An Objective Look at Recent Vehicle Ambushes.
Just how important is it for a Protective Detail Leader or Security Manager to be able to recognize the indicators and warnings associated with various threats and understand the capabilities of potential attackers? The answers can be found by taking a closer look at two recent attacks. One was unsuccessful and not very widely publicized while the other was successful and made headlines around the world for a short period of time. The first case involves an attack against Manuel Diaz Lerma, the Secretary of Public Safety for the Mexican State of Baja, which took place on April 22, 2008 in Mexacali, Mexico. That morning, Secretary Lerma became the highest level Mexican official to be attacked in the ongoing struggle between gangs of drug smugglers and law enforcement officers on both sides of the border between the US and Mexico. The attack was launched as Secretary Lerma’s two vehicle motorcade traveled along the route toward his office. Lerma and his security team came under heavy fire from at least ten, and perhaps as many as twenty assailants armed with assault rifles and at least one grenade launcher. The attack continued along a five to six block stretch of the route as the motorcade tried to make its way to the State Police facilities located nearby.
While Lerma himself was unhurt, three members of his security detail riding in the follow vehicle were injured. Eyewitness reports and the statements given by the security detail show that this was a well planned attack and if not for the fact that Lerma was riding in an armored vehicle the attack just might have been successful. As with most attacks, there were indications that trouble was coming Mr. Lerma’s way both long before and immediately prior to the attack. During a raid in early 2008, Police in Tijuana recovered a list containing names of Public Officials and State Police Officers that were being targeted for assassination. Manuel Diaz Lerma’s name was at the top of that list. This was a serious development, first because no one had ever attempted to assassinate a Mexican Official that high up the ladder and secondly, because the six men arrested in that raid were believed to be connected with a gang leader that had already claimed responsibility for the assassination of the Director of Public Safety of Beaches for Rosarito. Then on the morning of the attack, members of Mr. Lerma’s security detail spotted men dressed in military style uniforms, wearing body armor, hoods and carrying assault rifles at various locations along the route they were traveling. It wasn’t long after the first sighting that the ambush was sprung. During the attack, his vehicle was struck numerous times by large caliber rifle rounds and at least once by fragments from a grenade. Eventually, the principal’s vehicle was partially disabled by a flat tire, forcing the driver to slow the vehicle down in order to maintain control. The driver of the follow vehicle was alert and as soon as he saw the principal’s vehicle slowing down he maneuvered his vehicle alongside it to provide additional cover for the principal seated inside the vehicle.
There are a number of lessons that can be learned at the very least, strongly reinforced, from this first attack.
You Need the Right Tools for the Job. In this attack, both the target and the attackers seem to have been reading off of the same page. Lerma was riding in a heavily armored SUV capable of withstanding multiple hits from 7.62 mm rounds and, as the pictures show, the vehicle did what exactly it was designed to do – give the driver time to drive out of the kill zone. Of course, the attackers brought some pretty serious tools to the fight as well, including large caliber assault rifles and at least one grenade launcher. It’s obvious that Lerma and his security team took the threats he faced seriously. Despite the fact that no one had ever attacked a Secretary-level official, Lerma’s vehicle offered protection against what some would say was a low probability scenario – like a six or seven block long ambush conducted by several attackers armed with large caliber weapons and grenades. While his Protective Detail may not have even considered that exact scenario when developing their plan, they were properly equipped to deal with just such an attack.
The Attack Begins Long Before the First Gunshot. The facts that Lerma was on that hit list, that the attack was carried out by a large group and most of the rounds were directed at the principal’s vehicle, are all indications that the attackers had done their homework. While it is difficult to say for sure, in this case it is entirely possible that the attackers had access to both inside information regarding his security operation and had surveillance in place leading up to the attack. This would have allowed them to know which of the vehicles the target was in, the route they would be on that morning and where along that route was the best place to conduct the ambush.
Training, Training, Training. During the attack, which lasted for minutes, not seconds, the principal’s vehicle was hit multiple times, at least once by grenade fragments, and was partially disabled due to a flat tire. Despite all of this, the drivers of both vehicles did exactly what needed to be done to ensure the principal’s survival. First, they kept the vehicles moving through the kill zone, and secondly, when the lead car had to slow down due to the flat tire the driver of the follow car placed his vehicle, which was not armored, in a position to provide as much protection as possible for the principal. Experience dictates that in a situation like that there is no such thing as coincidence. Those drivers were well trained, and while they may not have planned for or expected an attack this intense, they had at the very least, thought through what they would do if the principal’s vehicle was disabled by an attack. As we have seen in numerous other incidents over the years, it is likely that the decisions and actions of those two trained drivers played a large part in Lerma’s survival.
