Whether it’s a sheriff’s department part-time tactical team that has a half dozen training days a year or a national counterterrorist unit that trains virtually all the time unless on a deployment, bus assaults are an important skill set. Military Special Reaction Teams train in bus assaults as well, while airport teams train on assaults in case a “people mover” is taken over. Hostages have been taken on school buses, public transport buses, and other types of public transport.
The first consideration in taking down a bus is that it is a linear target that will normally spread out hostages and hostage-takers. As a result, bus incidents often lend themselves well to the use of tactical marksmen. When the French counterterrorist unit GIGN had to carry out an assault against a school bus taken over by terrorists in Djibouti, they used snipers. After sending aboard drugged food for the children, which caused them to put their heads down and go to sleep, GIGN snipers took out all but one of the terrorists who had remained upright. The one surviving terrorist had to be dealt with by an assault force that rushed the bus.
I was hired as a consultant on a documentary for the National Geographic Channel on the Munich Olympic Massacre. I spent a week in Munich visiting the sites of the action and interviewing Munich police officers who had been involved in the disastrous rescue attempt. I had access to the classified German after-action report. After examination of all of the material and information, I concluded the highest likelihood of a successful rescue would have been to take down the bus carrying terrorists and hostages, prior to their transfer to helicopters. The terrorists were riding in the front of the bus standing, while the hostages were seated towards the rear. Multiple snipers on each threat should have resulted in kills on all of them. Still, an assault force would have been standing by to rush the bus and mop up.
Bus Assault Checklist
For various reasons, however, such as the terrorists interspersing themselves with the passengers, snipers are not always a viable option. In that case the bus must be assaulted. If an assault is necessary, then there are some basic considerations:
- The bus must be immobilized
- Terrorists must be prevented from killing hostages
- The bus must be boarded and cleared
- Hostages must be sorted out from terrorists and evacuated from the bus
- Any terrorists left alive must be secured and removed to detention
There are various ways of immobilizing a bus. Using a large vehicle in front of the bus as a block is a simple solution. If it can be made to appear the result of normal traffic, the terrorists will be less likely to begin shooting. Using a large vehicle to ram a bus is another method, though this tactic will result in injured hostages, better injured than dead. If an operator can gain access to the rear or underside of the bus while stopped in traffic, it may also be immobilized. Buses normally have an on/off switch in the engine compartment so that mechanics can start and stop the engine. If an operator can flick that switch, the bus will stop. Cutting lines beneath the bus can cause the brakes to lock up. A quicker and dirtier method would be puncturing the fuel tank, although that increases the risk of fire. Not as much, though, since most buses run on diesel. Should the bus have been furnished at the request of the terrorists, and the incident commander decides that letting them go mobile offers a higher chance of success. The bus could be furnished with a remote engine cutoff or with a fuel tank that is virtually empty. The engine cutoff would be the best solution since it allows control of when and where the bus is stopped.
The Need For Speed
To prevent the threats from killing hostages, the quickest method is to get shooters to the windows along one side of the bus and immediately take out as many terrorists as possible. Teams practice various techniques for getting the shooters into position. The Russians, always draconian in hostage rescue situations, have practiced pulling up next to the bus in a tarp covered truck and ramming ramps through the windows of the bus. Shooters quickly run up the ramps and take out the threats. They use ladders which they run up and ram through the windows of the bus, then quickly climb into shooting position.
Ladder training requires a lot of practice for the shooter to be able to quickly ascend the ladder, get into shooting position and effectively engage. Often it works best with a cover man who follows and braces him in position on the ladder. Here, the cover man should not draw his weapon while attempting to brace the shooter, as training scenarios have shown that a high percentage of the time he will end up pointing his weapon at his teammate. If enough shooters hit the side of the bus, even if a dozen terrorists are on board, they should be able to take them out quickly. Shooting distances will be close but speed is of the essence. Simunitions force-on-force training is especially valuable for this type of assault.
An alternative method of getting the shooters into position is to have them rush the bus in two man teams with one man acting as a “base” and leaning against the bus in a crouch so that the shooter’s feet are on the base’s thighs to get into shooting position. The base will brace the shooter with his hands. Constant practice makes this successful.
