Alone, but not lonely

East of Aleppo, Syria. 2020

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.

  1. You won’t be able to plan activities as a team, leveraging the often considerable experience of other team members.
  2. 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.
  3. Operating alone can be psychologically challenging. Being able to socialise with people you know and trust can provide valuable reassurance and comfort.
  4. 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.
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.

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.

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.

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:

  • Treat minor illnesses or injuries without needing a clinic or hospital (and know when you will need a clinic or hospital)
  • 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

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.

  • Drive different types of vehicles (yep, including manual transmission vehicles)
  • 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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



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