Countering the Insider Threat

Published by Andrew B Brown on

September 2016 – Crisis Response Journal –


Historically in conflict, insurgents have used infiltration, impersonation, coercion and intimidation as key tactics and this ‘Insider Threat’ is equally prevalent in Afghanistan. It can never be completely removed but it can be minimised as much as possible and consists of insurgent infiltration and GREEN-on-BLUE attacks when a member of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) directly and deliberately targets a member of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF). 

This risk can be exacerbated with ANSF members who have allegiance to the insurgents or are motivated by personal grievance and animosity related to combat stress, a cultural gulf and the behaviour and conduct of ISAF personnel in their environment.

The Long War Journal‘s data covers green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan from Jan. 1, 2008 up to the present and as of May 7, 2015 there have been a total of 92 attacks reported. The total number of Coalition deaths from Green-on-Blue attacks for the period Jan 1, 2008 to May 7, 2016 is 1508 with the total number of Coalition wounded is 187.[1]

In 2013 NATO identified Green-on-Blue attacks as the number-one strategic risk in Afghanistan and training to mitigate the threat was the priority for the members of the ISAF. The rise in green-on-blue incidents, reflect the decision of several coalition partners, most notably of France under its new President Francois Hollande, and of New Zealand, to withdraw their combat troops before the previously declared deadlines.[2]

Prior to deployment to Afghanistan, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland (2 SCOTS) a light Infantry unit were warned that they would facilitate the Police mentoring Battlegroup for the Op HERRICK 18 tour. This role confirmed the unit would provide Afghan indigenous Police (all tribes) mentors operating outside secure locations in a number of training and mentoring roles but preparing for transition to Afghan run operations.

Pre-deployment Training Design & Delivery

With knowledge that they required training in de-escalation and negotiation skills they requested assistance from the author through his role at the Scottish Police College.

In designing the training, the team piloted the programme with Commanding Officers as it assisted in developing relevant and realistic exercises and ensuring the training was fit for purpose and pitched at the correct level to engage the various groups.  Following this the programme was adjusted to include the Afghan role-play scenarios and thereafter delivered to approximately 120 troops. 

Delivery of the training identified three distinct groups of individuals within the Battalion:

  • Naturally skilled communicators who quickly grasped the concept
  • Those who ‘learned’ the skill and would be able to apply it with practice
  • Those who struggle from the outset to develop existing communication skills apparently as a result of poor vocabulary and intellect.

Taking cognisance of traditional and proven military training methods, the training was delivered in the following format:

  1. Theory input
  2. Instructor demonstration
  3. Live role-play exercise in English
  4. Live role-play exercise in Pashtun with Afghan role players and Interpreters.

Troops were supplied with Aide Memoire Cards to remind them of Active Listening Skills and the Behavioural Change Staircase[3], but more importantly were encouraged to undertake scenario-based exercises that allowed them to think and practice de-escalation and negotiation techniques that reflected local incidents.

Practical Application

The Lashkar Gah Training Centre is situated approx. 6 km North West of the Helmand Province capital Lashkar Gah and is the centre of excellence for all Helmandi based Police training – all tribes. On a daily basis, the training centre facilitates approximately 2500 recruits (the majority are of Pashtun origin with a minority Dari speakers) undergoing various stages of basic and advanced training. The Afghan staff comprises of almost 15 professional Afghan police (high ranking and experienced officers) and 150 Ministry of Interior (MOI) police instructors – who are not technically policemen but teachers with little or no police experience. To complicate matters the majority of the MOI instructors are from Kabul and Dari speakers.

The international contingent comprised of approximately 180 UK, US, Danish military and police instructors. The team live in the same camp as the Afghans but have an effective Force Protection (FP) divide during silent hours. Normal working routine necessitates two mentors and an interpreter to teach/mentor an Afghan group size ranging from 50 – 120 persons, geographically separated across a large training environment.  Generally the students are not armed but some of the MOI and Afghan police are. During weapons and range training all the students are armed. The Afghans have a security detail of 75 persons that provide inherent FP to the students and staff – they are armed and provide 24/7 security cover. A number of other separate police contingencies operate from the main site – although there is no command relationship between these disparate groupings.

