Paris, Bamako and the Value of Active Shooter Training


The recent terrible events in Paris and Bamako illustrate the importance of active shooter awareness and response training for the average traveler. In the US active shooter training is frequently presented in the context of a workplace violence incident. This is just one possible scenario however. Even within the US there is a good chance if you encounter an active shooter it may occur outside the workplace in some other republic space like a shopping mall.

While Paris is not thought of as a high risk destination is has been the site of several notable terrorist attacks recently the Charlie Hebdo attack and the multiple target attacks of 13 November 2015. In these events as in the Mumbai attacks, the Nairobi Westgate Mall and the attack on the Radisson Hotel in Bamako there is an increasing shift by terrorists away from using explosive devices to team attacks using small arms and basic tactics. This has proven very effective for terrorist groups as the attacks are relatively low tech, can produce high casualty counts and can continue for a sustained period of time, especially in locations where law enforcement and security forces are less capable.

Therefore it’s important for travelers to understand and be able to implement active shooter response methods.

The basic model for active shooter response is the “Run-Hide-Fight” protocol. This is described in this video produced by the City of Houston:



We also discussed this here back in October 2012:

Additional resources are available from the US Department of Homeland Security and can be found here:

Reviewing and understanding these basic concepts can be the difference between living and dying in a violent event. While there are no ironclad rules that will keep you safe it’s important to have a framework and options for response should you find yourself in the middle of one of these events.

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.

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.

Self-Driving vs. Hiring a Driver — The Pros and Cons

Traffic in Karachi, Pakistan

One of the questions for expatriates and many travelers is whether to hire a local driver or drive themselves.  There are pros and cons associated with both choices and its important to recognize and consider them when making a decision.
This discussion focuses on expatriates and travelers in developing countries where this decision is much more critical and the potential pitfalls of making the wrong choice are much greater.  Let’s look at each option:
 Hiring a Driver:

  • The local driver will/should know the geography of the area, can find different locations more readily than you might be able to and will know local traffic patterns at different hours of the day, etc.
  • The local driver will know the driving etiquette in the area and will be less likely to inadvertently cause offense to other drivers, etc.
  • The local driver will know the proper procedure when stopped by the police and will know how to deal with the situation.
  • With a hired driver you are free to focus on situational awareness and detecting possible surveillance or threats in the environment without the distraction of driving in an unfamiliar city, following directions, etc.
  • If you are involved in an accident the driver will generally be the one held responsible and not you.
  • You can assign the driver to guard the car when you are at meetings, etc.  Therefore the car is not left unattended and is not as vulnerable to being tampered with, having items stolen from it or having the vehicle itself stolen.
  • You don’t need to worry about parking the vehicle when you disembark to do other things such as attend meetings, go shopping, etc.  The driver can remain with the vehicle and pick you up when requested.


  • You are literally trusting your life to the driver.  A bad or reckless driver can be very dangerous and the driver may not be trained to deal effectively with a security incident should one occur.
  • You give up some independence relying on the driver.  The driver may be tardy, get lost or otherwise compromise your effectiveness.
  • You will have some level of OPSEC risk with the driver.  The driver will know where you go, who you meet with and other information that may make you vulnerable.


  • You take your fate in your own hands literally.  You are much more in control of your own life when you self-drive.
  • You can potentially respond better to a security incident.  If you already have – or if you obtain quality training in security/evasive driving techniques you will be better prepared than almost all but the best trained drivers to respond to a security incident when you are traveling in a vehicle.
  • You have greater personal and operational security because you do not need to advise another person of your plans.
  • You will become familiar with the area where you are living much more quickly because by self-driving you will be forced to learn the local streets, etc.


  • You are liable in the event you are involved in a vehicle accident.  As a foreigner you may be judged to be at fault even if you are not.  This can result in you being jailed even for minor infractions.  This is one of the greatest vulnerabilities of self-driving in developing world countries.
  • Traffic patterns and driving styles are usually very different (and in many ways much worse) than most western visitors and expatriates are accustomed to in their home countries.
  • You are potentially more vulnerable if stopped by local law enforcement or security forces while driving.  They may see this as an opportunity to extort money from you.
  • Parking can be difficult in many congested third world cities and finding safe, acceptable parking near your destination can be very time consuming and difficult.
  • If you need to leave the vehicle unattended in some locations depending on the security situation you may need to do a search of the vehicle before entering it and departing.  Not only is this time consuming but it can leave you vulnerable while you are distracted and focused on searching the vehicle.

