Threat-Based Hotel Selection Criteria

When using security criteria in selecting hotels its important to consider the prevalent threats at the location in question.  In general there are going to be one or both of two main categories of threat to consider:  General Crime and Terrorism.

While there may be some overlap — an some countermeasures such as access control and employee vetting may be useful for counteracting both — there are some selection criteria that may differ greatly.  Sometimes – though rarely they may contradict each other.

Criteria to look for when the hotel is located in an area where general crime is the main risk:

  • Good access control.  While hotel properties are typically open to the public the presence of hotel staff at the entrances who are alert and greeting people entering the property is a positive sign.  Ideally these employees have received some training and are looking for personnel who don’t belong or seem out of place.  Likewise service entrances and other non-public entry points should be guarded or closed and  locked.
  • Presence and prevalence of CCTV cameras.  While cameras have a limited ability to stop crimes from happening and are more useful as an investigative tool after an incident occurs they are of some use as a deterrent – especially for lower level petty criminals.  A quality CCTV system can indicate that the management is invested in security and focused on it.
  • Visible security personnel in the lobby and patrolling public areas.  In some African hotels guards are also posted on each floor.
  •  Card access control on the elevator.  While this can be defeated by people piggy-backing on the elevator its still a good measure.
  •  Card key use on guest doors as opposed to traditional metal keys.
  •  Security bolts and chains on room doors.
  • Limited or no re-entry floors on fire stairs.  Fire stairwells provide criminals a method of moving from floor-to-floor discreetly.  If it is impossible to re-enter floors once in the staircase and the only exit is a ground level fire exit door it restricts this avenue for criminals.
  •  Employee vetting process.  Hotel employees have considerable access to guest rooms and property as part of their official duties.  Normally the only way to determine employee vetting is through an formal assessment of the hotel and meetings with hotel management or by speaking to someone that has conducted such an assessment.
  • Employee security training and training of guard staff.  Again – a formal assessment will usually be necessary to obtain this information.

In locations where the principal or greatest threat is terrorism there are some different criteria.  Arguably the two greatest terrorist threats to a hotel are a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and a Mumbai-style attack on the hotel with small arms and grenades. There is also a risk of suicide bombers entering the hotel or even registering as guests or obtaining employment at the hotel as occurred in the Jakarta attacks.  Here are some primary considerations:

  •  Setback / standoff from the road.  This is one of the main considerations in mitigating vehicle bomb attacks.  Unfortunately in many urban areas around the world this can be difficult to achieve.
  • Vehicle access control.  Vehicle checkpoints where incoming vehicles are searched prior to being permitted access are of key importance.  Chicane approaches are also sometimes used to prevent a vehicle from gaining speed to ram into the hotel lobby.
  • No underground parking or heavily restricted underground parking.
  • No parking close to the hotel building or very restricted parking.
  • Protective shatterproof film on windows.
  • Lower level building or guest rooms located to rear of hotel.
  • Presence of armed security personnel or police/military forces on site.
  • Not located next to / or in very close proximity to other high value targets like government buildings.
  •  Good evacuation and emergency plans that are regularly exercised.  You would need to meet with hotel management to determine this.
  • A surveillance detection program.  While relatively rare one major US chain does this at select properties.

There are some rare occasions when criteria that may be good for one kind of threat may not be good for another.  One example is that a low-rise hotel with separate units or connected bungalows might be good where the local threat is terrorism as the property is likely to be less attractive for a vehicle bomb attack.  It;s also a good feature for quick egress in case of a fire or other emergency.  However this type of configuration where rooms have their own entrance to the outside presents additional risks in a criminal threat environment.

When selecting a hotel the threat environment is an important consideration.

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Checkpoints and Roadblocks

 

Security personnel search a vehicle at a “legitimate” checkpoint in Cairo

Checkpoints and roadblocks set up by security forces are a common facet in countries in the developing world, particularly in conflict and post-conflict environments.  In addition to checkpoints run by relatively legitimate governmental authorities in some places there are also checkpoints and roadblocks set up by guerilla and paramilitary groups as well as common criminals.

There is an element of danger even at “legitimate” checkpoints.  In many countries security forces are poorly trained, may be nervous or maybe under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  When approaching a checkpoint you are very vulnerable for all these reasons and it is important to maintain calm and composure and avoid antagonizing the personnel manning the checkpoint.  Checkpoints also provide these personnel the opportunity to carry out extortion and even worse criminal activities.  As mentioned in previous posts, in some locations police are heavily involved in criminal activity.

