Due to the places I travel to and the people I meet with keeping a low profile is imperative to both a successful and productive trip, as well as my own personal safety. My worst fear when on travel is not what I am actually doing in meeting with customers of the company I represent, but “what I am perceived to be doing, and who I am perceived to be doing it for (CIA, NSA, FBI, or DIA).”
I am always keenly aware, even when traveling in the so called “U.S. friendly countries,” that I never know when I might cross paths with some hardcore Jihadi Extremist who might have a legit affiliation to a terrorist group or network, and feeling obliged to the late Osama Bin Laden’s fatwa in regards to Westerners (In 1998 OBL had called for the death of all Western civilian and military personnel until the United States and allied countries withdraw support for Israel and all military forces from Islamic countries).
The other potential threat demographic I am mindful of is the “sympathizer/facilitator/criminal element.” These would be those with no legitimate affiliation, but for whichever motive (usually money) that might be willing to inform on the “interesting Westerner,” to someone who knows a guy who knows a guy.
My personal safety concerns do not just start and stop with those looking to commit or facilitate a terrorist act such as a bombing, kidnapping, etc., but extend to the obvious threats of ordinary street crime as well. Surprisingly, however, in the majority of most Middle East countries this is relatively low against Westerners.
So in learning from a few rookie mistakes when I first began traveling to the region el solo and had a couple of questionable situations, and then later on when getting some guidance on TTPs (tactics/techniques/procedures) from Department of State agents and other sources, I decided ultimately that at the end of the day my best defense is a good passive offense. My offense these days is simple—maintain awareness—and ultimately, just keep a low profile.
I am certain that the majority of those reading this and have a MIL or LE background, have good, if not great, situational awareness and observation skills, but can you maintain that awareness without looking like it? Can you observe without appearing to observe? And, are you aware or have you observed possibly the biggest threat to your safety of all…you.
We are going to look at two different things here to mitigate the “you” factor in your travel safety plan:
1. Low Profile Behavior and 2. Low Profile Appearance
Both of these things will go hand in hand to maximize your travel safety.
Low Profile Behavior: MIL and LE have a certain undeniable demeanor. It’s a physical and psychological “posture” that is projected, it’s a charter trait. The challenge is to be able to let go of this, to stop being the rock, and allow yourself to start being the sponge so as to absorb everything around you and orientate to the many environmental dynamics that will be unfolding in front of you in strange lands. This is a critical point in helping you to maintain a low profile, regardless of the appearance factor.
One way to relieve yourself of those “tension vibes” that are emanating from you like the concentric rings in the water of a pond after tossing a stone in it, is to “adopt a reason and persona, ” for the environment. What does this mean? It means to have a “fabled” reason as to why you are there, other than the real reason (i.e. defense contractor, MIL/LE exchange program, training, etc.), and the persona behind it; in other words, a cover story.
I have a couple of “personas” that I will travel under depending on where I am heading ranging from someone working in the medical field to an oil exec.
The persona is really more of a mindset or an act more than anything. It is something to practice to focus against to by putting yourself in the role of that persona to help to change your MIL/LE posture.
Inherently you might find this difficult at first because it won’t necessarily agree with your personal identity of honesty and integrity, the core of who you are, because quite simply the persona is an outward projection of a lie. For those who have been tasked previously in any form of clandestine role or undercover work this will come much easier. The important thing to remember is that the persona is not a lie, but a tool/skill needed to conceal and protect you because of who you are at the core.
The persona mindset should be “weak” in some regards, or at least appear so. This is somewhat completely counterintuitive to what we have been taught about projecting a “hard target,” but think here along the lines of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, “Make them think you are weak when you are strong.”
The easiest way to sum this point up is don’t project your profession, be un-interesting, and leave your ego, no matter how skilled you are, back at the ticket counter of the airport of your home country. Believe me when I tell you observation can start while even sitting in the terminal of your home country waiting to board for your destination country.
I once had a flight out of Chicago to a trade show in the UAE and sat next to a guy from the region. We did not talk much, but he had made an assessment of me based on my behavior, dress and my “props.” How do I know this? Because the following day I ran into him at the trade show! I work for a very overt manufacturer in the tactical gear industry, and when he walked into our booth he was rather surprised to see me and specifically said, “I had no idea that you would have worked in this industry. I thought you were just a business man or something.” Mission accomplished.
Low Profile Appearance: Everyone is always talking about “blending” in with your environment. Well, if you are light skinned, I hate to break it to you, but “you are not going to blend,” and even if you are of a darker complexion you still won’t necessarily blend. However, in regards to appearance, it will be of great benefit to you to work some of the following suggestions into your travel safety plan.
Lay everything out that you intend to pack, including the actual bag(s) you intend to take with you. In regards to your bag, does it scream tactical because of color, Velcro platforms, or MOLLE? If it does, ditch it. If you absolutely need it, pack it inside another more obscure bag. The suggestion here is nothing too flashy, keep it plain looking, and perhaps even go as far as cutting off the brand labels as these can point to country whereabouts, and “do not” leave those personalized luggage tags on your bags with all your info; unless of course you want to place a fictitious business card in there that helps to support your persona (i.e. a prop).
