Building a Local Support Network

Local markets in Homs, Syria. 2020.

In this article, I’m going to focus on one of the most valuable enablers in higher-risk locations — trusted local support networks. The impetus for this article comes from the work I’ve been doing over the last month, supporting vulnerable groups move out of Afghanistan. I’ve written about some of the lessons learned from the Afghanistan experience here.

Before I dive into local networks, allow me to reinforce the context. First, the focus here is on higher-risk environments. There are people in this environment that, given the opportunity, will rob, kidnap or kill you. Maybe all three. Second, the local infrastructure isn’t great. The power supply may only be available for a few hours a day, the water supply is undrinkable, and the standard of medical care at local hospitals may be far from what you’re accustomed.

Increased risk will place constraints on freedom of movement. Going back to the example in Afghanistan, certain individuals and groups are more vulnerable than others, and don’t enjoy the same freedom of movement. These groups will require support to have a place to stay, to move between major centres, and to get basic essentials like cash and food.

Trust will also be a major factor in most higher-risk locations. It will be difficult — if not impossible — to determine beyond doubt the trustworthiness of different people or organisations within your local network. Working in low-trust environments demands the application of specific protocols to assure the safety and security of your people.

As a start point, most people will hire a fixer to help them to navigate the dynamics of their local environment. A fixer will help to arrange vehicles and drivers, will change money for you, and will drag your sorry self to a local medical clinic at three in the morning when you find yourself vomiting and shitting uncontrollably, as a result of a poor meal choice the night before.

One of the problems with fixers is that they provide a single point of failure. If your fixer sleeps in one morning, your plans for the day could be ruined. Worse, if your fixer decides to collaborate with the local security and intelligence service, or a militia or terrorist organisation, you could be in serious danger.

In some situations, your fixer may also be at personal risk. The fact that they’ve been working with foreign organisations could place them and their families in danger.

Aside from fixers, another approach to assure local support is to build a trusted local support network. This network can include one (or more) fixers, but should also include a range of resources and capabilities essential for long-term secure operations.

In this article, I’ll explain the value of having a trusted local support network and expand on the various tasks that a local support network can provide. I’ll also detail how to assure the security and resilience of a local support network, using basic techniques such as compartmentation and cut outs.

Why would you need a local support network?

A trusted local support network can perform a range of essential tasks. At a high level, these tasks can be broken down as follows:

  • Sustain individuals and small groups for extended periods
  • Collect information
  • Support exfiltration or evacuation operations
  • Provide emergency response

The key benefit of a local support network is that it enables individuals and small groups to effectively manage their risk exposure. Having local resources available to support your people will enable them to minimise their movement and minimise their signature. Reducing risk exposure is a key objective when supporting vulnerable groups, particularly if these groups can be readily identified on the street.

The following sections will break down each of the tasks above and provide additional information and context.

Sustaining individuals and groups

Sustainment may appear less interesting than supporting exfiltration or evacuation, but it’s essential to the ongoing safety and security of individuals and groups in higher-risk locations. In some situations, it may be unsafe for people to leave their accommodation. It may also not be immediately possible to leave the country. People may be in for a long and anxious wait.

There may be several types of support you will need to provide to support your people on the ground:

  • Accommodate people (property owners or brokers)
  • Move people around (drivers and local guides)
  • Provide cash advances
  • Support communications
  • Arrange and deliver catering
  • Provide medical support
  • Assert influence (at checkpoints and borders, for example)

The manner in which sustainment is provided will have a direct impact on the risks facing the group on the ground. If poorly managed, local resources can compromise the security of the group, exposing them to avoidable risks. All sustainment operations should be coordinated with an eye to assure the security of the group. Achieving security in this context is significantly more difficult than it appears at first glance. More on security later.

Using fixers

Typically, people use fixers to fulfil a range of sustainment roles. As noted in the opening section, one of the problems with fixers is that you’re placing a lot of reliance on a single individual. As a result, the support network won’t be sufficiently robust. If something happens to your fixer, you may immediately lose access to essential resources. The fixer is also in a position of power, and may choose to assert that power at inconvenient times. Using a fixer will limit the extent to which you can apply compartmentation principles to your operations. I’ll discuss these principles in more detail later.

While having fixers is still okay, establishing and maintaining a local support network requires a different approach. This support network will need to be built from the ground up to ensure security and resilience.

Remote support

While most tasks related to providing local support must be locally delivered, some tasks can be remotely delivered by someone outside the country. For example:

  • Money may be able to be transferred from outside the country
  • Mobile phone plans may be able to be paid from outside the country
  • Medical advice may be able to be provided by telephone or video call from outside the country

The ability to deliver remote support may be essential in some contexts. In other contexts, remote support can provide a layer of redundancy to local aspects of the plan. In the example of Afghanistan, we routinely transferred money and topped up phone plans.

A popular za’atar shop in Damascus, Syria. 2020.

Collecting information

Access to current and accurate information is essential for effective decision making. Events on the ground may trigger additional security precautions, or may even trigger the movement of groups. In most cases, international news reports won’t provide the level of granularity necessary to enable effective decision making.

