Reading the street

How to read the street to recognise indicators of potential danger while travelling in higher-risk areas.

12 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 17 Jun 2020

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You’re in a higher-risk environment.

You’ve read your government’s travel advice, and you’ve spoken to colleagues who have been there before. You know that there are real threats out there, but you’re not sure what to do with that information. It’s not particularly actionable.

If you’re travelling on business, your company may have provided you a safety and security briefing before you travelled. This may have included warnings about risks from crime or terrorism. Perhaps there’s also a risk of kidnap (which could be perpetrated by criminals or terrorists). What does this really mean in practice? If you step onto the street is someone going to kidnap or kill you straight away? Should you ignore the warnings and go outside anyway? Or do you take the warnings at face value and stay inside? How do you know when it’s time to get off the street?

Identifying threats to your safety and security is one of the more complex and intangible aspects of personal security in higher-risk environments. It’s made even more difficult for us as travellers, because we often don’t have a good understanding of the environment we’re stepping into.

In this article I’m going to explain to you how to gather and interpret the information you need to be able to make an accurate assessment of risk at street level. I’ll explain how to read the street, and provide other practical advice to help you keep out of trouble and ensure that you have an uneventful trip. This has been derived from almost 30 years of experience operating in interesting places.

I specialise in assisting individuals and organisations to operate effectively in complex and higher-risk environments. This article is part of a series called “The Basics”, where I’ll explore some of the fundamental concepts of personal security while travelling. I hope you find it useful.

Seeking local advice

When you first enter a higher-risk location, one of the first and most obvious things you’ll probably do is speak to local contacts or to other travellers to get their read on the situation. That’s a valid start point, but in my experience you will either receive very conservative advice, or the advice you receive may end up placing you at risk. Of course, that may not be the intent of the person providing the advice — they are just relaying a flawed assessment of the risks as they see them.

Travellers who have been to the location before may tell you that it’s safe. After all, nothing happened to them, so that is undeniable evidence that it’s safe, right? If they admit that it wasn’t safe, then it calls their judgement for travelling there into question. It’s difficult to argue the logic, but be wary of anyone who displays any form of bravado. It’s always a bad sign.

If you have established local contacts in the community, they will often have a strong interest in ensuring your safety. As a result, they’ll apply a higher margin. While in Karachi last year I met up with a local contact who was knowledgable about the local security situation. I asked him whether it was safe to walk the streets. “No,” was the immediate answer. “What about that area there?” I said, pointing to a map, “No”. “Here?” “Also no.” It was frustrating, but he was not wrong. There were risks, but at the same time he was being conservative with his advice. Later that night we did go into town to eat at a local restaurant. As he exited his car, I noticed him adjusting a Glock 19 in his waistband. He later recalled several times when he’s been threatened, including when out with his family.

Karachi is an interesting case because there are real threats to foreigners as well as to locals, but at the same time it is possible to move about.

Until it’s not. And that’s the problem.

Even with access to good local advice, that doesn’t won’t give you the granular information you will need to be able to assess your own level of safety while outside the relatively secure environment of your hotel.

The most serious risks are untestable

The intractable issue here is that you can’t just dip your toes in and test the water. Threats like kidnap and terrorism are very real in some locations, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to get yourself into real trouble.

These are subtle but violent threats, and they are not something that’s visible. You can see a barking dog tied to a post, and avoid it easily. It’s much harder to see a kidnapper or a terrorist.

So how do you know when you’re at potential risk? What are the signs?

Identifying changes

Good security theory tells us to look for changes to our environment as potential indicators of threats. We should be able to identify a car parked along the street that wasn’t parked there yesterday, or a window left open that’s normally closed.

Would you actually notice such things?

Even if you did notice them, do they really indicate the presence of an imminent threat? The reality is that it is very difficult to detect changes to an environment unless you’ve lived in that environment for a very long time. Even after operating in a location for a few weeks, you still won’t have a good feel for what fits and what doesn’t. Think about the environment where you live right now. Would you notice something out of place?

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to understand your environment — you definitely should. But don’t have high expectations about your innate ability to identify change. The fact is that it’s significantly harder to understand an environment that’s different from what you’re used to. How people park their cars, how they manage rubbish collection, and how and why people loiter in specific areas at specific times will all be different from what you’re used to. This makes it difficult to establish a baseline of “normal”, which is essential to enable you to detect the abnormal.

