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International Executive Protection: Not as simple as one may think

The conversation goes something like this:

Client: ‘I see on your site you provide international EP support. We have a trip coming up to Niamey, Niger. Can you support?’

Company owner: ‘Yes Sir, of course we can. We have a global footprint, a vetted vendor, and trusted partner in Niamey! Whatever you need, we are all over it.’

Really? Do you?

The truth is, you don’t have a vetted vendor in Niamey, because nobody does. Almost nobody goes there. What you have is a buddy in the industry, who once met a guy in Nigeria, who knows a guy in Senegal whose cousin in a goatherd in Niamey who has an old SUV. And if you are lucky, he will take the goat out of the SUV before he picks your client up.

International EP is far more complex than having a website, confidence and a network of people who know people who know other people.

To provide reliable, consistent, and professional EP support the world over is not easy task and requires a wealth of knowledge and experience. To know how to turn a “no” into a “yes” in any culture is a skill that can’t be taught in a course, it takes years of experience and knowhow to successfully navigate global cultures and facilitate your clients’ needs.

We thought we would share some ideas surrounding international EP that we have learnt over the 20 years we have been doing this. Here are 5 points for considerations:

1.          What qualifies a vendor as vetted?

The terms ‘vetted vendor’ and ‘trusted partner’ get tossed around a lot in our industry. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Have you defined what constitutes a vetted vendor for your company?
  • What is your vetting process for vendors?
  • Is that process documented and enforced?
  • How often to you revisit and renew that process?
  • How often do you meet with your vendors and align expectations?

There are many companies out there supporting clients with what they call vetted vendors, but in many cases, they have never even met the vendor, seen their fleet, met their personnel, seen their offices or performed any sort of quality control.

There are companies who don’t want to turn down business, and will grab everything that crosses their path, even if ill equipped to support. Such businesses will usually find out there is a price to be paid.

When the Principal, together with their EP agent, steps off the plane and finds out the vehicles are not up to standard, the drivers lack local knowledge and don’t speak English as requested, it is too late. You have soured the relationship and it will negatively affect your business in the future.

It takes years of boots on the ground field work to really know your vendors. Once you have worked with them many times over many years, know their set up and personnel and developed strong relationships, then you can start to say you have a trusted network.

2.          Local threat assessment

Most client’s will conduct a threat assessment on the location to which their execs are traveling prior to the trip. Whether it is done internally or outsourced these threat assessments, while extremely important and valuable, do not provide you with an in-depth understanding of the threat landscape on the ground. Local knowledge is paramount to safely and successfully managing your Principal’s travel.

  • Who is a threat? In different cultures and environments, physical threat indicators vary and the suspicious indicators of a person who would be considered a potential threat in one landscape may be innocuous in another. And vice versa.
  • Taking the temperature of the street. Understanding the local culture and rhythm of a city allows you to quickly understand if what you are seeing is the beginning of civil unrest, a street party or a bunch of sports fans celebrating.
  • Knowing that in some countries, seeing civilians with firearms casually slung over their shoulders is commonplace yet still being able to identify a potential hostile or attacker.
  • The knowledge that in some cultures, yelling and aggressive body language is commonplace and is not necessarily an indicator of pending violence, whilst in others it may be a clear prelude to trouble.
  • An in-depth understanding of the local neighborhoods, streets, and no-go areas.
  • Having the confidence to navigate challenging situations in a foreign language and culture.

3.          Cultural dissonance and your local team

Your local team will make or break your assignment. Amongst others, the local tour guide, trip owner, drivers, and hotel staff are all integral parts of your success. Cultures vary greatly from place to place and, if you are to be successful as an international EP agent, you need to study and understand the culture where you’ll be operating.

  • Is small talk required? In some cultures, you can walk up to the tour guide when you first meet and, without preamble, launch directly into your list of questions, demanding all sorts of information. In other cultures that would be considered extremely rude and get you off on the wrong foot with someone who is very important to your mission. Small talk is not only expected but required.
  • Knowing how to shake hands properly, whether it is a tactile culture, and how to properly address people can go a long way to breaking the ice and recruiting your local team to your side.
  • How do you get drivers in to be where they need to be, on time, in countries where time is a ‘suggestion’ not a finite point? As a close friend and colleague in Africa always says, “You have a watch, but we have time”. Telling the driver, ‘Listen buddy, I need you to be here at 08:00 sharp tomorrow morning, am I clear?’ probably isn’t going to get the desired result.
  • How do you get the GM of the hotel, the manager of the private airfield or the Maître D of a Michelin Star restaurant in Berlin to do what you need them to, without them thinking that you are a rude tourist?
  • Are you able to deal with corrupt local law enforcement? Do you know how to handle them, what to say, and what to do without getting into issues with them or your client?
  • Know when restaurants are open, traditional eating times and tipping culture.
  • Familiarity with local customs and what not to do as not to insult the local people.
  • Knowing whether the tap water is safe to drink or uncooked foods safe to eat. Remember, if the water is not safe, neither is the ice.

