Low profile evacuations

Grant Rayner
May 8, 2020 · 10 min read

The key aspects of getting your team out of a higher-risk location quickly and quietly.

Roadblocks preventing us from getting out of Beirut. Photo by Grant Rayner, October 2019.

There are times when a visible evacuation could result in unacceptable levels of risk. This is where a more low profile approach is essential. If you can reduce your visibility and signature, you will be able to reduce the likelihood that you and your team could be targeted or interdicted during your evacuation. This will enable you to slip out quickly and quietly.

In this article I’ll share the key aspects of a low profile evacuation, enabling you to proactively reduce the signature of your team as they navigate the most vulnerable period of any evacuation — road movement to either an airport or a border crossing.

I specialise in assisting individuals and organisations to operate effectively in complex and higher-risk environments. Part of this is helping people get out of countries when their safety and security is under threat.

This is part of our “Advanced_Ops” series of articles, where we explore some of the more dynamic aspects of operating in complex and higher-risk environments. This builds on a series of articles called “The Basics”, which lays the foundation for operating successfully and safely in challenging environments.

Sections of this article are extracted from a book we’re working on with the working title “Getting Out”, which is a handbook focused on the planning and execution of security evacuations.

Operating context

Low profile evacuations occur in very specific circumstances where there are increasing levels of risk and threat, and if you and your team appear openly in the street you may be targeted. This could be during a period of civil or political unrest, where foreigners are being singled out.

Low profile evacuations could also occur in situations where you or individuals in your team have been specifically threatened. In such cases you may need to get them out of the country at very short notice without anyone being aware of your plans. I’ll be sharing some details of a case like this below.

What makes an evacuation “low profile”

Low profile evacuations differ from other types of evacuations in that they should be invisible to the casual observer. By making the evacuation invisible, you are reducing the risk that your team may be targeted during the evacuation process. This is fundamental to their safety and security.

In other scenarios, for example a natural disaster, pandemic, or even a terrorist attack, there is probably very little need for a low profile evacuation.

You can achieve a low profile by:

  • Ensuring the confidentiality of your plan.
  • Using standard vehicles to enable you to blend in with traffic.
  • Using a discreet security escort.
  • Carefully managing the timing of different stages of your evacuation to reduce the risk you may be observed and detected.

Seem straightforward? Actually, it’s not. I’ll explain why below, and share some of the potential challenges and pitfalls you may face if you’re executing your own low profile evacuation.

Passing through military checkpoints in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. Photo by Grant Rayner, February 2020.

Confidentiality

It’s imperative to keep key aspects of your evacuation plan confidential. This pertains especially to routes and timings. You’re most vulnerable when you’re outside and on the road, so you need to do as much as you can to restrict knowledge of the routes you intend to use, and the time you intend to use them. You should only share the key aspects of your plan on a “need-to-know” basis.

Your team (the evacuees) will need to know the rough details of the plan, but don’t necessarily need to know the exact routes you’ll take. What matters to them the most is the timings — this allows them to pack and be fully prepared.

One obvious issue is how much information you should share with your local drivers. This will depend on how long you’ve known them and how well you trust them, but as a principle, you should only brief your drivers on the routes just prior to departure. This reduces the risk that they could coordinate with a third-party (everyone can be bought for the right price).

If you have been using your drivers to reconnoitre your routes, you can select a route at random (at a minimum you should have a primary and alternate route identified between each key location). You can also withhold timings until the last minute, reducing the time available for coordination.

During a low provide evacuation I coordinated out of Honiara in the Solomon Islands, we had to keep the details of the evacuation highly confidential to protect the lives of an expatriate and their family. The threat was very real, and there were a number of significant constraints in the plan, notably a single bridge across a river that could be easily blocked to prevent access to the airport. Only a handful of people knew that the evacuation was taking place. This was essential to the family’s safety, and was the key to a successful operation.

Vehicles

Your selection of vehicles has the highest impact on reducing the visible signature of your evacuee convoy.

As your convoy moves down the road, your aim is to have nobody give it a second glance. If someone notices you, it’s easy enough to mobilise people to intercept you further down the road (of course, good route planning can help to mitigate this risk).

The best way to achieve this is by selecting normal vehicles — the types of vehicles you see moving around on any given day. A little beat up and unwashed is good.

Even though your vehicles may need to look a little shabby, that doesn’t mean they should be shabby under the hood. Inspect your vehicles beforehand to make sure they are mechanically sound. Even then, having backup vehicles within the convoy and/or positioned at key locations along the route in case of a breakdown is a prudent tactic. You can’t afford to have your team members stuck and static for too long.

Techniques like “Rolling Assembly Points” help to further reduce the signature of the evacuee convoy, and can help to increase flexibility and accelerate the evacuation timeline.

When we evacuated a family out of Beirut during the height of Israeli military operations in 2006, we opted for a low profile approach using normal sedans to get the evacuees out Beirut and to Damascus (which was significantly safer than Beirut back then). The key risk we faced during this operation was the fact that Israel was bombing convoys moving personnel and weapons from Syria. While we didn’t think we’d be directly targeted, the possibility of our evacuees being inadvertently close to an air strike weighed on us during our planning. We selected vehicles least likely to attract the attention of any of the parties involved.

Beat up transport in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo by Grant Rayner, October 2019.

Security escorts

If you’re in the middle of a high-risk situation, it may seem that using a security escort is essential. However, in some situations it can actually increase the risk to your evacuees. This may be counter-intuitive, but there are a few reasons why this is the case.