Reduce the scope of the problem

One way you can make the process of identifying changes slightly easier is to reduce the scope of the problem. Focus your initial efforts on understanding the environment immediately around where you are staying. Specifically, the path from your apartment door to the street, and the area of street immediately outside your apartment. This is a good start point, and it’s also your most vulnerable location — you can change your patterns of movement all you like, but you’ll still be leaving from and coming back to the same place.

Categories of things

When you analyse your environment, break it up into categories of things. The static built environment is one category — lamp posts, bus shelters, fences, security cameras, and the like. The next category is vehicles. Work out the local parking laws and norms, and determine what’s normal and what’s not normal. Then focus on the people loitering around the area. Determine where people gather, understand why they gather there, and learn the times of day they normally get together.

A word of advice here: be very aware of the tendency to make assumptions about what you see based on your own limited set of experiences. Seek the help of local people to help you interpret your environment, rather than making unilateral assumptions.

Overall, the process of systematic observation is an important one. By paying close attention to your immediate environment you’re building up an invaluable data set that will help you to identify changes, which may help you to identify risks.

Threat indicators

The idea that we’ll associate indicators with an imminent threat has been perpetuated by Hollywood movies — all of a sudden all the birds stop singing, or women and children run off the street. If you’re a soldier patrolling a street, that may be an indicator of trouble (the women and children, not the birds). If you’re a traveller walking along a street or wandering through the local market, what indicators would give you a clear signal of an impending threat?

Are there identifiable indicators to potential trouble? Maybe. But the reality is that, short of a man standing there with a gun pointing at you, rarely do single indicators mean much by themselves. Recognising an impending threat requires localised experience and context to enable you to filter out the noise and synthesise the information around you.

Let’s consider a few different examples:

  • As you approach a man sitting on the stairs of a shopfront on the sidewalk, he looks up at you, pulls out his phone, and sends a message.
  • A man wearing a camouflage jacket and denim jeans on the opposite side of the street sees you, stands up and picks up an AK-47 rifle. He doesn’t point the weapon towards you, but watches you closely as you walk by.
  • A group of kids start following you, asking you for things. An old lady approaches and shoos them away.

You get into a taxi. A few minutes into the ride, the driver pulls out his mobile phone and makes a call. As he’s speaking, he glanced repeatedly at you in the rear view mirror. As you’re walking past a local bus stop a young man sneers at you, says something you don’t understand, and spits in your direction.

This should illustrate the problem. Most of these examples are probably completely benign activities. People may be reacting to your presence, but may not be actually threatening you directly. Even our friend at number 5 may just be an isolated case, with no intent to escalate things further. The reality is that it’s almost impossible to discern threats when you’re in a complex environment. Certainly incidents like these will probably feed your paranoia.

The fact that threat indicators are a hard problem doesn’t mean you should ignore them. If you identify a potential threat indicator, you can certainly increase your level of alertness and readiness to act. If you start feeling uncomfortable, just call it a day and head back to your accommodation.

Never write off your instincts in situations like these, but at the same time understand that you’re in a foreign environment that you don’t fully understand and your instincts won’t be firing properly.

One of my earliest experiences of fairly overt threat indicators was shortly after arriving in Mogadishu, many years ago. I was driving from the airport to the sea port, which is just a short drive away. As we got onto the main road, to the left of our vehicle there was a group of men sitting on plastic chairs. One of the men smiled at us and slowly drew his hand across his throat, then laughed hysterically. The meaning was fairly clear.

The most dangerous time is at the beginning

One of the paradoxes you’ll face is this: while you’re trying to adapt to your new environment, which you’re doing so you can better detect threats, you’ll be highly exposed to known and unknown threats.

This is difficult to avoid this unless you decide to just stay indoors (a sensible option in some places). If you stay indoors, you won’t be able to calibrate to your new environment. It’s a Catch-22 situation — how can you gain the level of experience and “street sense” you need to stay safe, while ensuring your safety in the process.

It’s not easy, and it requires good planning and judgement.

Early on in your trip you’ll be easily distracted and easily startled. You’ll almost certainly be paying attention to the wrong things. This is why it’s important to commit time to a planned process of calibration to your new environment. I’ve written about some of the techniques you can use to adapt to new environments here.

When complacency creeps in

As you slowly become more accustomed your environment, you’ll start to wonder what all the fuss was about. Within a few weeks, and with no incidents, you’ll probably decide that all the assessments must be wrong and people are exaggerating the risks. After all, you’re the one on the ground. You know best.

My advice to you is to be very careful when you start feeling this way. It’s a good time to check yourself and to double down on good security practices. You’re at your most vulnerable when you start feeling like you’re safe and you no longer need to be careful about your personal security.

