Identifying Suspicious Behavior: Essential Pre-Attack Indicator Training for Executive Protection Agents

Senior executive protection professionals will all agree that the number one goal when performing protective details is to prevent a threatening or embarrassing situation before it becomes a reality for your client. Now, we all know that the majority of EP schools are highly invested in the ‘’cool guy skills’’. They spend hundreds of hours training in martial arts, firearms, evasive driving, etc. While those skills are important for anyone involved in the executive protection industry, we should not forget that equally important are the skills that will provide these agents with the necessary knowledge and tools of how to prevent a threatening situation.


Identifying suspicious person in a crowd


After more than 6 decades in this profession and having taught thousands of students, I can never highlight enough how important it is to have the ability to identify suspicious behaviors and clues to dangerousness. It is safer for both the client and the security team if the agents have a more proactive mindset rather than a reactive one. We all know by experience,  and from the hundreds of case studies, that no matter how skilled you are in martial arts or how great of a sharpshooter you are, when the moment comes and you have to respond to an attack, it doesn’t matter how many bad guys you can fight or shoot, or how fast or skillful you can drive. Because at that moment, the result of the fight will be determined by many factors other than your skills in fighting or shooting. How an attack toward your client will end depends on numerous variables such as the method of attack, the number of attackers, how well equipped they are, what kind of weaponry they are using, the attack area or “The X”, and most importantly, each one of the EP team member’s mental preparations to respond. Remember, the bad guys have done their homework, and they know your weak spots, and how and when to attack. So, they do have the upper hand in the surprise. Always keep in mind…They only have to get it right once…You have to get it right all the time.


And let’s not forget that while you are fighting or shooting publicly in the open, your client is quite exposed, could be seriously harmed, and will undoubtedly be scared emotionally for life! The fact that you could not foresee and/or plan to prevent a situation that put them at such risk is considered a failure. So, wouldn’t it be safer for everyone, and your job, to be able to prevent a threat instead of merely reacting to it? Again, the senior executive protection professionals will say over and over that the best protective details are not those based on force, numbers, or use of firearms, but those based on foreseeing an upcoming threat or embarrassing situation and preventing it. In the highly demanding and fast-changing world of protective details, the difference between a secure environment and a potentially dangerous situation is purely based on the agents’ ability to preemptively recognize and respond to suspicious behavior.


For more than 4 decades, at Executive Security International (ESI) we have been teaching thousands of students behavioral intelligence and how to identify clues to dangerousness. In simple words, we have been educating them on how to understand an attacker’s behavior, what are pre-attack indicators, and how to identify clues to dangerousness and suspicious behaviors.


Pre-Attack Indicators – Clues to Dangerousness

Pre-attack indicators are specific behaviors or actions that precede an attack, or illegal/bad act, and can serve as a warning to the observant protection agent that something wrong is going to take place. These indicators can vary widely but often include unusual patterns of body movements, facial expressions, gaze, overt interest in security measures, or attempts to breach the personal boundaries of the protectee. In the milliseconds prior to an attack, human predators quite often assume the physical features of apex predator animals as they close in on their prey/target. Being able to identify and understand these indicators requires the proper training on behavioral clues and a psychological insight into the mindset of potential attackers.


“Reading suspicious behavior”

One may ask, “Is it possible and easy to read others? Especially when it comes down to suspicious behavior?” Based on scientific evidence and real-life incidents, we can testify that it is possible and if trained properly, it is easy to do so. As with all skills, being able to read others and the environment around you requires constant training and good observation skills. After all, we can’t process the information we don’t see, correct?


Humans are emotional creatures, and what they feel (anger, fear, stress, happiness, embarrassment, etc.) can be seen through their body language or facial expressions. We can all tell why a child who is confronted by his parents is hiding his hands behind his body, or why some people are pacing back and forth in a hospital waiting room. In the same way, you can learn to identify suspicious behaviors and stop an attack before it takes place by simply observing peoples’ behavior, like someone who is going to commit an attack, either a suicide bomber or an attacker. They will display either stress, fear that they may be caught and fail their mission, or be under the influence of drugs. Being taught how these emotions are expressed through body movements and facial expressions can help you identify clues to dangerousness.


After the Manchester Arena terrorist attack that shook British society and the whole world, one of the event security guards, Kyle Lawler, said that the terrorist was reported by a member of the public who, he himself thought the person looked ‘’dodgy’’, and one of Showcase’s stewards also had a look at the terrorist minutes before he detonated his bomb. As Lawler continued with his testimony to the police, and according to The Guardian article, we read that:


“As Ali (Showcase steward) turned to have a look he’s (the terrorist) clocked that we are looking at him. He’s become fidgety with his hands. No sudden movements. He was watching us, watching him.

“He would kind of look, slightly look away and look back at us.”

In his statement to police, Lawler said: “I just had a bad feeling about him but did not have anything to justify that.”

