Business travel just got a lot riskier. Depending on who you are and where you’re going, the chances of an attack against you while you’re traveling has become significant, and those risks are expected to rise in the weeks following the US attack that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020. Retaliation from that attack is expected to result in an increase in cyberattacks, and it’s also expected to increase other risks as well.
“Most of our clients are worried about Iran and politically related incidents,” said Stephan Malvoisin, managing director, travel security for Garda.
One of the things we encourage is to look at their internal capabilities and recognize that we now operating in a higher threat environment
Security professionals are also worried. In a security alert sent to clients, Kroll, a division of Duff and Phelps, cautioned, “The killing of Iranian Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani has resulted in an increase in threats to American interests, companies, citizens and data worldwide. The Iranians and their allies may seek to respond with asymmetric attacks, leveraging surrogates, as they have consistently done so over decades, but there is also the possibility of more direct retaliation.”
According to Tim Horner, security risk management global practice leader for Kroll, executives of American companies are at increased risk while traveling outside the US. The risks can include cyberattacks on those individuals, and they can include physical actions including kidnapping.
“This is an area where we consistently work,” Horner said, “We’re setting threat levels for personal travel or corporate events.”
Matt Dumpert, an associate managing director in the security risk management practice for Kroll said that it’s important for companies to evaluate their risks before traveling. “One of the things we encourage is to look at their internal capabilities and recognize that we now operating in a higher threat environment,” he said. “They need to evaluate the chances of violence or indirect action based on venues or locations. If they don’t have the internal staff to evaluate the threat to look at itineraries, we encourage to look to us for help.”
The obvious question is not whether there’s a risk to executives of American companies, but rather, how serious and how immediate the risk is. In the past, Iran has funded a number of groups for whom kidnapping of American personnel is a fairly routine activity. But right now, that may have changed.
“My personal view right now, with the aircraft accident,” Malvoisin said referring to the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner, “Iran cannot afford to do anything against US interests now.”
But he said that this is likely to change. “We should anticipate more targeting in the coming weeks or months, I would not be surprised to see soft targeting of the US around the world.”
“Iran operates through proxies,” Dumpert explained. Those proxies, which can include any of several militant groups, may be looking for American executives “traveling under the radar to visit venues of American interests,” he said.
“You look for how targeting might take place,” Dumpert said. “You have to know who the adversaries are. Threats might come from different places, depending on who you’re meeting with.”
Bodyguards and Security Details
Companies such as Kroll and Garda can provide protection in the form of bodyguards, complete security details or trained drivers, but staying safe while traveling in unsettled areas goes far beyond that. In fact, it starts long before you consider hiring protection.
Dumpert says that you need to start off answering some important questions. “Is the travel necessary? Is it mission critical?” he asks. “If it’s not, what are the other options? Wait and see? Cancel the meeting? Look at another location?”
He said that if the risk is manageable, then you must decide what you need to do to minimize the risk. Dumpert said that it needs to start with where you’re going. “We need to understand in the particular environment, what the potential for violence is. What is Iran’s influence through a particular region?”
“You need specific threat experts to help answer some questions. How is the traveling executive going to be vulnerable?” Dumpert asks. It might be the vehicle, the hotel or the time on ground.”
The level of risk is important for two reasons. First is whether it’s safe to go at all, and second, whether the security provider thinks it’s safe for their employees. They aren’t going to send their people into certain danger.
How You Travel
Your method of travel can also determine the level of risk. If you’re flying in on a company aircraft, for example, the risk is different from flying in on a private or charter aircraft. Likewise, the risk is different if you’re flying on a commercial airline.
Depending on your destination, commercial airline service may not be practicable, but that can add to the risk because the tail number of your private aircraft can tell anyone who wants to look it up who the airplane belongs to. Also, the tail number will say where the aircraft is registered, which is why all US airplanes have a number that starts with “N.”
Chartering an aircraft in a neutral country, Switzerland for example, will reduce the likelihood of watchers learning that you’re an American, but Horner said that you then need to understand something about the maintenance history of the aircraft and the operator, the backgrounds of the crew and the ground personnel on both ends of the flight.
Flying on a commercial airline has its own set of considerations. Malvoisin said that it starts with careful planning. “You need to make sure you prepare for your arrival when you land at the airport. Most of the time you go through customs, you see a driver with your name on a board. But how do you know it’s your driver?”
He said that you should get the ID and phone number of the driver so you know who to look for when you arrive. He pointed out that it’s not just terrorists that you need to watch out for. “Mafia and gangs are trying to catch people at the airport,” he said.
Malvoisin also listed other steps that could be critical. They include leaving a copy of your itinerary with trusted people at home, but not sharing it with people at your destination. He also said that keeping your laptop computer and smartphone locked up can be important. Garda can also provide GPS tracking devices for clients.
“Most problems are due to the traveler not preparing for arrival,” he said.
It’s Not Just Iran
While the threat levels stemming from tensions in the Middle East are making travel more risky in the middle to long term, Malvoisin points out that other factors are actually a greater risk. They include natural disasters, accidents and disease. He suggests making sure your medical insurance covers international medical emergencies. He also stresses the importance or preparing thoroughly for your travel, even if it’s to a destination you frequent.
Horner suggests checking conditions at your destination using local sources where possible. He said that Kroll has access to those sources and can provide a detailed threat analysis for clients. Advice is also available from the US Department of State.
Both companies stress that there’s always the choice of not going if the threat level appears to be too high. There are some meetings that you just don’t need to have.
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