Tactical Terrain Analysis

Tactical Terrain Analysis: A How-To Guide

As we witnessed in the Fall/Winter of 2011 repression can seemingly destroy the possibility of resistance. All around the country people gathered in and occupied open spaces, and just as quickly they were run out by the police. This was not only due to inexperience and an almost total inability to confront repression (largely due to the obsessions with pacifism that plague American social movements) but also to a lack of pre-action research on the tactical terrain itself. As we saw in the antiwar movement, and as was replicated in many factions of the Occupy “movement”, there was an obsession with politics, political theory, “issues”, the “ethics” of certain actions; so much theory. But for all the discussion of resistance, and for all the endless arguments about tactics, there was no discussion of tactics, actual tactical dynamics or the terrain in which tactics play themselves out. There were endless discussions of transcendental conceptual frameworks but absolutely no discussion of the particular tactical dynamics that exist on the ground. To focus on tactical terrain is not only to focus on the necessarily tactical conflict that exists at the core of all resistance but also to discuss the physical terrain itself, the tactical operations of the police, the structure of the terrain itself and the possibility for tactical openings and amplifications.

In the attempt to engage in this sort of tactical mapping we need to recognize the paradox latent in the approach itself. Tactical terrain is a constantly shifting phenomenon, it is the time and space in which action occurs. Yet, a research and mapping based approach is necessarily static; it generates static information or a body of information that is static. In other words, there is a certain obsolescence in the information gathered the moment after the gathering ceases, or at least the moment that the main body of information and the primary framework of analysis is developed, even though the situation itself will always keep moving. This is compensated for, in military and police operations, through a constant stream of real time information coming into central command. In our case there have been experiments with using Twitter and live Google Maps in order to map and distribute information about police movements. However, regardless of this approach we must acknowledge two things. First, for as comprehensive as this information may be, and for as total as distribution may be, it is never enough and it is never transmitted fast enough to actually encompass the changing dynamics of a situation. Secondly, we still need a general framework of information in order to put this information into context; without advanced research on the space or the tactics of the police the information about police movements that is being disseminated would be worthless. Tactical terrain research, therefore, will never give a total view of the terrain, it is not something that can be taken as “true” or as some hard logistical framework for the planning of actions. Rather, we need to see these sorts of research studies both as fundamental to the process of preparation for action as well as a baseline through which we can make sense of changes on the ground.

What is Tactical Terrain?

We need to think of tactical terrain as a convergence. Machiavelli always discussed the necessity of dispersing the street. The street is a point of convergence. Far from being confined to the physical terrain, the street is a place of coming together; a convergence of actions, effects, ways of making sense. It is a result of everything that has ever occurred, everything that has lead to this point in time in this particular place. Now, it is impossible, obviously, to be able to grasp the totality of this convergence; all we can ever do is attempt to construct a conceptual way of making sense of this space that is a more or less effective tool in grasping that which occurs. In other words, regardless of all the information that we can gather and process, regardless of how deeply entrenched we may be in a space, it is materially impossible to understand this totality of history. As such a tactical terrain is always something that we can never grasp in its entirety, our ways of making sense of this space will always exist at a necessary disjunction from the particularity of this space at this moment. However, this does not mean that the attempt to make sense of space is irrelevant, it can be a really effective exercise; this only means that we will never come to understand tactical terrain in some direct and total way, in some absolutely true way.

With this said, we are talking here is how to potentially make sense of a particular space at a particular time, ways to understand this convergence. All to often, in this sort of analysis, we tend to fall into one of two traps. On the one hand there is this tendency to try to understand this space only spatially, to read the terrain itself as if it is a static space, which prevents us from being able to understand the potentiality of tactical movement in a certain space. On the other hand, there is a tendency to obscure the terrain itself entirely, focusing, instead, on a history of tactical “successes” and “failures” devoid of any discussion of the tactical particularity of these moments. To avoid these traps it is necessary to always treat tactical terrain studies as a convergence of dynamics.

