• United States



by Mike Ackerman

Excerpt: Counterterrorism Strategies for Corporations

Sep 25, 20089 mins
EnterpriseIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Mike Ackerman calls terrorism "the skunk at the globalization lawn party." His new book lays out 10 principles for how businesses can prepare and respond.

Chapter One: The Great Asparagus Caper

The year was 1985. Ronald Reagan had just begun his second presidential term, and Americans in general were feeling pretty good about themselves and about the world at large.

Terrorism on the scale of 9/11 was still unimaginable. Indeed, most of what passed for terrorism in those days was perpetrated by leftist groups with ties to the Soviet Bloc. Most were subnational, as opposed to transnational, but several Palestinian Marxist groups had begun to operate across international boundaries, in several cases attacking commercial aviation. Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia extremist movement, had burst onto the scene two years earlier with a suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, but its first transnational operation, the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome, was still months away.


I was summoned to the headquarters of a major US food processor. The corporate security director, a former special agent of the FBI, had managed to convince senior managers that they would benefit from hearing my views on a prospective overseas investment. The security director was quite surprised and delighted by management’s decision to invite me to the meeting, since it was rare in those days to grant security a place at the august table at which a new investment was being considered.

The corporate security director had been successful in getting me entree, I learned during that initial conversation, because the prospective investment target was Colombia. Leftist insurgents had staged several highly publicized kidnappings of American managers in that country in the preceding two or three years.

The matter at hand was the wisdom of a substantial investment in Colombia’s agricultural sector, specifically in the fertile Cauca Valley, where the country’s senior guerrilla movement, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, normally known by the Spanish acronym FARC, was known to be operating. I was being asked to assess risks from FARC and estimate how much it would cost to protect the technical personnel who would need to visit production sites, if, indeed, special protection measures were warranted.

The meeting was held in what clearly was a high-rent conference room and was chaired by the senior vice president, international. First up was the marketing vice president; he made the case that we would see in the coming years a substantial increase in world demand for asparagus, which, I learned for the first time, was the product under consideration. The SVP reinforced his case with a series of charts supporting the proposition that as people around the world became more affluent, their taste for asparagus would grow proportionally. Perhaps more than proportionally! Who knew?

I had, in the course of my eight years in the private sector, sat through a number of presentations dealing with economic forecasts of various types, but it had never dawned on me that one by-product of a rising standard of living was a hunger for asparagus. Nor did it ever occur to me that large agribusinesses plotted the demand curve for their vegetables, though, sitting there, it made perfect sense that they would.

Next came the chief agronomist, who reported that, although many places in the world were well suited for the production of asparagus, few were as ideal as the Cauca Valley. Again, his point was illustrated with a series of charts dealing with soil content, weather, and the like.

The third speaker was the vice president for business development, and his point was that a Colombian agricultural association bent on diversification beyond coffee and other traditional crops was offering the company extraordinary terms for what would amount to a joint venture in asparagus production. Investment would be minimal, and the profits potentially handsome. The company’s principal contributions to the project would be seed stock and technical expertise. Local farmers would be counting on American technicians to teach them asparagus cultivation and ensure quality control.

I was up last, and clearly I had been assigned the role of skeptic. Security people are expected to find fault with prospective projects—to be naysayers, which may explain in part their limited role in decision making on investments. I had always fought hard against this inclination, mindful of the dictum of Jim Flannery, one of my early bosses at the CIA, who equated perfect security with “doing nothing in a vacuum.” In almost all instances, I believe, it is possible to find practical ways for dealing with risk. But there were a lot of good reasons to be negative about this particular project.

I cited them, one by one. FARC and other Colombian guerrilla groups were inveterate kidnappers, ransom abductions, along with narcotrafficking, being their principal means of raising operating funds. Moreover, FARC had a heavy presence in the Cauca Valley, where it frequently kidnapped well-to-do farmers and ranchers and members of their families. Few foreigners had been taken in the valley, but only because there were few available. FARC and the other groups were not at all hesitant to kidnap foreigners. Indeed, they appeared to take special satisfaction in abducting Americans and other foreigners, especially those from “exploitive” multinational corporations.

