An Object Lesson in Situational Awareness

Date:

Kandahar, Afghanistan
April 2010

All is Well

Kandahar is the second largest city in Afghanistan. It was always known as a rough neighborhood for US Government contractors. While working security for one of those contractors I made a trip to their project headquarters in the province.

It was located in a villa with a walled compound just on the outskirts of Kandahar. My task was to assess the site’s physical security, review how well the Private Security Company contracted for security on the ground there was doing, and provide some training for the Western project staff living and working there.
The security team consisted of American and British security operators and several Nepalese former British Gurkhas who supervised the locally hired Afghan guards at the gates. I was there for about 10 days. I reviewed the security procedures, got to know the security team, and participated in training for the project staff.

The training included reacting to incoming fire, transferring from an incapacitated vehicle to another vehicle while under fire, and life-saving field first aid. Everything went well and I left with a nice warm fuzzy. The security company personnel were experienced and competent. The staff was well-trained, and the compound was as secure as could be expected in a place like Kandahar.

Three days later the compound was bombed.

Just Another Afternoon

The compound was located at the end of a dirt road surrounded by open fields where locals farmed produce. It had walls and a steel gate, and it was adjacent to another compound occupied by another Western contractor. The two Afghan guards on duty at the gate had a good field of view. They saw a large truck coming towards them in the late afternoon. No deliveries were expected, so they signaled it to stop.
When it didn’t stop they opened fire on it with their AKs. Hearing the shots, two of the Gurkhas headed for the gate to provide backup. No one will ever know exactly what happened next because the truck exploded just outside the gate. It could be that the guards successfully disabled the truck or hit the driver and he either detonated the bomb or there was a dead man switch to set it off. In any case, it exploded.

Devastation

The bomb was large enough that it shattered windows 3 miles away. It destroyed the gate and wall around it killing the two Afghan guards. The two Gurkhas who were approaching it were also killed. It blew out every window and some of the walls of the buildings in the compound.

To the credit of the project staff living there, they had all remembered their training and immediately dropped to the floor when they heard the gunfire. They took cover under the level of the windows, so none of them were seriously injured except one who received a laceration to his leg. More about him later…

Bad News

I had just arrived back in the United States. I took charge of the remote Crisis Management Team to address the emergency. I also started an investigation to see what, if anything, could have been done differently to mitigate or prevent the attack.

We worked with the US Army to get everyone settled on the military base in Kandahar. We arranged flights back to the US by way of Amsterdam, Netherlands, and sent people to Amsterdam to meet the evacuees. Their job was to arrange hotel rooms and meet the team when they arrived with money so they could replace their personal belongings that had been lost in the blast. They would also get them on flights back to the United States.

Investigation

The investigation involved the survivors when they got back and reconstructing the attack and events preceding it. The results indicated that once the truck with the bomb was approaching the gates, everyone had done everything they were supposed to do. The guards, the security team, and the project staff reacted just as they had been trained. Likewise, the recovery and evacuation had gone smoothly and according to standard operating procedures.

But a review of the morning of the day of the bombing revealed a disturbing fact.

Complacency

All contractors working in Afghanistan used local labor for housekeeping like cleaning, laundry, and cooking. This is standard in any country where contractors live in secure compounds. It was like that in other places where I was responsible for security such as Iraq, South Sudan, and Yemen.

The local staff are vetted through the security provider’s local contacts to ensure they are trustworthy. Preferably they have worked for other Western organizations in the past, and the staff at our compound were no exception.

However, on the day of the bombing, one of the regular cooks had not shown up that morning. Instead, a different local arrived in his place. No one recognized him. Not the security team or the project staff.

Bewilderingly, no one thought to check him out and find out who he was. Neither the guards nor the security team, nor any of the project staff said a word to him or asked him who he was. By midmorning the day of the attack, he had disappeared.

Again, no one thought anything was unusual until I interviewed each of them after the bombing. Only then did several people state that they had noticed him but thought nothing further about it until later. Until it was too late to do anything that could have perhaps avoided or at least mitigated the attack.

Just a Theory

We’ll never know for sure, but it seems highly probable that he was a plant sent in to evaluate the layout of the compound and its security measures. That sort of thing had happened before in other places. The insurgents would tell the regular guards or local staff to stay home that day, and a plant would take their place.

Questioning the stranger or having an armed security team detain him so the military could talk to him may not have prevented the bombing. But being aware that he wasn’t supposed to be there should have alerted everyone to the potential danger and given them time to take more stringent security measures, Measures that could have prevented the attack or at least stopped the truck with the bomb from getting as close as it did before detonating.

Complacency Kills

This is an unfortunate but perfect example of a major failure in situational awareness. The security and project teams were well aware they were living and working in a war zone where terrorist attacks and bombings were the norm rather than the exception. The compound was a controlled environment in which everyone knew the routines and the players. But they had been there for months and had developed a false sense of security.

The project team knew all the local staff, someone should have questioned the new face. The security team should have been all over an unknown local entering the compound, after all, that’s what they were being paid for. But everyone had grown complacent.

Key Takeaways

Unfortunately, complacency can strike anyone at any time if they do not stay on their toes and keep their wits about them. Most of us will never live and work in a war zone. But we do live in cities and towns. We go to work, the mall, restaurants, and movie theaters. Our kids go to public school.
Situational awareness is nothing more than taking the time to notice that something in a given situation isn’t quite right. It may be something that looks out of place, a suspicious person, or simply a bad feeling. Something to remember the next time you are walking to your car in a parking lot, taking out the trash at night, or filling your tank at a gas station.

A sad footnote to this story involves the project staff member who received the laceration to his leg. He downplayed the seriousness of his injury and never got medical treatment. It became infected. A month later he had his leg amputated. Shortly after that, he died from complications. His death was completely avoidable.
Complacency kills.

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