Is strategic complacency the biggest threat to the close protection of principals?
When we think about emerging or changing threats for the security industry in the year ahead, we will probably all immediately consider terrorism, organised crime and cyber threats – obviously important priorities. But is the threat we need to be more aware of the homegrown insider threat of strategic complacency?
With global economies suffering, governments, their departments and industry will all look to save money and cut back on expenditure generally.
Whilst this is understandable, the problem comes when the cutbacks for security, particularly around protected principals, are based on flawed rationale.
Strategic and tactical resource decisions for personal protection are often based on threat assessments that focus heavily on “available intelligence and recent activity”.
When I first started my career in protecting senior government officials, I was given sage words by my experienced mentor, “Remember, lack of intelligence doesn’t equal lack of intent, it just means we don’t know what the opposition are planning yet or when they plan to do it.”
Impact of the economic climate
The problem is that protection costs money, often quite a lot of it, and in the current economic climate asking for more of anything is unlikely to go down well.
This can generate a situation where decisions are based on economics rather than the actual risk the principal faces. If the starting point of a discussion is “This person’s protection is expensive…” then everything that follows – reviews, assessments and redesigns – will be tainted by the concept of having to reduce the excess element of the cost.
Because what’s what expensive in this context means, “overpriced, luxurious or excessive”, which is different to “this person’s protection costs a lot of money…”. When a review begins from the standpoint that there is excess, then any information received will be subconsciously weighted according to how it conforms or otherwise to that position.
Confirmation bias and the intelligence picture
That brings us back to the intelligence picture and how it can be inadvertently manipulated by confirmation bias, most importantly through the interpretation of ‘recent’ reporting or activity.
In June 2012 the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) undertook a visit to a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, close to the border with Somalia. There had been a high risk of kidnapping in the area, with “visibly wealthy” foreigners particularly vulnerable. Accordingly, it was a common practice to use armed escorts for movements in and around the area. For this high-profile and pre-announced visit to the camp, a senior manager, who was not a security professional, decided that as there had been no kidnapping attempts for a while, they would not need the armed escorts for the visit. The convoy was attacked, a local driver was killed, and a number of people, both nationals and internationals, were injured and abducted.
One of the findings from the review, and subsequent court case, was that the link between the standard practice of using armed guards and the subsequent impact on the lack of kidnap attempts hadn’t been made by the senior manager. Whilst the decision not to use armed guards wasn’t made on economic grounds, it certainly wasn’t based on sound and competent tactical advice from their own security professionals.
Assassination of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the attempted assassination of Sir Salman Rushdie
The assassination of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the attempted assassination of Sir Salman Rushdie should also be front and centre in any discussions around deployment of protection assets. Reports indicate that Sir Salman was protected by a single State Trooper. I’ve worked with protection teams made up of State Troopers and found them to be competent operators. That said, the level of capability or competence is irrelevant when you’re alone and undertaking the multitude of tasks a whole team should be dealing with at a pre-advertised public event.
The “lack of recent reporting or activity” risk goes beyond the strategic budget holders. The assassination of Shinzo Abe was set against a backdrop of only approximately ten firearms- related offences in the whole of Japan during the previous year, eight of which were related to organised crime, and none of those attacks had been against senior politicians. It’s just not what happens there, until it did.
His team appear to have been well resourced and equipped; however, it is likely that the fact there had been no previous attempts or incidents of this nature would have reduced their readiness for an attack.
So, what are the lessons which can be learned?
Firstly, those with hostile intent are patient and have long memories. If a decision is made to initiate protection for someone then, unless that is based on the threat from a subsequently neutralised single hostile actor, which of course happens, then settle in for the long run.
This isn’t to say that protection necessarily needs to be never ending. If the situation has changed and a comprehensive, robust review has been undertaken, one that includes a full deep dive into all aspects of the threat, and not just a review of the executive summary of assessed intelligence, and an operationally and occupationally competent tactician has been involved, then of course measures can and should be downgraded.
Secondly, if you’re going to provide protection, then deploy the resources needed to do the job properly. The reality in the modern era is that this needs to include a visible deterrent.
If your hostile actor is prepared to die to achieve their goal, then the only effective deterrent is for them to believe that they will be killed or otherwise neutralised before they reach their intended target. Yigal Amir, who in November 1995 assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a public rally, stated in interview that he had attended a number of previous public events armed and prepared to carry out the attack but had been put off by the extent of the security arrangements.
Finally, protection teams need to believe in the reality of the threat they face. The lack of intelligence doesn’t equal lack of intent.