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Gun smuggling, airline security and an intelligence failure.

January 25, 2011 2 comments

The headline article in the London Times for 25 January 2011 (print edition), Gunrunner Security Fiasco, reports how a security consultant named Steven Greenoe had smuggled numerous weapons into the UK – subsequently sold to UK criminals and gangs. At least one gun is known to have been used in a drive-by shooting.

This story raises several issues – not least the problem of airport security and how to ensure passenger safety, both on the ground and in the air. The news appeared to break on the same day that a suicide bomber killed three dozen people at the Moscow arrivals lounge.

I’ve often felt that the current paranoia over airport security was “overkill” (pardon the word-use). When I first started flying it was an adventure, but since September 2001 it has become more and more unpleasant. The security checks – although necessary – are becoming increasingly intrusive, yet the terrorists and criminals continually find new ways to get round them. Each time they are caught, new barriers are put in front of the innocent travelling public, to the extent that the average traveller is now so nervous that it would be almost impossible to differentiate between the genuinely nervous innocent and the person exhibiting nervousness due to their plans to blow up a plane.

Just as an example of how easy it is to blow up a plane if you really wanted to, I did some quick research prior to writing this post. For a few hundred US$ it is possible to purchase a few grams of a chemical and package it in a way that would not arouse suspicion if taken on a plane. With the addition of further chemicals available to all passengers on the plane, this could be turned into a bomb that would cause substantial damage. I’m not going to identify the chemicals for obvious reasons and not having tested this, I can’t say whether this bomb would be sufficient to blow a hole in the plane’s fuselage. However videos of the two chemicals in combination are available on the Internet, and the reaction is always highly explosive, completely destroying the reaction container. (One described the reaction of just 2 grams of a similar less-reactive chemical as like letting off a hand-grenade in a bath tub, and the resulting video confirmed this as the bath was destroyed).

The point is that if you want to kill and cause mayhem, it is possible. The job of security is to spot those people who are acting suspiciously or where intelligence suggests that they may be up to no good. This is how El Al caught Nezar Hindawi when he persuaded his pregnant girlfriend to carry a bomb onto a plane for him. The girlfriend was innocent and knew nothing about the suitcase with semtex hidden inside. It was only due to excellent intelligence, prior to reaching check-in, that a massacre was stopped.

The problem today is that everybody is likely to act suspiciously due to nervousness – and so make the job of picking up the genuine criminal more difficult. I believe that this is the first problem with airline security. The second is the laxness of checks at some smaller airports. Both are examples of intelligence failures. The first adds “noise” to the security problem, and uses staff that just go through procedures rather than depend on intelligence skills. The second is potentially worse in that it fails to use intelligence at all, and just hopes that the fact that the airport is small / regional means that the risk will be much lower. Of course, any potential terrorist can spot this from a long way off.

The US has long felt relatively safe, so long as the terrorist is kept out. As a result, checks on domestic flights are minimal or ineffective. This means that it is relatively easy to pack guns in domestic luggage – that then gets transferred to an international flight. Part of the problem here is the US obsession with gun ownership as a right (with the right saying that guns don’t kill people – people kill people, and ignoring the fact that guns make it easier for people to kill people). As long as the gun is in stored luggage there is less of an incentive to stop the passenger – even if detected. In the case of Steven Greenoe, he was reportedly stopped on at least one occasion – but managed to justify himself and so was allowed to fly, rather than get arrested. (I find it strange that in America – driving at 95mph or smoking cannabis - both generally less dangerous than owning and using a loaded gun are more likely to result in a criminal record).

