A Journey Less Perilous

Managing Risk in Complex Environments

Many organisations are increasingly required to operate globally including in some of the more challenging regions of the world. At the same time the media constantly reminds us of the inherent dangers involved in traveling and working overseas. The shootings in Tunisia and two attacks in Paris to name but two such events. Tunisia yet again bought home the vulnerably of even mainstream travellers. In this case British package holiday tourists travelling to an established tourist destination. While Paris was the latest in a long series of attacks in European cities, including London and Madrid, leaving many asking the question is anywhere truly safe?

All this of course is underpinned by wider concerns over the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (ISIL) and other Islamic extremist groups coupled with the continuing and often violent fallout from the so-called Arab Spring and ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon and the Yemen. In East Africa the threat from Al Shabaab has manifested itself in Kenya. To the north instability in much of the Sahel across the so-called “Arc of Instability” continues to proliferate fuelled by the uncontrolled flow of weapons from Libya. While a re-emergent Russia flexes its muscles in Ukraine and Syria.

The headlines of course reflect these high profile events, they grab our attention and inevitably influence our thinking. However, the headlines often present a rather sensationalist and less than balanced or objective picture of the world today. So, how do we better understand the realities of contemporary international risk?

This article is intended to help you answer or at least better understand the question.

Understanding Complex Environments

Recently I was overseeing the delivery of a week-long training package for an international management consultancy; they deliver a range of public sector development projects in over a dozen countries. The delegates were all operational managers responsible for project planning and management in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

During the programme they were required to produce country threat and risk assessments for selected locations in order to put into practice their new risk management and security planning skills. Working in syndicates the delegates were given four locations to study based on the organisation’s current overseas footprint, these were, Algeria, Turkmenistan, the West Bank and Malawi.

What was striking was the difference in the nature of the threat picture they constructed for each country. Algeria best reflected the image most familiar to us drawn from the media. A Muslim nation, with an Islamic extremist and terrorist threat, fuelled in part by instability and conflict emanating from neighbouring conflict ridden countries, coupled with local security forces struggling in their attempts to counter the threat.

Turkmenistan by contrast experiences low levels of crime and faces little or no threat from terrorism. However, beware the traveller who inadvertently fails to comply with a myriad of rigorously enforced local laws and regulations. Travel to certain locations without the correct permits or take photographs in a restricted area and you will quickly fall foul of the local police and security forces and face arrest. A contrasting picture, where potential arrest by the local security authorities and subsequent detention by the state represents the greater threat to the traveller.

The West Bank was different again, a volatile location characterised by high tensions and the presence of intrusive security on the ground controlling much activity and movement. Thus, for the visitor the focus is on the everyday hazards of local travel; traffic congestion caused by military checkpoints coupled with the challenges of passing through them and the risk from stone throwers and other hostile actors in particular locations and along specific routes creating “no go areas”.

So here the emphasis is on understanding your local environment in detail including roads, chokepoints and checkpoints; knowing which routes and checkpoints to avoid; ensuring you have secondary routes available; and recognising what times of day are good and bad for traveling in terms of congestion and related threats. This is what we call effective journey management.

Then finally Malawi, a poor but heavily populated country, at least in African terms, which presents a more typical African threat profile; high levels of traditional petty crime driven by poverty, particularly against relatively wealthy foreign nationals, coupled with poor infrastructure and weak policing as well as a lack of basic life support.

Hence four contrasting locations and subsequent threat pictures each of which require a quite different set of mitigating measures and related security planning. Austere environments; harsh climatic conditions; hostility from indigenous peoples; dangerous living; working and driving conditions; threats to health; criminal activity; political instability and terrorist attacks all add to the mix. So, it is the presence and sometimes inter-relationship between these factors – the complexity – that is increasing and presents us with the real challenge.

We do not live in a one threat world but in a more complex one, which is often more volatile, unpredictable and prone to change. Hence the biggest hazard we face is perhaps our own failure to understand the environment we are moving into and with it, the true nature of the risks we face. All organisations should therefore focus on developing a proper understanding of the local and sometimes diverse threat picture rather than simply reacting to the latest high profile incident or event and adjusting the organisation’s global procedures in response.

Threat Perspective

Secondly, it also important that we put the threat picture into proper perspective. While terrorist attacks are high profile and high impact events we need to put such threats into context. That means assessing the likelihood of our personnel being affected by such events relative to other more everyday dangers, such as exposure to criminal activity, being involved in a road traffic incident on a remote highway or even catching malaria. In 2012 for instance there were nearly 440,000 recorded criminal homicides across the globe as compared to 11,000 deaths due to terrorism. That’s a ratio of one to forty (Global Terrorism Index 2014).

