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Foreign Travel Security and the Personal Security Protective Detail

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Today’s VIPs, CEOs, and executive leaders live a life of frequent air travel often hopping from continent to continent. They could be doing it to represent their organizations, maneuver their interests, and, at times, just to unwind.

Bill Gates made comments last year predicting more than 50% of business travel will disappear in a post-coronavirus world. But travel is making a comeback as corporate leaders and everyday citizens alike resume their routines and reconnect with their business contacts and families.

Whether a principal has their own aircraft or travels via commercial air carrier or other means, there are several important measures that the protective detail must plan for.

No Foreign Travel Is Routine

No matter how many times you have been to that same spot and perhaps even know it “like the back of your hand,” you must conduct an intelligence and threat assessment. You should consult and review open and closed source assessments, as well as news and in loco contact for every trip when doing foreign travel security.

Situations often change overnight so you cannot be reliant upon a brief that you received a week or a month ago. PSD leaders should be voracious news followers. And, by the way, it is imperative that you have multiple channels or sources at your fingertips.

Sticking to a single news source may result in your getting a particular view, perhaps more entertainment-driven and slanted, rather than the whole story. You should seek to subscribe to newspapers and TV outlets in the region you are traveling to and review their coverage often.

Pre-planning for foreign travel security should also include a threat assessment. It should consider your principal and their notoriety as well as their relationship to the location(s) to be visited.

Threat categories should include reviews of:

  • Criminal Threat
  • Health and Environmental Threat
  • Political Threat
  • Foreign or Business Intelligence Threat
  • Terrorist Threat

You should assess and address concerns with mitigation measures or, if necessary, the recommendation for postponement or “NO GO” travel.

Joining Organizations

The US Department of State has fantastic resources and websites that include information by country, foreign travel security advisories, and information that they frequently update.

US Citizen travelers should enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It allows them to receive bulletins or alerts on their location and allows Regional Security personnel facilities in locating persons in an emergency.

If you are part of a US-based organization, you should definitely consider joining and participating in the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC). The information, conferences, seminars, and networking with fellow security professionals and subject matter experts will inevitably be helpful. Whether you need a contact in LA or London, Mali, or Manila — OSAC can help.

The Brief

A foreign travel security brief should be prepared no matter how short or benign the trip. This can be a simple one-pager with bullet points highlighting threat factors, likely weather, potential delays, or disruptions. Also, it should and other helpful information such as phone dialing instructions, ground points of contact (POC), and emergency guidance.

While most good executive assistants already have an itinerary and timeline, they do not delve into security-related items or concerns. What’s more, they don’t have emergency communications, transportation, or contingency measures ready.

Certainly, those are things that do not need to be on the principal’s brief sheet. But the lead agent or organizer should have them at the ready.

Know Who You Are Working With

Conducting due diligence on local support is a MUST! Not so long ago, a well-known multinational company suffered serious embarrassment. Their CEO was detained after police learned that their contract security details of off-duty law enforcement officers were not licensed to operate armed. They didn’t even have the credentials to provide security services outside of their jurisdiction. The mere fact that a company has off-duty police officers does not mean they are legal to service your client.

Appropriate vetting must take place.

Another multinational hired an off-duty Police Commander with exceptional English language skills. He talked the talk but had absolutely zero previous experience as an operator and was in fact a judicial detective.

That’s great if your client needs an investigation, but not so great if you need to get him out of danger. The individual’s agency has a standard of twenty (yes, twenty) rounds allocated for annual firearms training and certification. Barely enough to shake off the rust, much less be proficient.

foreign travel security

Another potential pitfall in foreign travel security is knowing if the individuals have been appropriately vetted for human rights violations. In yet another situation involving an unvetted team, a delegation arrived at a function. That’s when they learned that a few of the highly trained special operators on their ground detail were part of a unit that was under collective indictment for torturing and killing several people.

The reputational damage that such a situation can cause could be irreparable and most certainly embarrassing. All this to say, you should seek out bona fide security providers. Inquire as to experience, certifications, as well as required licenses. And better yet, connect with Embassy RSOs or trusted agents to identify any issues or previous negative experiences.

Know the Environment

Knowing the environment may seem rudimentary to you. But many PSDs focus so much on the potential threat and the moving piece. And they fail to address something simple like voltage difference or plug adaptors.

Arriving in a foreign location at night and then trying to scramble to find a particular power adaptor may prove to be challenging and embarrassing especially if your cell phone runs out of battery power. It may seem simple to most but having a good advance is essential to mission success.

Beyond just the site reconnaissance for lodging, event or meeting venues, and/or meals your advance should look to identify potential threats or risks from various standpoints. How are cell or comms signals along the way, at the locations? How is the support there? Who and what can you rely upon if there is a simple medical need or an emergency trauma situation?

You must know the exact plan down pat. Run routes at various times of day and night. Get a feel for potential issues with traffic flow, barriers to movement, and/or safety problems. Plan primary and contingency routes.

It is far too often that the PSD leaves the route up to the local driver. After all, he knows the terrain right? But when you ride the route you find that the driver has been laser-focused on a most direct route. They aren’t considering potential choke points, danger areas, or hazards.

Know the Potential Restrictions

Know the laws, customs and avoid any potentially damaging situations. Some countries will have restrictions on items we take for granted such as satellite phones, body armor or protective clothing, weapons, handcuffs or restraints, and even medical items including prescription medications.

As a security professional, you must be the one to do the due diligence and determine what can and cannot be brought in. Do not be so arrogant or confident to think that your principal is above those laws or not subject to inspection.

Irrespective of diplomatic status or celebrity, we are all vulnerable when we are in a foreign country. All it takes is one overzealous bureaucrat to wreck your day by seizing your luggage or detaining you or your client.

Know That You Are Being Watched

When you depart your home and you’re doing foreign travel security, you should realize that you and your principal are being subjected to surveillance. Whether that is eager paparazzi or intelligence operatives, you must be ready and alert to espionage or sinister actions.

Experience shows us that most intelligence organizations, even those engaged in industrial espionage or IP theft will not target a high-profile principal. They will seek out their immediate staff or aides by bugging or infiltrating hotel rooms. They might also be monitoring conversations in bars or restaurants, or hacking devices.

While we all recognize the countries where such monitoring is most prevalent, you must be very aware that such intelligence work does not only occur in those places. Those of us who have worked in these circles long enough can tell you of “friendly” nations that do more to collect and even surveil hotel rooms where you would least expect it.

You may be great at detecting, sweeping for, or screening areas for devices. But the best policy is to avoid discussing or passing sensitive data while in foreign territory. Assume that the host government or others will monitor your communications, be that internet, cell phone, etc., or conversations.

To Sum Up

Now some of this may seem common-sensical while others may think it’s a bit paranoid. Bottom line – be prepared when doing any kind of foreign travel security. All in all, the lesson here is that a solid plan of action. Even for a simple “we’ve done this a dozen times before” trip, can avoid potential issues.

Your client’s reputation, perhaps their life, as well as yours, may be on the line. Take the time to do your due diligence, have contingency plans in place, and really, truly prepare.

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