David Alexander was one of the finest professionals I have ever worked with. He strived for the highest standards for the patients and partners he worked with and was never shy of standing his ground when he felt things weren’t being done just right and just so.

I was incredibly moved to see his commitment to the former hostages and family members we asked him to support – always willing to jump on a train, take the journey, make the time.

He was that rare beast in the caring profession – he saw what he was doing as just one in a series of contributions that could help that person to help themselves to get better. Co-dependency was not within his vocabulary – his job was to help people to move forward themselves. To him, empowerment was critical to the recovery process.

As well as the work, I will remember with great fondness and a smile my phone calls with David – me in my flat in SE London, him in his home in northern Scotland, often at night due to his punishing workload during the day. Rarely would a call end without him expressing frustration about his ageing laptop – or an announcement that it was time for a wee dram of the strong stuff.

As I sign off from work cursing my own failing laptop, I’m off home to have a wee dram of the strong stuff in David’s honor.

I have just finished reading an important book by Gabrielle Rifkind and Giandomenico Picco called The Fog of Peace: The human face of conflict resolution. It is of course a riff on Robert McNamara’s documentary: The Fog of War: Eleven lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara, in which he talks about how the US failed in Vietnam because they did not understand the culture and history of the Vietnamese people. 

The book seeks to demonstrate how foggy and complex the art of making peace can be; without empathy each side cannot understand the other and therefore falls back on stereotypes and feelings of superiority that stand in the way of relationships developing that can end conflict and build peace. 

This quote from the introduction chimes so closely with my own view of foreign policy, formed after working in and around issues of foreign and security policy since the late 1990s. What I have seen is a game of chess played by clever men in capital cities around the world, based on their own logic which is highly partial and limited, and with little real appreciation for the lived realities of the impacts of their decisions and therefore an often careless and smug approach to understand the interests of the different parties around the table. Having been through the trauma of having a family member kidnapped – and now spending my days supporting other families through that – you get an altogether different and more realistic understanding of what conflict is. It looks and feels different when it is in your own living room. 

So here is the quote:

“Politics and international conflict are usually examined through the lens of realpolitik, which is primarily about power involving ‘the rational evalution and realistic assessment of the options available to one’s own group and to an opposing one’. The chess games of power relationships are dominated by the desires of elite groups to shape the world according to their own best interests, which operate in the world of economic and military calculations, strategic options and political alliances and alignments. But it is the belief of the authors that conflict is most likely to be resolved when you also place the geopolitical complexity in a bed of human relationships. Suffering humiliation and powerlessness are the conditions in which groups are more likely to resort to violence. Respect, treating people with dignity and inclusive politics that give groups and communities access to resources and influence over their lives are more likely to induce behaviour that is not destructive. We are most likely to understand more about the smell of politics and human behaviour if we start at the kitchen table.”

They go onto quote Hans Blix who says that peaceful relations between states ‘can and must be practiced both at the conference table and the kitchen table’.

They argue that human motivation and psychology need to be part of strategic decision making because it is man who both makes wars and makes peace, so you must understand what drives him to make one decision or the other. It is just as likely to be emotional as ‘rationale’. 

There are some lovely quotes about the importance of putting yourself into the shoes of the ‘other’:

“If we had been born where they had been born, and taught what they were taught, we would believe what they believe” Abraham Lincoln

“We must put ourselves inside their skin and look at ourselves through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions” Robert McNamara

And finally, an important quote that somehow seems to offer the backdrop to my professional career, which has been dominated by the war on terror:

“The shadow of the ‘enemy’ seemed to be omnipresent, as if humankind could not exist without it. I then realized it is not humankind that cannot exist without it but only leaders who cannot lead without and enemy.”

I cannot recommend this book highl enough. 

Abderrozak Benarabe is also known as Big A. He’s a gangster from Denmark who turned his back on a life of crime after his brother’s cancer diagnosis, turning to Islam and then, eventually, jihad in Syria.

