Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Most of the material covered in Protective Concepts relates to soft skills such as awareness, avoidance, risk assessment and intelligence and there is little detailed discussion of hard skills such as shooting, evasive driving, close quarters combat and so forth. This is for a couple of reasons:

(1) The soft skills, when applied correctly will greatly reduce the likelihood of you needing to employ the hard skills.

(2) The soft skills can be applied by virtually anyone, regardless of age, sex, physical condition, etc. They are truly “life skills” where are proficiency at many of the hard skill types will be based on physical ability and may be perishable with age.

(3) There are frankly times where some of the hard skills, in particular shooting may not be applicable due to local restrictions on firearms, etc.

(4) Many of the hard skill subjects are well covered elsewhere by very knowledgeable people.

That said we will touch on some of the hard skills in the near future.


Loose Lips — Recognizing and Avoiding Elicitation

In discussing social engineering and threats to your personal security we mentioned elicitation.  Elicitation is a technique that is used by an adversary to get a person to unintentionally divulge more information about a particular subject than they normally would.  Its used to gather confidential or proprietary information and in the realm of personal security it can be used by an adversary to gather information for use in targeting you or to build rapport with you or someone close to you.

While we are not going to attempt to teach elicitation or counter-elicitation here we are going top briefly outline some of the common techniques that are used so that you can recognize them being used against you.  Remember these can be employed in person, over the phone or through electronic communication of various types such as email, online chat, etc.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but these are some of the key elicitation techniques you may encounter:

Flattery: The adversary will complement you on personal and or professional aspects of your life to build rapport and increase your likelihood to talk openly.  This may include requests for advice based on your “expertise”, etc.

False Statements:  The adversary may make statements he or she knows are incorrect in order to prompt you to correct them by providing the correct information.

Provocative Statements: Similar to the false statement the adversary may make a statement that he or she knows will initiate an emotional response on your part an a desire to either strongly agree or disagree with them.

Disbelief:  The adversary will feign disbelief at a statement you make to prompt you to elaborate more fully.

Naivete: Similar to disbelief the adversary will feign ignorance to get you to “educate” him or her.

Quid pro Quo: The adversary may volunteer some innocuous or more likely false information about themselves so that by social convention you feel compelled to reveal something to them.

These are just some techniques that may be used to get information about your schedule, your security profile, your business dealings, you personal wealth, your employer and so on.  By recognizing  when you might be encountering them you can make a conscious decision to reduce the amount of information you provide or break off the conversation.

While some of these are relatively sophisticated methods they have been and may be employed by foreign intelligence agencies and internal security units, organized crime groups, terrorists and others.  Keep in mind as well that they may be aimed not only at you directly but also at your employees, associates, domestic staff, etc.  Its important to train these people — even if its just at a very rudimentary level — to be cautious about people asking questions or try to get them to divulge information about you or your activities.

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.

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.

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.

Blending in and the “Gray Man”

A good point was brought up in a comment after the last post about dressing down and trying to blend in when abroad. Its an important topic that deserves a little attention.

For Westerners and Americans in particular our ability to blend in will be very dependent on the society we are in.  In many cases we may not really be able to blend in but we can avoid unnecessarily standing out.  This means leaving the cowboy hats,  sports jerseys, Oakley sunglasses, etc. at home.  Likewise the t-shirts with American flags and patriotic slogans.

To truly blend in is difficult — even if you are the same race or ethnicity as the host population.  In the Philippines as an example, native Filipinos can usually readily identify Balikbayan – Filipinos who have lived abroad for years and then returned to the Philippines.  These Balikbayan are often targeted for robbery due to their perceived afluence.

Interestingly I have heard – but cannot verify – that in Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants can distinguish each other on the street by appearance.

Therefore the goal of truly blending in may be out of reach in many cases.  Its probably better to be the “gray man” and do nothing and wear nothing that will unduly draw attention to yourself or invite interest.
You should be free of any obvious national or political indentifiers, not wear conspicuous jewelry or clothing, not appear too rich or too poor, etc.  While you might not want to look like a high profile businessman you also might not want to appear like a backpacker either.

Contrary to popular perception, backpackers and similar low budget travelers are targeted for crimes regularly.  This is in part because they are frequently carrying all their money and other valuables with them all the time and may actually be carrying more cash than the rich businessman who is relying on credit cards and local representatives to cover his expenses.

Additionally, backpackers and other poorly dressed travelers may draw unwanted attention from the local police and security forces not to mention immigration and customs personnel at the airport.  This is especially true in developing countries.

Therefore the best approach may be the middle ground.  Not too rich, not too poor.  Not clearly identifiable as any particular nationality.  While the gray man (or gray woman) may not truly blend in – he or she may draw the least amount of attention and sometimes that is the best you can do.

When to Raise Your Awareness

Understanding where you are most likely to be attacked and knowing how to ratchet up your alertness level appropriately is a key component of personal protection — probably the key component.

You can’t walk around hyper-alert in condition orange all the time.  You’ll be exhausted and at some point – probably pretty quickly – it will become counterproductive.

Whether you are an at-risk person who may be specifically target for attack, kidnapping or some other crime for whatever reason or whether you are – like most of us – more likely to be the victim of an opportunistic crime you should recognize that you are more vulnerable and the likelihood is greater at certain locations and at certain times.

I’ll exclude mentioning the more obvious places and times like late at night and in a bad neighborhood or secluded area — although of course these are places and times that call for heightened vigilance.

Here are some of the times when you should avoid distraction and focus on your environment:

Arrivals and departures:  whether you are leaving or arriving your home, office, supermarket, gym, shopping mall, etc. you should take a moment to look around and observe the people and vehicles in the area and assess if anyone might present a threat to you.  This is particularly true if you are entering or exiting a vehicle.

Boarding Mass Transportation:  when stepping on to a subway car, bus or even an aircraft cabin you should look at your fellow travelers and assess which ones, if any might present a potential threat.

Areas where you are channelized or your options for maneuver or movements are restricted: These might be bridges, narrow roads with a blind curve, etc.  Often referred to as chokepoints these are locations that are well suited for ambush-style attacks.

Identified Danger Areas:  these are locations that have a past history of violent or criminal incidents occurring.  In some overseas locations where civil unrest and rioting are practically the national pastime these can be focal points where crowds form or protests regularly occur.

The above list is far from exhaustive but should give you a good starting point.
When in these locations you should put away the Blackberry, the iPhone and  whatever other distractions away, stop compiling the shopping list or planning your weekend and focus on the environment around you – in particular people or things that might cause you harm.