The Business of Travel Safety
Print Issue: June 2014
On January 16, 2013, around 40 al Qaeda-affiliaqted terrorists took over the Tigantourine gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria, taking more than 800 people hostage. During the initial takeover and a subsequent four-day siege, militants went door to door in search of foreigners, then held them hostage, executed them, or used them as human shields. As a result, 39 people from nine countries died. Just two months later in March, the head of Exxon Mobil’s Egypt and Cyprus unit was captured along with his wife by armed kidnappers in Sinai. They were held briefly before being released the same day.
While the two situations had different outcomes, they illustrate the growing danger for executives and employees while traveling for business purposes. Kidnappings and hostage situations, while infrequent, are a real threat that must be considered for executives and the security teams preparing them for transit, especially in certain high-risk parts of the world. By training for the worst case scenarios, a number of smaller but serious threats can also be addressed.
To truly prepare executives in counter-kidnapping tactics, practical skills must be honed. These skills were once the privilege of only a select few—namely security and protection professionals—but they must be taught to all members of the organization who may find themselves in harm’s way. Because the potential for business growth and profit gained from international trips often outweighs the risk of doing business in dangerous areas, precautions must be taken and contingency plans devised to mitigate the inevitable risks involved.
There are four steps the chief security officer (CSO) of an organization or team responsible for travel security should take to increase safety whenever employees visit a potentially dangerous area of the world. Each part of this travel security plan includes a variety of nuances and could fill several articles. This article provides just a brief overview of these four steps: planning, training, tracking, and preparing for emergency procedures.
One of the most critical aspects of travel security is the planning stage. This crucial part of the process is also the most labor-intensive, so having a dedicated individual for this task can be of great value. Executives do not have the time or expertise to conduct a thorough and appropriate intelligence-gathering and travel-planning operation on their own. The dedicated individual can be the CSO of the organization or a specialist on staff appointed by him or her, a security team, or even a contracted intelligence company. Incorporating information from family members or other dependents who might be accompanying the executive is also necessary.
Modes of travel. Thorough, advanced planning is a detailed process that includes all aspects of travel, stay, and return to home base. Starting with the flight, the best mode of travel must be decided: commercial or private. Cost is a major factor, but the extra cost may be necessary if anonymity is an important element. Deciding where to leave from and where to land also plays a key role, as some places have less governmental involvement or may be located in better or worse areas in the country of destination.
The security team must also plan for local ground transportation once the executive arrives at the destination. Once again, variables must be weighed to decrease the possibility of becoming a victim of street-level crime, for example. Using a trusted driving service is preferable, but other options include using public transportation, taking a shuttle, or renting a vehicle. Also, some executives prefer to ride in armored or ruggedized vehicles, but these may actually have the reverse of the desired effect: indicating that a high-value target is inside. A well-executed plan will involve sending an advance team to the site to simulate ground transportation, perhaps using different routes, well before the executive arrives. As with all aspects of travel, the balance between cost and security—both high and low profile—will be the final deciding factor.
Lodging. Lodging is a critical component of travel that is sometimes mistakenly treated as a lower priority by security teams. Not all hotels are created equal. Some are targeted because of their high profile or the tourists they attract, while others do not offer an adequate level of security to effectively protect their guests.
Because different hotels have established security protocols for different threats, the dangers that they believe to be the most immediate may not be the same ones that are of highest concern to executives. A hotel, for example, may have excellent deterrents against street-level crime, but no counterterrorism elements.
Again, an advance team should perform a security audit if possible, noting such things as distance from rooms to fire escapes, the presence of after-hours access control, and perimeter protection around a property. Many good hotel security checklists are publicly available.
Social climate. Awareness of potential social and political strife may allow the executive to avoid potentially hazardous situations. A thorough and well-devised pretravel plan will include a dossier on the political, economic, and social climate at the destination. For example, providing an executive with a report on Kenya during an election year, which is well-known to be a regular time of civil unrest, can go a long way in preparing the traveler for potentially threatening conditions.
In addition to big picture awareness, keeping up with specific news events in the destination country leading up to the trip can prove critical to planning. In one instance, a private security detail was traveling with a religious group going on a humanitarian trip to Nairobi, Kenya. Shortly before the group departed for their trip, a Christian church in the African capital city was attacked with a grenade by an anti-Christian group. Taking this recent event into account, the security company changed the previously planned hotels and travel routes for the group, and increased the safety for the religious leader being escorted.