Firstly, we need to recognize all terrain is structural, and that is expressed in the research of maps, elevations, concealments, features, placement of points, materials and so on. In other words, terrain has a physical dimension. We see this discussion in most of the great works of tactical theory; in the Art of War this is expressed in the discussion of concealment, elevation and tactical advantage. Conflict occurs somewhere, in a place, and the characteristics of that terrain play an integral role in how these conflicts will play themselves out. We can see the difference in terrain even in contemporary conflicts during large demonstrations. In St Paul we were faced with a relatively isolated downtown area, separated from the rest of the city by a freeway and the Mississippi River, which presented advantages (the ability to section off and further isolate this space from the rest of the city, particularly important in the attempt to blockade delegates to the convention) and disadvantages (most of the mass arrests occurred either along the river, on isolated streets, or on bridges). Compare this to Pittsburgh during the G20 where the use of barricades combined with the irregular street patterns and dense urban structure of the East End gave us a huge advantage in being able to prevent police movement.

Secondly, terrain is mobile. To grasp this involves getting to understand the breakdowns of neighborhoods, the mobilities in traffic patterns, the shift in the placement of things and the trends that can be identified from there as well as the way that the structural elements of the city facilitate this movement. Again, as we mentioned, there is a tendency to treat tactical terrain as only a physical terrain; as some sort of atemporal, ahistorical space in which nothing occurs. We only reduce terrain to its physical elements at our own peril. If we think of a city street, full of brick row-houses, we may see a static terrain; but even if nothing overtly occurs these buildings degrade, the street degrades, the space shifts and lives. To be able to make sense of the particularity of any space at any time is also to understand the animation of this space, the flows of the space, the actions that occurs and why. This involves making sense of where convergences of action occur, when they occur, why they occur. It is only at this point that we can make sense of the potential effects that actions may have and the dynamics that these actions will occur in.

Thirdly, tactical is a terrain of conflict, this means researching the terrain as a combative space, the histories of resistence and repression, the relationships with the police, police tactics and particular approaches in a particular area, terrain features that can help to facilitate actions and so on. In other words, to the degree that the state exists we need to discuss space as a conflict between the historical possibilities of action and the attempt to construct a condition of possibility for action through the operations of policing. It is not that tactical terrain occurs in some bubble, or that it is an organic process, to the degree that policing operates; rather, we need to think through policing operations, but also think these operations within the historical possibility of that terrain. To put it another way, policing occurs, but it occurs somewhere and this somewhere has dynamics. The actions taken by police have effects, and these effects cause shifts in the tactical terrain which cause shifts in policing and so on. We cannot think of conflict and tactics as static phenomenon or the direct expression of theory. For years there has been an attempt to grasp police tactics in a bubble, treating them as a whole that exists in some singular way across time and space. What is important to grasp in tactical terrain research is how these dynamics change over time, what the operations of task forces look like, what levels of force are allocated when and where, what common approaches to certain situations may look like and so on; this requires a consistency of research that is lacking currently.

Research Methods

Tactical terrain research occurs on two levels. First is the abstract and general level. On this level we are going to be looking at space in the widest sense possible, primarily on the level of the map itself. However, this transcends simple map reading and assembly and is the process of beginning to assemble a framework through which we can understand the space that we are gathering information about. While each person or group should, and probably will, develop a certain process for constructing this framework we have found that the most effective frameworks include physical space, mapping of roads and arteries of circulation but also the mapping of generalized understandings of social dynamics, the division between neighborhoods, concentrations of wealth, social convergence points and commercial districts. Secondly we will move down from this general level onto a more specific level. Here we will be going down on the street to try to understand how people and commodities circulate within this space, how dynamics occur on the street; this also includes things like timed maps of police force concentration, traffic concentrations and dissipation points and the dynamics around special events among other things.

What are we looking for?

Points of convergence: Points of convergence are spaces in which there is a specific concentration of a collision of dynamics within this space. These tend to be points in which movement concentrates, and often enters into a level of congestion which prevents, or slows, movement. Points of convergence are also often the major junctions in the function of the space itself. These include intersections, freeway junctions/exist/entrances, choke points, commercial districts, bridges and other “points of interest” (stadiums, venues, hotels/resorts, college campuses, etc).

Points of deployment and surveillance: Here we are attempting to identify the points of deployment of the police or the points of their projection across space, through things like cameras, neighborhood watch groups and substations. Mapping spaces like this not only allows us to begin to understand where force is more likely concentrated but also where it is most likely dispersed as well as the primary point of departure for police operations. These points include police stations, possible staging areas and holding areas, cameras, points of concentrated police operations, substations, campus police stations, courts and prisons.