*Note: In regards to your airline tags, I suggest ditching these at your destination airport upon arrival so you don’t have to do so in your hotel trash can later on, giving up any information on yourself un-necessarily.
Now look at your clothing, what does it say about you? Does it fit the persona you created? I have a good rule of thumb of always packing a muted brown tweed jacket that I picked up in Doha, along with some dress jeans and long sleeve shirts that I got from the local markets as well. If you have below the shoulder tattoos on your arms (which I do), the long sleeve shirts are a must.
My choice of footwear is a comfortable pair of plain brown shoes that can pass for business casual, but I that I also know will not go flying off if in a scuffle or if needing to run from a situation. I do not choose to wear hiking boots, tactical boots or running shoes (the only exception on the running shoes is when using a hotel gym and in such an instance my running shoes are a European brand).
The majority of my clothing can be very quickly dressed up or down with a limited amount of items and for the most part does well to hide my physique a bit which otherwise might indicate that I am someone that their profession requires a certain level of fitness (i.e. someone affiliated with MIL/LE profession).
I take appearance to the extreme sometimes and do not for the most part, even if going to train with a group somewhere in the region, bring anything “tactical.” This includes everything on down to my socks and watch.
I know for a fact I have had my bags gone through in my hotel room on two occasions. As much as I can help it, I don’t give anyone anything I can control. I keep them guessing or with the persona that I have pointed them to (if I do absolutely need some form of tactical clothing, work sample products, etc. I have it shipped to my appointments ahead of time).
If “no tactical wear,” is not an option for you, I suggest you layer it in the middle of your bags within your “persona wear” to survive airport inspections and not to raise an interest in yourself. Additionally, I would also encourage you to dress out at the location you will be doing whatever at, and change prior to leaving said location. I know this can be a bit of a pain, but it allows you to move a bit more freely outside of any secure locations, and when traversing the hotel lobby to the elevator to avoid the big sign on your back that says “Operator Coming Through!”
As cliché as it sounds, “Don’t dress American,” even if you aren’t American, as there seems to be more acceptance and general comfort of Brits, Aussies, Europeans, and such, when compared to Americans. This means no favorite sports team hat, graphic t-shirts, shorts, nothing to tight (there is a modesty thing here at play as well in the culture of Islam), and my best advice is no or very minimal brand labels.
However, sometimes the brands labels can work in your favor. I am American, and I often choose bags or gym clothing that might be known brands from the UK or Europe, to point the perception of my nationality in such a direction.
*Note: On the gym thing for hotels, because I have mentioned it twice thus far. Depending on your length of stay you might want to work-out when abroad, so in-conjunction with the non-US based gym clothing, if any labels at all, I would recommend long workout pants, long sleeve shirts, and perhaps even one of those euro style running hats. No tanks, tight tees, unit shirts, etc. Also, keep your workouts “normal.” Now is not the time for an intense CrossFit workout or to max out on your bench press in front of other hotel quests and staff. Cardio is always a good option along with the use of the machines. Remember, “remain un-interesting and ego at the ticket counter.”
I mentioned “props” earlier. What I am talking about are things that support your persona. My number one prop are magazines. If I go the med route, I grab a couple of medical journal/magazines from wherever I can find them, if the business route, easy, you can find business magazines anywhere. As a matter of fact, a lot of the Middle East airports even have them, along with fashion and current events magazines, for free on racks around the terminals. If I want to point someone in the direction of my persona, I break it out and read an article with my Romani eyeglasses on.
The last part I will talk about on appearance is facial hair and hair style. If you are going to grow a beard, make sure it fits your persona, or just shave. Don’t “try to look like an SF dude,” just because you are in the Middle East, because you will, and this is not a good thing. If you have a high and tight, you will probably want to grow it out a bit due to the obvious. Stylish hair is pretty popular in many ME countries—for the locals, and mostly a younger demographic, just make sure it’s not “too stylish,” or you will only attract undue attention.
I know some of these things might sound a bit extreme on some level, but I leave you with the following without revealing too much of my travel OPSEC. A couple of months ago I stayed at what most would presume to be a nice hotel in the region with a high “star” rating. The hotel was chosen because it was one of the few in the country that I found from my pre-trip research that had a decent measure of security.
Once at the hotel however, I cannot say that I had the same warm and fuzzy feeling that I had when making my reservation in the comfort of my home in the States. I had a constant sense of unease coming and going everyday as the locals in the immediate area did nothing but sit on the side walk outside the hotel gates playing checkers at card tables or having coffee out front at one of the two coffee shops across the street, with some noticeably “watching the hotel.”
Fast-forward a month and in keeping up on my weekly newspaper reports of the countries I visit regularly (great sources of OSINT-Open Source Intelligence) it turns out that I’m not that paranoid after all. The hotel security had luckily uncovered a plot to bomb the hotel and notified the local security forces who successfully diffused 11 different explosives rigged to half a dozen or so liters of fuel in a car parked in front of the hotel.
It just goes to reaffirm another good Middle East travel safety practice, always get your room on the backside of the hotel!
About the Author: Nathan M. served in the Marine Corps, has worked with Craft International, is the Director of Global Business Development for the leading tactical clothing manufacturer, and is currently pursuing a degree in Intelligence Studies from American Military University.by