The Amorphous Threat


Amorphous:  Without a clearly defined shape or form; vague; indeterminate or unclassifiable

When contemplating personal security situations we often envision the threat – whatever it may be – to be clear and direct.  Sometimes it is but often that is not the case.  Many crimes are direct and overt.  A blitz attack, a knife or gun shoved in your face leaves little ambiguity that you are in a bad situation and need to respond in some way.  Very often though, the threat may be more subtle and less distinct.  It may leave you with an uneasy feeling but perhaps not enough information to determine whether the threat is real, if there is a threat and if you are really in danger.

Guile and deception are great tools for the criminal to use.  They can get you to lower your guard and become more vulnerable and they can allow the criminal to assess your attractiveness as a potential victim before committing himself.  Many times this duplicitous approach can be a prelude to a more overt attack and in some cases it may be all that is necessary to achieve the criminals’ goals by delivering an implied threat to the victim or putting the victim in a difficult position and then offering a way out.  This goes beyond the typical scams that one may encounter because there is usually an implied threat of violence.

One example of an amorphous threat occurred during the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002.  Pearl thought he was going to meet with Sheikh Gilani, an Islamic militant he was hoping would be a source on a story he was doing on the Shoe Bomber Richard Reid.  Pearl was picked up in front of the Village Restaurant in Karachi on the evening of January 23rd and taken to a safe house.  Pearl undoubtedly knew there were risks involved in a meeting of this sort but accepted them as a calculated risk.  Upon arriving at the safe house, Pearl was told to take off his clothes and surrender his belongings including a cell phone.  They then asked him what he wanted to eat.  At this point Pearl was not being manhandled or abused and was lured into believing these we “security precautions” prior to his meeting with the Sheik.  Pearl then sat for a couple of hours with his captors at the safe house still expecting to do an interview until someone came with a blue tracksuit for him to change into, food and some chains.  Pearl then allowed himself to be chained as part of the “security precautions”.  The rest of the story is well known.  No interview with Gilani ever occurred and Pearl was brutally murdered on video.

The Pearl situation may not be the best example in the sense that Pearl was engaged in a high risk activity that most travelers and expatriates would be unlikely to encounter.  It does however illustrate how deception and guile, rather than brute force was used to lure Pearl to a secure location and to entice him to permit himself to be restrained.

There are a variety of different ways that these amorphous or ambiguous threats can manifest themselves.  One is a good cop/bad cop scenario where one assailant plays the “good guy” offering the victim a way of avoiding violence from assailant number two (the “bad guy”) who maybe threatening or posturing in an aggressive way.

Another scenario is the over-priced drink scam, which while a scam it carries the undercurrent of an implied physical threat.  Commonly found in Eastern Europe and Turkey, but in other parts of the world as well the victim or victims (almost always male) are lured into a night club or bar frequently by sidewalk touts.  After having a drink or several drinks, or perhaps after buying drinks for girls working in the bar the patrons are presented with a hugely inflated bill.  When they object, club employees who are usually large and physically intimidating are called with the insinuation that the victims will be physically assaulted if they don’t pay the bill.

Amorphous threats can manifest themselves in numerous ways – these are just a few.  They can be used as a Segway or entry for an overt violent crime or they can be the method to carry out the crime itself in a subtle way.

From a countermeasures standpoint its best to be alert to this type of threat and identify it as it begins to unfold.  This provides the best opportunity to extricate yourself from the situation or take pre-emptive action if necessary.  These types of threats are more common than is generally acknowledged and require perception and awareness to avoid becoming a victim.

Dangerous Business

Hole - Peter Shaw


If you do business in an international environment then chances are you deal with a wide range of people with different ideas about acceptable business practices, business ethics, conflict resolution and competition.  While some of these people may hold views very similar to yours many others may have a different perspective.   Generally speaking the further you go off the beaten path the more pronounced these differences may be.

Whether you are aware of it or not you may run afoul of one of these people.  Either by posing competition to their business, refusing to pay bribes or engage in corruption, by choosing or failing to choose a certain vendor or business partner.  In many places members of the police, military and security forces also have private sector business interest and can present a formidable threat if you find yourself in a business dispute with them.

Consider the story of Peter Shaw, a Welsh banker working for the European Commission in Tbilisi, Georgia.  Shaw was in Georgia providing consulting to the Georgian banking sector.  In June 2002, just days before he was supposed to complete his assignment and leave Georgia, Shaw was kidnapped off a Tbilisi street by heavily armed attackers in paramilitary uniforms.  He was then held captive for five months, four of them in a subterranean cell in the Pankisi Gorge under deplorable conditions, the details of which he recounts in his book Hole: Kidnapped in Georgia.  While it was never conclusively proven that his kidnapping was related to his work in banking there were strong indications that it was.  It’s possible that Shaw’s work to improve the Georgian banking sector put him at odds with powerful people who were using the financial system for their own enrichment.

While Shaw’s case is an extreme example, it’s important to be aware of potential pitfalls that may exist in the country or countries where you are conducting business.   How do you counteract this risk?  It’s difficult but due diligence on potential partners and associates and a thorough assessment of the business sector in that country is one initial step you can take.  Knowing who the key players are and what businesses they are in is a good beginning.  Another is a simple awareness of the threat and practicing good personal security measures and operational security.