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Protective Details: More Than Goons With Guns

I raised some hackles last week when I noted that "effective security for public figures must go beyond goons and guns." Some Stratfor readers and even a few friends questioned whether I was insulting executive protection officers as a whole by referring to them as goons. But that certainly wasn't my intention; instead, I was attempting to delineate the very real distinction that exists between true protection professionals and a segment of protection providers who are, in fact, little more than brutes with weapons.

Throughout my career as a member of many different protective details and as a protective intelligence agent, I spent countless hours helping to guard government officials, religious figures, royalty, business executives and billionaires.

In these roles, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible array of protection professionals, many of whom were very skilled. Some of them, however, were poorly trained, highly unprofessional and at times downright scary. My experience isn't unique, either; anyone who has worked in executive protection has encountered goons posing as professionals.

This week, I would like to not only clarify my previous statement but also discuss executive protection in more detail, highlighting the features that set professional protection teams apart from their much less effective counterparts.

What's Wrong With Hiring Goons?

There is a common misperception that if you're looking for a bodyguard, all you need is a large man who knows how to use his fists and a gun. But while it is true that those skills can come in handy in a scuffle or a gunfight, an executive protection agent who has to use his hands or firearm against a threat has failed. That isn't to say that self-defense techniques or weapons proficiency are bad things; protection agents should certainly be well-trained in armed and unarmed combat. But self-defense prowess and weapons skills are rightly considered tools of last resort that, in theory, should be employed only in worst-case scenarios. They should not become the answer to every problem.

Ideally, a protective detail should never have to fight its way out of a tough situation. Rather, its members should recognize a potential problem early enough to avoid it completely. Action is faster than reaction, and though intensive training can close the gap somewhat, a proactive approach is always preferable to a reactive one for protection personnel. In fact, protective agents' most important tools are proactive in nature: They include excellent situational awareness, thorough logistics planning, good security assessments, careful trip and individual site security advances, liaisons with counterparts and strict operational security. Protection teams can also employ powerful tools such as protective intelligence investigations, threat and psychological assessments of people with an unusual interest in the protectee, and countersurveillance detection teams.

When all is said and done, effective executive protection is more about the mental strengths of the agents or teams involved — their ability to prepare for, plan for and recognize a threat — than it is about their physical prowess.

Reacting Is the Only Line of Defense

Unfortunately, goon-type teams are often ignorant of the mental aspects of executive protection or dismiss them as unnecessary. An overreliance on physicality means that protection personnel will always have to operate on the reaction side of the equation — a bad place to be if an attacker has been given free rein to assess security measures and plan an assault accordingly. As we've seen in many cases, the presence of security personnel — even if they are armed — is simply not enough to protect a target from a determined hostile actor, whether a mentally unbalanced stalker, kidnapper or terrorist. The same is true of physical security measures and armored vehicles. If attackers can freely conduct preoperational surveillance, they will pinpoint weaknesses in any security force and find ways to exploit them.

That is precisely how Edgar Millan Gomez, the acting head of Mexico's federal police, was assassinated in May 2008.

A gunman waiting inside Millan Gomez's apartment building ambushed and shot him eight times after his protective detail dropped him off at the door. Attackers will not always avoid a protective detail as Millan Gomez's assailant did, either. In November 2007, a team of heavily armed gunmen kidnapped businessman Edelmiro Manuel Perez Merelles after trapping his vehicle and killing his bodyguard in Mexico City.

Even highly trained security officers who have been schooled in recognizing and responding to attacks are at a disadvantage once an attack is launched. In addition to having the element of tactical surprise on their side, assailants have had time to factor security measures into their attack planning thanks to their surveillance efforts. As a result, they presumably have enough people and the appropriate weaponry to overcome any security measures in place. In other words, they will not attack unless they believe they have the upper hand.

Not all attacks succeed, of course. Sometimes assailants botch the attempt. Other times, security personnel are good enough (or lucky enough) to regain the initiative and fend off or escape the attack by getting off the X. But in general, once an attack begins, the perpetrators hold the advantage over the defenders. A protective detail must not only react but also identify the source, location and direction of the attack, determine the number of assailants and their weapons, and figure out how best to respond. If the defenders are not mentally prepared, the high level of stimulation can easily lead to paralysis.

Weighing the Risks to Security and Reputation

Paralysis can be life-threatening, since a gang brazen enough to conduct a serious crime that carries stiff penalties, such as kidnapping for ransom, is often capable of committing homicide during that crime as well. The Perez Merelles kidnapping is a case in point: The attackers accounted for his security detail by devising a way to neutralize the officers during the kidnapping. This bold disregard for armed security guards is not limited to other countries; it is also seen fairly regularly in attacks against celebrities and recording artists in U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It is notable that musicians tend to employ goon-style personnel. In the case of some artists, their protection may have already been involved in shooting incidents with other recording artists and their bodyguards.

Moreover, brazen criminals are not the only would-be attackers undeterred by the idea of killing security agents. Suicide terrorists and mentally disturbed stalkers are similarly unlikely to be stalled by the possibility of homicide. If attackers are not concerned about escaping or surviving the attack, why would they be worried about killing a protection officer to get to their target?

Even large and heavily armed protective details can be taken out if they get complacent. The November 1989 assassination of Deutsche Bank Chairman Alfred Herrhausen, the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and the July 2015 assassination of Egyptian Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat showed how attackers can use bombs to overcome such security to get to their targets. Simply put, it is imperative to prevent attackers from having the freedom to surveil their target and plot an attack.

Beyond the physical risks that come with hiring goons instead of professionals, there is also the potential for a public relations nightmare. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent visit to the United States is a perfect example of the negative attention a well-known official can attract when protection personnel behave aggressively in public. (U.S. Secret Service special agents found themselves in the awkward position of having to scold their Turkish peers for roughing up journalists and protesters outside an event Erdogan attended at the Brookings Institution.)

Though negative publicity could actually enhance the reputation of a rapper, it doesn't do much good for the image of a government official, corporation or business executive. It can even hurt the company brand and lead to costly lawsuits.

Bearing these risks in mind, corporations tend to be very selective in whom they hire for executive protection posts. In addition to looking for experience in law enforcement or security, savvy corporate security chiefs also want candidates who display maturity, good judgment, intelligence and well-developed social skills. While these requirements substantially narrow the pool of available candidates, the benefits of having a high-performing security team for outweighs the cost of finding it.

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