In my last post I spoke rather broadly about the “non-permissive environment”. I provided a relatively standard definition. Many training courses seeking to prepare people for this non-permissive environment seem to focus on topics and techniques better suited to a Hollywood screen than the non-permissive environments in which I have worked. This is largely because the training is aimed at people who wished they worked in such environments, not people who actually do.

Keeping a Low Profile

Depending on your role and mission, your first priority is to maintain a low profile. This means low profile in several ways: Physically low profile, electronically low profile, and of course culturally low profile. Tactical backpacks, combat boots, Velcro patches, and pants with a dozen pockets don’t cut it. You need to do your best to look inconspicuous, being that I am about 6’5” and Caucasian this tends to be difficult, I cannot look like a Yemini man, but I CAN manage to not look like someone who is threatening to a Yemini man.

The number one question I get asked about working in these places is whether I am armed. My answer is always “No”, apart from a few rare instances, or when the role is an overt security deterrent presence (this is typically done working with larger teams, something else I have experience with). Firearms draw attention, even concealed firearms can provide problems. If you are claiming to be a television producer, are carrying a concealed weapon, and are searched by law enforcement that story is not going to hold up.

On assignment in Turkey. Filming a documentary critical of the Erdogan government, keeping a low profile was key.

You Need a Plausible Story

Most of my work is with journalists and as such I carry press credentials. Here is a VERY important point. If you carry press credentials you should NEVER be armed. When the Central Intelligence Agency provides non-official cover (NOC) to its operatives it NEVER assigns them identities as doctors or journalists. The reason is that the use of medical professional and journalists in espionage irrevocably damages the credibility of these critical institutions. The U.S. used a doctor to assist in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The result of this was that doctors were held in great suspicion in that region of Pakistan and as a result, vaccination efforts there have been hampered. There is a very high cost to damaging reputations of professionals in critical and potentially dangerous roles.

If you are working with media and are credentialed as such, carrying weapons will damage the credibility of the profession in that region and can lead to extremely adverse outcomes for the team with which you are working (detention, deportation, or worse).

Your Instagram Can and Will be Held Against You

Your electronic profile should remain low as well. In my career I have seen incredibly stupid things done by security “professionals” such as ‘checking in’ on Facebook on location with clients. People, as a rule, are typically unaware of the amount of information they put out on their social media. If you are working in a role where you are providing security but are assuming another identity or role for ease of access (which I typically do), your social media may give you away. It does not take an exceptional detective to do a social media search while you are detained. This social media should be non-existent, private, or easily explained.

Additionally, never assume your communications are secure. Use end-to-end encrypted communication apps. Not all governments feel themselves restricted when it comes to monitoring people within their borders. Always keep in mind that when traveling through airports that customs and immigration officials CAN and WILL search your electronic devices. These devices are considered part of your luggage and can be searched as such. If your device is encrypted and the officials cannot access it, they can detain you until you provide access, or they can simply deport you on the spot. In the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can hold an American citizen in detention until they grant them access to their electronic devices. There is no statutory limit to this detention. Many customs officials will simply look through your device, however there is nothing stopping them from downloading its contents (this is routine in several countries including the United States).

Your Phone Lock Won’t Save You

Usually the viewing of your device is to determine if you possess obscene material (photos of exploited children) or have evidence of illegal activities or the intent to carry out such activities. I have been subjected to this in an unnamed country where I was detained and asked to give access to my device. I provided the access but had photos from work deployments that had me in close proximity to narcotics (I never handled the narcotics). This led to a multi hour interrogation and search of my luggage. I was allowed to carry on since I always carry documentation of my professional role including press credentials and letters of engagement from clients. In short, my story is legitimate, backed up by professional documentation, and rehearsed. On top of this I have a fair amount of experience being interrogated and can navigate these waters with some proficiency.

If you wish to remain “low profile” you must actually put some work into it. Typically, I do not attempt to keep up much more than a minor façade. In depth examination and interrogation will quickly give you away. If you do not have government issued non-official cover (passport, drivers license, social media, professional identification, etc.…) and extensive anti-interrogation training a seasoned security professional will quickly find out who you are. Your deception will likely be held against you and used as cause for further detention, deportation, or worse.

Remember even in what appear to be underdeveloped regions, local nationals may possess a level of sophistication that is surprising. Non-state actors such as insurgents and terrorists will have a very deep familiarity with social media and electronic intelligence. Being unbound by any convention on the treatment of detainees you can expect this to be paired with extremely harsh interrogation techniques which would likely be considered torture.

Blend in, Don’t be Offensive

Finally, a low cultural profile is extremely helpful. This means avoiding making it painfully obvious where you are from. Dress responsibly and do some research on local customs of dress (do men only wear long pants, jeans, collared shirts, etc.…). Additionally, pay attention to social conventions about methods of greeting, body posture, customs around food and eating, and any other mundane but relevant customs.

Giving offense can be have ramifications from losing access to a key piece of information, an interviewee, or could lead to a potentially violent confrontation. This factor is highly culturally endemic, your ignorance of local customs may not do much to pacify an angry local national.

Weekend Warriors Need Not Apply

Remember that success and failure do not hinge on Jason Bourne skills, if they do you are most likely a failure in your role. No one hires risk managers or security advisors to wind up in a gun fight or to practice evasive driving. While those skills have their place, everything hinges on mitigation and avoidance. Risk mitigation isn’t exciting or sexy, however serious professionals appreciate it as a quality in their security providers.

If you are serious about navigating non-permissive and hostile environments, developing the skills that matter is your best bet for success. Weekend warrior pursuits are non-relevant and excessive displays of them on social media may make you a less than desirable candidate.



Non-Permissive Environment: Skills for Survival and Success

One thought on “Non-Permissive Environment: Skills for Survival and Success

  • December 17, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    Really good article Alex. The details and inside knowledge are invaluable. Thanks.


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