There’s no shortage of ‘counter-custody’ courses teaching citizens how to escape captivity. Let’s discuss the best way to escape: planning and avoidance.
Escape and Evasion has recently been popularized by all sorts of instructors providing education on what they’re calling ‘tradecraft’ and ‘counter-custody’. From the word go, this seems like a logical next step in a world where people are plagued by uncertainty and want to develop skills that they can rely on if some strange, worst-case scenario were to unfold.
From Cartel Kidnappings to prisoner’s of war, there are some very intelligent people out there teaching what to expect when you’re taken in to captivity.
Further, this isn’t entirely unrealistic. Just recently, a western couple were arrested in Iran on accusations of spying. An aid worker was kidnapped in Afghanistan. A woman on safari was kidnapped in Uganda. A tourist killed in Mexico had a credit card show up in Oklahoma (a few issues there).
These things happen, though far less frequently than you’d probably believe, there is risk involved whenever you travel… and while there are some hucksters out there trying to get you to believe if you just take their course, you’ll be captivity-proof, the reality is they’re largely preying on what you don’t know.
So let’s discuss how escape and evasion looks without all the hype-beasts make believing for social media, and start with the predictable first step for ALL things ISG…
This is, very simply, a non-negotiable pre-requisite for living a long life on planet earth. We’ve said it a million times, and will say it a million more, but simply being aware is the single most important thing you can do to safeguard against capture.
Phone down, head up, people.
Early detection in most cases is all it’s going to take to throw a potential thief, mugger, or kidnapper off of your scent and on to easier targets.
Do we want that?
No, obviously it would be better if there weren’t criminals, but there’s reality to face. There are bad people out there who will do you harm without ever offering up an explanation.
It’s our job to detect it early, and have a multi-layered plan to minimize it’s impact on us. Let’s discuss this plan, because as much as people want to believe that handcuff shims and lockpicks are tradecraft, they’re really only a small percent of the useful skills you should have.
Step 1: Information
Every country on the planet has information attached to it. From the CIA world factbook to the State Department’s travel advisories, if you make a trip without knowing what kind of turmoil is going on in a particular country, you’re stepping out blind, and have a head-start on failing your first ‘awareness’ check-ride. Simple put, know where you’re going, and what problems are commonly encountered there.
Barcelona doesn’t have the same threat profile as Somalia, but it’s still good to understand the MO of the local pickpockets and hustlers, so do some research, and conduct an area study that takes into account the threats in a given place. This doesn’t just apply to traveling outside your home country. Poke around and get information on your home, as well.
Step 2: Cultural Awareness
Anyone who’s travelled will tell you, most people really aren’t foaming-at-the-mouth haters of the West. Most people genuinely enjoy speaking to Westerners and will judge you as an individual. Of course, some people will resent you for being an outsider, and that’s a pretty normal component of life on earth. Good nature and some cultural awareness will go a long way towards disarming the casual xenophobe.
A major step in not stepping on your own feet and drawing negative attention to yourself when traveling is having some cultural awareness and basic courtesy. Often times people will tell you “don’t stand out”, but go one step further: Blend in.
Some of things you can do to blend in are:
- Study the way “common” people dress and hold themselves. Russians have a tendency to keep their heads low when they talk, and speak quietly. Turks tend keep their chins up and ‘brag’ even when not trying to be confrontational. Look at the way people dress and act. Look at traditional gender roles. While the west is on fire with cooking up new genders, the rest of the world isn’t looking to celebrate your take on diversity, so fall in line. When you are abroad, that’s not the time to make political or cultural statements.
- Learn some language and culture. This cannot be stressed enough. Even if it’s just the terms of gratitude, a foreigner who is making an attempt to understand the local customs and language will categorically be more well received than the one stumbling around asking “does anyone speaks English?”. Language takes a very long time to perfect, and most people will not expect it. They’ll be happy to help you, though, and the effort will reflect on you well.
- Know someone locally. A few people, preferably, and ones who are trustworthy. While it’s not always possible, having a few contacts that know their country’s ropes can be a major benefit. Often times, Westerners don’t understand just how bribe-driven the much of the world is. In Eastern Europe, police are known to shake you down just to see what falls out of your wallet. The Soviets had an adage that when traveling, you carried 3 bottles of Vodka: one for yourself, one for your host, and one for the police.
