Travel Intelligence for Executive Protection: How and When We Use It in the Real World

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When it’s your responsibility to keep people safe on the road, you really want to know what’s coming around the next curve.

That’s why advance work is such a fundamental part of what we do, and that’s why travel intelligence – before, during and after a trip – is so critical to program success.

Before the trip

Before the detail starts, we’re doing advance work. In some cases, we’ll be in the country personally to do the advance. In others, we’ll be doing desk research from afar.

We’re busy and under time pressure. We might be working one detail while preparing the next, or juggling multiple projects at once, planning different trips to different places.

Pre-trip intelligence needs:

For any individual trip, we need overall travel intel and threat information for the country, region and city that we’ll be traveling to. We also need specific information on exact locations as part of advance work.

There is a ton of information available from open sources, but this information needs to be sharply curated. There is no time to sift through long reports and background information from many different sources.  We want concise, selective information on what’s most important now and in the immediate future.

Pre-trip travel intelligence resources:

General travel risk advisories from a variety of government agencies are a good place to start. They’re free, they provide a quick overview, and many rely on their “official” opinion.

That said, governments must carefully craft their official statements and vet their analyses across several desks. This process adds time between any new incidents and the release of the information to the public.  Also, government advisories are written under the constraints of official policy.  These challenges make them a good source – but not the only source.

For good introductory English-language government resources, check out:

  • US Department of State’s travel advisories
  • The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advisories
  • Australia’s Smart Traveler advisories

The U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) travel warnings bring things up a significant notch. They are better researched, more detailed, and far timelier.

Although OSAC’s news is rarely “breaking” and may be filtered through a U.S. Department of State perspective, their advisories are practical and useful. Analysts in the commercial sector rely on OSAC analyses as one of their many tools. Protective teams will want to check out OSAC’s “Crime and Safety Reports” and “Analyses” in particular.

OSAC offers protection professionals a secondary benefit:  the opportunity to collaborate with professionals across related industries.  If you haven’t joined an OSAC Working Group yet, you should consider doing so. In addition to sharing lessons learned and comparing response protocols, these groups are excellent forums for incident detection and validation.

Incident reporting software tools may also provide you with a sense of context by highlighting recent security-related incidents.

Finally, let’s not forget the importance of on-the-ground resources: Fresh intel from trusted local sources is vital. They’ll often give you a different picture than other reports. They know things like when labor strikes are coming, which roads are closed, when to leave to beat the traffic. Establishing and maintaining local relationships through colleagues, contacts, local drivers, collaboration groups as described above for OSAC, or other means, is an essential task for all protective teams.

Just don’t base your risk assessment on local intel alone. If you ask a local if it’s too dangerous to visit what outsiders have described as high-risk destinations, they will often say something like “Oh, it’s not that bad. It used to be much worse.” Remember, they’ve learned to live there, they’re part of it.  As foreigners, we often stand out.

During the trip

We’re on location, and we’re busy executing the detail. We have no time for extended background reading. In fact, we don’t have time for much of anything except taking care of the principal right here, right now – and looking around the next corner.

Trip travel intelligence needs:

What we need on the road is local incident reports. It’s imperative to stay informed about what’s happening situationally – and location-relevant information has to come as soon as possible.

Let’s assume you’re on a detail, inside a major hotel in the central business district of a foreign capital. You’ve prepared well, the day is going fine. The cars and drivers are outside and the support agents are with you. You’re doing what you’re supposed to do.

Here’s what you should care about in terms of incident reporting:

  • What’s happening right around you, at your current venue and in a 5 to 10-mile radius from there?
  • What’s happening on the route to the next meeting?
  • What’s happening around/near the airport?
  • What’s happening around the people your principal is meeting with?
  • Any news about your current or next venue?
  • Is your principal’s name or firm showing up in the local news or social media?
  • Is there anything going on in the principal’s life, or back at headquarters, that really matters to the principal? His or her family? Favorite teams?

This is all critical information that you want to know as soon as possible. When the client comes out of a meeting, you want to be in the know, be clear on next steps, and ready to frame expectations.

Let’s say the principal just heard there’s a riot in the central square, where our next stop is. When he or she looks at you, you want to be the one who knows what the trouble’s all about, whether the police have the demonstration contained or not, whether the side entrance to the next hotel is safe, and whether we’re good to go or not.

Incident reporting matters because the security context can change so quickly. Consider Barcelona, Nice, Paris, Miami, and Brussels. These are all places that rarely received urgent travel warnings a decade ago. But in the last few years, their security context changed drastically and within seconds.

When the security context changes, the protection posture must immediately change accordingly ­– you can’t wait until you get back to the hotel and watch CNN.

Trip travel intelligence resources:

Incident reporting tools, e.g., iJet, Dataminr, and Stabilitas all curate and send information on security-related news and other defined incident types – all in their own way.

Incident reporting should be informed by major wire services as well as by local news sources and validated social media accounts. Ideally, the information should be filtered according to the location of the GPS-tracked car, EP team, principal, and even people the principal is meeting.  Consider setting up fixed and roving geo-fences that trigger alerts according to asset locations. Safe zones, areas of caution and other types of locations should also be configured with geo-fencing.

Local, on-the-ground resources supplement centrally-sourced incident reports in important ways. Once you know something is up, you want to work the local network in order to get the freshest possible situational information any way you can. Staying in touch with local authorities – be it police, other first-responders or embassies – can also add value fast.

After the trip

After the trip is when we can kick back and relax a bit – unless we’re busy getting ready for the next journey. At any rate, this is the time for more in-depth reading, surfing the web, networking or however else you like to stay informed. As always, time is short, so it’s catch as catch can.

Consider the military’s process of after-action reviews regarding your intelligence collection and dissemination.  What worked well? What didn’t?  What assumptions did you have going in to the trip that you’ve updated?  Who else on your team needs to learn from your experience?

Post-trip travel intelligence needs:

This is all about sharpening the saw: keeping up on trends and news, regional and local security issues, and whatever else might affect our travels. This might also be an opportunity to learn more about our clients and their businesses… and all the other stuff we want to get better at!

Post-trip travel intelligence resources:

We’re not going to get into this here. It would take at least another blog – and we’d still leave out too much. Suffice it to say that all kinds of sources might be relevant:

  • Reports from intelligence analysts
  • Blogs and newsletters
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Books
  • Networking

Filtering the signal from the noise

There are a lot of places to stay informed about. There is a lot of information available on most places, whether open source or proprietary. Absorbing everything on everywhere would be ideal, but it’s just not practical – or even possible.

You’ve got to be highly selective about which sources to concentrate on, curate like crazy, and manage your time carefully. Developing reliable information sources and how to channel them, and filtering out the mission-critical signals from the noise, is all-important.