As mentioned earlier, the second attack was more widely publicized than the incident that took place in Mexico, at least for a day or so after it happened. This case, the successful assassination of the Lebanese Industry Minister, Pierre Gemayel, is similar in at least one regard to one of the most studied assassinations in modern time, the killing of German business leader Alfred Herrhausen. In each instance, security was focused on protecting against one specific type of attack and, unfortunately, the attackers were able to achieve success by simply launching a different type of attack than was expected.
Pierre Geyamel is not the first high profile, anti-Syrian political figure to be killed in Lebanon in recent years. In fact, he is not the first member of his family to be killed in a politically motivated attack. His uncle, Bashir Gemayel, was killed in 1982 shortly after being elected President and three of his cousins, including Bashir’s daughter, were killed over the years as well. However, the attack against Pierre Gemayel was unique in a number of ways. Particularly when you consider that his actions prior to the attack indicated he understood that he was a potential target and that security precautions were a necessity. Looking at the attack itself, it becomes clear that this was a deliberate, well planned attacked, executed by an experienced team of assassins.
On the day the attack occurred, Mr. Geyamel was not riding in the armored BMW he owned. Instead, he chose to drive a non-descript Kia sedan with tinted windows. He was, however, accompanied by his personal bodyguard, who was riding in the front passenger seat of the car at the time of the attack, and an officer from the Lebanese state security services, who was riding in the backseat of the car when the attack was launched. There are reports that Geyamel may have been trying to avoid an attack by keeping a low profile and blending into the day-to-day background of daily life in Beirut.
As his vehicle moved through a crowded intersection in one of Beirut’s busiest neighborhoods it was hit head on by a Honda CRV and then in the right rear by another compact car and, almost simultaneously, by a van directly from behind. Within just a couple of seconds the unarmored vehicle Geyamel was driving was completely boxed in and three gunmen jumped out of the Honda and opened fire at close range. The attackers concentrated their attack on Geyamel in the driver’s seat and his bodyguard in the front passenger seat. As seen in the accompanying photo, the shots fired at Geyamel through the driver’s side window were well aimed and it seems obvious that the attackers were practiced shooters who knew exactly where the target was sitting in that vehicle.
As was the case with the attack against the Mexican Secretary of Public Safety, sifting through the details of the attack provides some useful information for security practitioners and reinforces some of the lessons learned from previous vehicle ambushes.
Successful Attacks are Intelligence Driven. Given the timing, complexity and accuracy of the attack, it’s obvious that the attackers knew what vehicle Geyamel was in, that he was behind the wheel as opposed to sitting in the backset and exactly where the vehicle would be. While some of the information needed to plan and coordinate this attack may have come from an inside source, this ambush required split second timing, a high degree of familiarity with the surroundings and a viable escape and evasion plan, all of which also require information that can only be developed by conducting extensive surveillance of the target, the route and the ambush site. An insider can give you the who, what, where and when, but what they can’t tell you is the best place to stage vehicles or what to expect in and around the ambush site before, during and after the attack.
Expect the Unexpected. Several sources have suggested that Mr. Geyamel was concerned that he would be the target of a massive IED, like the ones that killed his Uncle and more recently, Prime Minister al-Hariri, and that his armored BMW made him an easily identifiable target while still leaving him vulnerable to an IED attack. This would certainly explain his choice of vehicles that day. However, just like Herrhausen, whose security was configured to protect against a kidnapping and not the roadside bomb that ultimately killed him, Geyamel’s attempt to protect against an IED attack by lowering his profile and driving a non-descript vehicle left him vulnerable to the rolling ambush and small arms fire that took his life. While it is virtually impossible to plan for every possible attack scenario, security providers should make every effort to find out exactly what capabilities an attacker might have, as well as what sort of attack the principal might be vulnerable to, despite existing security measures.
High Value Targets Are High Profile Targets. One of the most important lessons to be taken from the Geyamel assassination is that keeping a low profile only works if the principal is truly a low profile individual. Those who are famous (or infamous), have achieved a certain level of notoriety or are subject to media exposure are not, by definition, low profile. Therefore, they simply can not rely on a lower profile to adequately protect themselves against serious threats. For example, while Geyamel was riding in a non-descript sedan, he was accompanied by two bodyguards, one of whom was carrying two long guns. Even in Beirut, the sight of a man moving about with two armed escorts would make people take notice, something you obviously want to avoid if you are trying to blend in. So, in terms of keeping a low profile, any advantage he may have gained by driving a non-descript vehicle was almost certainly lost as soon as he stepped out of the vehicle.