Terrain variance and features: There is a tendency in much of tactical preparation in radical movement to conceptualize space as a flat collection of points, but if we take the time to read the history of conflict, or even basic tactics theory, the features of the space itself, in a three dimensional sense, are often the difference between successful actions and crushing failure. Just as we are attempting to use the basic layout of space and the social dynamics of that space in order to make sense of where the possibility of effective actions may exist, and where we hold tactical advantage, we can also incorporate terrain variance into this framework. We are looking for things like elevation shifts, spaces of concealment, alleys and other cut through paths, terrain depressions and other spaces of concealment, convergence and dispersal points, parks and wooded areas, unpassable areas (water, ravines, etc), bridges

To gather this body of information we can rely on a series of resources that already exist and others that we can develop. In this process, or in the process of thinking of undertaking an analysis of space on this level we must remember a simple aspect of this sort of research, it is much easier to do if you do it with your friends, the people in your affinity group, the people in your neighborhood (if they’re down). The more eyes on the ground, the more people scouring the web and talking to others, the more information we will gather and the easier it will be to organize and analyze it all. This sort of analysis is not about just gathering specific information; as we have developed our process of doing this we have come to recognize that there is no such thing as too much information, and no piece of information that we gather has ever been irrelevant. The only limitation that we have is time and capacity, the amount of time we have to gather info and the capacity we have to try to make sense of it all.

Internet research is a great place to start. In simple Google searches one can come across everything from maps of the space, maps of cameras, police field manuals, operational after-reports, police theory journals and so on; all of which are of infinite value for those that feel the need to know this information.

Virtual Tools

Google Maps: Allows us to see the street lay outs, terrain variations, building elevations and so on. A simple Google Maps search gives us a tool that was a pipe dream for organizers and operators even 5 years ago; it allows us access to a satellite surveillance network. From a simple map we can see the street lay outs, the height of buildings, the physical characteristics of the terrain, traffic concentrations and elevation variances. Increasingly, as the labeling of space becomes more comprehensive, we can already see the locations of numerous “points of interest”, saving a lot of time that would otherwise be spent doing address searches and then mapping all of these points individually. However, for as important of a tool as this can be (particularly when combined with smart phones) we always need to keep in mind that these maps are often slightly outdated at best. For as static as much of human development may seem, we always need to keep in mind that this space is constructed to facilitate certain forms of movement and that it is in constant flux itself. For example, the maps of Tampa that were utilized in the lead-up to this research project did not incorporate a lot of changes in the pattern of development in downtown; there were buildings that had since been torn down or buildings that had since been build, roads that had been rerouted and so on.

Google Streets: Google Streets can allow us a view of the street, and thus the landmarks and scale of the space, in places that we have never been; and the value of this cannot be under-estimated. However, we need to keep a couple things in mind. Firstly we need to remember that these street shots are obsolete the second after they are taken; space shifts constantly so this sort of visualization only goes so far. Secondly, these images are taken with a certain distortion simply due to the limitations of the cameras used. In other words, this is not a reliable way to understand scale with any sort of precision or the location of otherwise mobile terrain features (dumpsters, newspaper boxes, planters, etc.)

WARNING: Google keeps extensive records! Take computer security precautions:Tor, blocking Google analytics and other tracking programs, the usual precautions when it counts

Internet searches: The internet gave us access to such absurd volumes of information that it can seem overwhelming, and like we said before, there is no such thing as too much information. However, so this does not become some endless abyss of research it does help to focus this a little. When we are researching space we tend to focus on a relatively small amount of sources for this information, but sources that repeatedly give us really solid info. Look for news articles about past actions, particularly actions that may have anything in common with the tactics sets that may be used in future actions. If we are engaging in this sort of research in a daily and local level then this may mean researching articles about police initiatives, enforcement priorities, methodologies, practices like stop and frisk and so on. Along with this it helps to look at articles about general police operations, often the police will have a public relations department, and even a Twitter account, in order to openly talk about these shifts as part of the rising mentality of “community policing” (or counterinsurgency). Though many of the sources that you will find will give you really sanitized versions of these programs it allows us to then have an understanding of what they are doing where and when, and that gives us some focus when we move into on the ground research. We also look at police annual reports; all departments need to make these available, and many are on the internet. Annual reports usually talk about the locations of facilities, the number of personnel at each facility, force concentration by shift, arrest numbers be precinct or even neighborhood, task forces, SWAT and so on; these are a wealth of basic information on force allocation and operations, some even go into detailed discussions of methodologies and theories applied in policing operations (Tampa Police do this extensively). Also try to find pre-action security briefs or articles about briefs; in the past decade the police have often taken to attempting to intimidate us through exaggerated discussions of the numbers they have or may be bringing in, their centcom capacity, the amount of people they are attempting to arrest and so on. Even if these are exaggerated this can give us a good look into their numbers and mentality; the fact that they kept talking about finding PVC pipe down alleys and their training to dismantle lockboxes before the G20 in Pittsburgh definitely gave us a really solid idea of what they were expecting, and thus what they were prepared for (which was very different than what they saw, and a lot of us know how that turned out). Another really good source of information is the writings of police think tanks or think tanks that theorize about police operations (like RAND Corporation), and they all have email lists that announce the release of new papers; the same goes for police theory journals. There are also police conferences in which command personnel will gather and trade notes, often the notes of these talks can be found online (this specifically helps if your local head-pig tends to give talks at events like this).

