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Security Professionals Learn to Go Native

Arab Spring unrest boosts demand in Middle East for personal protection

It looked as if someone had broken into the central casting wardrobe room and handed out the jalabiyas and kaffiyyehs marked “Arab sheiks” to the two dozen unshaven men lounging on a grassy knoll, puffing on water pipes and looking bored. A large, blue United Nations flag flutters in the wind.

Suddenly, a group of young men, faces hidden by masks, rushes into the compound shouting Allahu akbar and the shooting begins. Out from under the robes of the “sheiks” come automatic weapons, as they spring into action.  One man, a suicide belt strapped to his body, moves forward, his hands clenching two grenades. Two of the men in robes fly at him and wrestle him to the ground, knees in back, as they disarmed him.

It looks like a scene from a low-budget action film, complete with smoke grenades and onlookers slipping into the frame like loose boom microphones. But it’s the final drill in a week-long course for protection specialists learning how to behave in the high-risk Middle East environment. The participants were reenacting a real incident at a UN installation not long ago, except that it was staged near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

“When you neutralize a suicide bomber, you don’t need to kill them. You don’t need to give him a bullet if he is still alive and, anyhow if you have to give him the bullet, it has to be in the right place because otherwise you might hit the explosives,” explains instructor Mirza David.

With unrest in the Arab world now in its sixth month and no end in sight, there’s growing demand for personal security experts from government officials and businesspeople. Over two dozen people came to Israel to learn from former members of the country’s secret services. They got instruction not only how to carry a weapon and disarm an attacker but how to look and act like a local.

But don’t call them bodyguards.

“It’s a protection counter-terrorism specialist and, no, we don’t do body guarding. We do guard VIPs, but that is just one aspect. A small, small aspect to what we do. It can go all the way from guarding convoys in the Middle East to guarding an actor or actress in Hollywood. It’s very broad,” says Daniel Hout, an American currently working in Afghanistan.

Mirza David, chief executive officer of the International Security Academy (ISA), the company running the course, believes the chaos will last “more than a decade.” In the meantime, countries need to keep their governments and economies functioning, which requires experts such as business people, engineers and policy makers to be there on the ground.

“Without protection specialists, nobody will enter,” David says. “You cannot improve the economy in a developing area if nobody is protecting you.”

On this training base run by ISA, they are tapping into Israel’s unique experience in dealing with these threats and learning counter-terrorism techniques like convoy and VIP protection. The week-long course on familiarization with the Arab-Islamic world was preceded by three weeks of armed and unarmed tactical response training. 

While learning how to look and act like an Arab, the students have gone unshaven and dress the part. They even were taken on a ride on the desert “Ferrari,” a grunting camel, and learned rudimental Arabic phrases that will allow them to do their job.

David, a chunky, gregarious former high-ranking Israeli security officer, struts into the Bedouin tent and says in his booming voice: “Repeat after me, ‘Amn al-ard.’”
The crowd of mostly Europeans with a smattering of Africans and Asians reply, “Amn al-ard.”  It’s the Arabic for “security on the ground.

“You repeat this to let people know you are there when you secure an area,” David says.

Out here, far away from prying eyes, ISA instructors teach Israeli tactics. It is based on an aggressive philosophy, one that requires you first neutralize the threat and then evacuate the VIP.

With this kind of audience, representatives of Israel Military Industries (IMI), the state-owned weapons manufacturer, couldn’t pass up the chance at making a sales pitch. Tossing about the micro-Uzis and Tavor assault rifles of various sizes, he demonstrated their lethality and offered them loaded to students to pop off a few rounds.

Some of these men already work as close-protection bodyguards for the world’s leaders or leading business people.

Feti Fanaj, 31, a former bodyguard for Albania’s prime minister, says he sought out expertise for his new security business and was drawn to the course due to Israel’s reputation. 

“We have Albanian investors working in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea of close protection in high-risk zones makes them feel confident with us,” Fanaj says.

“Some of those dictatorial governments have fallen very recently, and that’s going to create new chaos and confusion in the market and is also going to create some instability in the market so I think there will be more incidents of terrorist attacks and such,” says Venky Raman, CEO of Singapore-based Homeland Security and Defense, who also taking the course.

Their background is diverse, from police to military, even a former French Legionnaire. They will go on to work for governments and private security contractors. Julian Douet, 37, an Austrian who was born and raised in Lebanon, says he left his family’s restaurant business to answer a calling. 

“For this profession, you have to do it with heart and soul and the body for sure. It’s an instinct which had lay dormant inside me. I needed someone to wake it up and they did it,” Douet says.

Multilingual, Douet is confident his meager resume isn’t going to prevent him from getting a job.

“There are a lot of European businesspeople and they would like to come and continue their business in the Middle East. Now it’s impossible to go alone and that’s why they need our protection,” he says.

Hyacinth Turnoe, a bodyguard for Nigeria’s minister of commerce, says he’s anxious to share what he learned with his colleagues back home.
“Israel has brought a standard of training that everyone in the world will have to emulate. I will take what I learned from Israel and impact on my fellow colleagues to make them perfect,” Turnoe says.

It’s an expensive program, costing upwards of 2,000 euros a week. But this can be a lucrative profession earning thousands of euros a day. Just don’t call them mercenaries.

“This has nothing to do with soldiers of fortune. We aren’t mercenaries, nothing like that. We are here to protect against global terror, from sea to sea and from country to country. This is what we are here for,” says the American Hout. 

But David sees the connection, even if he disagrees with the semantics.

“Yes, this is a profession that has existed for thousands of years. Once it was called a musketeer, or a samurai. Today, it‘s a modern protection and counter-terrorism specialist,” he says. “Those who call these guys mercenaries really don’t appreciate the risk these people are taking in order to protect their interests in this world.”