This trend persists across the world, and we just saw an astounding example of it in the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. Money talks, so don’t keep it all in one place, know when to keep it quiet, and when to let it do the speaking.
- Learn the local area. Don’t be confused by road systems, or surprised when they’re drastically different than the U.S. Don’t be shocked to learn there’s no postal service in places like Afghanistan, even though they “have” a postal service. In a large part of the world (and even in places in the U.S.), directions are a function of local knowledge.
For example, go to Appalachia and ask how to find someone; “You know Billy’s oldest boy? Well, the place where his wife crashed out past the ‘ole Miller place, well you go out past there about 5 mile, and you’ll see Hank’s trailer, take a right there and when you cross the crick…”
Don’t wait until you arrive to get familiar with the landscape… if you do, return to point 3. Local knowledge is often more important than anything else, and it’s entirely experiential. In more authoritarian societies, there are normative nuances to the way people behave that are ‘marks’ of common conditioning or socialization. It is extremely easy for locals in places like this to mark outsiders, even if they otherwise ‘look’ the same.
Step 3: Have a plan for Travel and Communications
This might sound stupid or simple, but just having a plan that your people back home know about is valuable. Another often under-represented component of a travel plan is “have a contact back home dedicated to ransom”. This might sound a little crazy, but abductions in foreign countries are generally about making money. From the perspective of many third world citizens, *all* westerners are rich beyond their wildest dreams.
If you’re taken into captivity and it’s not related to running afoul of a criminal syndicate (which we’ll talk about below), it’s probably because they’re looking for a payout. If you’re stuck up and captured, the idea of shooting your way out, or stabbing people with some improvised weapons is very likely going to end with you being eaten by vultures in a muddy ditch. While you should absolutely look for opportunities to escape or fight, you should also have a layered plan that allows you to communicate vital information.
- Have someone at home who’s aware of where you’re going, how long you’re to be there, and who you ‘check in’ with periodically. Have a set time that if you don’t contact them, they initiate a pre-planned effort to contact your people in country (or you) to find your whereabouts as fast as possible.
- Have a couple ways of communicating. Iridium satellite phones aren’t unreasonably expensive. If you can afford a second rifle and a plane ticket, you can afford a Sat Phone.
- Get familiar with the carriers in the region and where you can get prepaid phones. If you DO find yourself abducted or detained, call that person immediately and leave the phone on as long as possible. Ask for names, and repeat vital information if you’re able. Give your contact as much information about the capturers as you can.
- Distance is your friend. If you think you may be at risk, move on to a different area. If possible, use a method of travel that doesn’t require registration or ID. Hop a flight from a different city.
- Last, but certainly not least: What’s the equivalent of 911 in Germany? The UK? South Africa? If you can’t answer that, it’s ok – just make sure you can before you visit those countries. In the meantime, you can view a pretty complete list here, thanks to the State Department. Take special note of what we discussed above: They might not speak English, so you should have some vocabulary for the nation you’re visiting to describe emergencies, locations, and situations.
If you do a proper threat assessment or area study, you’re going to be ahead of the curve when it comes time to assess threats in real time, on the ground floor. That means instead of having to pocket a fruit knife so you can fight off potential abductors in a country that doesn’t allow the carry of concealed weapons, you can stay honed in enough to avoid the situation in the first place. As we’ve said before, if someone is looking for an opportunity to abduct you, they’re not sending their “B-team”. They’re going to send the most capable and violent men possible who will look for an opportunity to catch you when you least expect it.
A proper area study is like sifting through the potential problems and outcomes before that happens. Focusing on counter-custody skills ignores the far greater part of awareness and preparedness.
When we put the hard skills through the gristmill, it spits out a little wheat and a whole lot of chaff. Be capable of fighting your way out, but avoiding problems all together is preferable.
