False Security: Armored Cars

6 MINS READNov 12, 2004 | 19:34 GMT

In late October, STRATFOR analyzed the assassination of Ansar Tebuev, the deputy prime minister of the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic, an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus. Tebuev, a former counterterrorism official, was ambushed at an intersection near his office at the Ministry of the Interior in the republic's capital of Cherkessk.

At the time of the attack, Tebuev was riding in an armored Niva sedan. Sources in the North Caucasus-based Russian law enforcement community say the assassins blocked Tebuev's car with their own vehicle, from which two gunmen jumped out and opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles. They reportedly targeted the radiator of the Niva first, and then concentrated their fire on its windshield. Several of the bullets struck the laminated window, and at least one of them penetrated the pane, killing Tebuev. Witnesses also said that as the attack unfolded, Tebuev's chauffeur jumped out of the vehicle and fled on foot.

Several aspects of the case — including the behavior of the driver — have authorities investigating whether Tebuev was killed in a terrorist plot or by other types of criminals. However, the fact that he was murdered despite the apparent protection of his armored vehicle raises several points that bear discussion.

Contrary to popular belief, whether the threat is one of kidnapping in Mexico City or terrorism in the Caucasus, an armored vehicle in and of itself does not provide complete security for its passengers. Instead, it is only one aspect of a total security strategy.

As the Tebuev case shows, armored vehicles are not designed to withstand concentrated fire from high-powered rifles. Repeated hits in a small area will eventually penetrate the ballistic glass or the metal armor in the body. Attacks such as the 1988 assassination of U.S. naval attache Capt. William Nordeen, killed by November 17 militants in Athens, have shown that armored vehicles do not necessarily withstand large improvised explosive devices, and the 1989 killing of Deutsche Bank Chairman Alfred Herrhausen in Germany demonstrate that they also do not protect against smaller devices at a closer distance, especially if the device uses a shaped or plate charge, which focuses the force of the explosion.

In a kidnapping scenario, if the vehicle is stopped or disabled, assailants can place an explosive device on it, forcing the occupants to open the door — a tactic witnessed several times in Latin America — or they can pry it open like a can of sardines if given enough time. Since most armored vehicles use the car's factory-installed door-lock system, techniques used by car thieves, such as using master keys or punching out the locks, can also be used effectively.

Armored vehicles are designed to protect the occupant from an initial attack and to give them a chance to escape from the attack zone. Even the heaviest armored vehicles on the market do not provide a mobile safe haven in which one can merely sit and wait out an attack. If assailants know their target is using an armored vehicle, they will bring sufficient firepower to bear to achieve their goals. If the driver does not get the vehicle off the "X" of the attack site, the assailants essentially can do whatever they please.

That said, what else must be done to protect the armored vehicle's passenger? The first and most crucial factor to consider is the driver: The car is only as good as its driver, so it is critical that the chauffeur be alert, motivated and willing to be trained. It is foolish to place an expensive security system — and the life of the principal target — in the hands of a minimum-wage employee. In addition to technical competence, the driver needs to clearly understand that he or she is responsible for the principal's safety, and that they are not merely "Driving Miss Daisy." The next step is ensuring the driver is properly trained. Returning to the Tebuev case, the driver's reaction — fleeing as the gunmen opened fire — reportedly has brought him under suspicion as being part of the plot. However, it is also quite possible that the driver merely panicked, froze and then fled to save his own skin — the typical reaction of an untrained person amid the shock of an armed attack. A professional who has been trained in attack recognition and taken part in a number of emergency action drills usually can overcome the initial shock much more quickly — and even if not capable of executing a textbook-perfect maneuver, will be able to react. They are trained to get off the "X," and even an imperfect response is better than no response at all. For example, an U.S. security professional who was ambushed several years ago in Cairo by a group called Egypt's Revolution was actually shot in the head during the initial salvo of gunfire, but given his training, was able to floor the accelerator and point his car at the gunmen — who threw away their weapons and fled. Had he frozen on the "X," both he and his passenger would have been killed. Periodic refresher training courses are also important for VIP drivers, to keep their skills polished and alertness elevated. Tactical training also can help them avoid the tendency to worry about damaging the often expensive vehicle they are driving — another common reaction among drivers. Many times they freeze rather than scratch a fender, not recognizing that their lives and that of their protectees are much more important than the paint job. Third, protective teams assigned to VIPs must take serious steps to vary the times and travel routes the person uses, and to protect information about the principal's schedule. An armored vehicle can create a false sense of security that can be deadly. If someone is in a situation that requires an armored vehicle for protection, the most basic tenet of security must be acknowledged: A predictable travel route and schedule make an assault much easier to execute — and as discussed earlier, an armored vehicle simply does not provide absolute protection from attack. A final factor to consider is that in any type of assault, from a kidnapping to a terrorist assassination, preoperational surveillance must be conducted in order for the assailants to succeed. It is during this period that operatives are most vulnerable to detection and interdiction — and thus, that professional security programs begin to implement proactive security measures such as countersurveillance. Once an assault has begun, only reactive measures are left — and the assailants, who have the element of surprise, will likely succeed.

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