Think about this from the perspective of a kidnap gang. When they initially identify you, you were being very cautious. The kidnap gang decides to write you off because you’re being careful with your routines and you’re displaying a high level of awareness when out and about. They’re looking for easier targets. Lucky for you!

A few weeks later, one of the members of the same kidnap gang happens to cross paths with you. After following you for a few blocks he finds that you’re no longer paying as much attention to what’s happening around you as you were earlier on. He makes a phone call, and you’re back to the top of the list of potential targets. Two people are tasked to keep an eye on you, and the plan is to kidnap you the day after tomorrow as you go for your morning coffee.

Your high levels of awareness initially reduced the likelihood you would be targeted. Your slackening off has all but guaranteed that you will be.

Threat groups know that it’s difficult to sustain effective security for long periods of time. They count on it.

Threat mobilisation time

The scenario above highlights another aspect to keep in mind when you’re out and about: the length of time it might take for a threat to mobilise.

Consider a scenario where you are spotted by someone in a threat group, who then calls his or her criminal (or terrorist) colleagues. How long will it take for them to organise themselves and get to where you are?

A client of mine many years ago in Karachi, adapted this into something he called the “half hour rule”. You could go pretty much anywhere in town, he reasoned, but don’t be there for longer than half an hour. This was in the period shortly after the American reporter Danny Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Karachi. The city was significantly more dangerous then than it is now.

The half hour rule is an operational heuristic that ties in with the concept of risk exposure — the longer you’re out and exposed to a risk, the more likely that the risk event will happen. If you walk up and down the street in an area with a high kidnap threat, in theory it’s only a matter of time until the wrong people notice you and start working on a plan to lift you. The difficulty is determining how many times you’ll be able to walk up and down that street until you are lifted. You’d probably get away with it a few times at least. Based on that experience, would you then say it’s safe? Logically it must be, because you haven’t run into any trouble yet. In reality, preparations could be underway to lift you the following day. You may never know how close you came to a life-threatening incident.

Again, it’s safe until it’s not. There’s very little in between.

So if reading the street is hard, how can you manage the risk? What practical actions can you take to reduce your risk exposure? There’s a few simple approaches you can take to make yourself a more difficult target.

Be unpredictable

For someone to target you, they’ll need knowledge of your routines. They will gain this knowledge over time by surveilling you. As they prepare for their attack, they’ll also need confirmatory intelligence to lock in your current location. This means someone will need to be surveilling you in the hours and minutes before the intended attack time to ensure that you’re on the way, or at, the planned location for the attack. It’s not a sophisticated process, but it’s still not something that is easy for you to detect.

Assuming you’re not locking yourself inside, the only option you have to avoid this is to be highly unpredictable in all aspects of your activities. This includes when you leave and arrive at your accommodation, the people you visit, the places you eat, and the places you buy your groceries or withdraw your cash.

If you set a pattern, you’re an easy target.

Be ready for anything

The other thing you can do is be mentally and physically prepared.

As you’re moving about, maintain high levels of situational awareness and be mentally and physically ready for something to happen. Know where you are, where your nearest safe haven is, and how to get there. Continually assess the street and identify potential escape routes. It sounds a difficult, but it’s just a habit. The more you practice it, the easier and more intuitive it gets.

Let people know where you are going, who you are meeting, and when you intend to get back. This provides a trail of bread crumbs if something does happen to you.

You may also consider carrying a tracking device with an SOS feature. This won’t prevent something from happening, but it will allow you to alert people and will provide some information about your location that could be shared with the authorities.

You probably won’t see it coming

To be brutally honest with you, you probably won’t see most threats coming. If the car across the street explodes, you’ll have no advance indication. If a van pulls up alongside you and three guys jump out and grab you, there’s probably not much you can do about it. If someone approaching you suddenly pulls a pistol out of their pocket and shoots you in the chest, it’s probably game over.

So while it’s still highly important to understand your environment and look for patterns and changes, your best bet will always be to maintain disciplined personal security. Maintain a low profile, plan your routes carefully, and take specific personal security protections, such as varying your activities.

Wrap up

Identifying threats, even when you know they are there, is not an easy process. There’s a huge gap between being relaxed and aloof to being hyper paranoid and anxious. You’ll need to learn to be able to operate effectively somewhere within that gap.

Take time to understand your environment, while also understanding that during the first few weeks of this process you’ll be at your most vulnerable. Avoid patterns in your routines, and be mentally and physically prepared for things to go awry.

Make it as difficult as possible for someone to target you.

There will always be easier targets out there.

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