In conclusion the decision on whether to self-drive or hire a driver is a personal that should be made based on the environment you are operating in, your capabilities, the resources available to you and a review of the considerations above.
In a future post we’ll discuss working with local drivers.

The Danger of Feeling “Safe”

Buenos Aires — A city where its easy to become complacent

Some cities feel dangerous.  If you have ever been to Kinshasa or Lagos, Peshawar or Karachi you know what I mean.  Abject poverty, streets packed with teeming masses eyeing you, the wealthy foreigner, hungrily.  Many other cities don’t feel that dangerous but are.  Johannesburg, with its skyscrapers boasts a high violent crime rate and at one time held a record for sexual assaults.  Its very easy to be lulled into complacency on the streets of Bogota with its crowds of smartly dressed business people and trendy restaurants and bars and easy to forget that this is the capital of a country that was until recently one of the leading countries for kidnapping in the world and a place that still has a healthy – or unhealthy – rate of street crime.
While the level of crime in Bogota and Johannesburg has improved both are still locations with real security concerns.  Other cities like Buenos Aires can lull the visitor by making them feel like they are in Europe yet taxi crimes and express kidnappings occur fairly regularly.  Sometimes the inherent feel we get in a particular city can be deceptive and misleading.
Noted personal security author and executive protection firm owner Gavin DeBecker has written much about the value of intuition (most notably in his book the Gift of Fear) in detecting dangerous situations and recognizing when a threat is present even when we can’t quite articulate it.  DeBecker is spot on when he notes our ability to subconsciously detect warning signs in our environment and the importance of heeding these warnings.  Unfortunately the converse is often not true.  It can be very easy to fall into complacency – especially in what feels like a “familiar” environment or an environment we are conditioned to feel is low threat.  If you are in an environment that is very alien to what you are used to you are likely to feel the threat more palpably.  You are less likely to roam freely around the area.  You will be more inclined to practice good security measures and limit your exposure.  In such an environment there may also be less enticement to go out on the economy.

In some of the cities we mentioned above you may feel very at ease.  The location and the people may seem more familiar to you.  There may be more to do.  More opportunity to move around independently and also more exposure.  This exposure may in fact be exacerbated by you dropping your guard.  In the more austere and threatening location you are sometimes actually less exposed since you are more cognizant of the threat and not spending time on the local economy.   Therefore sometimes your vulnerability is greater in these cities that are more modern looking and more familiar.  You are probably more likely to be walking around, going to restaurants and doing other activities that put you in much closer proximity to the local criminal element.
The best way to deal with this is to know the security situation in the location where you are going, the type of crimes that occur there and plan accordingly.  You can still go out on the economy in these locations by practicing good situational awareness, avoiding potentially dangerous locations and situations and continually reminding yourself that the threat is present.  This will help you combat the complacency that can leave you vulnerable.

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.

Dealing with Police in the Developing World

Security official in Lahore, Pakistan

Most of us raised in the US and other democracies have been taught from an early age to seek out a police officer for assistance when they have a problem.  Unfortunately this is not always the best course of action in the developing world.  In these locations police and other security forces are often best avoided.  Frequently the best case scenario is that the police will be incompetent — under-trained and poorly funded. In some locations there are cases where the police are unable to respond to incidents because they have no fuel for their vehicles.    In Venezuela reportedly 90% of homicides go unsolved.  It’s also typical to expect some level of corruption on the part of the police who are usually underpaid and in some instances may literally need to partake in at least petty corruption to earn a living wage.  In the worst cases, the police are sometimes also involved in criminal activity – Mexico and the Philippines are two countries offhand where there have been issues with this.  In both of those countries off-duty and even active duty police have been involved with kidnap for ransom gangs and of course the extensive ties between serving members of Mexican law enforcement and the drug trafficking organizations has been widely reported and is well known.

In some places in the Islamic world their are ties between members of the police and security forces have ties to militant jihadists.  The paradox in countries like Yemen and Pakistan is that one element of the security forces is fiercely fighting the militants while another element is sympathizing or colluding with them.

These factors should be taken into account when encountering law enforcement and security forces overseas.  Expectations that police response will be like what you are accustomed to at home will likely leave you disappointed.  Remember to that interaction with police in some countries can increase your risk not lower it.