We also need to understand the geographic differences. While there were 27 terrorist related incidents recorded per day across sixty countries in 2013, eighty percent of these attacks took place in just five countries, while sixty six percent were carried out by only four terrorist groups (Global Terrorism Index 2014).

Hence it’s clear that while terrorism is an increasing global threat, the vast majority of such activity still takes place in a very limited number of countries. We must plan for such events, but we need to do so on the basis of accurate information and in a measured way and remember to similarly plan for the often more mundane, but perhaps more likely everyday threats.

Threat and Risk Management

Understanding is therefore vital as this allows us to identify the range of threats we face, the level of risk or likelihood and what mitigation measures it is therefore reasonable to put in place. These measures can then be embedded into a local project, or personal security plan, (PSP). There are various threat and risk management tools that can be used to facilitate this process as well as security planning templates, but the key factors that need to be considered are:

  • Selection of accommodation and required security measures
  • Security measures at the main place or places of work
  • Security measures at other key locations (this might include local airports or regular meeting venues)
  • Journey management planning and procedures
  • Security measures to be taken when visiting unsecured, unknown or remote locations not under our control
  • Incident response procedures, which are immediate actions to be taken by personnel involved in an event, from a minor traffic incident, to a major event such as a terrorist incident or a breakdown in public order.
  • Emergency planning and contingency plans at the organisational level for the “what ifs” such as a medical evacuation, or a major natural disaster for instance)

When traveling to high and medium threat environments this should be underpinned by appropriate training or briefing for deployed personnel, covering the threat picture and the security and contingency plans. It should also provide them with the required skills and knowledge such as; first aid and trauma care; situational awareness; threat recognition; and simple personal security drills when travelling on foot or in vehicles.

The process does not have to be over complicated, just appropriate to the threat and once in place provides piece of mind for personnel and management alike.

Future Trends

So what will the future bring? We live in an unpredictable world but we can make some predictions with a measure of certainty.

The universal threat of crime will of course remain and in places increase, fuelled by wider instability, inequality and an increase in displaced peoples. The flow of refugees will increase, over the next fifteen years with Africa’s working age population rising by 435 million. Poverty, desperation, a sense of injustice and a “nothing left to lose” mentality will all play their part in leading some to turn to crime.

As well as traditional criminal activity there will be a further increase in so called cybercrime, such as identity theft and credit card fraud. We all travel with mobile phones and laptops and make use of public Wi-Fi to communicate, making us potentially vulnerable to cyber-attack. This is already a major problem in some countries such as Nigeria where criminal gangs are recognising and exploiting this vulnerability.

Furthermore, the current instability in the Middle East and North Africa will continue as a result of the civil war in Syria, the growth of ISIL and the continuing fallout from the Arab Spring. These conflicts will also have an increasing impact on the wider Middle East and North Africa. An increasing number of states bordering conflict zones will be affected as they become targeted by extremist groups or affected by refugee flows. This threat particularly applies to such countries as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordon and Turkey.

In eastern Africa Al Shabaab’s destabilising effect has already extended into Kenya and may spread into Uganda and Ethiopia while in western Africa and the Sahel a lethal cocktail of Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and most recently ISIL will fuel long term instability and conflict.

Further afield, a re-emergent Russia and the conflict in Ukraine could well act as a catalyst for wider conflict between Russia, her former territories and the west.

In short, it will be important to monitor not only current areas of conflict, but those countries bordering them in order to assess any negative influences that may adversely affect their internal threat picture.

We can expect to see more so-called lone wolf attacks inspired by propaganda produced by major terrorist groups but delivered by individuals or small groups, using Improvised Explosive Devices, (IEDs), small arms and grenades. While at the same time the execution of complex attacks against high profile or symbolic targets will continue in the wake of Paris, Nairobi, Mumbai, London and Madrid to name but a few. These involve a much greater degree of planning and preparation, but provide high profile and global recognition for the perpetrators. Their aim is to to inflict mass casualties usually involving the use of IEDs in tandem with attacks using assault rifles and grenades.

Finally it is also worth noting that over the last fifteen years there has been an increase in sensitivities around cultural respect and behaviours particularly within Muslim countries. This means it is easier for Westerners to inadvertently cause offence and initiate a negative reaction. This may lead to little more than poor atmospherics but tensions can in certain situations escalate quickly and lead to harassment, or even the threat of violence. These sensitivities are likely to remain and Westerners in such environments will need cultural awareness and literacy skills to be included in their personal security toolbox.


There are real challenges to be faced and the world is likely to get increasingly complex rather than less in terms of international risk. However, with the right processes in place, a proper understanding of the environments in which we are operating and a pragmatic approach to security planning and personnel preparation these risks can be substantially mitigated.

Reproduced from an article for Mining World Magazine by David Curran, MA FCIPD Msyl