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.



Cultural Awareness — the Security Dimension

Being culturally aware is important for anyone traveling abroad or conducting international business.  It’s important to recognize that not everyone around the world sees things the way we do and understanding others’ perspectives and customs will allow us to better relate and avoid inadvertently offending someone.

Noted cultural trainer Dean Foster recently wrote a piece about doing business in Brazil where he discusses “why the okay sign is not okay in Brazil” (if signifies an orifice).  It’s an excellent example of a gesture that is perfectly acceptable in the US but considered very obscene or offensive in Brazil.

The security dimension of cultural awareness is that failing to be culturally aware can put you in a potentially dangerous situation if your behavior is offensive to others.  No where is this more true than in male – female interaction.  Activity that might be perfectly acceptable in western countries may invite confrontation and even violence.  For example a man “checking out” or flirting with a woman in some of the more conservative Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia may provoke a violent response from the woman’s male family members or even other male members of the society who observe it.  Likewise a woman traveling alone and wearing suitably fashionable clothes may be perceived of as promiscuous and may attract attention and unwanted sexual advances.

Public identification of your nationality may also attract unwanted attention as well.  It’s not only Americans who carry a stigma in certain countries.  At one time being Canadian was considered to be relatively harmless but with the active role Canada had taken in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance  Force (ISAF) this is no longer true.  Likewise Scandinavians were once a “safe” nationality to be but after the controversial cartoons depicting Mohamed this has changed and Scandinavians are mire susceptible to being targeted.  French nationals have been targeted in Cote D’Ivoire and some other African countries.  For these reasons it’s important to adopt the persona of the “Gray Man” as we have discussed previously.

It’s important to understand that cultural awareness is important and the implications can be greater than just hurting somebody’s feelings or losing some business deal.  Failure to understand the local culture in the most extreme cases can get you beaten, stabbed or arrested.

Medical Considerations of Travel Abroad

Ambulance in West Africa

While our focus has largely been on pure security issues and medical situations are arguably more safety than security focused its still worthy of some mention and its a critical component of personal safety.

It’s safe to say that most travelers and expatriates are far more likely to fall victim to an accident or illness when overseas rather than a violent criminal incident or terrorist attack. For this reason it’s important to be forwarned with knowledge about potential medical hazards at your destination and have some contingency plans.

With a few exceptions its safe to say that most medical care in the developing world does not come close to what most of us are accustomed to in the West. There are some notable exceptions and some places that are known for “medical tourism” where travelers specifically go to receive medical procedures that are more affordable and still considered to be good quality. There are also places where there are western-trained and educated physicians and medical staff although good equipment and facilities may be lacking.

Many places however are lacking in both trained staff and good facilities – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. In many of these locations an injury or an infection that could be easily treated at home could be fatal. There may not be an effective emergency medical service and ambulance response may be slow or non-existent. Poor sanitary conditions may also make the local hospital a dangerous place where your condition may get worse, not better.

For these reasons it’s important to have a viable contingency plan for dealing with medical emergencies — from basic prevention potentially up to medical evacuation.

Basic Prevention:

Inoculations: find out what diseases are common at your destination and what inoculations are available for them. Also find out what shots are required and carry a shot card as proof you have received them. Yellow Fever vaccination as an example is required by a number of countries. If you are not vaccinated or cannot prove you are vaccinated by producing a valid shot card some African countries will administer the vaccine to you in the airport under questionable sanitary conditions.

Malaria Prophylaxis: If traveling to a malaria-prone area you should consider whether or not to take an anti-malarial drug such as Malarone or something similar. Regardless you should bring and use insect repellent as well as limiting your outdoor activity and night, wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants, etc. These measures will also protect you against other mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue Fever.

Pack a first aid kit: bring a small first aid kit with bandaids, antiseptic, loperamide/immodium (given the high likelihood of gastrointestinal disorders). Ensure none of the components of your first aid kit are considered prohibited items or controlled drugs at your destination.

Don’t drink the water: or brush your teeth with it. Use bottled water from a trusted source.

Avoid green vegetables, peeled fruit, etc.: avoid salads and other greens unless you are sure of the sanitary conditions during preparation. Avoid fruits and vegetables unless you peel them yourself or wash them yourself with bottled water.

Eat moderate portions: don’t arrive in a new country and gorge yourself on the local chow.
Use hand sanitizer: self explanatory. Keep yourself and your hands in particular as clean as possible.