The first is that in some locations armed contract security must be in uniform, and may need to travel in clearly marked vehicles. Unless everyone else is routinely using armed security to get around town, this will significantly increase the profile of your evacuee convoy, making it more visible in the street. In such situations, by not having a visibly armed security escort you may be reducing the risk to your evacuees.

You’re effectively trading security for obscurity.

If your security escort is able to carry weapons discreetly and is not required to wear a uniform or use a marked vehicle, that’s significantly better, but there are still risks.

The paradox of using armed security is that it can increase the risk of being in an armed engagement. If your security detail is armed, and another armed group threatens them or engages them, they may open fire. This will result in you and your team being caught in the middle of an exchange of fire that could kill or injure one or more of your team. Not an ideal situation.

Regardless of what security escort you put in place, one of the most important actions you can take to ensure the security of your road move is to scout the route. This helps to reduce the likelihood that you’ll be caught in a situation where you’re under immediate threat. Scouting involves sending a local vehicle down the route just in advance of your evacuee convoy (this is separate to route confirmation tasks, which are done in the days leading up to your evacuation). The scout vehicle should be able to communicate to the convoy via radio and mobile phone (as backup). If the scout vehicle comes across an issue on the route, such as a militia checkpoint, they can immediately inform the evacuee convoy, who can then alter their route to avoid the checkpoint.

Another option to improve your security while still maintaining a low profile is to utilise a Quick Response Force (QRF). The role of the QRF is to support your evacuees in the event of any incident along the route, including a breakdown or accident. You can position this group centrally on the route, or have several vehicles positioned at key locations along the route to provide support if needed. For longer road moves, such as a run to a border crossing, you could have your QRF trail behind your evacuee convoy.

Stepping back slightly, if there is a risk of your evacuees being confronted by hostile armed groups along the evacuation route, and there are no options available to bypass these groups, you should reconsider your plans. It may be safer to remain in place.

A paramilitary vehicle escort in western Balochistan, Pakistan. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2004.

Timings

The time that you choose to depart for either the airport or a border crossing will have an impact on the signature of your evacuee convoy.

If you choose to travel during a busier time, you have a better opportunity to blend in with normal flow of traffic. Heavier traffic brings with it other issues, specifically a loss of manoeuvrability at the vehicle level and at the convoy level. There will also be more eyes on the street, and a slower flow of traffic provides more time to arrange an unwanted surprise on the road ahead.

If you’re travelling during quieter periods, the issue you’ll face is that, with less vehicles on the road, each vehicle could come under additional levels of scrutiny. There are some interesting and important trade-offs to be made here, and it really will depend on the location situation as it presents itself to you.

On balance, if moving through an urban area, darkness can be your friend. Choosing to move during the pre-dawn period, where traffic has started to flow but there is minimal congestion, is often a good option.

Of course, you may be limited in your options due to time constraints introduced by aircraft availability or local curfews. But, as best you can, select timings that give you and your team the best opportunity for success.

Travelling by night in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo by Grant Rayner, October 2019.

Evacuee perceptions

One of the most interesting problems you’ll face during a low profile evacuation will be the perceptions of your evacuees.

Your evacuees may have pre-conceived ideas about who will be coming to rescue them, and the types of vehicles and equipment these people will have available to them. When Ahmed arrives in his beat up Mercedes, your evacuees may hesitate to trust him. But trust me, Ahmed is your best bet.

I’ve had evacuees refuse to leave with an extraction team for this exact reason — who they thought would come didn’t come (turns out Seal Team 6 was busy). Convincing them that a localised low profile approach was the best course of action resulted in a lot of wasted time where the evacuee and their family was exposed to high levels of risk. In hindsight, I should have primed them in advance so that they would be better psychologically prepared.

It’s useful to spend some time during the preparation phase to educate your evacuees as to the reasons for conducting a low profile evacuation, and how it benefits their safety and security.

Wrap up

Low profile evacuations are de rigueur for higher-risk locations, particularly in cases where it’s likely you and are team will be at risk if detected during the evacuation. It’s essential that you only share aspects of your operation on a “need-to-know” basis. Changing routes and timings at the last minute is an effective techniques to help reduce the risk of unwanted surprises. The types of vehicles you select, and the time you push those vehicles down the road, will help to make your convoy blend in with the normal flow of traffic and go unnoticed. An overt security escort may do the opposite, and could actually increase the risk to you and your team if there is an armed engagement. Use security discreetly and sensibly.

As I’ve learned, make sure that your team understands the value of a low profile approach. Share the reasoning behind key decisions, particularly why you’ll be using normal vehicles and local drivers, and why you’re not using an overt security escort. You don’t want people balking at the last moment and delaying the evacuation.

Grant Rayner is the founder of Spartan9. His work primarily involves supporting clients navigate complex and higher-risk environments.

If you’re interested in learning more about security evacuations, I’ve published two volumes on the topic: The Security Evacuation Handbook Volume I: Fundamentals & Planning and The Security Evacuation Handbook Volume II: Decision-Making & Execution. Both volumes available here.

You may also be interested in some of our other publications. When you’re ready to go a level deeper, consider our training workshops. If you’d like to follow our work, the best way is via our monthly newsletter — subscribe here. Also infrequently on Instagram and Twitter.

If there are other aspects of travelling to complex and higher-risk environments you’d like to explore or learn more about, please let me know.

S9 Advanced_Ops

Advanced aspects of operating in challenging environments.