The Times newspaper article mentioned that the gun smuggler concerned, Steven Greenoe, described himself as a security consultant. I did a brief search and up popped Greenoe’s LinkedIn page. Greenoe describes himself as the CEO of Jolie Rouge (which to me sounds a bit like the name given to the Pirate Flag – the Jolly Roger: surely not a coincidence). One part of Jolie Rouge’s business appears to be competitive intelligence – although the company doesn’t actually seem to use this term. Nevertheless Jolie Rouge Consulting states:

JRC uses public and private sources to unearth information critical to accurately valuing business and financial transactions. JRC uses an established network of legal, political, business, and military thought leaders to rapidly compile up-to-date and difficult-to-acquire information. Our clients use JRC’s oral and written reports to validate and sharpen their investment strategies and long-term business planning.

When I first looked at Greenoe’s profile he’d included the Business Strategy & Competitive Strategy forum within his LinkedIn profile.  When I next looked this had disappeared. I don’t know whether Greenoe dropped the group, or the group dropped him – scared about adverse publicity linking a gun runner to competitive strategy. Nevertheless, it highlights how important it is for the competitive intelligence community to police their own and ensure that anybody linked to the profession behaves ethically and morally. (This wouldn’t be the first time. There is a well-known and erudite CI consultant and author who many years ago, got caught up similarly, causing a scandal that is still remembered by long-time competitive intelligence professionals). Gun-running – especially where the guns are then sold on illegally is a lucrative business. (The guns cost $500 each but were reported to be selling at 10x that amount – meaning that the consignment he was arrested over would have netted him $360,000 profit for a little over $40,000 expenditure).

However the really odd thing about this news story is the date. Although the reports reached the press today (January 2011), Greenoe was first stopped on May 3, 2010, and arrested in July 2010. I wonder why it has taken six months for this story to hit the headlines. It’s another example of how care needs to be taken when doing competitive intelligence analyses – as what may look like a new news story could actually be quite old.

Thoughts on Asia

November 22, 2010 3 comments

A week ago I was travelling – first to Jakarta in Indonesia and then on to Mumbai in India. I left Jakarta just as President Obama was arriving, and flew to India where he’d spent a few days before moving on to Indonesia.

I’d never been to Indonesia before and hadn’t been in India for a few decades so my take on both countries may be subjective. However there were some things that were impossible to ignore.

In both hotels I stayed in, security was high. I had to pass my luggage through a scanner and pass through one each time I entered the hotel. The same applied to a shopping mall I visited in Jakarta. I’m familiar with this in Israel – and expect it. It’s the way to protect public places from terrorist attack. I was not surprised to see it in Mumbai, considering the atrocities carried out over the last few years in India. However I was surprised to see it in Jakarta – the largest Muslim nation in the world. I know that there was an attack in Bali in 2002 but Bali was a target as it was a way to hit so-called decadent Westerners (or so I thought). Jakarta, conversely, is a business centre and unlike Bali, mostly Moslem. Yet, security was tight – and it wasn’t just because Obama was visiting.

In London there is no overt security in hotels – you walk in without being stopped. The same applies in mainland Europe (or at least in the countries I’ve visited recently) and in the USA. However I suspect that over time, this will change as the terrorists inflict their damage on the ways of life and the freedom we expect. The plague that is terrorism does not distinguish between nations and religions – and it is ironic that so many terrorists claim to be followers of Islam, yet still target Moslems, as was so evident in Indonesia.

Jakarta - Rich versus Poor: A bank next to a street merchant.

Jakarta - Rich versus Poor: A bank next to a street merchant.

Another thing I noticed – especially in Indonesia was the gap between rich and poor. My hotel – a beautiful five-star hotel – was directly outside a road packed with shacks and small roadside shops. I took a walk down a lane – that would have been a downmarket slum in London. The lane joined the Intercontinental hotel that I was staying in, and the Shangri-La that Obama was booked into. Although I felt safe, I could see how resentment over the wealth that was so visible compared to what the majority survived on could spill over and destabilise the country. Whether this will happen, of course, will depend on the efforts the government makes to close the gap and allow the aspirations of the majority to be fulfilled. Without any effort I foresee trouble within a few years – either via violence, or political upheaval. Either will not be pleasant for those with the money, and potentially for those without.
In contrast, in India, even though I saw poverty, I also saw hope. People smiled and looked happy – even those with almost nothing. Children played cricket on the streets and there wasn’t the poverty of spirit you see in the West. Instead, there was an optimism that I’ve also seen in China but you need to search for in the US and Europe. 