Step 4: Have a plan for Commerce
One of the most prevalent side effects of a cashless monetary system is the habit of not carrying any *real* currency. While this is generally a minor inconvenience in the U.S., if a foreign government freezes your assets (lol) you’re at a standstill. However, if you’re not an international man of espionage, it’s far more likely someone is going to pick your pocket or steal your purse. So, it’s a wise move to have some backup scratch that isn’t in your wallet.
Let’s organize our thoughts on this into a couple sections:
- What to carry, and;
- Where to carry it.
So, let’s talk about some hard currency.
In most of the world, dollars have a presence. As the world’s reserve currency, it’s not hard to find them, and most people will accept them – often at a pretty generous exchange rate. Because they’re so prevalent, it’s not a huge worry that you’ll out yourself as American for having them, but knowing the exchange rate, knowing the local economy, and having some currency for the place you’re visiting should be a pretty high priority. Even if people accept US dollars, everything will be denominated in local money, so it’s a good idea to know a Rand from a Lira from a Kopek.
In addition to paper money, a great many places (especially in the Middle East and North Africa) still live and breath in precious metals. At least until we kick over their economies and force them to use Petrodollars.
For that reason, it’s not a bad idea to have some precious metals. If you can’t find them on the local economy, keep in mind that traveling with metals does a couple things: it could act as an indicator of your country of origin (Maple Leaf vs Krugerrand, for example), and it could also send customs into a conniption fit… if you’re trying to bring more than a certain amount into a certain country.
Anything over $10,000 in gold or silver must be declared at customs if you’re heading back to the U.S., so plan accordingly.
A quick word on watches. I’ve known quite a few operators and contractors who wear a Rolex that they can use for a bribe or in lieu of capture. I have met none who’ve actually used them for that purpose, and I think the reason this: if you’re being captured, whatever you’ve got on your person is theirs. Period. They don’t view it as a down payment or a bartering chip, you just lost it. Sorry.
So for that reason, let’s say ‘just avoid ostentatious displays of wealth’. If you’ve got a $10k watch on, you’ve probably got more where that came from, and if I were a desperate brigand, I might start tracking that scent. Your mileage may vary, but especially in the third world, I’d try and look entirely normal if I couldn’t be surrounded by dudes with rifles rolling in armored Land Cruisers.
With that out of the way, where you keep your assets and tools is a big part of the puzzle.
Any serious detention is going to rob you of your shoes, belt, and any visible valuables. You might be fortunate enough to be left with your clothes, so let’s start with that.
If you can, sew in some false pockets near the seams that you can hide some cuff keys and spare money. This might buy you time to use a phone, food, medicine, favors… The situation will dictate. But don’t expect anything in your pockets or in your shoes is coming with you.
A few general thoughts:
- False pockets are your friends. Sew them into your pants or shirts. Use baggies under your boot insoles. Be creative.
- Don’t carry all of your money in one place. Break it up and it’ll be less likely you’ll lose it all.
- Memorize important phone numbers.
- A safety pin and/or razor blade sewn into the back of your pants (in its cardboard sheath) can be useful.
So, to recap: practice the soft skills:
- Plan ahead,
- Have some cultural awareness, and do the work in advance.
- Have a basic understanding of the language(s) commonly spoken in the destination you’re traveling to.
- Keep a Sat phone or use a local carrier so you can load minutes onto a cell phone.
- Have someone back home who is loosely aware of where you are, how long you’ll be gone, and what to do in an emergency. Stay in touch with them.
- Know the local culture, customs, and courtesies.
- Be aware of local problems.
- Have some knowledge of local currency and exchange rates. Keep some cash on hand, but don’t store it all in one place.
So, with all of this said, and assuming we do a comprehensive area study and threat assessment, what’s the harsh reality?
It’s that you probably won’t end up doing any ninja escapes, and that your efforts to do so will largely amount to a LARP. If you’re not involved with drug trafficking, don’t get stoned or drunk in public places after dark, and generally don’t go looking for trouble, the world is pretty safe.
The reality is you’re FAR more likely to be stopped and detained at customs for an extended period of time than you are to be snatched up by narco-terrorists who have randomly selected you for assassination. This *should* be common sense, but if you go looking for common sense, you’ll have a long wait, given disinformation is a crucial component of existence in modern times.