When approaching a checkpoint it is important to remain calm and be polite.  Drive slowly up to the checkpoint.   Provide any identity papers request but do not make sudden moves or furtive moves that might lead the security forces to believe you are reaching for a weapon.  A large dose of patience and politeness are perhaps your best tool in these situations where you are very vulnerable.

You should ensure your car is clean of any contraband or suspicious material.  Much as we discussed in the post about sanitizing yourself for travel you should ensure there is nothing in your vehicle that may put you in a difficult position.  This is particularly true if you are using shared vehicles from a motor pool or otherwise are in vehicle that you don’t have total control over.  If you are a doctor working for an aid agency or a journalist it may be difficult to explain why you have ammunition or military gear in your car.  Likewise if you are a salesperson or accountant you may have a hard time explaining high powered camera gear.

An even greater threat is the illegal checkpoint or roadblock.  These may be erected by kidnappers or other criminals to conduct robberies or mass kidnappings as we discussed in the post on “miracle fishing”.  In some cases a roadblock may be specifically put in place to kidnap or assassinate a targeted person.

When approaching a checkpoint you should assess it to determine whether its legitimate or not.  When looking at the personnel manning the checkpoint look at their uniforms and vehicles.  Do they look official or are they wearing a hodge-podge mix of uniforms and civilian clothes?  Do the vehicles appear to be official vehicles?  This will require some level of local knowledge of the security forces to assess correctly.  How about the placement of the checkpoint?  Generally legitimate checkpoints will be located where they have a good field of observation of vehicles approaching and generally a readily visible.  Illegal check points are more likely to be located around a blind curve or just over the crest of a hill to capitalize on the element of surprise  – although these guidelines are not absolute.  View how people and vehicles are being treated.  If you see people being pulled from their vehicles or mistreated you may be facing a very dangerous situation.

Attempting to avoid a roadblock or attempting to run through it are both very dangerous things to do.  At both legal and illegal roadblocks it is reasonable to assume that those operating it have anticipated that some drivers will attempt to avoid it.  There may be additional security elements you can’t see positioned to intercept people trying to avoid the checkpoint.  Attempting to drive through the roadblock without stopping is even more dangerous.  Even legitimate checkpoints may have authorization to fire on vehicles attempting to run them.

While there are never clear solutions for every possible situation, here are some considerations:

  • Try to be aware of locations where checkpoints are typically situated and avoid those locations when possible.

 

  • Avoid or reduce travel at night when going through checkpoints is more dangerous (and checkpoints may be more prevalent in some countries at night).

 

  • Recognize the inherent danger and your vulnerability even at legitimate checkpoints and com port yourself accordingly.

 

  • Know what legitimate security forces look like in the country where you are operating and use this knowledge to help determine as early as possible whether a checkpoint appears legitimate or not.

If you believe the checkpoint you are approaching is illegitimate then recognize the very real threat of robbery, kidnapping or other crimes that may exist and make the decision quickly whether or not to attempt to evade the checkpoint or risk entering it.  There are significant risks involved with either option and only you can make the decision based on the information you have at the time.

Sanitize Yourself for Travel

 

Shanghai, China — Data on computers and other devices is vulnerable

You don’t need to cut the tags out of your clothes but before traveling abroad its important to think about things that you are carrying, either on your person, in your bags or electronically in your devices that may cause trouble for you with foreign authorities.  In the earlier post on being the gray man and blending in we discussed clothing.  This time we will focus more on the types of things that you might be carrying that may cause unnecessary problems.  I am not suggesting that you never carry these types of things when you travel – only that you give it some consideration in the context of your trip.

Here are some categories to consider:

  • Military or government ID.  If you are a reservist, a government contractor or otherwise have some type of government ID you may want to leave it at home if you are traveling on private sector business.  Obviously this doesn’t apply if you are going to need the ID on your trip.

 

  • Reading material, videos and other media that might be considered offensive in the country you are traveling to.  This is particularly true in some of the more conservative Islamic countries.

 

  • Military style clothing such as camouflage or 5.11 clothing.  In many developing nations police and military authorities tend to view military clothing negatively and may not understand that you are wearing for durability, comfort, etc.

