Posted by on Feb 6, 2015 in Personal Security | 3 comments

One of the most important factors in successful Attack Recognition, and also in determining a proper response when a threat is presented, is Pre-Contact Assessment of your environment and the Context of what is going on within it. Joel Lambert considers his environment at every turn when in the field. When it comes to escape and evasion the environment can hurt or help him, dictate options, set limitations, and cause him to choose one course over another. Without sufficient environmental intel he must guess and hope his guess is good. In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War he speaks of various factors that must be considered ahead of time to determine the conditions you will face in combat. Earth is one of them. In his words “Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.” He also emphasizes the importance of knowing your enemy, his habits, weaknesses and strengths to help make reliable decisions on how to best attack, defend against, evade or deceive your enemy and which is appropriate. Joel uses similar principles to gauge his pursuers and determine when he can rest, when to keep pushing, and when he must set a trap or lay a false trail. Preparation and knowledge of your environment and the enemy’s character and conduct within it is crucial intel necessary to prevail.

Having a thorough knowledge of the areas you travel through on a regular basis and especially those where you might be most likely to encounter violence can save you when things go to hell. Conversely, a lack of intel may seal your fate as a victim. Sun Tzu thinks this intel cannot be understated. “We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country–its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps.” You can’t take an army anywhere without this type of knowledge, therefore you should try to avoid taking yourself or your family anywhere you have not gathered at least the bare minimum intel concerning environment and context.

Some Pre-Contact Assessment questions to ask.

  • Is it a Fringe Area? Is it on the periphery of where people gather and travel? (I believe Marc MacYoung coined the term Fringe Areas years ago.) Is it isolated? These places are hunting grounds for criminals, just far enough away from the crowd where help is not immediately available to reach you. Move through these areas ASAP if you can’t avoid them.
  • What kind of Ground is it? Sun Tzu addresses several types.
    • Is it Open Ground where both parties have equal liberty of movement? Try to out maneuver the bad guy and “keep a vigilant eye on your defenses.”
    • Is it Difficult Ground? Is it filled with obstacles, low traction environment, or otherwise hard to traverse terrain? Don’t stop moving. This is ideal terrain for an ambush as well. Get through it as quickly as possible.
    • Is it Contentious Ground, ground that offers a distinct advantage to whoever occupies it? If you are threatened and can occupy the Contentious Ground, do so and prepare to fight. If the bad guy occupies it, avoid him and do not engage.
    • Is it Hemmed In Ground? Can it only be reached through narrow passages or limited avenues in and out? What are your options for escape? How many ways in and out are there nearby? Many or only one? Consider such areas as apartment complexes, laundry rooms, stairs, pools, ATM booths, or parking garages. These often are Hemmed In Ground and easier for a bad guy to block your escape route. You do not want to let this happen. It is also easier to lay in wait for the bad guy if you can get out of his sight temporarily. If you notice a red flag / suspicious person(s) here immediately check and see if your Escape Routes are open or already blocked?
    • Is it Desperate Ground? If you are blocked and there is nowhere else to go, you must attack without delay. The longer you wait the more opportunity they have to observe you and predict your intent or establish a safer distance if they feel threatened. Attack immediately and go through them to escape.
  • Is there ample visibility all around? Can you see people maneuvering into position or are you blind right until they make their move?
  • What is the potential for Ambush? Are there good hiding places for criminals to lie in wait where your path will bring you within close proximity without them having to expose themselves early on?

Attack Recognition

All good strategists know that preparation is often where battles are won. Being willing to win is not enough. As Coach Bear Bryant said years ago “The will to win is little when compared with the will to prepare to win.” You can’t make good plans without detailed and accurate intel. Research where advantages and disadvantages lie and how to manipulate them in your favor or, at the least, know when to avoid facing an opponent where he is strongest. The more information you have the easier it is to plan well or find and create advantages on the fly. Or as Sun Tzu said, “How to make the best of both strong and weak–that is a question involving the proper use of ground.”

The second principle to address is that of Context. Context looks at what is going on within that environment, what type of people are present and patterns of behavior and the risks involved. Some of this may be obtained ahead of time, some of it will have to be observed and / or confirmed at the time you pass through it.

  • Context – Assessment of Crowd / Individuals / Culture
    • Is it a High Threat Environment – high crime rates such as high drug traffic, repeated violence, etc?
    • Are there significant racial tensions present?
    • Are the people predominantly clean cut? Thug Life? White Trash? Rowdy Rednecks?
    • Are there possible Gang Affiliations present?
    • Are there people present who identify themselves with known violent subcultures through dress or conduct?
    • Are there people engaging in High Risk Behaviors?
      • Excessive use of Alcohol?
      • Illegal Drugs?
      • Arguments and fights?
    • Are there people loitering in pre-staged positions you must pass?
    • Are people hanging out surveying the area and people in it but not engaged with one another?


Environmental and Context intel will help optimize your plans for movement and escape or engage options when threatened. Where will you enter? What route will you take through it? Where are your alternate routes and escape routes if necessary? Are there choke points you should avoid due to vulnerability in those particular areas? Stop lights, especially no turn on red intersections in bad areas are not good, especially if there is cover or concealment nearby. Train crossings in a bad are another example. (I recently adjusted the secondary route I take to the martial arts gym I teach at. There are three locations along that route that are significant choke points and leave me vulnerable due to the ease with which someone could hide nearby unseen and be on top of my vehicle in an instant. It was a little shorter route than the new one but I changed it for those very reasons.)

Also, how should you best present yourself in a particular environment and context? As a Hard Target? As weak when you are really strong? As strong when you are really weak? In some places acting tough will draw more attention than appearing neutral or weak. How can I deceive any potential attackers or keep them uninformed about me? (If a predator is unable to determine if you’re a threat or not it is often just as good as appearing to be a Hard Target.)

Can my choice of route help to leave them in the dark as well? What counter movements or alternate routes are available to avoid contact if a threat develops? How can I use the environment to my benefit to covertly prepare a weapon and positon myself for pre-emptive action? What special knowledge do I have about the type of people and activity in the area that can help me choose the best route, spot trouble early, assess the level of potential threat, strengths and weaknesses of my enemy and determine when I need to evade or engage?

“Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

One last thing to consider: “Maneuvering with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.” Has your family trained with you, at least enough to have an idea of how to move with you if things go south? Have you considered how you would move with your kids and spouse or loved one? There are protocols for escorting people efficiently. They use them in protective service details all the time. Moving a loved one is essentially the same, but multiple people under the charge of one person requires even greater coordination and control, especially with multiple small children.

All of these areas need to be considered. Determine the variables present and figure out possible solutions ahead of time to optimize your response when things go south. As Sun Tzu said, “The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”

-Mike Duke

*   All quotes are from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War except for the Coach Bear Bryant quote.

About the Author

After almost 12 years as a Police Officer and Patrol Sergeant, including 3.5 years on a SWAT team, Mike went to work at ACADEMI (formerly known as Blackwater) full time in 2006 teaching High Speed, Tactical and Off Road Driving as well as Hand to Hand Combatives. He has experience in Unarmed Close Protection security work, CONUS and OCONUS. He has been in martial arts for 25 years and currently trains Sayoc Kali and teaches Sayoc classes in Portsmouth, VA. He also teaches Avoiding Violence / Attack Recognition and Use of Force Legal classes. He recently became a contributing writer for Harris Publications and has written articles for Personal and Home Defense, Guns and Weapons for LE and Survivor's Edge. You can contact Mike through his Facebook page: Hard Target Sayoc Kali Training Group where he routinely dissects attack videos for pre-assault indicators amongst other content.