A Mumbai Street Scene

A Mumbai Street Scene - Night-time cook-out on the pavement.

Children playing Cricket In the Street in Mumbai

Children playing Cricket In the Street in Mumbai - perhaps why India is now better than the UK at Cricket, as kids still play actively outdoors.

The car that hated vanilla ice cream!

November 1, 2010 3 comments

I was speaking to a colleague today and he commented that the terrorists who tried to send a bomb from the Yemen to a Chicago synagogue were pretty stupid. His view was that any package sent from the Yemen to a synagogue in the US would be suspect – and so the terrorists had to be stupid.

In competitive intelligence it is important not to make assumptions – and assuming that your competitor is stupid is one of the most dangerous assumptions you can make. It is possible that they are stupid. Alternatively, it is also feasible that they see things differently from you – and their viewpoint may be rational and logical from their perspective. Effective competitive intelligence should always involve you trying to see things from the perspective of your competitor rather than from your own, possibly subjective and biased standpoint.

I cannot really understand the rationale of the Yemeni terrorists sending their bomb, presumably intended to blow up en-route, with an address of a synagogue. It does seem stupid – but that is because I am not an Islamist terrorist. However trying to see things from that perspective I could envisage a conversation such as this:

Terrorist 1: So what address shall we use – something that would not be suspicious?”
Terrorist 2: How about a synagogue – the Jews control the USA / World so they must get lots of mail. Also they need to print their subversive material so won’t suspect our fake printer cartridges packed with explosives.
Terrorist 1: Good idea – which synagogue?
Terrorist 2: Obama came from Chicago. Let’s find the synagogue that he would take orders from….

Of course belief in a Jewish world conspiracy is nonsense, as is the idea that President Obama takes orders from a Jewish cabal. However that is not the opinion of large parts of the Moslem world – who sincerely believe in this, and that the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers was a Jewish plot, etc. If that is your world view, then sending suspect packages to a synagogue probably is completely logical and rational and the best way to ensure that they don’t raise suspicion.

The point is, that even if your enemy IS stupid, they will act based on their own warped rationale. In order to anticipate their actions you need to try and see things as they see them. This is even more important if in fact you are the one who is wrong – as in that case, switching your viewpoint should allow you to spot where your mistakes actually are.

There is a great story that illustrates this point – that what seems crazy may in fact not be. The story is apocryphal – and may be true.

Several years ago, the Pontiac Division of General Motors received a complaint:


     This is the second time that I have written to you. I don’t blame
     you for not answering my first letter as I must have sounded crazy.


     In our family, we have a tradition of having ice cream for desert after
     dinner each night. Every night, after we’ve eaten, we vote on which
     kind of ice cream to have – and I drive down to our local store to
     buy it. I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then I’ve had a
     problem when I go to the ice cream store. Every time I buy vanilla
     ice cream and go back to my car it won’t start. If I buy any other
     type it starts first time. I realise this sounds insane but it’s true.


     Please help me understand what it is that makes my Pontiac fail
     to start when I purchase vanilla ice cream and easy to start with
     any other type.

The complaints department was naturally skeptical about this letter. However it was obviously written by somebody educated who knew how to write clearly and lucidly. Furthermore the area the writer came from was an affluent area – and a Pontiac is not a cheap car. They decided to take it seriously and an engineer was sent to investigate. The engineer arranged to meet the man just after dinner time – and the two drove to the ice cream store. That night, the vote had been for vanilla ice cream – and just as the man had said, the car wouldn’t start. Bemused, the engineer returned the following night – and the night after that. The car started first time – the votes had been for chocolate on the first night, and strawberry the second night. The fourth night, the choice was again for vanilla – and the car failed to start.