Risks in the Cauca Valley were so acute, I contended, that American technicians could not safely go there without costly protective arrangements. Oil companies operating in other parts of Colombia, in deference to similar risks, had taken to shuttling personnel by helicopter between major cities, where kidnapping levels were substantially lower than rural areas, and highly fortified compounds. The food processor’s technicians, by definition, would not be headed for protected compounds, so it would be necessary not only to transport them by helicopter but also to furnish them with heavily armed bodyguard complements. A less expensive—but far more dangerous—alternative would involve transporting the technicians in convoys of at least three vehicles, again manned by heavily armed bodyguards.

Expressions around the table grew sour. The security director asked me to estimate the hourly cost of a helicopter.At the time, it was about $850. No one asked me to cost out the bodyguards. There was a lot of shuffling of papers, and some participants began to show a lot of interest in their wristwatches.

I went on to my final point. A major US airline had been fined on more than one occasion because ground crews had secreted cocaine aboard planes bound for Miami. Flower growers and manufacturing concerns were encountering similar problems: Traffickers had little trouble bribing shipping clerks to place drugs in containers bound for the United States. Presumably, asparagus crates also would serve their nefarious aims. Robust cargo-security measures would have to be put in place, and, given the traffickers’ enormous capacity to suborn lowpaid personnel, there would be no certainty even then that shipments would not be compromised—with disastrous consequences for the integrity of the brand.

At this point, the senior vice president cut me off with the words, “Whose f—— idea was this anyway?” The meeting ended on that note.

When last I heard, the program was being undertaken in Chile, then and now Latin America’s safest country. Perhaps the soil and climatologic conditions were not as ideal, and perhaps the terms were not as attractive, but the relative absence of security concerns more than offset these shortcomings.

Indeed, had my client ventured to Colombia against my advice, it might have found itself in the same dilemma as Chiquita Brands, which recently paid a $25 million fine to US authorities for doling out $1.8 million in protection money over a seven-year period ending in 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC, a rightist paramilitary group, ostensibly to protect its banana plantations in northwestern Colombia from FARC. Previously, the Justice Department alleged, Chiquita had made similar payments to the leftist movement.

The AUC was established in the 1990s with encouragement from Colombian elites, who had become frustrated with the inability of a succession of weak presidents to protect them from leftist kidnappings and extortions. The army in fact did not really begin to engage FARC until hard-nosed Alvaro Uribe was elected president in 2002. In the interim, the AUC had turned just as thuggish as the leftist movement, levying “war taxes” on companies operating on its turf and even following FARC into narcotrafficking.

Chiquita’s situation, I must point out, was distinctly different from that of my client. Descended from the United Fruit Company and United Brands, it had operated banana plantations in Colombia for decades, long before the development of the guerrilla problem.

I’m certain that senior Chiquita executives felt that they had little recourse but to pay up if they wished to keep those plantations productive. Certainly, a banana concern could not afford to establish the kind of private security force needed to protect its interests from either FARC or the AUC. Only oil companies and mining concerns, which by definition must go where the resources are, could anticipate the kind of economic rewards that would justify the heavy costs of providing comprehensive protection for their personnel and property.

Corporate leaders today are faced with unpalatable choices and are obliged to make tough calls on matters relating to terrorism, crime, and political stability matters, for which many, frankly, are ill-prepared.

Certainly, business schools have not prepared them. By and large, their focus is on more traditional management concerns. Employees in more than a few countries face serious kidnap risks. Insurrections force snap decisions on whether to hold tight or evacuate. Jihadists threaten personnel and operations in several Muslim lands.

Indeed, companies operating globally face an abundance of risks, and even firms working within US borders should not anticipate a pass. Al-Qaida lurks on the Pakistan-Afghan frontier, spoiling for the opportunity to wreak even greater havoc in the United States than it did on 9/11.

Decision makers who discount these risks do so at their peril. ##

From Counterterrorism Strategies for Corporations: The Ackerman Principles (Prometheus Books, 2008). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.Mike Ackerman served in the CIA’s Clandestine Services for 11 years, undertaking intelligence operations in some 20 European, Latin American and African countries, and was also a security officer in the Strategic Air Command. He is managing director of Ackermangroup LLC. Counterterrorism Strategies for Corporations: The Ackerman Principles is available through