Terror threat is only one of many security risks

 - August 11, 2008, 9:00 AM

The world didn’t necessarily become a more dangerous place on Sept. 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks that day impressed upon business travelers just how dangerous the world can be. The knee-jerk reaction of many companies was to ban all employees from flying on company business. The move was undoubtedly well intentioned, but, according to security expert David Little, it was ill-advised from the safety point of view because it did not take into account the much greater risks of having staff move around via ground transportation.

The dilemma that companies found themselves in during the immediate aftermath of 9/11 highlights the difficulties of being prepared for largely unforeseen security threats. And this is what Little and his colleagues at the UK-based crisis consulting division of Air Security International (ASI) try to help firms and private individuals cope with.

Little’s former business, Sheldon Little, merged last year with ASI to provide crisis management and response expertise. It complements the strengths of the Houston-based group in gathering and analyzing security intelligence, as well as in making operational security arrangements for clients. What Little and his colleagues do is work with clients to help them evaluate potential threats and to make plans for dealing with those threats should they materialize.

Though terrorism garners most of the headlines these days, it is far from being the only threat to the international business community. Kidnapping, violent crime and fraud are in fact much more prevalent.

Little told AIN that so-called “express kidnapping” is a rising trend in several parts of the world. The perpetrators seize their victim and drive them to an ATM, where they force them to withdraw cash before dumping them somewhere. The optimum outcome for the victim is that he or she loses nothing but some money. But all too commonly the criminals break a few bones to show they are serious, and if the crime fails because, for example, the victim can’t remember the card’s security code, then it can end in something much more brutal or even death.

So how do travelers get in a mess like this? Airports and even the exits of unfamiliar FBOs are happy hunting grounds for express kidnappers (and indeed for full-blown kidnappers). A common ploy is to look for a limousine driver holding up a sign with the passenger’s name on it. The criminal then makes another sign with the same name and makes sure that he gets to the passenger first.

The obvious solution is to arrange a more discreet rendezvous with a limousine driver. ASI also advises clients not to travel with gold and platinum credit cards, which criminals in higher-risk countries look for in hotel lobbies and public places. Lesser forms of credit and debit cards make you less likely to be targeted.

Whatever you do, advised Little, do not resist demands for money and valuables. One executive recently put up a fight in Bogota, Colombia, and didn’t live to tell the tale. Colombia is viewed by many security consultants as the kidnapping capital of the world, but Mexico, the Philippines and Brazil are increasingly challenging it for this dubious honor.

Other Scams

Another common scam at airports is for a bogus driver to help take baggage from the aircraft and then disappear with it all while the crew and passengers are distracted. There is also a risk that criminals may seek to conceal drugs on a visiting aircraft, if they have been able to find out where it will be flying to next.

Business aircraft users like to think they enjoy a higher degree of security than the poor souls who still fly the airlines. In principle they do, but only if proper precautions are taken.

According to Little, in high-risk countries with traditions of bribery and corruption, one of the weakest potential links in the business aviation service chain is the FBO. Especially in the developing world, it is all too easy for FBO staff to be bribed to provide criminals with the information they need to rob or threaten customers. Corporate pilots generally view FBOs as safe havens, but they are well advised to be selective about who they trust and to what degree.

So who can you trust? Well no one really, but, according to ASI, operators can reduce the risk by allowing an experienced international flight-planning group to make arrangements with a reputable FBO. Of course, ASI is a sister company to Air Routing International, but it also provides security support to rival flight-planning group Jeppesen.

Kidnapping 101

For Little and his UK team, kidnapping has become something of a specialized area. The division prepares prevention plans for those at high risk, and when the threat becomes a reality it will quickly move specialists in to manage the situation. One of the keys to this is controlling the actions of family members who can all too easily exacerbate an already tenuous situation by letting emotions cloud good judgment.

Little was involved in resolving the South American kidnapping depicted in the recent Russell Crowe movie, “Proof of Life.” Little said the film was reasonably accurate, apart from the somewhat overblown finale in which Delta Force troops rescue the hostage. This simply didn’t happen, he noted.

Little emphasized the need for individuals and companies alike to keep a tight rein on information relating to travel itineraries. Even in the home office it is advisable to have a clean desk policy and not to leave calendars around for prying eyes. Before travel, laptop computers should be stripped of as much highly sensitive data as possible so that if they are snatched while on the road the company will not lose information that could harm it in the wrong hands. It is also vital that laptops are password protected.

ASI advises clients to consider making travel arrangements independently of their local subsidiary or partner companies out of concern that they might leak sensitive information–albeit for benevolent reasons. In one situation, a local subsidiary supplied a visiting top executive’s entire itinerary to the media for the sake of a bit of kudos. In the process they effectively also made it available to any would-be criminals.

Little also warned that local telephone networks cannot generally be considered secure. He recommends that travelers avoid discussing details of their movements and business on landlines. Satellite phones are more secure, he added.

“A business aircraft can provide protection for its passengers, but only if it is used in a disciplined way,” explained Little. “The crew needs to be able to exercise control procedures.”

Little acknowledged that sometimes the need for discipline in a flight department’s operating procedures can conflict with the owner’s desire for complete freedom and flexibility. He cited the example of a CEO who constantly showed up late for flights and routinely accepted packages from people in the large company who he could not personally vouch for. Sometimes, security-conscious pilots are going to need to say no to passenger practices that could unwittingly compromise their own safety.

ASI’s Houston team often sets up bodyguards and secure ground transportation for corporate operators. Depending on the level of assessed risk, this can range from an English-speaking driver to a team of personal protection agents and a driver trained in evasion tactics.

Up-to-the-minute local intelligence is obviously vital to a well planned security operation, and ASI compiles this from multiple sources in its efforts to provide realistic risk assessments. Little conceded that government embassy intelligence sources are not always of the greatest value to its corporate clients because the official warnings about any given location are often generic in nature and intended for tourists. “We tap all local sources of intelligence,” concluded Little.

In the highly litigious environment of corporate America, firms are generally fairly well aware of their potential liability for security incidents, according to Little. But in his view, corporations outside the U.S. are only now beginning to appreciate the extent of their potential exposure.

Little advised that lawyers representing staff and their families are going to be asking whether the company informed the employees about the risk in a particular location, what arrangements had been made to protect them and whether these measures were effectively taken when the risk materialized. He believes the threat of litigation has probably done more to focus corporate minds on the need to invest in adequate security measures than statutory legislation, such as new UK laws requiring public companies to analyze the risks associated with their operations. “The response to this sort of law has generally been too woolly,” he complained.

ASI’s new UK division enjoys the official recommendation of several leading risk-management insurers. Its involvement in crisis management and response can make it more affordable or feasible for a client to get insurance coverage against specific security risks.