Effective working relationships are critical and were in place. Generally the mentoring and day-to-day activities went very well with little disruption to the mission. During the deployment periods there were a number of instances when FP had to be raised and negotiation or de-escalation training put into practice. The effectiveness of the training received ensured that such instances were managed quickly and professionally with no negative impact or detrimental outcomes.

The pre deployment training received by all members of the LTC proved to be invaluable to all members of the Afghan Police mentoring teams. Having the knowledge and ability to practice the skills sets through well managed role-playing and incident scenarios prepared absolutely the team. The invariable exposure to difficult situations without this basic but fundamental training could have resulted in a more kinetic and deadlier response. The functionality of effective negotiation and de-escalation drills set the conditions for an effective mission and has been recommended to 2 SCOTS successors as best practice.

These case studies reflect incidents and reactions within the Lashkar Gah Training Centre (LTC) only:

Case study 1 – Effective Negotiations

A new training initiative saw the development of Afghan local police (a type of reservist policeman providing security to own villages) training at the LTC. The first few courses went well with no concerns. Problems occurred when a course was held with two village groups training concurrently at the centre. After the first few days a commotion was reported by one of the US Special Forces team that worked within the LTC.

It was alleged that members of one group had sexually abused members of another to complicate matters it transpired that some of the students involved were not of the minimum age (16 years old) allowed to join the police. The US instructors’ response was dynamic and decisive but escalated matters very quickly.  Both factions were separated but when referred to the Afghan Command no action was taken – not deemed a credible complaint.

Within an hour, both factions became violent and uncontrollable. When knives were drawn the ISAF mentors were withdrawn from the area. This then necessitated a series of emergency shuras (meetings) with hostile and heated following.

In the first meeting the Afghan Commander – who should have been leading drew his weapon and threatened to shoot one of the protagonists – not the best approach. This set tempers flying once again and required immediate de-escalation without letting the Afghan Commander lose face – a critical part of Afghan negotiations. At this stage I employed a number of the young officers to mediate the separate groups and try to develop a working relationship to resolve crisis.

The US mentors were fully focused on arresting the alleged perpetrators and seeing their version of Western Justice done to the alleged offenders (three in total). This outlook complicated matters further.  Under direct command they were stood down and agreement secured that the SCOTS would resolve the situation with the Afghan Commander directed to take a proactive, impartial and calm lead.

The main issues were identified from both perspectives and it transpired that the alleged sexual abuse was not the centre of concerns the arguments were more related to money and attendance of young candidates – economic impact and loss of respect on both villages. The fraternization with boys (a normal activity on Thursdays before Juma (prayer day) is a cultural norm that was only a small component piece to the problem – the US response and misunderstanding of the cultural aspects created the friction and potential loss of face that generated the violence.

The Lashkar Gah police Imam (religious lead) and the heads of the Helmandi villages were summoned to the LTC next day to attend a shura focused upon peaceful resolution. After the course of an hour’s calm and deliberate discussions between the local leaders this was achieved. The agreed result was that the alleged offenders were removed from the training programme (under full pay). The candidates that were younger than 16 years of age (hard to determine) were also returned to their villages (under full pay). Village leaders agreed that justice had been seen to be done fairly although the US team leaders was not happy that criminal action had not been enforced – this was deemed to be village business and would be sorted under Sharia law if charges were to be brought by the youths parents.

Case study 2 – Know what to do.

The Afghan officers that carry side-arms are all senior and very experienced police officers; many have fought the mujahedeen during the Russian era. The carriage of weapons is a status symbol and is regularly used as such to emphasise position, dedication or anger.

During a meeting of international Police advisors, an Afghan trainer was caught up in an argument with a competing training officer from a different tribe. As the debate continued tempers got heated and the international observers started to feel uneasy. The observers were escorted by guardian angels from 2 SCOTS who at this point had been on tour for almost 4 months and knew the personalities well having been well briefed on the situation knew the general context of the arguments and character of the main protagonist.

 After almost 30 minutes, one of the two competing officers increased the tempo and volume of the argument at which point the other stood up and drew his pistol. The international observers panicked and sought cover – during this time one of the guardian angels had already made his way to the police officer with the pistol and had calmly taken the weapon from his grasp and sat him down.

The ISAF officer escorting the observers calmly stopped proceedings and directed the other guardian angels to separate the two arguing officers and began to reassure the internationals that all was well and nothing untoward had occurred.

