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Illustration by Taylor Callery

Flying Solo

​Senior executives routinely travel the globe without security and rarely are there any incidents of concern, but when things go wrong from a protective security perspective, they usually go wrong quickly and can snowball into disaster. 

Most failures stem from a lack of proper advance work, logistical foul-ups, and lost luggage. Robust protective intelligence and countersurveillance programs, along with comprehensive threat assessments, can greatly reduce the risk to executives who travel. But when a security detail will not be included in the trip, basic training and preparedness for those executives can go a long way.

Many executives want to run under the radar, whether they are attending a meeting on the other side of town or traveling around the world. Few CEOs travel surrounded by visible security personnel with earpieces and shoulder holsters because the optics are deemed bad for business. Few executives need or seek that level of security. And although it’s rare for an armed robbery or a Kardashian-style hotel invasion to occur, it’s on every protection officer’s mind.

A more thoughtful approach to protection for senior government personnel, executives, and high-net-worth families was created by a group of former government agents in the private sector. They adopted a different model of protection, focused heavily on protective intelligence and countersurveillance. 

The model is now used by many Fortune 500 companies and takes a nuanced approach to empower the executives themselves. Even though security staff may not be in tow on any given trip, there are several key principles that executives can practice that will dramatically increase their level of safety and security wherever they are in the world. ​


With enough will and discipline, executives can use situational awareness to stay ahead of threats while traveling. To successfully practice situational awareness, executives must be mindful of a few basic facts. 

First, they must acknowledge that a threat exists, because bad things do happen to good people. Executives traveling solo must also take care of themselves because they are ultimately responsible for their own safety and welfare. Finally, they must heed their instincts. If something doesn’t look or seem right, chances are it’s not, and executives need to be comfortable identifying and acting on that intuition. 

When discussing situational awareness with an executive, it is important to stress that this does not mean being paranoid or obsessively concerned about security. Still, there are periods where enhanced awareness levels are needed. 

Solo executives can learn to practice enhanced observation skills with simple exercises, like paying attention to the cars behind them in traffic, or by challenging themselves to see if they can remember automobile license plate letters and numbers. 

One best practice is to have executives pay special attention to their departure points and destinations, scanning the area with an eye for vehicles and people that could be watching. If the same vehicle, bicycle, or person is spotted over time and distance, someone may be conducting surveillance. 

For example, a blue van glimpsed at the point of departure and then seen later near a business meeting means someone could be watching. Not all watchers are criminals or possible kidnappers—in some locations, the watchers could be state security services or private detectives hired by competitors.​


Burglars, kidnappers, assassins, and any manner of criminals all follow an attack cycle, including some level of preoperational surveillance. Attacks don’t happen in a vacuum. In most cases, criminal and terrorist surveillance tradecraft is the least well-developed skill in the hostile operator’s toolbox. 

When persons with hostile intentions are engaged in preoperational surveillance, they are also highly vulnerable to detection. Professional countersurveillance teams are trained to recognize operatives conducting surveillance on a target. However, an individual practicing good situational awareness can often spot preoperational surveillance on his or her own, especially if the surveillant is sloppy, as many are. 

If suspects realize that their surveillance efforts have been detected, they will become anxious and may decide against acting—or at least redirect their attention to an easier target. The detection also lets the executive know he or she must take further protective steps, such as changing routes or vehicles, switching hotel rooms, notifying local authorities or staff, alerting corporate headquarters, and calling for backup. Monitoring for surveillance needs to be part of executives’ ongoing situational awareness practice. 

One terrorist plot uncovered in 2003 revealed how an al Qaeda cell used preoperational surveillance when targeting financial institutions in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Newark, New Jersey; and potential targets in Singapore. In one instance, several operatives sat in a Starbucks cafe across from their intended target, recording information like security measures and building access. Their notes, videos, and practices were uncovered when the terrorist cell was broken up by authorities­—fortunately before an attack took place.​


While traveling, executives may obsess over the potential threat posed by terrorist attacks, political violence, or other incidents that result in news headlines, but they tend to discount the less exciting but more likely threat posed by fire. 

Fire kills thousands of people every year, and there are instances where fire has been used as a weapon in terrorist attacks. During the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, a group of attackers holed up in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel started fires in various parts of the hotel. 

Anarchists and radical environmental and animal rights activists have conducted arson attacks against a variety of targets, including banks, department stores, ski resorts, and the homes and vehicles of research scientists.

It is common to find items stored in emergency stairwells that render them obstructed or sometimes impassable. This is especially true outside the United States, where fire codes may not be strictly enforced, if they exist at all. In some instances, fire doors have been chained shut due to criminal threats.

To mitigate the threat from fire, executives should note whether emergency exits at their hotel are passable. This applies to apartments and office buildings as well. 