Every location that the executive plans to visit, whether for business meetings or simply meals, must also be vetted in advance. Information can be retrieved that would suggest any connection, regardless of how seemingly insignificant, with criminal or terrorist organizations. The security team should map out unsafe areas or neighborhoods in advance so that the executive may avoid those locations.
Because so many documented kidnappings have occurred due to a bad actor gaining awareness of the executive’s presence, any known personnel that the executive will contact while traveling should be researched. Since information on people can be difficult to obtain, the services of a trusted in-country investigator can greatly assist with this process.
Lastly, all of the information collected, plans made, and itineraries devised should remain confidential and only accessible by the executive and any other individuals on a need-to-know basis. Guarding it from being posted on social media or making its way to internal memos, which could end up in the hands of untrustworthy individuals, is the final step in increasing the safety of the traveling executive.
Training begins with sharing the information gathered during the advanced planning and intelligence-gathering phase with the executive who will be traveling. Making sure he or she is familiar with the trip details and feels comfortable with the various aspects of the travel is imperative.
During a pretravel briefing, training the executive on how to avoid appearing vulnerable is critical. This lesson will provide traveling executives with simple tactics to use that will help them avoid attracting attention to themselves. This can be accomplished by multiple means. For example, it is well known that the traveler should not wear clothing that identifies the executive as a tourist or a foreigner and should leave jewelry and other valuables at home.
Less obvious is adopting local customs such as greetings in the native language, modesty, dress, and speech patterns, all of which are recommended. By behaving and appearing less like a tourist, the traveling executive can transfer the risk to others who may now present more obvious and attractive potential targets.
Attending to minor details when attempting to blend in with the immediate environment is important. For example, in one situation, an American dignitary who was traveling to Panama decided to forsake his business suit for a pair of tan pants and a shirt purchased locally. However, he refused to give up his expensive shoes. When he and his security detail found themselves in an outdoor market during a robbery, the security detail kicked dirt onto the American’s shoes to ensure that he appeared inconspicuous.
Reviewing emergency protocols will allow the traveling executive to quickly react and recall important names in case of an emergency. The executive must recall contact names and know whether reaching out to local law enforcement is advised or discouraged, where hospitals are located, and the location and contact information for U.S. embassies and consulates at the country of destination.
Self-defense. While the best defense is avoiding trouble in the first place, self-defense skills are essential. Basic surveillance and countersurveillance tactics are valuable skills that should be taught to traveling executives or employees. Looking for indicators of “tailing,” although subtle, is not as complicated as one would imagine, and will allow the executive to immediately recognize when he or she is being targeted. This will allow the executive to address the situation before it escalates.
Defensive driving may be a life-saving skill for the traveling executive. If the executive is likely to drive, as typically is the case with long-term assignments where renting or leasing vehicles is more cost-effective than hiring a driving service, traveling executives must know how to use the vehicle to their advantage, whether as a hardened target or for defensive purposes.
Defensive driving skills should include tactics to avoid carjacking, countersurveillance techniques, and driving maneuvers to evade possible attacks. Several reputable schools provide such training.
When training executives in self-defense, the security team should gear the training toward the specific risks associated with the country or region of destination. For example, executives traveling to Africa may face street-level crime accompanied by edged weapons. As a result, they should learn how to defend against knives, machetes, and other weapons of opportunity.
It is imperative that self-defense training include lessons on the psychology of an attack, the differences between a primary and secondary crime scene, and the decision of whether to comply, fight, or flee. Lastly, the legal aspect of using self-defense skills, no matter how justified one feels, must also be addressed in this training, with an eye toward how the local laws apply to travelers’ rights to protect themselves. Many times, foreigners are treated with the “guilty until proven innocent” approach.
An example of this was a former Israeli soldier who was traveling to Thailand. He was approached aggressively by gang members and, in self-defense, knocked them out. Responding police arrested the Israeli and held him for many months before he was released and cleared of any wrongdoing.
Including family members of the executives in the training is critical. This tactic proved valuable in one case when the wife of an executive of a multimillion dollar IT company was shopping in London while her husband attended business meetings. A robber attempted to mug her, but because of her training in self-defense, she was able to kick her attacker and get away. This example goes to show the value of preparing not only the executives who are conducting business, but anyone accompanying them. These family members or companions may be in different locations from the executive. The fellow travelers may be attacked independently or used as leverage against the executive, such as for ransom.
