7 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 04 Sep 2023Share by email
When you’re travelling in higher-risk locations, your habits can get you killed.
I’m not talking about smoking or drinking here (although both will almost certainly accelerate your early demise). Rather, I’m talking about your daily habits and routines. The activities that you consciously or unconsciously engage in each day at the same place or time.
For example, you might do one or more of the following while travelling:
All of these activities are relatively innocuous. However, they can provide an opportunity for a threat group to target you.
In this article, I’m going to explore the risks posed by habits and routines in higher-risk locations. I’ll also explore some of the practical challenges you’ll face when trying to follow the basic advice of ‘avoid habits and routines’.
When considering the impact of habits and routines, it’s useful to view them from the perspective of a threat group that may seek to target you during your travels.
If you’re being targeted by an intelligence service, intelligence operatives will closely monitor your habits and routines. Part of the reason for doing this may be that they’re monitoring your activities to look for evidence of covert activity. They may also be evaluating you as a potential source of information or access.
Operatives may look for routines when you’re not in your room, so they can search your belongings or plant surveillance devices. You might go for meals or to the gym at the same time each day, for example, providing a window of opportunity for someone to access your room with a minimal risk of detection and compromise.
An intelligence service may also want to position people or vehicles around your hotel in preparation for you leaving the hotel, so they can follow you as you move around town. Knowing your routines makes such activities easy to plan and resource.
If you’re being targeted for your knowledge or access, an intelligence service will monitor your other habits. For example, if you go to the hotel bar each evening, they’ll observe what you drink, how much you drink, and with whom you interact. Same when you go to the massage parlour just around the corner from your hotel, or when you head to the nearby casino for just one or two games of poker. If the intelligence service has an interest in recruiting you, such information can be invaluable to help to guide their approach.
A criminal is more limited in what they can do, and will typically only be able to monitor your habits in public areas of the hotel. Criminals are looking for targets of opportunity. If you leave your bag unattended in the lobby, they may steal it. Otherwise, most criminals are less likely to actively monitor your routines over a long period.
If you’re in a location where there’s a risk of kidnap for foreigners, it’s possible that members of a kidnap gang could be carefully watching you and taking note of your routines. Initially, their objective will be to qualify you as a target. They may be looking for signs of wealth, or evidence of your nationality or affiliations. Once they’ve determined you’re a viable target, they’ll increase their monitoring of your habits and routines with the objective of identifying periods of time where you may be vulnerable.
These examples have only focused on your activities at your hotel. If you frequent other locations or conduct other activities on a regular basis, that will provide other opportunities for a threat group to assess your habits and routines and identify vulnerabilities. For example, if you walk back to your hotel after drinks each Saturday evening, a criminal could note this routine and could target you in the weeks ahead.
Ultimately, the observable presence of vulnerabilities will make you an attractive target for a threat group. Habits and routines can definitely present vulnerabilities if not proactively managed.
The practical challenge you’ll face is that some routines are very difficult to change. If you have to start at the same time each day, you’ll probably be at breakfast at around the same time. You may sit at the same table each day, or at the least in the same section of the restaurant. Perhaps you’ll wait in the same location in the lobby for your vehicle, which will probably arrive at the same time each day, give or take a few minutes.
If you’re conscious of your habits and routines, such as where you sit in a restaurant, you can change them. However, just moving tables may not be sufficient. Adjusting your routines is more difficult because you have limited levers to pull. Let’s say you need to go to a local office daily and you need to be there by 9am. You could leave at 8am and arrive early. Or leave at 8:30am to arrive on time. You may think that by adjusting your timings each morning you’re making it difficult for a threat group to target you. In reality, it’s not a big deal for someone to wait for you during the short period of time from 8:00am to 9:00am.
Another approach is to take different routes to reduce the risk that you may be targeted while en route to your destination. However, the reality is that there are a finite number of reasonable routes between locations you visit regularly. Some routes, such as those using back streets, will only make you more vulnerable (noting that you could be followed and could be targeted in an opportunistic attack). In all cases, you’ll be most vulnerable at the start and end points. If someone wanted to target you, they’d just need to wait along the road leading out of your hotel.
Additionally, if you’re under surveillance by a hostile intelligence service, using different routes will suggest an awareness of tradecraft. If the operatives monitoring your activities believe you’re using tradecraft, that will only increase their interest in you and your activities, and will probably result in an increase in surveillance.
In practice, it’s also challenging to explain to your driver the need to take different routes each time you travel to a particular destination. From experience, they’ll probably just ignore you and go the way they know, mumbling something about avoiding traffic jams.
Given the obvious challenges adjusting your routines, what other options do you have?
As with other aspects of personal security while travelling, realise that no single technique will keep you safe, particularly if you’re being targeted. Rather, it’s the diligent application of multiple minor techniques that will keep you safe.
Changing times and changing routes can be an effective technique, because you’re introducing more variables into the adversary planning cycle. Even still, you’ll always be at your most vulnerable near a fixed point, such as your hotel.
If you’re only on the ground for a week or two, an effective technique is to change your hotel every few days. Those of you who have spent time in higher-risk locations will recognise the challenges with doing that—typically there are only a handful of viable hotel options in higher-risk locations. Even still, changing hotels will disrupt anyone operating against you. If you’re really lucky, they may even think you’ve left the country.
Similarly, you could also change cars and drivers every few days. Another variation of this approach is to use different transport services. For example, you could use your normal hired car and driver for some activities, then jump into a Grab or Careem (or local equivalent) for other activities.
The bad news is that just changing your habits and routines won’t be enough to prevent yourself from being targeted. Let’s look at a typical kidnap operation as an example. A kidnap operation will always start with the identification of a potential target. Once a kidnap group has identified a potential target, they’ll then surveil that target to determine whether they are worth kidnapping and to identify potential vulnerabilities. The further a kidnap group progresses with their planning, the more likely they are to proceed with the operation.
While avoiding visible habits and routines is important, I would argue that not being identified as a potential target in the first instance is even more important. It’s therefore essential to maintain a low profile and proactively manage your visibility. Focus on that before you start mixing up your routines.
Not maintaining habits and routines can have a negative impact on your psychological wellbeing. Habits and routines provide a sense of control. If you don’t have habits and routines, you’ll feel off-balance. There are several approaches you can take to disrupt your habits and routines, while still maintaining peace of mind.
The first approach is to plan ahead. Plan your activities for the week, deliberately embedding variations into your activities. By taking this approach, you bring back a sense of control over your time and activities. What my appear to be a patternless range of activities to an observer will make total sense to you, because you designed the plan. Of course, you’ll need to keep this plan highly confidential.
Another approach is to maintain invisible habits and routines. For example, you could do some basic exercises in your room every morning after you wake up. You could also read a book every night before sleeping or listen to some of your favourite music. These activities can’t be observed by others and won’t provide an opportunity for you to be targeted. At the same time, while these activities may seem insignificant, they are anchoring routines that will provide psychological comfort.
Your habits and routines provide opportunities for an adversary to learn more about you and perhaps to target you. When travelling in higher-risk locations, do what you can to avoid visible habits and routines.
As a rule of thumb, always assume that your activities are being monitored. Also assume that the people you’re working with are sharing information about your activities and plans. There factors reinforce the importance of carefully managing your activities.
The longer you stay in a location, the more you’ll need to be conscious of your habits and routines and adjust them to make it more difficult for someone to target you. Techniques such as changing your accommodation and transport arrangements can disrupt anyone monitoring your activities.
Finally, don’t underestimate the psychological impacts of not maintaining habits and routines. Plan ahead and maintain invisible habits and routines.
Thanks for reading.