These two attacks remind us that those who have a legitimate need for close protection are subject to risks no matter where in the world they may happen to live or work. They also remind us there is no such thing as a risk-free environment or a foolproof security plan. Together, these attacks – one in which the principal survived and one in which the attackers were successful – also provide some additional things for security professionals to think about.
Honor the Threat. This is a term often used by fighter pilots when discussing aerial combat against multiple targets. What it means is that you must take action to address the most immediate threat first. In the attack on Lerma, it appears that he and his security personnel did just that. Despite the fact that an attack against someone at his level had never been attempted before, they took specific precautions against the potential threat posed by a well planned, large scale attack and in doing so, ensured his survival.
On the other hand, while Mr. Geyamel was certainly aware of the risks he faced, he failed to consider that the attackers had the time, resources and capability to launch nearly any type of attack they wished. Because of who he was and his position in the government it was virtually impossible to lower his security profile enough to deter an attack and, when all was said and done, his attempt to blend in ended up making him even more vulnerable. While it is true that the armored sedan he had at his disposal could not protect him against an IED, the unarmored compact car he was driving when killed couldn’t have protected him in a serious traffic accident, let alone a deliberate rolling ambush. At some point in time, those who meant to do him harm figured that out for themselves and planned accordingly.
If the Vehicle Stops You Lose. Time and time again we have seen that when it comes to attacks against someone riding in a vehicle the worst possible scenario is for the vehicle to come to a stop in the kill zone. Even in attacks against an armored vehicle, once the vehicle is immobilized the attackers have a huge advantage because they have gained control over the movement of the target. Lerma’s drivers kept their vehicles moving and, in doing so, defeated a well planned attack. On the other hand, the first step in the Geyamel attack was to stop the vehicle and once the attackers accomplished that their success was virtually assured.
There is No One-Size-Fits-All Solution. Threats are subject to change; often times the threat changes in response to new or different security measures. In order to stay ahead of changing threats Security Managers and Protective Detail Leaders must constantly gather information and intelligence regarding potential threats, the tactics and techniques favored by certain groups and the security measures that may or may not work against those threats. They must also keep in mind that attackers tend to do their homework as well. In the recent past it has been proven that various groups study attacks and share their information and lessons amongst themselves, a process that is made easier by modern communications and computer technology. It is also important to recognize that the tactics and techniques commonly used in close protection operations are not closely guarded or well kept secrets. At this point, literally tens of thousands of people have been trained in the methodology used by most private sector and quite a few government protection details and some of those folks have ended up playing for the other team, so to speak.
Surveillance Detection is Critical. In both the Lerma and Geyamel ambushes it is apparent that surveillance of the target and the route played a critical role in the attack planning process. In fact, since the mid-sixties when Carlos Marighella’s Mini-Manual for The Urban Guerilla was popular reading for leftist groups throughout Latin America and Europe, pre-attack surveillance is something that many groups have relied heavily on throughout the attack planning process. Today we find that pre-attack surveillance is the common thread among hundreds of attacks around the world. That is why it has become essential for security providers to learn how, when and where an attacker is likely to conduct surveillance as well as how to plan, manage and conduct effective surveillance detection operations. History has shown that in many situations surveillance detection is not just the best protection, it may be the only protection.
Anthony Scotti is president of Tony Scotti Associates. He has conducted anti-terrorist training programs in 30 countries. He has trained students from sixty-four countries and conducted training programs on five continents. His training programs are developed from hands-on, life experiences that can only be acquired from working in the high-risk areas of the world; environments, some of which find crime and terrorism a daily occurrence. Colombia, Iraq, Peru, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan, Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, El Salvador, Haiti, and Pakistan are some of the countries his programs have been implemented. He holds a B.S. in Engineering from Northeastern University, and is a nationally recognized authority on both safe driving and terrorism, he has written two books: Executive Safety & International Terrorism, and Driving Techniques For The Professional And Non Professional Driver. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joseph Autera is president of Tony Scotti’s Vehicle Dynamics Institute, a leading provider of training services related to mobile security – from driver training to educating security managers on best practices for planning and managing secure transportation operations. Prior to entering the training sector, Mr. Autera gained valuable experience as both an independent consultant and corporate security executive responsible for planning, directing, and participating in the conduct of threat detection mobile security operations in various high risk locales, ranging from South and Central America to Europe, as well as the Middle and Far East. His tenure in corporate security includes serving as the Director of Security for a multinational technology firm and later, as the Vice President of Global Security Services with one of the world’s leading providers of global risk mitigation and international crisis management services. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Image courtesy of Suriya Kankliang @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net