He said Abedi was “fidgety and sweating” and he said he panicked slightly and was “conflicted” because he thought something was wrong but could not put his finger on it, the inquiry heard.”


What we see in this horrific incident is that at least three people were aware of a suspicious presence/behavior. A member of the public who saw “something wrong” reported it to a security guard and an event steward. According to the description, we see a very usual behavior by someone who is going to do something bad. “He’s become fidgety with his hands” because he was stressed, “He would kind of look, slightly look away and then look back at us” because he wanted to make sure he wasn’t caught or somebody had spotted him, and he was “fidgety and sweating”, because he was showing signs of stress.


Looking at the last statement made by the security guard, he found a specific behavior wrong, and he felt conflicted because he didn’t know how to interpret it. Here again we see the importance of training Executive Protection professionals (and anyone related to the security industry) behavioral intelligence and clues to dangerousness. The sad part of this situation is that three people, without training, spotted something they knew was wrong and if they had been trained properly, they would have known why something looks wrong and how to deal with it. Perhaps, in this particular case, the outcome would have been significantly different with quite a lower number of casualties.


Another incident, definitely worth mentioning and studying is that of the on-camera assassination of Russian ambassador to Tukey, Andrey Karlov, who was shot dead at an Ankara gallery by a Turkish policeman who wanted to protest Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war. By watching the video, one can see the clear pre-attack indicators of the assassin, minutes before he starts shooting. For those of you who have seen the video, we invite you to watch it again and this time pay attention to the following findings:

  • His pacing in the background shows signs of stress.
  • When he stands still his feet are planted wider than his shoulder’s width which shows a person who is ready to get physically engaged.
  • He has interlocked his fingers with his thumbs touching each other which shows an elevated level of stress.
  • He touches his jacket frequently, which is a sign of soothing movement.
  • He is also seen to be checking his firearm. And at one point, beginning to go for the firearm, he regrets it and seconds later he touches his face, which is another sign of stress. Blood is gathering around the mouth and nose area.
  • His face shows contempt, which is very frequent with terrorists.


A significant point to also consider is that he was an off-duty officer, showing up at an event he had no business attending, and being in close contact, was somehow allowed to place himself behind the victim in a live event. This in combination with the rest of the signs should have been a big red flag for what was about to unfold.


politician greeting crowd


The majority of the assassinations, terrorist attacks, and other physical attacks, could have been prevented if security personnel were trained in how to identify clues to dangerousness. Effective protective operations are those where the agents anticipate potential scenarios and prepare accordingly, rather than merely reacting to events as they unfold. The role of an executive protection agent is more about preventing incidents than it is about responding to them.


We started implementing our studies and experience, on behavioral intelligence and body language, into our Executive Security International’s executive protection courses since the mid 80’s. From the early days of my career, I have been fascinated by, and at the forefront of exploring how, someone’s body language and movements within a crowd can serve as crucial indicators of intent, in particular, nefarious intent to harm our clients. After years of protecting celebrities and high-net-worth families, both abroad and in the U.S., my observations led me to investigate and study further about body language and microexpression clues and how, by observing them, one can identify suspicious behavior.


In 1985, I came across the groundbreaking work and research of Dr. Paul Ekman, whose studies on facial expressions and emotions deepened my understanding of deception detection. Although Ekman’s research wasn’t directly linked to aggression, it convinced me that trained observers/executive protection agents could spot the pre-indicators of assault and guide these agents toward strategies of preemptive intervention and therefore, prevention.


It’s important to highlight here that much of today what training institutions teach security personnel about situational awareness (SA) seems to be superficial. Five years ago, we realized that in practice, SA terminology often means the agent is merely waiting for something to happen. Still, many use ‘Situational Awareness’ as a reactive intervention strategy, which leads to late reactions, resulting in client harm or embarrassment. It is crucial for anyone interested in learning more about this field to understand that, while observing behavioral cues is critical, the key is to preemptively engage by confronting the Person of Interest (POI) through soft entry or hard contact. Preemptive Intervention now means engaging the POI, communicating with team members, and seeking a resolution before any actual contact with the client. Going back to our reference on the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, if the security guard was trained in how to engage with a suspicious person for that “first interview”, most likely he would have gotten a good idea that there was something wrong that needed to be reported and investigated further BEFORE that person/visitor could proceed further into the event facility. We will analyze this method in a topic that we will develop in depth in our next article.


Today, when we talk and teach about Behavioral Intelligence, Clues to Dangerousness and Predator Hunting/Preemptive Intervention in our ESI classes, we teach with knowledge that is backed up with both real-life experience and thorough research since the early 80’s. We are very passionate about this topic because we genuinely believe in its highly proactive approach. The skill to read behavioral clues has been tested and it has been proven that it works, and the ability to “read others and the environment around you” remains the cornerstone of effective security and protective measures.


Bob Duggan

Founder & President


For those interested in learning more about behavioral intelligence and clues to dangerousness, please visit and stay tuned for our classes.