The default methodology for today’s corporate EP teams is low profile or covert or whatever terminology you prefer. Bottom line is that EP agents need to blend into their environment and be, for the most part, unobtrusive and discrete. Of course, overt EP and showing your presence has its time and place but for the most part, when traveling with a corporate executive, the low-profile approach is used.

The reasons for this are many but the primary ones are:

  • The clients feel far more comfortable without a visible security presence around them.
  • Many clients do not like the optics of having ‘bodyguards’ next to their C-suite executives.
  • There is a significant tactical advantage to having those in the immediate environment not recognizing the purpose of the agents, not recognizing that they are the security team. It doesn’t matter if they are seen, it matters if the environment knows they are EP agents. A hat tip here to my friend and colleague, Ivor Terret (MSc) of Enablement Advisors , who always says, “remember, you are hiding your purpose, not your presence!”
  • Being low profile facilitates free movement and problem solving in the field in a manner that overt EP does not.

We don’t want to get into a deep discussion about overt vs low profile vs covert in this article, as that is not the purpose. What we want to talk about is blending in. A look that works well for an EP agent working in Menlo Park or New York City doesn’t necessarily translate well to Berlin or Milan. Not to mention Lagos or Jakarta.

Experienced international agents know the varying environments in which they operate and are like chameleons, changing their appearance and mannerisms to blend into wherever they are. 

4.          It is about more than just your clothes.

Over the years, we have seen there is a tendency to think that all you have to do is dress like the people around you and bam! you blend right in. Nothing is further from the truth. Understanding the local culture and how to conduct yourself is paramount to a successful operation, especially when interacting with local people. Consider the following:

  • Your body language, how you stand, and how far you stand from people when you speak are all friction points that will either help or hinder you.
  • Things as innocuous as where you put your sunglasses can make you stand out. Some cultures push them up onto their forehead, some hook them on their shirt while some place them backwards on their necks or place them on the rim of their baseball caps. Look around at what the locals or even most of the tourists are doing and do the same.
  • Same with hats. If most people are wearing Fedora style sunhats and you wear a baseball cap backwards, you will stand out.
  • Cool tactical bags are great but once again, they make you noticeable and you’ll stand out as part of the security detail.
  • 511 shirts, cargo pants, boots, and the rest are great for some environments but not for all. Pay attention to what’s happening around you.

5.          Do’s & Don’ts

There are a great many things to be aware of when traveling to foreign countries that can land you in trouble with the law or inconvenience you when you are with your Principal. Here are just a few we have come across over the years:

  • Sat phones: you cannot take Sat phones into all countries.
  • Knives: Many agents carry bladed weapons on their person or in their bag. In many countries that is illegal, and you can be arrested.
  • Medication: There are countries where certain medications such as CBD oil, Ritalin and amphetamines like Oxycodone are illegal.
  • Appropriate dress and speech: There are countries in which wearing a revelling garment, swearing, or gesticulating rudely at someone can get your arrested.Drinking or being in possession of alcohol is forbidden in some countries.
  • Laws and sensitivities: Know local laws and cultural sensitivities around LGBTQI+ identification and behave and be able to advise your client accordingly. Certain points of view or topics for discussion may be appropriate in some countries but extremely contentious in others.
  • Personal beliefs: Your personal beliefs on topics like religion, sex and politics are not to be discussed, but treated as factors in your threat assessment.
  • Cash or card: Are all types of credit cards accepted in the country or should you have enough cash on hand to pay for meals or other services you or your Principal may require.

The rule of thumb is: prior to heading out, do some homework, learn about the environment you are going to, speak to people who have operated there, and prepare properly for your assignment.

International EP is a big topic that requires a huge amount of knowledge and skill to carry out successfully. While we cannot address all aspects in one article, we hope that found value in what we shared and that you’ll feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] with any questions or if you want to learn more.