 

  • Police or military paraphernalia such as body armor, handcuffs, batons, magazines, shell casings, etc.  Even countries like United Arab Emirates have issues with this and have detained travelers with this sort of gear in their luggage.

 

  • Political material and media that may be offensive to the host government or contrary to its policies.

 

  • Satellite phones and GPS units.  These are viewed with suspicion – and in some places outright illegal – particularly in countries with a history of coups, political instability or foreign intervention.

 

  • Computers and other devices with encryption software loaded on them.   In some countries this is illegal and in some others while legal it may draw unnecessary scrutiny.

 

  • Sensitive company information.  It goes without saying that you should limit the amount of proprietary information you carry with you when traveling abroad.  Foreign governments can and sometimes will gain access to this information if they choose to examine your computer and other devices as part of a security or customs check on arrival or departure.  In some cases they may also surreptitiously access it during your stay.

 

  • Sensitive personal information.  You want to be cautious about carrying sensitive personal information like banking and financial information, personal contact information and the like that may be compromised.

 

  • Medications.  Be aware of what medications can be legally carrier into your destination and any restrictions that may exist such as the need for a prescription, prior approval from the host country Ministry of Health, etc.

 

  • Passport Stamps and Visas.  The classic example if the presence of an Israeli stamp in your passport barring you from entry in some Arab and Muslim countries.  If you have passport entries that might be problematic at your destination country then consider getting a new passport in advance.  DO NOT tear pages or visas out of your passport.  This is a crime many places and will cause you serious problems if detected.

The above guidelines are very situationally dependent — they are going to vary widely from country-to-country and situation-to-situation.  I don’t want to appear to be saying you need to follow these for every trip.  They are however things to consider, especially if travel takes you to places where the government closely scrutinizes visitors.

Common Carjacking and other Vehicle Assault Methods


Sign in Nairobi’s Central Business District warning about carjacking


Carjacking remains a serious threat in many developing countries.  For our purposes in this post we will broaden the definition of carjacking and consider not only forcible theft of the vehicle but also armed robbery of the vehicle’s occupants and/or kidnapping.  This may bother some purists as technically carjacking is meant to infer the theft of the vehicle by force however the motivation of the criminals is generally less important than the tactics and methods used.

Blocking vehicle — this is a classic method used in robberies, kidnappings and assassinations worldwide.  When you are driving slowly or are stopped at a predetermined location – usually a chokepoint – a vehicle will pull in front of you preventing your movement or in some cases two vehicles, one to the front and one to the rear will block you in.  While you are unable to escape the perpetrators will either deploy from the vehicle or from hiding places along the road and carry out the crime – whether it is robbery, kidnapping or assassination.  In Nairobi, Kenya there has been a trend of blocking the vehicle from the rear.  Most homes there are surrounded by a wall with an entrance gate for vehicles.  When a driver arrives at their home and waits for their guard or other domestic employee to open the gate for them a blocking vehicle pulls up behind them pinning the victims car between the gate and the blocking vehicle.  The perpetrators then deploy from their vehicle and carry-out the crime.

The Bump – the carjackers will bump your vehicle from behind and cause a minor accident.  When you stop to check the damage they will victimize you.

Car Trouble – Another vehicle will pull alongside or a pedestrian will come over and indicate you have a flat tire or some other car problem to get you to pull over and get out of the vehicle.

Good Samaritan – The criminals will simulate a car accident, pose as distressed motorists or injured victims to entice you to stop and give aid.

Overtaking Vehicle Attack – there is no ruse involved here.  This is an overt attack where the assailants will drive up from the rear and force your vehicle to pull over – either by: (1) using their vehicle as a weapon for force you off the road, (2) displaying weapons (3) or in some cases firing on your vehicle.

Halted Traffic Attack – another common overt attack.  This is similar to the Blocking Vehicle Attack except natural traffic conditions provide the “blocking vehicles”.  In this case the criminals know the local traffic patterns and select a location where at a specific time of day traffic creates a chokepoint.  The attackers then assault the vehicle while its stuck in traffic.  They will typically attack on foot or frequently on motorcycles.  This is more common when the intent is to rob the vehicle’s occupants as its difficult (but possible) to conduct a kidnapping this way and more difficult to steal the vehicle due to limited egress options.

Countermeasures for carjacking and similar types of vehicle assaults hinge on situational awareness and knowledge of the local threat environment.  Some key considerations:

  • Know the prevalence, trends and methods used in the location where you are living or visiting.