It’s therefore essential to have continued access to reliable local sources who can provide information of direct relevance to the safety of your people, enabling you to plan future operations.

A useful approach is to identify two or three individuals who have freedom of movement, speak your language (unless you are using a cut out), and are willing to be tasked to collect and report information.

Tasking people to collect information is a potentially sensitive activity, and needs to be carefully managed. Asking certain people to report information may also cross a line in their minds about the work they’re actually doing and the risks associated with doing that work. You’re not asking them to ‘spy’. Rather, you’re asking them to report on routine events and answer specific questions on what’s happening around town. Basic information requirements.

As an example, using a driver to move people from A to B is a relatively benign activity that most people wouldn’t think too much about. Asking that same driver to collect specific pieces of information about checkpoints or route conditions may make the driver make assumptions about who you are and what you’re doing. As such, it may be preferable to use some resources in their primary role and use other individuals for information collection.

As a guide, it will be sub-optimal to utilise the resource managers within your network as sources of information. That said, different individuals within your local support network may be the logical choice to collect different types of information. The manager of a local transport company, for example, may be well placed to provide updates on route conditions.

There are several ways you can go about tasking someone to collect information. You can ask for a daily update. You could also ask for reporting when specific incidents occur. Or both. The individual can send reports over a secure application, like Signal. Photos are also useful and provide additional context for those people not in the country or who haven’t travelled there.

As I’ll discuss shortly when I address compartmentation, none of the individuals you task to collect information would need to know that other individuals have also been tasked in the same way. Each information source can and should be managed entirely independently of the other. That way, if one source is compromised, the impact is contained. When I say ‘compromised’, this could mean:

  • They have accepted a better offer (or threat) from the local militia, and are now sharing information with them.
  • They are no longer passing accurate or relevant information, reducing the quality and timeliness of the information flow.
  • They wake up one morning and simply decide to stop feeding you updates.

If you’re considering exfiltration or evacuation, you may be particularly interested in collecting information on specific ‘indicators’ that provide evidence that the security situation is deteriorating. For example, you may ask a local source to report any one of the following incidents:

  • Acts of violence
  • Protests
  • Breakdowns in discipline at checkpoints
  • House-to-house searches

Other information collection tasks may be more tactical and time sensitive. For example, sending someone along a route to determine if it’s safe would need to occur just before the evacuee group moves along that route.

Bab-al-Tibbaneh area of Tripoli, Lebanon. 2019.

Supporting exfiltration or evacuation

When it’s time to move people out of the country, you’ll need to have different aspects of your local support network available to assist with the process.

In addition to feeding you information on conditions on the ground and along key routes, local resources may be used to do the following during exfiltration or evacuation:

  • Escorting people from their accommodation to rendezvous or rally points.
  • Providing vehicles and drivers to get people to an airport or border crossing.
  • Engaging with armed groups on behalf of the evacuees to assure access to an airport or border crossing that’s under the control of the armed group.
  • Engaging with border officials to facilitate a smooth and incident-free border crossing.

You may be decide to use elements of your existing network to support exfiltration or evacuation (the same people that have been routinely driving your people around). Alternatively, you may identify alternative resources specifically for these types of operations.

Refuelling stop in Syria. 2020.

Providing emergency response

The final capability your local support network can provide is emergency response. Emergency response encompasses activities designed to quickly respond to support people facing specific threats. Examples of emergency response can include the following:

  • Deploying a resource at short notice to help a group move from one accommodation location to another in the event their location is compromised.
  • Deploying a resource to search for a group travelling between two locations, in a scenario where they are late arriving at their destination and are uncontactable.
  • Deploying a resource to arrange for medical support for an individual with an acute illness.

Again, all of these tasks are time sensitive and fall outside the scope of normal sustainment operations.

Streets of Tripoli, Lebanon. 2019.

The above sections have provided some additional detail regarding the types of support that can be leveraged from a local support network. In the following sections, I’ll focus on how you can operationalise your network to make it more resilient and secure.

Building a resilient network

The deliberate process of engineering a level of resilience within your local support network is the key to ensuring continued support, particularly when the situation on the ground becomes more complicated. Critical situations can place high demands on local resources. Increased threats can also make resource owners less willing to provide support.

Building a resilient network starts with ensuring redundancy for each resource. The simplest approach to build redundancy is to identify at least two options for each type of resource.

You’ll typically have a primary or preferred option, which you may currently be using. The place where your people are currently staying, for example, would be your primary or preferred accommodation option. In addition to that location, you’ll want to identify an alternate or backup accommodation option.

Achieving a good level of redundancy will make your local support network more difficult to manage, and may add additional cost. At the same time, it’s essential to ensure that you have the necessary resources available to you when you need them.

Inside the gatehouse of a facility in Lahore, Pakistan. 2019.

Compartmentalising your network

Compartmentalisation is a technique you can apply to your local support network to increase security and resilience. Effective compartmentalisation requires the complete separation between entities. At a strict level, one entity should not know that other entities exist. At a more practical level, one entity would not have any meaningful information about other entities.

