terrorists have used in prior attacks, what can be expected of them during a takeover such as this one, and the required type of law enforcement responses to resolve the situation. The subject matter experts believed once an event of this magnitude occurred, they would be second-guessed and overridden on tactical recommendations and decisions made to their superiors, because their superiors either lacked the resolve to make the decision, or they are ignorant to the facts intrinsic in these types of terrorist attacks.
A third major concern that was noted by almost every SME was the slow response time of SWAT personnel. Full-time SWAT teams may not have this issue, but part-time teams dominate law enforcement agencies. While some SWAT officers could be working their primary assignment (as a patrol officer for example) during the time of the incident and be one of the first officers to arrive at the scene, there may be several other SWAT officers on their scheduled days off. It could take them at least an hour to arrive to the scene, after they are called upon for assistance.
Several experts feared that those in charge would attempt to utilize the traditional SWAT tactic of containing the scene and initiating negotiations. In their opinion, this would play into the hands of the terrorists, giving them exactly what they desire: time.
Preparations for a terrorist attack should include a minimum of one training day per year that includes at least two other SWAT teams that would be likely first responders along with your agency. There should be an open sharing of ideas, tactics and tools to create a cohesive unit capable of effectively resolving terrorist incidents.

John Gnagey, NTOA Executive Director, has noted that “Contemporary terrorists are highly trained and conditioned against using negotiations for any purpose other than prolonging the duration of the incident to allow them to become more entrenched and fortified.”

Lacking the proper equipment to effectively deal with this situation was another major concern among the subject matter experts. Several SMEs listed the possession of enough ammunition as the top equipment need. Armored vehicles, explosive breaching capabilities, and belt-fed or crew-served machine guns were also noted as being essential gear to have if the incident was to be resolved with the fewest lives lost.

The lack of training in counterterrorism tactics was also pointed out as a deficiency in SWAT teams. The tactics necessary to effectively resolve a terrorist attack of this nature require that SWAT teams abandon some traditional methods. If SWAT teams are not educated and trained on the strategies required to be effective to give them a fighting chance to end this scenario with the least amount of officers and hostages killed, then it is incumbent upon those teams to conduct proper and relevant training.


It is critical that SWAT teams from surrounding agencies start training together for this type or similar types of scenarios. It is essential that SWAT teams prepare and train for what they can control; the tactics utilized during this type of terrorist attack. Time should be spent planning and coordinating at least one day of training a year, which includes at minimum two other SWAT teams that would most likely be the first responding to assist the primary agency in the assault and rescue of the hostages.

SWAT teams should share ideas, tactics, equipment, and other tools that could be used to establish a cohesive unit capable of effectively and safely resolving terrorist incidents. A multi-agency training day should consist of practicing simultaneous assaults from multiple breach points on a structure, using airsoft or simunition weapons. Role players acting as suspects/terrorists and hostages are vital to this training.
Special attention should be given to the breaching capabilities of each respective team. Radio communication capabilities-including interoperability, terminology, codes, and simplistic language–should also be emphasized during multi-agency training. Diminishing friendly fire incidents and the coordination of snipers are two additional important issues that must be addressed.
In addition, SWAT team leaders from each unit should establish written policies or guidelines specifically for terrorist type incidents that each surrounding agency can refer to and follow. These policies should include everything from the radio channel communication to which team will be expected to handle explosive breaching needs. This will assist all of the tactical team leaders and commanders when it comes time to develop a coordinated assault and rescue. With policies in place to follow and guide, debate among SWAT team leaders and tactical commanders should be lessened. These factors, with a pre-incident plan, will result in a quicker response. Speed of response with implemented and rehearsed plans will mitigate the time terrorists need to fortify their positions.

It is vital that every law enforcement supervisor from the sergeant level up to the police chief or county sheriff be educated on trends in terrorism and counterterrorism. This training should be no different than what patrol officers receive in terrorism and counterterrorism training courses. More importantly, the training should stress the consequences of failure to act. Consequences must be presented as they will enhance reality for those that will be placed in positions of command and control. Subordinates will be looking to these individuals for final decisions.