  • Practice good route analysis and planning.  Know where the danger areas and chokepoints are on the routes you take.

  • Be familiar with protective driving techniques and consider getting formal training in security and evasive driving.

  • Keep windows up and doors locked.

  • Heighten your level of alertness when at key danger areas.

  • Don’t fall for ruses or ploys designed to make you stop your vehicle or get out of your vehicle.  If you see someone in need of assistance use your cell phone to call for help rather than attempting to provide aid yourself.  If involved in a minor accident or hit by another vehicle (as in the “Bump”) drive to a police station or other safe haven.

 

 


Hotel and Restaurant Takeovers

Following up on the miracle fishing kidnapping post its a good opportunity to discuss other situations where victims are seized in masse as many of the same issues exist.  These are also crimes that, like miracle fishing are circumstances where funadamental security measures may be of limited use.

For this reason we’ll look at different examples of this from hotel takeovers in Lagos, Nigeria to recent restaurant takeovers in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  

Recently there have been a rash of restaurant takeovers and armed robberies in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  The phenomenon is called arrastao – Portuguese for “trawling” – and while it has been going on for several years but has recently increased in frequency.  The arrastao gangs – usually composed of four to ten men – select a target based on the ease of entry and exits and then descend at a peak hour when the establishment is full of diners.  They move in quickly, secure the restaurant and rob the patrons and employees at gunpoint taking anything of value that they can get – usually cash, jewelry and electronic items.  The robbery is usually over within minutes and the gang withdraws as quickly as they have arrived.

Lagos, Nigeria has experienced a similar – and perhaps more violent – pattern of hotel takeovers.  These incidents while more common around 2007-2009 are still occurring – at least as recently as 2011 when the Imperial Hotel in Lagos was invaded and guests, including a prominent Nigerian actress were robbed at gunpoint.  While many of the hotels that were robbed were guesthouses and small budget hotels, one popular brand hotel was also taken over on Ikoyi island in Lagos.  In some of these Nigerian cases the robbery gangs have actually gone door-to-door in the hotels robbing guests in their rooms.

Incidents like the Mumbai attacks – where the intent was to kill as many people as possible and the temporary assault on an upscale Rio de Janeiro hotel by rival gangs  are a little bit different but some of the fundamental precautions are the same.  In hotel takeover situations once you become of aware of the situation you have basically two options:(1) get out quickly without being noticed or (2) shelter-in-place.  If you are in a restaurant that is taken over you will likely have limited to no option to shelter in place (unless you are in or near the restroom) and very likely no opportunity to escape as the attack will be planned out well and the perpetrators will likely have secured all the exits.  Fortunately these are usually economically motivated crimes and if you surrender your valuables the criminals will likely take what they can get and want to leave as quickly as possible.

Shelter in place for a situation like a hotel takeover will be the same as for an active shooter situation.  You will want to seek both cover (protection from gunfire, etc.) and concealment (protection from observation).  An in depth discussion of possible individual actions to an active shooter incident is beyond the scope of this post but will be addressed in future.

The bottom line is that like miracle fishing these types of events are difficult to counter using many of the fundamental individual protective measures.  The best defense is to know the local patterns and trends, the profiles of establishments that are being attacked and avoid being there.  Awareness will still be a key component and if all else fails may help you at least recognize the danger more rapidly.

The Miracle Fishing Kidnap Threat

We have repeatedly discussed the pre-operational steps that occur prior to most crimes from similar robbery to assassination and perhaps most notably kidnapping.  These steps include things like surveillance and target selection.  There is at least one type of crime where this does not occur however — at least not in the typical sense — mass kidnappings or “miracle fishing”.  Mass kidnappings often called miracle fishing or pesca milagrosa have been perhaps most common in Latin America, in particular Colombia although it does occur other places as well.

Classic pesca milagrosa reached its zenith in Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s and was largely perpetrated by the two main leftist guerilla groups, the ELN and the FARC and to a degree by right-wing paramilitary groups.  Most mass kidnappings have involved victims being abducted at an improvised roadblock although in some cases kidnappers enter an establishment like a restaurant or hotel and take all the patrons hostage.

Mass kidnapping may be less common than other types of kidnaps and it may be more geographically isolated to some areas like rural Colombia — so why spend time talking about it?  One key reasons is that most typical proactive security measures have limit usefulness compared to other types of situations.