Wear your seatbelt: that sounds like a no-brainer but the implications of a motor vehicle accident overseas can be much more significant than at home.

Medical Care:

Medical Facilities: try to determine the level, capability and quality of local medical facilities prior to arrival or when you first get there. In many places the best choice is a private clinic. Determine what criteria there is to get treated at the clinic in advance of a problem occurring. In some places there are no acceptable facilities and you will need to be evacuated. Find all this out before a problem occurs.

Payment: many overseas medical facilities will require payment, sometimes in cash, before treatment is rendered. Again — develop a plan for this before the situation arises.

Evacuation: determine how you will get evacuated and to where if your medical condition warrants it.

There are a number of providers that provide emergency medical assistance abroad such as Global Rescue, International SOS, Frontier Medex, TravelMed and others. This is not an endorsement of any of them but they may be worth looking into to address some of these issues.

Personal Risk Assessment

Considering that personal and travel security rely heavily on context its important to consider how the threat relates to you
whether at home or abroad.  Understanding this contextual relationship let’s you realistically determine how much effort, energy and possibly money you should invest in your security.

The best way to do this is to conduct a personal risk assessment.  This can be done yourself or you can hire a consultant to do
it for you and it can be as detailed as you want to make it.  If you do it yourself its important to be as brutally honest with yourself as you can for the assessment to be accurate and have value.  This assessment can be done from a lifestyle perspective for an at-risk person or a person living in a high-risk area or it can be done for a particular event like an overseas business trip.  It can also be done using qualitative or quantitative methods or a combination of the two.  Most people will be more likely to use qualitative

The standard formula for a risk assessment is that Risk = Threat x Vulnerability.  For our purposes this means you need to begin by identifying a threat or threats that exist and then look at vulnerabilities in their schedule, routine or lifestyle where their exposure to this threat is increased.

As an example a businessman traveling to a two-day meeting in Johannesburg might identify threats such as carjacking and armed robbery.  In particular he may look at the practice of criminals following people from the airport and robbing them en route or at their destination.  He might also consider the high level of gratuitous violence often involved in these crimes.
On a review of his itinerary he notes that the meetings will all be held at a 5-star hotel adjacent to the airport terminal and that he will be staying at the same hotel.  In this case the threat level is high but his vulnerability is low so the risk is relatively low.

Another aspect to consider is the probability vs. criticality or impact.  Some events are more likely but the consequences are not too severe.  Others are less likely but the consequences may be devastating.  Two examples to look at:

A photographer is going on an assignment in Barcelona that will involve a lot of work in public venues.  The threat of ickpocketing and petty crime may be high but the criticality of these types of incidents is relatively low — unless of course his cameras are

Taksim Square – Istanbul. This is a frequent location for protests and occasionally civil unrest.

stolen and he can’t complete the job.

On the other hand an engineer has a 2-week assignment in Islamabad, Pakistan.  He will be staying at a western brand hotel that has been previously attacked with a massive vehicle bomb.  Hotels of this type are targeted for spectacular attacks by militant groups. In this case the relative probability that the hotel will be attacked while he is there is relatively low.  However based on past incidents if the hotel is attacked the impact is likely to be severe.

Using this information you can determine the level of risk you face – either daily or for a specific activity or event as well as the likelihood and potential impact of an event occurring.  Using this information you can determine what countermeasures if any you should implement to mitigate the risk.

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.

Always Have An Exit Plan

When traveling or living in the politically unstable regions it’s important to always have an exit plan.  After assessing the potential threats from coups, civil unrest or conflict you should consider several methods of egress from the country, different transportation modes that could be used and also the possibility of sheltering in place.

You should consider some tripwires or triggerpoints that might indicate a deterioration in the security situation and be a signal to you to act on. your exit plan.  These vary greatly depending on the country and the situation there but some examples might be: departure of dependents and non-essential personnel from diplomatic missions,  imposition of martial law, previously peaceful demonstrations turn violent, etc.

The events of the Arab Spring taught us – tripwires can be much more compressed than anticipated.  With the introduction on social media in particular political and security conditions can change very rapidly.

Under ideal circumstances your exit plan is to go to the airport before the situation becomes too bad and board a scheduled commercial flight and leave the country.  You do need to consider other options should the airport be closed or unreachable.  Other possibilities might be traveling overland across the border to a neighboring country or even a maritime mode of departure such as hiring a charter boat if the country isn’t landlocked and if there is a safe haven country reachable by boat.