Once this had been completed the ISAF officer went to get the assistance of the Afghan training commander (second in command) who once he was made aware of what had happened immediately dealt with the two offending officers and joined the meeting ensuring that both officers apologised and continued with what was a productive meeting and outcome.

During a follow up (near miss) reflection it was determine that either of the guardian angels could have legitimately engaged the Afghan with the pistol given the circumstance, however the SCOTS protection knew the individuals and had worked alongside them before and experienced similar outbursts – although not to this degree before. They knew exactly what to do and how to de-escalate. In scenarios practiced during the pre-training it was identified that individuals facing such incidents could quickly and effectively disarm and defuse the situation by taking the weapon from the individual without developing a more dangerous stand-off. Additionally, the guardian angels all knew that the weapons were not loaded – we did not allow the Afghans ammunition in camp.

Lessons Learned

Non-Verbal De-Escalation – approximately 65% of communication consists of non-verbal behaviours. Of the remaining 35% inflection, pitch, and loudness account for more than 25% however less than 7% of communication has to do with what is actually said. The following factors were identified by the LTC staff during the mission de-brief:

  1. Be self-assured. Appear calm, focused and confident in your surroundings. Your anxiety can make the client/audience feel anxious and unsafe which can escalate aggression.
  2. Maintain limited eye contact. Loss of eye contact may be interpreted as an expression of fear, lack of interest or regard, or rejection. Excessive eye contact may be interpreted as a threat or challenge.
  3. Keep a relaxed and alert posture. Stand up straight with feet about shoulder width apart and weight evenly balanced non-aggressive stance.
  4. Maintain a neutral facial expression. A calm, attentive expression reduces hostility.
  5. Minimize body movements such as excessive gesturing, pacing, fidgeting, or weight shifting. These are all indications of anxiety and will tend to increase agitation. Position yourself for safety:
  • Angle your body and do not turn your back in relation to the group. 
  • Maintain a safe distance.
  • Place your hands in front of your body in a non-threatening open and relaxed position.
  • Position yourself close to the room entrance and behind a barrier such as a sofa, desk.
  • Do not point or shake your finger.
  • Always be at the same eye level. Encourage the client to be seated, but if he/she needs to stand, stand up also.

Verbal De-Escalation – once non-verbal tactics are in place, verbal de-escalation can be a logical next step in dealing with an agitated client. Reasoning with an enraged person is not possible. The first and only objective in de-escalation is to reduce the level of arousal so that discussion becomes possible. The following are general guidelines for verbal de-escalation:

  • Primary task is to calmly bring down the level of arousal to a safer place.
  • Use a modulated, low monotonous tone of voice rather than high-pitched, tight voice.
  • Do not get loud or try to yell over a screaming person.
  • Do not be defensive even if comments or insults are directed at you.
  • Be very respectful even when firmly setting limits or calling for help. Agitated stakeholders are very sensitive to feeling shamed and disrespected.
  • Be honest -lying to calm someone down may lead to future escalation.
  • Explain limits and rules in an authoritative, firm, but respectful tone.
  • Empathize with feelings but not with the behaviour.
  • Suggest alternative behaviours where appropriate – a break, water or coffee.
  • Do not try to argue or convince.
  • Trust your instincts. If de-escalation is not working, STOP! Tell the person to leave, escort him/her to the door and call for help.


I am indebted to Major Jock McGowan of 2 SCOTS for his notes taken in the field and allowing me to debrief the training when the troops returned to Scotland.

It is testament to the military that they adapt and learn new skills to deal with what is effectively a complex and challenging threat during a period of stabilization and hand over to Afghan control.  There is no doubt in the words of their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Coronel Robin Lindsay on the pre-deployment training as “first rate and equipped our soldiers not only with a valuable skill set, but also with a way of thinking, that might well be life saving”.

[1] The Long War Journal, Green-on-Blue Attacks in Afghanistan – The Data. Accessed at

[2] Arenas, D.A. (2013) Afghanistan: Green-on-Blue Attacks. Degree in Master of Military Studies Thesis. United States Marine Corps, Quantico.

[3] McMains, M.J. and Mullins, W.C. (2014) Crisis Negotiations – Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections. 5th Edition. Waltham: Anderson Publishing.

Categories: Feature 2