Vehicle Security Self-Search

Wire around vehicle tire – Kandahar Province


Wire attached to fragmentation grenade under vehicle – Kandahar Province

If you are working or living in an area where there is a significant terrorist threat or if you are someone who is in an at-risk category or may be specifically targeted you should consider conducting a vehicle search for possible improvised explosive devices (IEDs) anytime your vehicle is parked where it is accessible and is unattended.

I do not suggest that most people need to incorporate this technique into their personal security program.  Its a very specific response to a particular type of threat but those who are operating in high-risk areas where booby-trapping of vehicles occurs and those who may be targeted for assassination should utilize this technique.

There is a lot of material available on this subject and it is taught in many executive protection and security driving courses.  If you are looking for a more detailed discussion of vehicle search techniques a very good resource is “Survival Driving: Staying Alive on the World’s Most Dangerous Roads” by Robert Deatherage.

I will give a much briefer version here that nonetheless provides a good starting point.

You should begin the search with a walk-around and a check of all external areas of the vehicle.  A flashlight will be useful for this.  The wheel wells, undercarriage of the vehicle, bumpers, etc. should be checked.  Additionally you should look for any signs of forced entry or tampering with the vehicle.

The hood and engine compartment should be checked next.  You may want to weigh the hood down with something as you open it to control the speed with which it rises.  Check for any wires, fishing line, etc. running from the hood to the engine compartment.  Once open check around the engine.  Be familiar with the engine compartment so you can better notice something out of place.

After checking the engine compartment move on to the trunk.  As with the hood weigh it down to control the speed as ot opens and check for tripwires connected to the trunk lid.  Check the interior to include the tool compartment,  etc.

Once the trunk has been checked begin the interior search by first looking through the windows for anything out of place.  As a general rule its best to reduce clutter in the vehicle to facilitate detecting any potential threat.

Enter the vehicle cautiously – preferably using the least used door (such as one of the rear passenger doors).  Check for tripwires when opening the door as you did with the hood and trunk.  Once inside check all compartments, underseats and under mats.

Suffice to say if you find a suspicious item don’t attempt to detach or disarm it yourself – even if it appears to be a simple device there may be hidden anti-handling measures.  Call the local authorities or your security point of contact to arrange for an explosive ordnance disposal team response.

Remember however that if there is an explosive device in the vehicle — it was more than likely placed in an easily accessible place.  The pictures above show a simple device rigged in a vehicle in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.  This is just a fragmentation grenade taped to the undercarriage of the vehicle with a wire connecting the pin of the grenade to the wheel.  When the vehicle is started and the wheels begin to move the pin on the grenade will be pulled and the grenade will detonate seconds later.

Not in Kansas anymore…

Secure area of Basra, Iraq Airport

One of the greatest challenges in protecting a global workforce and training travelers and personnel undertaking overseas assignments is getting them to understand that the individual rights they enjoy in their home country don’t
travel with them overseas.  This is particularly true of Americans who are imbued from an early age with the concept of individual freedoms and civil rights.  These are noble qualities that are unfortunately absent in much of the world.

When Americans and other citizens of western democracies travel abroad for the most part their individual rights do not travel with them.  In a foreign country you are subject to local laws whether you agree with them or not
and if you break them there is very little your embassy can do to assist you.  Concepts like innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, fair and speedy trial and so forth are alien in many foreign countries.  The embassy or consulate may be able to assist with finding you legal representation and will visit you to check on your health and well being but will likely be powerless to
assist you beyond that.  You could languish for weeks or months in confinement before even seeing a judge.  This is more a concerning in developing nations and less so in other democracies – although Amanda Knox who was tried for murder in Italy would probably disagree with that statement.  Regardless of your opinion of Knox’s innocence or guilt and although she was ultimately released few would say she got a fair trial or fair treatment in the Italian legal system.

We touched on this briefly before in our discussion about personal security myths but it is well worth addressing in greater detail.  It is such a common and pervasive vulnerability – especially with novice travelers that it warrants closer examination.

It’s important to know about the local laws and social mores of the place where you are visiting, working or
living.  This means understanding that some behavior and activities that are perfectly legal and acceptable at home may be illegal in the country where you are located.  Even if you are not technically breaking a law you may be violating a social taboo or custom that can cause problems for you.  Many people use language “respect for the local culture”.  I don’t like this particular verbiage as it implies a level of agreement or acceptance of the particular culture.  That culture may include denying women the right to an education and other basic rights, use of child soldiers, capital punishment for adultery and other things that are reprehensible.  I don’t think these things need to be “respected” but we do need to be aware of their place in the local landscape and
our inability to change them.

For your own safety and self preservation though you do need to be aware of potential pitfalls.  I also don’t want to overstate the problem and give the impression that foreign jails are full of innocent Americans and other westerners.  Let’s be clear: a large number of the western citizens imprisoned overseas are in jail for drug offenses and the majority are guilty.  They may be serving sentences or under conditions that seem harsh by our standards but most are guilty.  That said there are people detained for crimes that would not be considered illegal in most western democracies.

Here are some areas that can cause you to inadvertently break local laws and run afoul of local authorities.  I have intentionally
omitted blatant crimes that are illegal almost everywhere like drug trafficking.  Obviously there is a lot of variation from country to country:

  • Involvement in local politics:  Becoming involved in local politics by supporting one political party or another, advocating democracy and things of that nature are likely to draw unwanted attention from local police and security forces as well as militias and other informal groups supporting the ruling or opposition party.  I recognize that some non-governmental
    organizations (NGOs) have this specific type of activity as their mission.  In those cases its strongly recommended that the organization complete a risk assessment and have a security and contingency plan.
  • Proselytizing: Spreading religious messages, holding religious services and attempting to convert local people is considered criminal in many countries – in particular, but not exclusively in the Muslim world.  Again – I recognize this is the
    specific mission of many faith-based groups.  As with NGOs mentioned above  its strongly recommended that the organization complete a risk assessment and have a security and contingency plan.
  • Questionable business ventures and partners:  In the discussion on dealing with local partners we covered this topic fairly well.  Suffice to say getting involved with questionable business dealings and partners can create local legal troubles for you.  Also
    unscrupulous local partners, customers or vendors can use the local legal system to their advantage to gain leverage in business disputes.
  • Photographing critical infrastructure and government buildings:  Behavior that could be mistaken for intelligence gathering may cause you to be arrested and charged with espionage.  Taking pictures or airports, military bases, presidential residences, government buildings and the like can get you into a great deal of trouble.  This is especially true in the coup-prone countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.  In fairness to those governments that type of activity can be mistaken for reconnaissance.  Foreigners arrested, imprisoned and horribly tortured in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 were in fact an advance team planning to overthrow the
    ruler of that country.
  • Adoption:  Adoption in some foreign countries can be a perilous process if not done correctly and in coordination with reputable
    organizations.  Some governments have viewed adoption efforts as human trafficking.  In one recent case in West Africa an American couple was detained on suspicion of human trafficking and were only released after high level diplomatic involvement.
  • Public Drunkenness:  In a number of countries in the Middle East — even some where alcohol is permitted public drunkenness is a serious crime.
  • Religious/Social Infractions:  These include things such as inappropriate dress, public displays of affection, adultery, possession
    of literature or media deemed “pornography” by local standards.  Several Gulf countries impose fines and even confinement for Ramadan offenses (even by foreigners/non-Muslims).

Its important to keep in mind that when in a foreign country you are subject to its laws and behave accordingly.