My expertise is in protecting ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNIs) and dignitaries traveling internationally, with my company’s coordinated security and logistics services. Decades of experience has taught my team and I about the benefits of remote intelligence and the potential pitfalls when remote and ground intelligence efforts are not closely coordinated.
In the following paragraphs, I will first discuss my team’s attitude toward and application of remote intelligence. Thereafter, we will visit two abbreviated case studies where my organization overcame common challenges facing the security industry by either confirming or refuting remotely gathered intelligence, with on-the-ground intelligence that has been confirmed by our advance teams. As you will see, this aspect is critical to operational planning and organization.
Operational Planning and Organization with Remote Intelligence
Remote intelligence is an essential component in our comprehensive travel risk assessments prior to the arrival of our advanced teams. However, it is critical to have a reliable source on the ground that can corroborate or negate initial intelligence estimates. Marrying both on-the-ground and remote intelligence, is a requisite for providing our clients with the highest standards of safety and security. Additionally, and this issue is severely understated, an over reliance on general news media coverage can provide false, and at times, an embarrassing version of what some executive protection agents and analysts refer to as “protective intelligence” or “open source intelligence.”
Here is a quick snapshot of our team’s perspective when it comes to on-the-ground and remote intelligence.
We cannot do our work effectively without remote intelligence. It supports our international operations in several fundamental ways:
Gauging overall safety and security, infrastructure, quality of medical care, crime trends, and geopolitical crises
Identifying location-specific threats and corresponding contingencies
Verifying compliance with local laws as it relates to traveling with medical gear/ prescription drugs, “weapons,” and miscellaneous security items (including sat phones and radios)
Building emergency contact lists: alternative airports, emergency medical facilities, local security assets, etc.
Identifying health risks and necessary precautions
The exercise of making a remote or advanced intelligence plan the backbone of your team’s planning will have a positive bleed-over effect in other areas of the security program. This is the time to line up and address all of the potential “What if’s” and “If then” issues.
Lastly, we agree that this phase is not to be construed as the final and “anointed” security plan. In my opinion, it still needs to be done regularly with contributions made by all team members so that small issues don’t fall through the cracks, resulting in embarrassment (or worse) in front of the principals.
Where remotely gathered intelligence falls short, our advance teams on the ground fill in the blanks with empirical data and on-the-ground observations. We have identified the following recurring trouble areas as it relates to remote intelligence:
There is no true substitute for empirical data and verifiable observations made by your team. A trusted asset, also known as an eye on the ground who knows the atmosphere in the country, is never to be underestimated.
The consumers of global geopolitical news do not always know the motive behind media outlets’ or government agencies’ reporting of various narratives.
Even in the case of government reports, alerts, and warnings, the consumer does not know “why” a particular piece of information is released. Governments have a myriad of motives behind their dissemination of information, and the casual consumer cannot always differentiate between a press release written for political reasons or one written for safety concerns.
In scenarios where current travel-risk related information for a location is scarce, analysts tend to become over reliant on expensive geopolitical risk management platforms.
Now that I have planted in your mind the strengths and weaknesses of remotely obtained critical intelligence, we can see these concerns clearly illustrated in two security operations that I was directly involved in.
Case Study #1: Istanbul, Turkey
In 2013, my team and I were tasked with assessing the safety and security for a business executive’s full itinerary, with various meetings and site visits based in Istanbul. At that time, several major news outlets (including just about every American 3 letter news source) reported mass civil unrest, widespread demonstrations, to include violence targeting American citizens, and clashes between police and protestors. One quick glance at the TV would indicate that this trip should be canceled and perhaps rescheduled at a later time when the situation was resolved.
When I arrived in Istanbul to conduct my on-site threat assessment, one of my initial stops was at Taksim Square, one of the reported sites of the civil unrest and violence. Not surprising me in the least, there was no evidence to confirm the media reports of mass unrest. Rather, there was only evidence of one incident: a silent demonstration in which demonstrators stood in Taksim Square and held a moment of silence. Following more fact finding and interviewing of my local sources, I was able to confirm that the news reports were instances of media sensationalism, and not an unbiased reporting of the facts. Armed with this new, concrete information, I was able to communicate an accurate risk assessment to the business executive client.
The end result was this: while the executive’s associates (and competitors) were canceling their trips to Istanbul, we were able to coordinate secure travel logistics for our client’s meetings in Istanbul, while minimizing operational risk. Meanwhile, a supporting global intelligence and threat analysis firm was continuing to send warning communications to our team about the “serious risks” that were present at the very same location our team was operating safely.
Implications: The Disadvantages of Remote Intelligence
In this particular instance, getting a security operative on the ground to confirm or refute narratives reported in the media, was the difference between the executive’s company losing competitive ground and halting business, versus prospering while their competitors were relying on faulty remote intelligence.
Case Study #2: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 2016 Summer Olympics
The 2016 Summer Olympic Games presented another occasion where media outlets exhibited sensationalist reporting, thus clouding remote intelligence efforts. Media reporting had highlighted homicide, robbery, social unrest, the Zika Virus, and more. However, during the months and weeks leading up to the Olympic Games, there was no significant deviation in crime, nor any reported cases of the Zika Virus in Southern Brazil. In fact, cases of the Zika Virus were mostly identified in Northern Brazil, and since the Olympic Games were occurring during Brazil’s winter season, the risk of mosquito borne illnesses was significantly lower than normal.
Over the course of my career, there have been many occasions where I have managed secure travel logistics and personally provided close protection for business executives traveling to Brazil (specifically Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo). Admittedly, Rio de Janeiro is a dangerous city compared with most destinations that business executives find themselves traveling to (London, Singapore, New York, Etc.). However, after our detailed security advance prior to the Olympic Games, we had concluded that media reports were inconsistent with our real-time threat detection observations on the ground in Rio de Janeiro. In combining my previous experience in Brazil with support from local assets, we were able to tailor our security protocol to our clients’ needs, and minimize their exposure to threats. They enjoyed a world-class event, and we effectively reduced their risk. The media on the other hand, was focused on the continuing gang fighting in the favelas, the government’s anti-drug campaigns and mosquitos. In my opinion, sensationalist reporting had such a significant impact that it may have decreased potential attendance at the Olympic Games by as much as 40%.
Similar to the Istanbul experience, reliance on media reporting could have led to a missed opportunity (in this case for leisure rather than business). This brings us to a related area of caution, which starts with this question: “Couldn’t you just contact a local security/risk company to get an accurate assessment of the situation on the ground?” That is an option. However, source reliability is still an issue. Just as the news media and governments have unknown motives behind their press releases, local security providers may also have a motive for painting the security situation in a particular way, or in the worst instances will try to sell a client what we call a “fear package”. This observation of mine is not meant to make readers paranoid, rather, it should emphasize the value of having a reliable and trusted source of information in your areas of operation.
This is a consistent theme in protective intelligence literature: remote intelligence research should always be supported with verifiable observations. It has been the case in my experience, and there is no substitute for on-the-ground intelligence. Although remotely gathered intelligence plays a critical role in our operational planning, there are undeniable disadvantages of remote intelligence that can only be compensated with hard evidence and an eye on the ground.
This article was written by Michael James, of CA Security Services Ltd (UK Based). Following Mr. James’ near decade of service in the United Kingdom Special Forces, he has specialized in leading, organizing, and training his close protection teams in facilitating comprehensive executive travel security logistics for government dignitaries, high net worth Individuals, as well as leaders of private industry.