European Jihadi follows Big A from the streets of Copenhagen to Syria and back again. Directed by Nagieb Khaja, it shows how adventure is the motive for some who find themselves on the frontline.

Following his Syrian commanders around wearing a grey t-shirt, khaki shorts and pumps, he looks more like a tourist that wandered into a war zone by mistake than a battle-ready combatant. He is a man out of place and out of his depth; no longer the big gangster fish in a criminal pond.

When he first arrives, the battalion does not have enough guns to go around and he complains, saying that he will tell the commander he’ll go home if he doesn’t see any action. After a number of men are killed in a shoot out, he finally gets his gun, and a smile creeps over his face as he takes it. In contrast, the faces of his Syrian companions are blank, a visible sense of emptiness hanging behind their eyes. These are men tired of the fighting. Some not even men.

After four days of fighting and bragging about his wealth back home, the commander tells Big A that he will be more useful back home in Denmark raising money than in Idlib fighting. He is furious.

Big A returns to Copenhagen, raises €67,000, and drives a mini bus full of medical and military supplies back to Syria. He is quite the big man showing off the night vision goggles and bullet proof vests he has smuggled over the Turkish border.

During his time in Copenhagen, Big A met up with his estranged daughter who asked why he was going to Syria. Surely, she asked, there were people closer to home that could benefit more from his help if he really wanted to put right his past misdemeanours. It’s not the same, he told her.

Cut to footage of Big A on a Danish beach. His version of reality was that he had to come home to sort out a turf war threatening his patch in Copenhagen. But this films paints a picture of a man in search of adventure for whom Syria was little more than a combat theme park; sulking until he got a gun; furious when asked to contribute off the battle field rather than on it; and whose commitment to the cause evaporated as soon as his status and revenue at home were at risk.

There are many theories about why Europeans are travelling to Syria. As ISIS declares itself a caliphate now known as IS and its leader speaks of furthering the Muslim cause, it is worth remembering that not all those who find themselves on the frontline have this kind of focus. Many will be young men and women, bored of life in Europe, in search of adventure. And like Big A, many could be dissuaded given the right deterrents and disincentives.

On Tuesday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) turns 50. Formed by Pedro Antonio Marin Marin aka Marulanda on 27 May 1964, they have been embroiled in one of South America’s deadliest battles for control of the land, the people, and the soul of the great country of Colombia.

For decades they have claimed the title of ‘revolutionaries’, fighting for the common man and woman. In reality, they have brought terror and violence to a country that, given its natural resources, should be the success story of the continent.

I have been interested in the FARC for 18 years, ever since my uncle was kidnapped on a road between Medellin and Bogota on his way to work in January 1996. It wasn’t the FARC that held him for 7.5 months, but the ELN, or National Liberation Army. But in the years that have followed, I have interviewed many surviving hostages who were held by the FARC. From what I could tell of their testimony, the FARC was willing to use torture to control the minds and bodies of their captives, more cruelly than anything I ever heard from those who had been held by the ELN.

As the FARC prepares for its birthday party, it will not be the only one wondering if life really does begin at 50. The peace process continues in Cuba, with more optimism than has shrouded the ones that preceded it, but still caution is still the order of the day. Literally billions of US dollars and tens of thousands of boots on the ground have failed to kill off the FARC. Its grip remains on certain parts of the country. It can no longer boast 20,000 members, but it is estimated to be 7,000 strong and enjoy the support of those who rely on it for their protection and livelihood.

The results of today’s Presidential election might have a bearing on whether Tuesday should be a party or a wake for the FARC. President Santos hopes to stay in office and continue the peace talks. His main opponent, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga has threatened to pull the plug on the talks, or at least impose conditions that would render then untenable.

Colombia – yet again – finds itself at a crossroads. And, as usual, peace doesn’t look like the most likely destination.

I’m pleased to be chairing an event in London organised by the Forgiveness Project on 28 April where the focus will be on how former extremists can use their own experiences to help tackle violent extremism.

