Alone, but not lonely

Operating safely and successfully as an individual in higher-risk environments.

East of Aleppo, Syria. 2020

Operating as an individual in higher-risk locations is not most people’s preference or choice. Rather, it’s the reality for many assignments. Project decisions are often cost driven, and adding a second person will double the cost of the assignment in terms of fees and expenses. While you might think that adding an additional person will halve the timeframe necessary to complete the work, that’s typically not the case. The same theory applies if you add more people.

In practice, the majority of assignments in my domain can be completed by an individual. As you’ll learn, if you’re working in a higher-risk location, that’s often the best way to get the job done.

At the same time, knowing you’re going into a higher-risk environment alone, and with limited support, can be intimidating, if not downright scary. A key objective of this article is to explain why you don’t necessarily need to feel intimidated or scared. Provided of course that you’re willing to do the extra work necessary to assure your own safety and security.

In this article, I’ll outline some of the upsides and downsides of operating as an individual in higher-risk environments. I’ll also provide some recommendations that will be useful if you find yourself having to operate alone in such environments.

Downsides to operating alone

The primary issue with operating alone is psychological. You will feel that you don’t have the necessary level of support to operate successfully. This feeling will be amplified if you’re accustomed to operating as part of a team.

Teamwork can be a hard habit to break.

At a very practical level, the main downsides of operating alone in higher-risk locations is that you lose some of the benefits of being with a team. Here’s a few examples of what you might be missing:

  1. You won’t have a team available to support you. If you’re involved in an incident, having a team nearby to assist will make your life significantly easier. Knowing you have reliable support also provides peace of mind, which is often in short supply in higher-risk locations.
  2. Operating alone can be psychologically challenging. Being able to socialise with people you know and trust can provide valuable reassurance and comfort.
  3. Finally, there’s a risk that you’ll find yourself in the centre of your own echo chamber of questionable motives and decisions. Without the benefit of a team, you may find that you start to second guess yourself. You’ll wonder if you’ve assessed the risks correctly, or whether you’re taking the appropriate level of precautions when out and about.

Of course, some level of introspection is healthy. In fact, it’s essential. However, there is a thin line that — when crossed — can lead to you losing trust in your own capabilities. Once that happens, it’s probably best you get on a flight home.

Late night food run. Aleppo, Syria. 2020.

Upsides to operating alone

While operating as an indivdiual brings with it some challenges and risks, there are also a lot of advantages. In fact, at least based on my own experience, operating alone can be safer than operating as part of a team.

As an individual, it’s relatively easy to minimise your footprint and manage your risk exposure. If you’re operating with a team, you’re going to be a lot more noticeable. Even if you’re not operating on the street as a team, the fact that you’re staying in the same accommodation and probably eating meals together will certainly be noticed and could result in additional (and unwanted) attention.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, the fact that you’re alone won’t necessarily mean that you’re more likely to be attacked. The old adage of safety in numbers doesn’t necessarily apply in higher-risk environments, particularly where those environments are more insular. Even if you’re moving as a small group, that won’t deter an armed group from attacking you. In fact, a small group will make a far more attractive target and would actually increase the likelihood of an attack. An individual, on the other hand, is more likely to be able to move unnoticed.

Another factor to consider with teams is that some aspects of your safety and security will now be outside your control. Unless you have some say regarding the selection of team members, you may get a mixed bunch in terms of their level of skill and experience. This dynamic presents an unknown variable that you can never fully control. All it takes is for one team member to do something stupid, and the entire team is placed at risk. The longer you’re in a location, the more opportunity there is for screw ups. By working alone, you won’t be placed at risk by the decisions and actions of others. At the same time, you’ll need to be more careful with your own decision-making. More on this shortly.

Knowing that you’re solely responsible for your own safety and well-being can be sobering. In the following section, I’ll share several techniques you can apply to make life a little easier.

Early morning bread run. Damascus, 2020.

Being better, alone

The following sub-sections outline several techniques that will improve your effectiveness and help to assure your safety and security when working alone. As you’ll see, many of the recommendations below echo advice that solo adventurers or solo mountaineers would also follow, particularly with regards to their approach to managing risk.

Practice good decision making

One benefit of working alone is that you’re responsible for your own safety and security. The buck stops with you. Of course, this factor is only a benefit if you have the necessary experience to make sound decisions. When working alone, any decision you make will have the potential to expose you to a range of known and unknown risks. As a result, you’ll need to carefully think through each decision and carefully weigh the options.

You will always be faced with a host of doubts and fears, some of which you should listen to and some you should ignore. The key is to be able to cut through these doubts and fears, rationally examine your situation, and determine an appropriate course of action.

Often, you’ll need to be able to rely on your instincts and trust your gut. But your gut and instincts will only be useful if you have a lot of experience. If you’re short on experience, you’ll need to be more conservative.

Be conservative

Without reliable local support, there’s minimal margin for error. Accordingly, be mindful of the activities you decide to undertake, and don’t unnecessarily expose yourself to risk. This principle is particularly important during the first few weeks in an unfamiliar location, when you’re still calibrating to your environment.

For each activity, go through a deliberate process of assessing and mitigating risk. Understand the threats and how they might operate against you.

There are often a number of simple but important decisions to be made in relation to activities. For example, what day is best to complete the activity? What time of day is best? Is it better to walk or drive? Could you complete the activity by sending an email, rather than meeting your contact in a dangerous part of town?

Be sure to conduct an appropriate level of contingency planning in advance of any activity. Consider what could go wrong and how you’ll respond if it does. Don’t think of contingency planning as a manifestation of pessimism, where you continually focus on what could go wrong. Rather, think of contingency planning as a basic and essential activity that could very well save your life.