The engineer now realised that there was a problem that needed identification and fixing. He started to log what happened from the moment they arrived at the store – arrival time, time taken to make the purchase, and several other factors. Soon he had a clue – purchases of vanilla ice cream took less time than the other flavours. The reason was that the freezer containing vanilla ice cream was at the front of the store near a quick purchase till,  while other flavours were at the back and required lining up to get checked out.

Quickly the engineer realised that this was the answer to the problem – not the ice cream flavour, but the time required. When purchasing vanilla ice cream there was a vapour lock which prevented the car restarting. With the other flavours, there was sufficient time for the engine to cool down, allowing vapour to dissipate and the car to restart.

Of course the moral of the story is that even if something sounds crazy it may not be. Competitive Intelligence analysts should always bear this in mind when they look at a competitor and fail to understand why they are doing something that seems stupid.

Reading the news

June 18, 2010 Leave a comment

In 1979 I visited Turkey for the first time. I like Turkey – it’s a great and beautiful country with lots of history. It also shows how Islam and extremism don’t go hand-in-hand and how an Islamic country can also be a liberal democracy. Like all free countries, it has its share of extremists who spout forth nonsense that would guarantee a jail sentence or death in the autocracies that govern most of the world. However that is not what this post is about – although Turkey is the seed for the post.

It was August 1979, and I was backpacking, staying in cheap hostels. A standard item of conversation back then was whether it was safe to travel through Afghanistan on the overland route to India. Turkey was one of the first stopping places on this route that travelled through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and on to India.
From a 1970s Trailfinders brochure showing suggested routes to India
Travellers were talking about the attacks on tourists journeying through the country and how some tourist buses had been shot at.

A postcard sent to me by a friend I’d met when travelling through Europe who wanted to go on the overland routes to India. Karla had hoped to go through Afghanistan but as I’ve highlighted, felt it wasn’t safe. This postcard was sent the day before the Iran hostage crisis and shows the atmosphere in Iran at the time.