While fighting back may feel like the only option for the traveler, it comes with the inherent risk of escalating the violence. Training is crucial to ensure that snap judgments, which must be made, result in the best possible outcome.
Corporate espionage. While not as immediately harmful as kidnapping, there is a chance that traveling executives or employees could become the target of corporate espionage. This is notoriously the case in places such as Russia and China, but it can happen anywhere. In one case, an executive from a cybersecurity consulting firm was traveling to Honduras to work on developing proprietary software in conjunction with the country’s military. While at a local bar, he was approached by an attractive woman who appeared to simply be making conversation. She invited him to meet up with her later in the week. He agreed, but alerted his company about the rendezvous. The security team had someone track the woman, which led them to discover she was working for a competing organization and sought to gain information from him. Making the traveling executive or employee aware of such a threat is important in protecting the valuable corporate information that he or she possesses.
Tracking executives while they travel is a simple yet effective way of ensuring their safety with minimal training and provides a high level of added security. Tracking will allow the organization and its travel security director or CSO to know when and where the executive is at all times and quickly determine when the employee deviates from the prearranged plan. Tracking also increases the chances of successful search, rescue, and recovery operations if needed.
The simplest way to track an employee is by mapping out a preapproved itinerary. Having a solid agenda will allow the organization and perhaps even family members to know where the executive is scheduled to be throughout the period of travel. By adding check-in times to the itinerary when the executive is to contact either the organization or family members, timeframes during which the executive is unaccounted for can be minimized.
The obvious drawback to this system is that it requires the full cooperation of the executive and an acceptance of some regulating processes, which may inhibit freedom of movement when traveling. Allowing the traveling employee to miss one scheduled call is permissible, but more than that will alarm the security team. These preplanned calls may also present a cultural obstacle, depending on the executive in question. While not as much of an issue with mid-level or lower management, some executives may be uncomfortable with the idea of their every move being tracked and having to check in with security professionals while conducting business. Therefore, the security team must stress the importance of cooperation.
Another drawback is that no routine can be fully choreographed. Traffic jams occur, meetings run late, times are mixed up, and so on. A tracking system must somehow accommodate these eventualities.
Smartphone applications can provide another means to track an individual while traveling because all smart devices are equipped with geotagging applications. These applications represent a double-edged sword. They can be a threat to the safety of the executive, considering that social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter can reveal the location of the executive publicly. Hackers may also be able to infiltrate these applications to learn the traveler’s whereabouts. Still, these applications also allow a security team to track the executive by just logging into an application to see that person’s geolocation. Comparing the geotagging to the preset agenda provides an added level of confirmation regarding the whereabouts of the executive.
Tracking can be further enhanced by the use of dedicated tracking devices. These devices, usually satellite-linked, provide accurate real-time data and information. They are the most reliable and accurate of all methods, but they are expensive and often inconvenient for executives. Privacy is an important consideration when using such devices, the use of which should be agreed upon by all parties in advance.
Should the nightmare become a reality, the final aspect of travel preparation is knowing what to expect and how to react in a kidnapping situation.
High-visibility executives representing governmental organizations and large corporations have been targeted for ransom and to advance political agendas in growing numbers. Preparing executives for the possibility of being captured is crucial. As part of the educational process, security teams should teach executives how to identify kidnapping and hijacking attempts, how to counter such attempts, and how to Survive, Escape, Resist, and Evade (S.E.R.E.) captivity.
Expecting, recognizing, and addressing the kidnapping threat is part of the educational process of the executive. Contingency plans should include a list of emergency contacts to notify, including family members and the necessary personnel at the executive’s organization. It is crucial to have the contact information ready for first responders and diplomatic resources at the country of destination to further facilitate and expedite any response and rescue efforts, if needed.
Several insurance providers offer kidnap and ransom insurance policies, which can be used to pay ransom should a kidnap occur for monetary reasons. These policies should be examined by companies with executives who frequently travel for business purposes.
While there is no silver bullet for providing perfectly safe travel, taking the steps outlined above will greatly enhance the security of any executive traveling alone to troubled areas.
Tzviel Blankchtein has more than 20 years of experience in protective services. He now operates Masada Tactical Protective services, LLC, in Baltimore, Maryland, specializing in high-risk security for large organizations.