The boarding method can vary based on bus type. School buses generally have an emergency door in the rear and front side. Public transport buses often have a side door in front and rear. It’s highly desirable to have already sent shooters against the side of the bus removing threats prior to boarding. Entry must be gained quickly. If the driver’s a threat, the fastest method is to have an operator on the driver’s side to eliminate the driver, break the window and throw the opening lever. If the driver’s a hostage, the operator should order him to open the door.
In all cases, an assault team member should have a ram ready to break the door. The ram often will be the fastest entry method. I prefer an entry from the front instead of the rear so operators can see passenger faces and hands, sorting threats from hostages. I like to put two shooters with SMGs on first—one right by the driver’s seat and one at the top of the steps. Each covers seats on one side of the aisle and this avoids a crossfire. They command occupants to remain seated and show their hands. They must take charge very quickly and forcefully to prevent panic. If the driver’s a hostage and seated, the first operator on should grab him and throw him to follow-up operators to get him out.
Once shooters are in position to watch the bus occupants, a clearing team enters. Normally only a two-man clearing team may be used effectively due to narrow aisles. One can move slightly ahead of the other, with each covering one side of the aisle. They carefully look at each occupant searching for weapons or explosives on the floor or nearby. The shooter at the window nearest the clearing team will put his weapon on safe and raise it to prevent the possibility of a “blue on blue” shooting.
Dealing With Hostages
Methods vary for dealing with the seated occupants, just checked by the clearing team. One method is to instruct them to remain seated until the clearing team has checked all rows. The front cover men can continue to watch them as can the shooters at the window. If explosives are considered a danger, it may be desirable to get the occupants of a row off as soon as they have been checked. This could entail having an arrest/control team following the clearing team. The problem here is that the aisle will become very crowded. Another method is to have the occupants of the row just cleared, stand up with hands in air and walk forward to be met by the control team, which is on the stairs of the bus. As long as the occupants are seated, their movement options are very limited, which argues for keeping them seated until the clearing team has checked all seats. Once the bus is cleared, secured and IDs are checked, then the bus can be thoroughly checked for hidden weapons, explosives, etc. Medical personnel should be on stand by to deal with injuries. Surviving terrorists should be restrained and removed for interrogation.
A cover man located on the front driver’s side , right by the driver is ideal. This operator will cover the driver during initial boarding, forcing the door if possible. Having a cover man on the opposite side rear prevents terrorists attempting to escape through rear doors while covering the shooting teams. Some teams place cover men facing opposite directions, away from the bus, in case of car trailing terrorists.
Train Like You’ll Fight
Rehearsals should take place on the same type of bus as the subject bus for familiarization. Teams should learn where the dead spots are located along the front, side, and rear for a stealth approach. If the bus is supplied to the terrorists, then the side mirrors can be adjusted to create visual dead spots. There will be injured and frightened hostages who will generate confusion aboard the bus and make containment, while checking the bus, more difficult. It may be necessary for the clearing men to elbow or straight arm occupants to force them to sit down. Stun grenades may be used on a bus. The confined area will increase danger to them, those with bad hearts, children, etc. Some teams have smaller stun grenades for use in contained spaces that may roll under a seat thus lessening its effect. I’ve trained teams to throw stun grenades on the side of the bus away from where the shooting teams will rush as a distraction.
Basic assault tactics remain constant, but a team must remain flexible to deal with variables in bus type, terrain, terrorist tactics and known weapons. I know of a team that trained in a scenario with a bus stopped next to a ridge and the driver was a terrorist. They sent an operator to leap atop the bus from the ridge eliminating the driver with a shotgun through the roof. Different buses should be used to adjust tactics. Simunitions would allow force-on-force and allows the feeling of constricted shooting and movement. Most transit companies gladly allow police train on their equipment as long as their returned in good condition. School bus companies or churches are good sources for bus donations to local LE agencies.
Training is crucial. The first time an operator attempts to engage a terrorist among hostages through a window on a shaky ladder, or unable to open a door a few feet from hostages shouldn’t be when his shot and actions literally mean the difference between life and death.