While there may be a number of ways it can occur (piracy and hostage taking in the horn of Africa or a mass kidnapping from a tourist park as occurred in Uganda) the classic example usually involves a roadblock or unlawful checkpoint — especially in the classic “miracle fishing” scenario in Colombia. The term “Miracle Fishing” refers to the way the perpetrators figuratively “cast a net” and gather “fish”.  They keep the big fish and throw back the little ones.

In these situations the kidnappers will typically set up a roadblock on a stretch of road – sometimes over the crest of a hill or at a blind curve in a road to avoid giving the victim advanced warning.  As cars pull up the roadblock the drivers and passengers are pulled from the vehicle and either assessed at the scene or more likely detained, moved from the scene to a secure location and assessed for valuation at that point.  During the assessment phase the kidnappers will try to determine the value if each victim and then keeping the high-value victims and releasing the low-value victims.  In some cases the valuation phase can be quite sophisticated to include using laptop computers and access to bank information.  One of the most noteworthy cases of miracle fishing involved the 1994 kidnapping of US agricultural expert Thomas Hargrove at a roadblock outside Cali, Colombia.  Hargrove subsequently spent 11 months in captivity.  The movie Proof of Life was largely based on the Hargrove case.  The movie dramatically depicts a miracle fishing/mass kidnapping incident.

In some cases victims are abducted in mass from a fixed location.  I know of one case anecdotally in the early 2000s  where the patrons of a roadside restaurant, also outside Cali  were kidnapped en masse.  They were given rubber boots and marched into the jungle.  There each person was assessed and the valuable fish were retained and the others released.

Its important to understand the potential risk of miracle fishing kidnaps because a lot of the things we may do for crime prevention and kidnap avoidance like watching for surveillance, varying routes, etc. will not necessarily help.  Situational awareness will still be important though.  If you come upon a roadblock suddenly you will have very limited time to determine your best course of action and probably very limited options.  We’ll look at assessing and dealing with roadblocks and checkpoints in the near future.

Devil’s Breath and the Ativan Gang

Manila — Home of the Ativan Gang

An alarming trend that has been occurring in different places around the world is the use of drugs in facilitating crimes like robbery, sexual assault and kidnapping.  These incidents have occurred in locations as varied as Colombia, the Philippines and India.

While most Americans may be aware of the use of drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB to facilitate date rape, many do not know how common these drugging incidents are overseas.

In May 2012 a tour guide in New Delhi was arrested for drugging and robbing lone tourists.  He met most of them in the area of the Chandi Chowk and Red Fort, offered them food laced with an unknown drug that incapacitated them and then robbed them and dumped them in remote areas.  While this particular modus operandi has not been that common in India it is very common in other areas.

Colombia is one of the best known locations for this type of activity.  Scopolamine – known locally as Burandanga – is used to facilitate crime by rendering the victim into a compliant, zombie-like state.  When the victim recovers he or she will usually have limited to know memory of the incident.  A recent documentary called the “The Devil’s Breath” brought the dangers of Scopolamine to a broad audience but this drug has been used for nefarious purposes in Colombia and neighboring countries for quite a while.  Methods of deployment can include everything from spiking food or drink to blowing it in the victim’s face.

In the Philippines the “Ativan Gang” (probably actually numerous groups using the same or similar methods) has preyed on victims by drugging them with Ativan and robbing them.  In some cases an attractive female will strike up a conversation with a lone male, go out for cocktails and spike his drink.  Then she and her accomplices will rob him.  In another variation a group of matronly older women will initiate a relationship with a tourist and invite him or her for a meal.  They will subsequently spike the food and or drink and rob the tourist.  There are other methods as well but these are two of the most prevalent.

Sometimes with these stories it can be difficult to separate truth from urban myth but there are enough verifiable incidents to establish that this is a concern — in particular in some of the locations mentioned.  The scary thing about this type of crime is that it can render even the strongest, most competent fighter helpless.  The only remedy is to be aware of this threat and practice avoidance.  Be wary of unsolicited approaches by strangers.  Some of these can be very convincing.  Don’t accept food, drink or chewing gum from anyone you don’t know well.  If you are at a bar or similar establishment don’t leave your drink unattended and monitor it carefully.  Also — going out in pairs or groups may also help guard against this type of threat.