On the ground research

Nothing can substitute for on the ground intel gathering. This literally means going out on the street, it helps if there is more than one team on the streets (you cover more space in more comprehensive ways with more eyes on the ground), and observe the movements of people through space, talk to people, maybe do a little covert cop watch and so on. Getting into the space allows us to get a feel for the space but it also allows us to gather bits of information that no amount of internet research or reading will ever allow us access to.

We break on the ground research into three levels of focus:

Metropolitan intel: This is the gathering of intelligence relating to the flows of the metropolis, the circulation of people and commodities, communications and infrastructure that comprises tactical terrain. This primarily focuses on the shifts in the movements and patterns of the space; when rush hour occurs, where traffic concentrates, where people gather and when , where police allocate force and when, the economic divisions of space, the divisions between neighborhoods and so on.

Point of Interest Intel: The physical intelligence gathering on points of interest. This could include things like entering and researching the floor plans of certain buildings, the transportation infrastructure of a specific event and so on.

Grassroots Intel: This is the gathering of narrative information from the people that actually populate the space. This may include us, if this is a space that we live in. Primarily this involves going to social events or engaging in the dynamics of the space itself, talking to people and trying to get a read on any number of aspects of the space. This is a great way to gather information that is otherwise being withheld (for example the hotel arrangements of delegates to a specific event).


This is only the basis of a research plan and a brief discussion of methods that can be employed. Remember, there is no such thing as too much information. The volume of information gathered exists in a relation to the ability to analyze the information gathered. This implies a few things. Firstly, the more people that are involved the more information can be gathered, analyzed and made sense of. Secondly, organization of information is key; the more organized information gathering and processing is the more efficiently you can work through bodies of data. Thirdly, there is never such a thing as having all the information about a space; space shifts through time, conditions and dynamics change on the ground, this, therefore, can only provide a basis for constructing a framework through which to make sense of information and data that we tend to pull in. From the point of analysis there are any number of ways to spatialize this data. We prefer layering of maps, usually beginning with a general online mapping program (Google Maps, Wikimapia) that has the general points of interest dotted off on the map. This gets overlaid with forms of mapping things like neighborhood dynamics, commercial districts and traffic patterns to help break up the map into easily digestible portions that we can research in a reasonable amount of time. Everyday, as information comes in from researchers we will map the data, converge at the end of the day and restructure the plan for the next trip based on the data we received during the day. From here we will compile the raw data, look at the maps and then construct a framework for making sense of all the information collectively, then write a narrative report.

There is a distinct difference between doing a research project on a space over a few days and existing in the space that one analyzes. This report, about Tampa, was compiled by a few people, that are not from the Tampa area, over a short amount of time that was compensated for by months of internet research and a relatively disciplined research plan. The more time on the ground, the more eyes watching and gathering information, the more experience we have with the psychogeography of a space, the more that the information that we gather will be able to be made sense of in more thorough and efficient ways. This how-to guide, just like the initial report we are releasing, is meant to serve as an example of what can be done with few resources, some experience and some discipline. From here the possibilities are limitless. The more we know about the space that we fight in the more effective we can be, and effectiveness is what matters. Through  Occupy something was forgotten, again; revolution is an immediate and material dynamic, something that happens in a time in a space, and as such, it is a dynamic of material actions, tactics and a calculation of effectiveness. It is only in undertaking discipined studies of tactical terrain that we can come to begin to understand what effectiveness can actually mean.


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