You should stay in contact with your Embassy or Consulate if they have representation locally.  The US State Department issues messages to it citizens who have registered with the Embassy and prepares to conduct evacuations should the situation warrant it.  This can also be a good indicator or tripwire to use.  The US State Department, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other countries foreign ministries try to encourage their citizens to depart the country as soon as they feel the situation is becoming critical in order to ease the burden should an evacuation be necessary.

In some cases immediate exit may not be possible or safe. Borders maybe closed as occurred during and after the coup in Mali in 2012 or the situation may have destabilized so rapidly that it is not safe to be out on the streets or moving around.   In those situations its important to look at sheltering in place.
When preparing to shelter in place you should stockpile enough food and water in your hotel room, house or apartment to sustain you for several days.  Its difficult to determine what length of time to anticipate but 72-96 hours is a good general rule.  You will also want to have a flashlight, batteries, possibly a battery powered radio, cell phone and or Sat/com phone and associated chargers.  A portable battery-powered cell phone charger is also a good option as well.

The level of planning and preparation will vary greatly depending upon the conditions in the country you are in and your personal situation.  Even giving this tppic some thought and some minimal planning will give you a head start should things turn bad and you will be better off that if you were caught totally unprepared.

Security Considerations When Working with Local Contacts


If you are working overseas or traveling internationally for business then you probably deal with local contacts of some type.  They may be local representatives, partners, vendors or suppliers, customers or others.  While most interaction with local contacts will be valuable and productive there are potential security concerns to be aware of and to think about.

For this discussion we won’t be looking closely at fraud or compliance issues associated with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or similar legislation.  Those are very worthy issues to examine but well beyond the scope of this post.  Instead we’ll look at some of the other concerns that can arise.

It goes without saying that you should do a thorough due diligence on local contacts but the reality is that you may not be able to achieve it in every situation based on the timeline or other factors.  Also — to be frank — the ability to do an effective due diligence in many locations is very limited – especially on short notice.

Its reasonable to expect that at a minimum your contact will have a different perspective and world view than you do.  There will likely be different expectations or what is acceptable.  In some cases though the contact may have a separate agenda or hidden motives that can put you at risk.

Some situations that can occur that you should be aware of:

  • Misrepresentation: Local contacts that misrepresent themselves or their affiliation with your organization.  If they engage in illegal activity while misrepresenting themselves it can have direct and severe implications for your and your company.
  • Allegations of criminal or unethical conduct against you or your organization:  customers, vendors or others can put pressure on you by alleging misconduct to local law enforcement authorities.
  • Honey traps: Local contacts may try to put you in compromising positions with local women — either to create a situation where they can blackmail you outright or at least make you vulnerable to them.
  • Unlawful detention: In some cases local contacts may detain you — either physically or through use of threats — to get you to agree to their terms.
  • Kidnapping:  In extreme circumstances your contacts may set you up for kidnap for ransom.  There was a notable case in Mexico about 10 years ago where a US businessman was set-up for a kidnapping by his Mexican partner.
  • Guilt by association:  In some instances your contacts may be involved in activities that make them a target of law enforcement, criminal groups or both.  If you are with them you may be the victim of arrest or a violent attack.
  • Hidden ties: In some cases your local contacts may have ties to foreign intelligence services or extremist groups.  Even though they may not act against you immediately they may be gathering information about you or your organization.

How can you mitigate your exposure to these potential threats?

Of course the first answer is know who you are dealing with — but as we discussed earlier that is not always too easy.

One thing you can do is not put all your eggs in one basket. It’s not uncommon for local contacts to make some or all of your arrangements when you are visiting their country — often everything from your hotel to your ground transportation.  I suggest you may not want to always let them do it.  It takes more work but if you make your own arrangements it gives you greater flexibility.  If you have your own ground transportation set up apart from them it is easier to come and go as you please.  You should also consider making other appointments and establishing other contacts while there.  This gives you a legitimate reason to excuse yourself if a situation becomes uncomfortable and it reduces the control they have over you.  Many of the scenarios outlined above are more likely to occur if you are completely dependent on them.  If you have other contacts and your own transportation it goes a long way to keeping them off-balance.  They don’t know who you know or who you may be able to turn to for assistance.  It may sound excessive or paranoid but compartmentalizing your activities gives you more control and if your contacts have bad intentions it can make it more difficult for them to act against you.

You should also make sure that someone in your head office, your family or both has all the names and  contact information for the people you are planning to meet with and any itinerary you may have.  In a worst case scenario if you go missing there will at least be some baseline information to use in initiating a search.