As a first step, you can consider compartmentalising your own groups. A family unit or project team would be a typical group in this context. Each group should be independent, reporting back to you in the centre. While groups may know of the existence of other groups, they should not know the composition, location, or activities of those groups. Importantly, there should be no lateral communication between groups. If a group is questioned — they should not be able to provide any actionable information on any other groups.

When working with local resources, such as accommodation and transport providers, you’ll need to ensure that these resources don’t break your approach to compartmentation between groups. A driver that supports more than one group will break compartmentation. The better approach is to use different drivers for each group. An even better approach is to compartmentalise the support network.

Once you’ve compartmentalised your own groups, you can then compartmentalise your support network. Each resource should not be aware of other resources. Using a driver as an example, the driver may not know the primary accommodation location of your group. Instead, the group may meet the driver at a pre-arranged meeting point. This meeting point may change each time. Obviously, this approach will have some limitations. The people delivering cash or food, for example, will need to know the accommodation location (unless you’re using a system of local cut-outs).

Another option is to compartmentalise information about alternate and backup resources. As a simple example, the manager of your accommodation should not know that you’ve identified a backup apartment across town.

Here are a few more compartmentalisation techniques:

  • Establish different supporting elements for different groups (i.e. different groups may be accommodated in different apartment blocks in different parts of town, owned by different people).
  • Ensure that each individual capability does not know what other capabilities are in place. Drivers do not need to know you have people on the ground collecting intelligence, for example.

By applying these techniques, you limit the harm that the failure of one resource can have on your overall support network. If an element of your local support network is compromised, or ‘turns bad’, the information they provide cannot be used to harm other supporting elements within your network.

Street stall in Tripoli, Lebanon. 2019.

Using cut outs to enable deniability

To go a level deeper with the security of your local network, you can build some deniability into the operation. The higher-level objective of deniability is to assure the safety of your people on the ground. In practice, deniability adds another layer of security and resilience, strengthening your network and ensuring its longevity.

I’ll use the example of a prominent International NGO (INGO) that’s focused on human rights. That INGO may not want people in their local support network actually knowing that they’re supporting an INGO. Even if people in the support network are mostly well intentioned, it’s impossible to know with whom they may share that information. The INGO may therefore decide to either use a pretext or a cut-out to ensure the name of their organisation is not used for any coordination or communication with resources within their local support network.

Similarly, a US organisation may not want local resources knowing that they are supporting a US organisation. As a result, the US organisation may decide to represent as an organisation from a different country (e.g., Canada). The US organisation could also rely on a branch or subsidiary office somewhere else in the world to lead local coordination efforts, provided that organsation is not immediately identifiable as a US organisation.

An effective approach to achieve deniability is to establish a cut out. The role of cut out should be performed by a completely different organisation (i.e., not a branch or subsidary) that has a benign risk profile in the context of local threats and risks.

Your organisation would deal with the cut-out organisation, and that cut out organisation would then directly interact with the various elements of the local support network. The cut out organisation would never represent as ‘working on behalf of’ your organisation. As far as the local resources understand, the only organisation in the picture is the cut-out organisation.

In most cases, it would make sense for the cut-out organisation to be regional. That way, the organisation will have good contacts in the country and will be in the same or similar time zone. Using Afghanistan as an example, you might decide to work with a cut-out organisation in Qatar or UAE. In the same example, you probably wouldn’t work with a cut-out organisation in Pakistan (however, you may have a number of resources in your support network based in Pakistan).

You could, theoretically, have a number of different cut outs in play. One cut out could coordinate accommodation and sustainment. Another cut out could coordinate transportation and emergency response. Of course, using multiple cut outs increases complexity and cost, which you’ll need to trade off against the additional security gained through such an approach.

You might also decide to adopt a hybrid approach. You may manage some elements of your primary network directly, but rely on on a cut-out organisation to manage other aspects of your network, potentially including your alternate or backup resources.

Late night window shopping in Aleppo, Syria. 2020.

Wrap up

Local support networks are essential in higher-risk environments, particularly when things start to go sideways. Building a trusted local support network demands good planning, and takes time and money. It’s too late once you actually need a network to identify the right resources and put in place the right protocols. You’ll therefore need to start the network-building process well ahead of when you think you may need to lean on the network for support.

Building resilience into a local support network also takes time, and can add to the overall cost of maintaining the network. The ability to achieve redundancy is one of the key benefits of establishing a local support network in the first place, so alternate and backup resources must be identified from the get go.

Establishing compartmentation is also key aspect of assuring the resilience of your local support network. There are multiple options available to apply compartmentalisation, including within your own groups and amongst the various resources that will be supporting them. Cut-outs provide another option to increase security and establish a level of deniability.

This article has only provided an introduction to local support networks. As you might expect, there are additional factors to consider and additional techniques you could apply. The approaches described in this article cover the most common use cases. Be sure to assess the risks carefully and tailor your support network to the specific location and to your own requirements.

If you have experience building local support networks, I’d love to hear from you. Always looking to learn from different approaches.

Thanks for reading.

Founder, Spartan9.