In the August 2011 Casino Royale attack in Monterrey, Mexico, the attackers ordered the occupants out of the building before dousing it with gasoline and lighting it on fire, but 52 people died because they were trapped inside the building by a fire exit that had been chained shut.

Travelers staying at hotels in countries with lax fire codes should stay above the second floor to avoid break-ins, but not above the sixth floor. That puts them within range of most fire department rescue ladders. 

Smoke inhalation is also a concern. It is the primary cause of fire deaths and accounts for 50 to 80 percent of all deaths from indoor fires. 

The U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that was attacked on September 11, 2012, is an apt example. A video of the building after the attack showed that fire had not badly damaged the building’s structure. The two diplomats killed in the attack did not die from gunfire or even rocket-propelled grenade strikes—they died from smoke inhalation. 

At minimum, a smoke hood should be a key piece of safety equipment carried by the executive while traveling. These hoods can be easily carried in a purse or briefcase and can provide the wearer with 15 to 30 minutes of safe air to breathe. That time makes a world of difference when caught in a burning building, a subway tunnel, or an aircraft while trying to escape. 

Many executive protection experts encourage executives to place smoke hoods next to their hotel bed. Another useful tool in such situations is a small, high-intensity flashlight to help them find their way through the smoke or dark once they have donned their smoke hood. ​


While executives may not appreciate the security team’s efforts to scare them ahead of a trip, they do need to know the inherent risks during travel and after reaching their destination. This will require advanced research by protective intelligence analysts to gather hard data on a range of issues appropriate to the destination. Alternatively, security can use a service that consistently tracks that data. This type of research involves analyzing everything from the latest street crime trends in London to the prevalence and nature of recent express kidnappings in certain Latin American cities, and incorporates that data into the executive briefing.

The briefing can also include the advance work of the corporate security team: analyzing the executive’s schedule, transportation routes, and destinations to determine the times and places where he or she is most vulnerable. By identifying the moments most likely to be used by a hostile actor, an executive can understand when to raise his or her level of situational awareness for greatest effect. This will also make it more difficult for assailants to conduct preoperational surveillance without detection.

On September 28, 2016, a group of assailants abducted Abid Abdullah, the executive director of Pakistan’s largest publishing group, during a business trip to Peshawar. Abdullah was in Peshawar to check on the status of a company facility under construction and did not return to his hotel until the early hours of the morning. 

Several armed men in two vehicles stopped Abdullah and his driver around 3:15 a.m. in the city’s industrial area. Peshawar is dangerous even by Pakistan’s standards, and, based on his driver’s statements, Abdullah was traveling without a protective detail to an industrial park where the kidnapping team had likely been watching him while he conducted business late into the night. The industrial area made a good intercept point because it was likely to be deserted at that hour. On such visits, a robust security plan is needed. 

There are always incidents that are more difficult to detect ahead of time. In July 2016, Jeff Shell, chairman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, was briefly detained and forced to leave Russia hours after arriving in the country. 

Russian authorities pulled Shell out of the immigration line shortly after he arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport from Prague. After hours of interrogation, Shell was told he had been barred from Russia and was placed on a flight to Amsterdam. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry later explained that it barred Shell from Russia because of his involvement with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a group that oversees U.S. government broadcasters. 

Before July 13, there was no indication that Shell or anyone affiliated with the Broadcasting Board of Governors was included on any list. Russia’s lack of transparency on who is barred from the country and why is troubling for traveling corporate executives and can become highly disruptive, embarrassing, or potentially dangerous for those involved. Executives and their protection teams should take these sorts of threats into account long before they begin travel.​


Once executives are well-versed in these skills and practices, they may feel prepared to travel solo around the world. However, the work of the corporate security team doesn’t end there. 

Whether the protective intelligence team is working for the government or in the private sector, it is critical to maintain frequent contact with the appropriate authorities and security counterparts where executives are likely to travel. 

Beyond maintaining a close liaison with their counterparts and industry partners at the travel destination, corporate security officers should work with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that would be called on to prosecute the case should someone commit an illegal act against an executive. 

If an executive is traveling to another city or country on business, be sure to establish a line of communication with the counterpart at that company ahead of time. If an incident does occur, a liaison will provide a shared interest in executive safety or concern about the potential optics around incidents affecting executives who are visiting their company. 

These counterparts should also have efficient lines of communication with their local law enforcement contacts. In that case, they can become an executive protection advocate on-site, or at least connect the team back home with the right people until the situation is fully resolved. 

Executives can travel safely abroad with minimal intrusions on privacy, as long as corporate security teams establish proper procedures and baselines. Building trust with the executives and their administrative staff goes a long way to ensure that business travel functions without security disruptions. 

Not every executive needs visible security officers on travel; however, every executive traveling abroad does require a good security team behind the scenes to properly balance risk and facilitation.  

Fred Burton is chief security officer at geopolitical intelligence platform and a lead analyst for Stratfor Threat Lens. He has authored three books, including Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi. ​