I knew nothing about Afghanistan at all and when I got back to the UK started to read up. There was very little in the press – and certainly no headlines. However reading between the lines, I realised that not only was there a civil war going on, but that this was threatening the Southern borders of the Soviet Union. The situation was unstable and something had to happen.
Over Christmas in 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan with the aim of bringing back order to the country. The Soviet aim was not to colonise the country but to prevent the ferment from spreading and leading to sectarian movements on the Soviet borders. However that is not how the world, led by the USA saw things. This was the time of the cold war. Any way that the West could score points against the Soviet bear was legitimate. The initial response was massive anti-Soviet propaganda, ignoring the initial context. Later on, the US funded the Mujahaddin fighting against the Soviets, including Osama Bin Ledin – a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
My response however was different. I saw that the Soviet incursion had been an obvious solution to a problem that they faced, and that the correct approach was to treat it as such, rather than as a global problem. Afghanistan had been a flashpoint that the world had seemingly ignored. It led, eventually, to the break-up of the Soviet Union, when it became impossible to hide the costs in both lives and money by the secretive Soviets. I believe that Perestroika and the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union was partially a result of the Soviet’s Afghan adventure.
The point of all this is that newspapers publish
  1. what their editors view as of interest to their readership
  2. news when they have sufficient information for a story.
This is important for competitive intelligence, business analysis and common sense. Without this realisation people are likely to jump to incorrect conclusions based on what they read. The only way to read a newspaper is to question each story and ask why it was published – to understand the hidden agenda.
When there is insufficient information or where it is dangerous for journalists to publish a news story, then however potentially important that news story is, it won’t get published. That is why so few bad news stories highlighting lack of freedom, atrocities and so on are published on the autocracies that rule much of the world. Instead, news focuses on countries where there is a relative freedom to publish, and journalists can report on what is happening unimpeded by the authorities.
If something is not fashionable then it won’t be published or what is published will correspond to what people want to read. This is the case with much reporting on Israel. Israel is now seen as a “shitty little country” (as described by a former French Ambassador to the UK). It’s definitely not fashionable to support it – despite the fact that it is the only full democracy in its region with a free and functioning press, Arab parliamentarians, and equal rights for all its citizens. It has also been at war for over 60 years – with its enemies being countries that, in general, are totalitarian and that imprison, torture and execute dissenters. It has been attacked with missiles fired daily at its cities, yet is lambasted when it responds – most recently by blockading the territories from where the missiles were fired (Gaza). Israel is condemned for trying to protect its citizens and for fighting a territory ruled by a group, Hamas, that is viewed as a terrorist group by Western countries, including the US, the EU, Japan and Canada.
In contrast to the situation in Israel – where every action is microscopically analysed and hits the headlines, much less appears on newspaper front pages and as headline news about the very recent massacres of Uzbeks in Kyrygyzstan. Virtually nothing came out about the Syrian destruction of the city of Hama in 1982, in contrast to the blanket reporting of the events at Sabra & Chatila in the same year. Even in this case, Israel is blamed for the actual attacks while in reality the massacre was carried out by Christian Phalangists in revenge for earlier attacks on them by the Palestinians. The reason for all these examples is that much less information was available from Syria and Kyrygyzstan. Both countries don’t have the free press that Israel has, and in both cases, publishing such news could lead to the journalists being arrested, and probably tortured or killed. As a result very little is seen.
The same selectivity appears in the business press too. Currently BP is under the spotlight for its responsibility for the US oil spill. Although I’m sure that BP bears much of the blame for this disaster, very little has been written about the other companies involved including Transocean and Halliburton. Although BP was the largest shareholder in the well, Texas based Anadarko Petroleum owned a quarter and the Mitsui Oil Exploration Company via its MOEX Offshore subsidiary owned 10%. Transocean owned the rig and of the 126 people working on the rig, 79 were Transocean employees (against only 7 BP employees). Halliburton cemented into place the casing for the well that blew. In fact, the other companies bear some of the blame – if only by not ensuring that best practice was followed and allowing BP to cut corners (if that is what happened). The US regulator, the Minerals Management Service, that had approved the well should also shoulder some responsibility.
It is now fashionable to attack BP – with President Obama (showing an anti-British prejudice), referring to the company as British Petroleum, when the correct name has been BP for many years, reflecting the fact that more of its employees are American than British (BP has 23,000 US employees and under half that number of British employees. Of its 9 senior executive members there are more non-UK members than UK ones with four US positions). The problem is that sometimes it is better for those in power to hide the truth – whether they run a company or a country.
Competitive Intelligence means looking behind the news and doing an analysis to find the truth. That is not the role of newspapers. Their role is simple: to sell and make profits for their owners. If that means subjective reporting, then so be it. Fortunately the quality press sometimes does publish unfashionable news stories and carries out independent analysis. An excellent recent example is an article by Jose Maria Aznar – the Prime Minister of Spain between 1996-2004. Aznar writes (in the London Times – 17 June 2010) about Israel and how failure to support Israel threatens Western values overall. He states that the Gaza episode “is a distraction” and that “Israel is the West’s best ally in a turbulent region“. A shame that there is not more analysis of this type. As this is what true objectivity involves.
Proof of Aznar’s thesis can easily be found. For example, a recent Twitter tweet lamented the loss to the Moslem world of Andalucia, and advocated the route of the martyr, and reaching for life in the hereafter in preference to life in this one.

@Jnoubiyeh the second we lost andalus we lost dignity. wars came 2 remind us again. We lost it was when we chose this life over hereafter

Unfortunately publicising such views are unfashionable and often suppressed – so instead we draw incorrect conclusions and victimise the victim (e.g. Israel) and praise the oppressor (e.g. Hamas).

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