Elected representative officials are among the most likely targets from an array of hostile threat actors, from domestic or international terrorism to the risks posed by civil unrest and protests.

The protection of democratically elected officials is among the most important activities of today. Given the concerning recent spate of terrorist attacks which have targeted elected officials — including the murder of Jo Cox in northern England by a white supremacist terrorist — the reality is that effective, nuanced and adaptable security strategies are necessary to help protect elected officials. These strategies should be consummate to regional and international terrorism threat landscapes and other risk trends.

Mitigating risks to government officials

Mitigation measures should be adaptable to the risk context of a particular government and align with the specific risk factors. 

The importance of this approach is that data — particularly the intent and capability of terrorist groups or other threat actors, such as cyber groups — should provide a predicator to mitigation measures. Security risk management is not an exact science, and risk is fast-moving and subject to “black swan” events. Importantly, however, an effective protection program should be designed around hard incidents, data and threat intelligence to help reduce the trust gap.

As an example of this, Al-Qaeda and its various affiliated groups had for several years provided warnings that they intended to conduct attacks against entities or individuals which were opposed to their ideology and subsequently conducted attacks against more vulnerable sectors, such as aviation. Knowing the background of this international threat can help protection professionals better plan for the elevated threat levels targeting government officials.

A risk-based approach

The basis of an effective security risk management program is that security and mitigation measures are based on understanding the threats to the individuals or organization, conducting a specific risk assessment based on these threats, and then designing programs which are based on reducing the potential vulnerabilities. Given that the threat landscape targeting government officials is fast-moving, mitigation measures should be constantly altered and adjusted. 

The overt or covert status of protection strategies should be adjusted according to risk level. For example, in the private sector, protection often takes a low-profile approach, involving staying at non-descript hotels, which statistically are likely to be a lesser target for terrorist groups. Other approaches see the value of deterrence through the “show of force,” whether that is armored vehicles or heavily guarded hotels.

When securing elected officials, it is important to focus on a risk-based approach that is adaptable and based on the latest threat intelligence. The main components of an effective security program are that it is designed based on an assessment of the main strategic threats and then focuses on the risks which are most applicable to the protected official.

Goals of successful protection programs

The objective or aim of a traditional protection program is to reduce vulnerabilities around the most important strategic assets, based on specific and cost-effective mitigation measures. In relation to the government sector, this translates to an array of mitigation measures which are focused on ensuring the business continuity of the building and its operations. Meanwhile, there is a requirement to increase risk mitigation measures to those government officials particularly focused on advocating contentious policies, or those who are traveling or attending meetings or with their constituents in locations which are at a higher risk.

To this end, an effective and robust security risk management program would adopt a qualitative risk assessment model which highlights and identifies the main risks from various threat actors of today. This approach would be based on gathering data from an array of public and, if possible, privileged sources to ensure that assessments are consummate to the current risk levels. 

An effective way of adopting this approach is to conduct an array of scenarios which look at the specific threat environment and how these current threats could conceivably manifest. This approach, “stress testing,” provides a way in which more effective and imaginative risk mitigation measures can be implemented.

By focusing on risk in elected official protection, security leaders can stay aware of emerging threats and prevent violent incidents from occurring.