Feeding the Hand that Bites You – Lessons from Libya

Eric Smith, CPP

               Just before Christmas 1988, the 747 took off from Heathrow for New York.  Less than an hour later, a bomb on the airplane exploded.  The plane quickly began to split apart and the cockpit broke off, beginning a freefall that lasted about two minutes.  Passengers not strapped to the fuselage were blown out of the plane.  Forensic experts believed that the passengers would have lost consciousness initially due to the rapid change in air pressure, but that they may have regained consciousness before the plane hit the ground, a terrible possibility.  The wing of the plane hit several homes in Lockerbie Scotland, killing 11 people including at least one entire family.  In total, 270 people were killed in the horrific attack.
               The investigation revealed that Libya was behind the attack and as recently as February of 2011, a former Libyan minister reported that Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s dictator, had personally ordered the bombing.
               There is no doubt that Gaddafi is evil.  So when rebels began protesting earlier this year and fighting against his regime the obvious choice was to help the rebels.  NATO finally responded to support the rebel forces with France taking a leadership role even taking further actions and supplying arms to the rebels despite complaints from Russia and China.
               Le Figaro and Bloomberg Business News reported that some weapons supplied to the rebels, the National Transitional Council, were recovered from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) forces in northern Africa.  AQIM forces have been fighting the security forces of several countries in the region.  Among the weapons finding their way to al-Qaida extremists are rocket launchers, rifles and Semtex.  Ironically, Semtex is the same plastic explosive used on Pan Am 103 in Lockerbie. 
               We’ve all heard the expression “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”  Unfortunately, in this case, we see an example of the opposite where we are feeding the hand that bites (or slaps) back. 
               This type of risk is not limited to international terrorism or global conflicts.  The same is true in other settings, where individuals or organizations try, with the best of intentions, to help someone or some group, but open themselves to risks.
               Healthcare is a good example.  Violence against care providers is rampant within the healthcare industry, especially for anyone working with mental health patients or in emergency departments.  Nurses trying to help patients are the ones most likely to be attacked by that same patient.
               The good news is that there are lessons to be learned, lessons that can be applied in other situations, whether opening an international business operation, dealing with global conflicts or even violent behavior by a patient.
1.     Consider the unintended consequences.
2.     Identify the players.
3.     Control the game.
4.    Don’t ignore the warning signs.
Consider the unintended consequences.  This is perhaps the trickiest part of risk management.  Risk assessments are based on known or threats and vulnerabilities.  The key is to look beyond the surface and develop an understanding of how different pieces of the puzzle fit together.  In a chess game, a player needs to think five moves ahead and all the possible contingencies depending on what their opponent does.  Be willing to think through a wide range of scenarios and ask yourself what if questions.  This approach can help identify hazards that might have been overlooked.  Or even reveal opportunities that could have been missed.
Identify the players.  In real life, it can be very hard to find out who the good guy is or who the bad guy is.  Even in the case of healthcare, the belligerent, drunk patient may not do anything physically, but the grandmother with dementia may attack the nurse, without knowing what she is doing.  In the situation in Libya, it should have been clear that some rebels may have ties to al-Qaida and that, at some point, weapons would find their way to extremists. 
Control the game.  You cannot control every element or risk factor, but it is critical to limit your exposure to potential risks.  If you are expanding an international business, or any commercial undertaking, it makes sense to try to mitigate the items that you have no control over.  In Libya, France should have used tighter control on the arms shipments and who was receiving them.  For instance, air dropping the supplies to known individuals and in smaller quantities until their trust was ensured.  In business, the easiest option may be to rely on one supplier for critical items.  To control the game, identify alternative suppliers and have a backup plan in case the primary source is not available. 
Don’t ignore the warning signs.  It is extremely easy to focus so intensely on accomplishing a goal that we overlook warning signs.  Across the Middle East, there have been worries about the rebels in Egypt, Syria and Yemen and the ties to Islamic extremism and terrorism.  The same concerns apply to the National Transitional Council and some of the individuals fighting Gaddafi.  The same is true in areas such as healthcare.  Too often, nurses ignore the warning signs of escalating violent behavior until the patient is punching, kicking or biting employees. 
These tips can help with business negotiations as well as national security.  And sometimes, the best course of action is to walk away.  With the Libyan situation, unless we can follow the rules above, NATO and France could be getting into a no-win situation. 


Eric Smith, CPP is available for business coaching services.  His emphasis is on security and operational risk management.  To learn more about coaching or security training, contact Eric at eric@businesskarate.com.      

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