Sharing their own personal journeys of moving away from extremism will be Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist and former organiser of the White Aryan Resistance in Canada and Hadiya Masieh, a former Islamic extremist who was recruited by Hizb ut-Tahrir radicals, until the 7/7 bombings changed her perspective.

I’m a passionate believer that the stories of former extremists are a credible counter-message to extremist propaganda and I’m working to create a global resource of testimonies through my work at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and via the AVE network we run there.

More information about the event and tickets are available here.

Today I spent the morning with a group of security directors from some of Canada’s largest companies, talking about how corporate security has changed during the 15 years that I have been following it.

I talked about the four key changes that have occurred and how they have helped to bring security out of the boiler room and into the boardroom.

philosophical shift
Fifteen years ago, corporate security directors talked about the frustration of being seen as little more than the ‘man on the gate’. Both literally and metaphorically, they were shut out of the real business of their organisations.

This was largely of their own doing; most were trying to apply the logic and practices of their old organisations (mostly police and military – where hierarchies and command and control are how things get done) to complex, fast-paced and flat global matrix structures. They also limited themselves to being ‘boots on the ground’ because they focused on detailed operational delivery rather than strategic vision and oversight. Old habits died hard.

A decade and a half later, and things couldn’t be more different. The corporate security functions of the large multi-nationals are led by individuals – still the majority are men – who understand that they need to be business enablers rather than corporate cops.  They are proactive at interfacing with the business, rather than waiting for problems to come to them. They focus on persuasion and influence rather than change management through orders. And they are now much more strategic than operational, delegating a higher proportion of the delivery to local business units.

structural integration
Fine words are not enough to realise this 21st century vision of corporate security. So much rests on structural integration to lock the function into the key decision making parts of the company and give it the face time with the business that helps it to gain traction when it matters. The majority of corporate security directors now report directly into the executive committee. They have standard policies and practices that are mandated by the company. And they put in place smart reporting lines and relationships to embed themselves into the horizontal complexity of global multi-nationals with multiple business units and regional hubs. Fifteen years ago, corporate security departments were marginal players. Today, they are increasingly at the heart of business critical processes.

changing corporate security workload
One of the most stark shifts has been in the nature of the work of the corporate security department. A decade and a half ago, their time was spent on investigations, man guarding contracts and organising the travel and protection of the company’s top team. Many corporate security directors proudly talked about their close relationship with the chief exec, but in reality this was almost no different that which he or she enjoyed with their driver or chef.

Today, corporate security functions spend much more of their time on strategy, vision, leadership and oversight, and less on operational delivery. There is also much more focus on new areas of business risk, such as information security, due diligence, risk analysis and business continuity. Of course physical security is still important, but if the central team provides clear policies and procurement rules on man-guarding, for instance, this is just as effectively managed and acquired by local business units.

One of the most important trends within corporate security departments is the growth of in-house intelligence and analysis units. These small teams focus on regional, geo-political and threat specific analysis, tightly tailored to business needs, which can help to inform future decision making and insert corporate security into new business development processes. It is this change that will have the most profound impact on corporate security in the years ahead – it is this that will truly make it a business enabler.

Ultimately, any process, practice, procedure or strategy is delivered by people. While the majority of those within corporate security departments still come from a traditional security background (police, military, government, intelligence), they are leaving their old careers earlier, they are more diverse, and there are – slowly but surely – more women entering the function. If corporate security departments are there to serve diverse, multi-cultural and complex organisations, they must do a better job of reflecting them. And they must also do all they can to avoid group think.

The corporate security departments of 15 years ago thought their power and respect emanated from their expert knowledge. Today they realise that they need to talk and walk the language of business, be excellent communicators, and focus on building relationships. Boards do not want to know the minutia of a threat assessment and security process – they just want to know that the company’s problems are in hand. The corporate security directors that cry wolf are a dying and marginalised breed.

For more on corporate security, see The Business of Resilience.


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