In order to effectively make a decision, the decision must be based on informed as well as analyzed data. This intelligence will not only come from tactical data obtained on scene, but on prior education, experience, and training that the individual may possess. Those with authority to make decisions–whether to assault, hold, or negotiate–must have a clear understanding of the situation. A risk-versus-benefit analysis should be applied, but the person in charge must understand tactics, techniques, and procedures, as well as the ideology and goals of the terrorists.
The survey of experts also revealed deep concerns over slow response times, including arriving on scene, donning equipment, receiving orders, and fulfilling assignments. There is not a simple solution to this problem. Whether it is a fulltime or part-time SWAT team, it is very rare that all members of the team will be working at the same time during any given shift. However, departments may be able to assign two or three (or more) SWAT team officers to all shifts. This would provide at least a few SWAT-trained officers to be present at the onset of a major incident where SWAT team tactics and equipment are essential.
To improve response times, SWAT team officers should be required to carry all of their individual SWAT equipment during regular patrol duties. This enables them to provide immediate SWAT team tactics to the situation. Quicker response time by key individuals also allows them to assist supervisors in assembling active shooter response teams, positioning officers with long rifles in perimeter positions, and gathering intelligence as the event unfolds.
Utilizing traditional SWAT team tactics for containing suspects confined within buildings and initiating negotiations worried some of the experts in this survey. Some were of the opinion that negotiations should only be used as a diversion, while coordinating and preparing for an assault. More specifically, their concerns about those in charge rested with a lack of understanding of terrorist takeover dynamics and, consequently, relying solely on tactics that empower the terrorists. As stated earlier, it is imperative that supervisors at all levels of law enforcement be educated and trained on the ideology and tactics of terrorists. Once leadership becomes knowledgeable of the enemies we face, they should fully understand that employing traditional law enforcement tactics–such as surround and callout–will not be sufficient or effective.
Possessing the proper and necessary equipment to effectively handle a major critical incident has always been a problem for law enforcement agencies. Because not all agencies will have the luxury of possessing armored vehicles and/or explosive breaching capabilities, for example, those agencies should attempt to reach an agreement with other surrounding agencies that do. This coordination will provide necessities when called upon for assistance.
The final and possibly most critical issue noted by the surveyed subject matter experts was rooted in the necessity of a combat mindset. All these experts agreed that SWAT team officers must be as psychologically prepared as possible for an encounter with terrorists. This can only be achieved through realistic, scenario-based training and counter-terrorism training. Additionally, SWAT officers must be taught that the tactics they employ during any assault and rescue attempt in this scenario can realistically result in the death of some hostages. In essence, the deaths of several innocent people may be necessary to stop the alternative of mass casualties at the hands of the terrorists.
As noted by Peter Spagnolo and Chad Harbaugh in Countering Terrorism and Insurgency in the 21st Century, “The local SWAT officer must adopt the mindset that we are in a state of war and must act more along the lines of a soldier than a police officer.”


Several conclusions can be drawn from the research conducted. First, it has come to the forefront that SWAT teams sharing jurisdictional borders must find the time to train together. Coordinating a multi-point assault with one SWAT team can be challenging enough. Attempting to integrate two to three additional SWAT teams into the plan can be exceedingly difficult–especially if those teams have never or rarely trained together.
Second, SWAT team methods are based on small-unit military tactics, but guided and restricted by case law, departmental policies, equipment, training, and experience. Therefore, proper, relevant and realistic counterterrorism training is absolutely essential for SWAT teams. The training must educate the officers on terrorist ideologies, tactics, and what to expect from these types of adversaries.
Finally, and probably the most important, SWAT officers must also adopt the right frame of mind once confronted with a terrorist threat like the one outlined in this article. Training in psychological compartmentalization is crucial. It must be infused in SWAT team members’ minds that once an assault and rescue attempt is initiated, the likelihood that one or several of them will die is extraordinarily high. The Spagnolo and Harbaugh book also states, “In the terrorist incident, withdrawal is simply not an option; the team must maximize surprise, speed, and violence of action and aggressively continue the operation in the face of casualties because once the assault has begun, the terrorists must not be given a chance to regroup.”
As a final point, it should be remembered that the probability that another attack will occur is very high. In what form, we can only guess. Terrorists may orchestrate another attack similar to those on 9/11, a Mumbai-type assault, or a terrorist takeover. Whatever shape the attack may take, law enforcement SWAT teams must be as prepared as possible to fulfill their duties to those we have sworn to protect.


started his law enforcement career in 2000 with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Since then, he’s worked with the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department, followed by his current position with the Elk Grove Police Department. He has six years of SWAT experience, four of them as the EGPD SWAT team leader. Press has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from CSUS, Sacramento, and his master’s degree in terrorism and counterterrorism studies from Henley Putnam University. He can be reached by email at

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