This has reshaped our expectation of the world from a generally pretty inviting place with some quirks, cultural nuance, and mostly common, friendly people, to this misrepresentation of a dark, grim, seedy voyage through the murk. The world really isn’t all that hostile, and the way you avoid problems abroad is, by and large, the same as how you avoid problems at home. New Orleans is about as violent as Chihuahua, Mexico or Durban, South Africa. St. Louis isn’t far off from Cape Town.
Going to these places doesn’t mean you are assuming an absurd amount of risk – it just means there are more risks that you need to be aware of, and having lived just outside of STL for a few years, it was gritty, but you just knew the areas to avoid and how to act, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the backbone of this whole article.
The solution to this problem isn’t sexy, and the self-protection industry (with notable exceptions like Greg Ellifritz) really wants to put asses in seats so they can teach you how to be a sneak reaper or whatever. You’ll find that, when pressed, they rarely have much experience actually escaping illegal restraint. As we’ve discussed in past articles, we do. It sucks. It’s not fun. It’s not an opportunity to go Jason Bourne on some unmotivated, B-team, television fall guys. The guys chasing you down typically know the stuff you know, and they aren’t afraid to use superior numbers and disparity of force to bring you in. Meeting that head on is, in our view, a recipe for suckin’ daisy roots.
Is it helpful to know how to fight your way out of captivity? Yes, certainly… But please – filter it through some common sense, some actionable information, and some local knowledge before you default to thinking you’re going to be escaping abduction or assault by stabbing captors with Mami’s trusty fruit knife.
This installment of “Escape and Evasion” is largely to simply crack a few eggs and see what’s inside. You might have been sold a fantasy that the world is a looming darkness, but when you see for yourself that most people really aren’t all that different, it grounds some of that pointless tension. You won’t need to stab people in Turkey any more than you’ll need to stab people in Texas… Both have risks, and both are manageable with some basic awareness and judgment. While there are certainly countries with MUCH higher rates of crime (cough… Mexico), the risks are reasonably low if you’re paying attention, staying away from organized crime, and are remaining aware of the threats in a given country.
Try and learn some of the culture and customs, understand the crime rates and risks associated with travel, don’t get involved with drugs or smuggling, and you’ll preempt most of the problems that are likely to happen whether at home or traveling.
If you make an effort to blend in, understand some language, read up on the area you’ll be visiting, and avoid known contentions, congratulations! You’ve just done more tradecraft than all of Instagram combined, and without all the pound signs.
Does it look as cool as a cheap knife slathered in fake blood, or some staged photos of escaping restraints?
Yeah, actually. It’s a lot cooler to actually *be* competent than it is to allude to mysterious skillsets that are bordering on impossible to validate. It’s way cooler to live a rich, full, and cultured existence in which you don’t put your life or family in jeopardy. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn some skills, but real talk: if that’s your main focus, you really need to take a few minutes to consider if the risks justify the emphasis.
I remember some time back talking with a group of guys about hotwiring cars, and how the technology had changed substantially. When the technology became untenable, the question was asked: “Why wouldn’t you just carjack someone?”
That’s where the modern discussion on E&E is. Where should it be?
Well, if you’ve got currency, contacts, and communication, you can avoid the added risk of having to come up with some shit-tier solution that puts you at greater risk and sends a huge red flag to LE by, I dunno… paying someone for a ride.
What we can say with some authority is that if you *do* find yourself in a true Escape and Evasion scenario, picking locks and improvised weapons will not make the difference in most cases. Your local knowledge, contacts, ability to blend in, move without looking out of place, and ability to communicate will mean far more than your ability to pick handcuffs or improvise shanks to fight your way out of captivity.
While terrorists holding hostages for political purposes may be require more aggressive action, again – the longer you remain in captivity, the less likely you are to survive. Escaping as fast as possible is usually more a function of your ability to recognize threats early, and be fit enough to get away quickly or fight armed opponents.
So, last words: Escape and Evasion is the failed version of Awareness and Preparation. Sometimes that failure isn’t our fault or is unavoidable, so it’s good to understand it, but at the core, it’s a game of chess. The more your strategy sucks, the more pieces you lose.
Don’t try and buy hardware to solve a software problem.