If you can, have local resources perform non-essential tasks on your behalf. Focus your own time and effort on more critical activities that you’re best placed to perform.

Leave the ego at home

You may be six feet tall, but you’re almost certainly not bullet proof. In fact, I recommend that you think of yourself as weak, vulnerable and fallible. The reality is that there’s very little you can do to protect yourself from most threats once they form against you. Act accordingly.

Have the basics down

There are a number of basic competencies essential for anyone operating in higher-risk locations. As a starting point, it’s useful to know how to do the following:

  • Familiarise yourself with your operating environment
  • Assess risk
  • Assess the security of your accommodation
  • Plan routes and road movement
  • Plan meetings
  • Plan for contingencies
  • Secure your electronic devices
  • Identify hostile surveillance
  • Build local networks
  • De-escalate situations

There may be a few basic competencies I’ve inadvertently left off this list. But the competencies above will provide a good start point.

Build self-reliance and self-sufficiency

In line with having the basics down, it’s useful to build up your self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Learn how to get what you need, fix things yourself, and generally MacGyver your way out of small problems.

As a starting point, it’s useful to know how to do the following:

  • Change a tire
  • Filter and sterilise water
  • Refuel and start a generator
  • Where and how to change money (and the various risks involved)
  • Where and how to buy local SIM cards or top up data plans
  • Where to go after hours for medical assistance
  • Who to call at 3 am in the morning when you’re too sick to leave your accommodation to seek medical assistance
  • How to navigate local checkpoints (when to pay, when not to pay, who to call if you get any trouble etc)

Building self-reliance helps to build self-confidence, which is fuel when you’re operating in higher-risk environments. Of course, it’s best to avoid being over-confident. Over-confidence can lead to risk accepting and even risk-seeking behaviour, which can be dangerous.

Minimise your exposure

The key to avoiding being targeted by a threat group is to avoid being noticed in the first place. As an individual, the good news is that you’ll be harder to notice. Use that factor to your advantage. When in a vehicle or on foot, do your best to blend in and go unnoticed. If you are noticed, be easy to forget. Keep moving and don’t present a static target.

I’ve written more about how to blend in to an operating environment here.

Tripoli, Lebanon. 2019.

Assume the worst

Assume that every plan will fail. Assume that every vehicle you get into will have an accident or break down. Assume that your mobile phone won’t work when you need it most. Assume that each person you meet can’t be fully trusted. Assume every knock on the door is someone who may want to cause you harm.

At first glance, such a mindset may seem like a fairly horrible way to live. But it follows the adage of ‘hope for the best, but plan for the worst’. The upside of this approach is that you’re likely to be continually pleasantly surprised by positive outcomes (while always being prepared for negative outcomes).

Look after your health

While a higher-risk location may be replete with serious threats from criminals, militia groups or terrorists, it’s probably going to be the untreated tap water or the fact that the hotel staff didn’t wash their hands before preparing your meal that will get you. I’ll never forget an assignment in Pakistan, which took me through Karachi, Quetta, and then overland along the border with Afghanistan to Taftan (and back). Despite the very real security risks, what got me was the very last meal in Karachi before flying home. I experienced an awful flight and was very sick for three weeks on my return.

So, be conservative with your health. If you’re not feeling well, let someone know and seek help early. Have someone regularly check in on you. If you’re unreachable, ensure that person knows who to contact to get you support.

Build a local support network

Without the benefit of a team, you’ll have limited local support. Therefore, you’ll need to build your own local support network.

As a baseline, you’ll need access to local resources, including accommodation and transport (vehicles and drivers), safe food and water, and medical support.

It’s also useful to have trusted local contacts who can assist if you are involved with a vehicle breakdown or accident, if you get pulled in by the police, or if you need help with small administrative tasks (perhaps changing money on the black market, topping up SIM cards, or procuring supplies).

I’ve written more extensively about local support networks here.

Travel light

Pack the minimum, so you’re able to travel as light as possible. Travelling light will enable you to move quickly if or when needed.

Know what supplies can be locally procured and what supplies you may struggle to find in local stores. It’s good practice to prepare a fly-in kit in case you need equipment or supplies that aren’t readily available locally.

I’ve written about our approach to gear and packing here.

Have an exit plan

As an individual, you’ll need to develop your own plans to get out of the country in the event that the level of risk escalates beyond levels you believe are acceptable.

In fact, you should have several exit plans. Your return plane ticket is Plan A. Plans B, C, D, E and F should consist of a mix of strategies involving moving to other cities, taking other forms of transport, or crossing land borders. Never go into a country without a plan to get yourself out of that country. If the security environment is unpredictable, carry around whatever you need to be able to head directly to the airport or a border crossing without having to return to your accommodation.

Read more about getting out of a country here.

Hybrid approaches

It’s possible to get some of the benefits of operating as a team while being alone on the ground. You can achieve these benefits in several ways. For example, you can have experienced people you know and trust that you can call for advice. You could also have a local fixer or other resource that you can call on when needed for local support.

Taking a hybrid approach will ensure that, even if you do feel a bit lonely, you’re never truly alone.

Wrap up

Operating alone is exciting and liberating. It’s the best way to rapidly build your experience and decision-making skills. There are risks to operating alone, and you should be aware of these risks. At the same time — at least based on my own experience — operating alone can often be safer than operating with a team.

If you’re not accustomed to travelling alone, plan short holidays to unfamiliar environments with low to moderate levels of risk. Many of the skills you’ll need to operate successfully in higher-risk environments are the same skills you can apply anywhere, so solo travel is good practice.

The recommendations I’ve outlined above will help guide you to minimise risk and ensure you have a successful assignment.

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

For additional information and insights, read The Guide to Travelling in Higher-Risk Environments and browse through 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.