Midweek Review
Tough training for elite close protection agents

Few people may have heard of the International Security Academy (ISA) or its offshoot, International Protection Teams (IPT). Paul Harris of Janes Intelligence Review and The DailyTelegraph, who now lives in Colombo, recently attended one of their courses in Israel.

Last week, gunshots, fired by close protection agents, meant to be in the business of actually protecting life and limb, pierced the air at a New Year disco party at a Colombo hotel. The last time I saw guns used in a discotheques was just outside Tel Aviv a few months ago. The circumstances were rather different . . .

The scene was a basement discotheque just outside Tel Aviv in the city’s diplomatic quarter of Herzeliya. The music was loud and the beat pounding. The Hebrew lyrics and the blue and white bunting of the State of Israel left no doubt as to the location. There were a couple of dozen men in suits and ties sitting at tables and a few girls scattered amongst them. Through the entrance stepped a glamorous blonde accompanied by a suited man who looks around 360 degrees and takes in the whole room. The girl is instantly recognised, even in the gloom, and people clap and greet her. But suddenly the noise of the music is drowned out by automatic gunfire. The standing, suited man encircles the shoulders of the girl with his left arm, his body protecting hers. With his right arm he draws a 9mm. Jericho pistol from a holster in his waistband and takes aim at his target. He empties one magazine, draws another from his belt, reloads and empties that magazine, then exits from the club with the girl still firmly held, like a package protected from the rain, under his jacket.

The gunshots were real; the scenario was staged. The ‘discotheque’ is located in the basement of The Israeli Olympic and Combat Shooting Centre. It is what is known in the business as ‘the killing ground’ and it is here that a group of eighteen men are honing their skills in protecting the rich, the famous and the politically important. The men and women who will graduate the next day from the International Security Academy are true highly trained professionals: not the macho, incompetent goons who allegedly protect Sri Lanka’s elite on the dance floor of the Galle Face Hotel.

It may not be immediately obvious what a nuclear physicist and a retired head of the Israeli secret service have in common. But they are both principal actors in an international organisation with tentacles throughout the world known as IPT. IPT stands for International Protection Teams, founded in 1987.IPT is the serious international player in the protection of the rich, the famous and the powerful. If you are a multi-millionaire living on a Caribbean island like Mustique you will be protected from kidnap or ransom by IPT. If you are the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church visiting UN HQ in Geneva you will be protected by IPT. If you are an Arab sheikh or the leader of a third world country you may well be protected by IPT. If you are a top businessman or political leader in Moscow you will likely be protected by IPT. If you are the producer of the world’s finest and most expensive cigars you and your product are protected by IPT.

The IPT has developed in parallel with the ISA, the International Security Academy. The President of ISA is retired Major General Ulrich K Wegener: rather well known to those in the know as the former head of Germany’s elite GSG9 ant-terrorist unit. IPT and ISA are both the brainchild of Mr Mirza David.

Mirza David doesn’t give a lot away. Not even his age. But, as he says he would ‘accept’ a guess of 52, he’s probably in his mid fifties, carrying a little more weight these days than when he was in his original line of work. He’s vague about his personal c.v. When you ask the direct question, he gives an answer you know he’s given a hundred times before. "I am a former senior officer in the Israeli security establishment."

The official brochure describes the ISA as "a multinational joint venture, which was established and is directed by a group of senior (retired) officers, ex-commanders and former instructors from the police, Security Service and Special Task Forces of Israel and other countries." Mirza David’s colleagues and instructors are unembarrassed by their credentials. No coy nods and winks here. The instructor in surveillance techniques says he is a former Colonel in Mossad. The close combat instructor is a serving senior officer in the Israeli counter-terrorist unit. Another simply avers, "I’m in the Secret Service."

The ISA operates with the active cooperation of the Israeli government who license and approve its activities. It not only trains up private individuals but also the security and protection forces of Presidents and Prime Ministers. Mirza flexes his arm and taps the muscle. "Remember, security is not about this." He taps his head. "It is about this." That could be well noted here in Sri Lanka . . .

These days, the ISA courses take place at locations in Israel around Tel Aviv. Of a morning, around 5.45, you might see a couple of dozen fit-looking men gathering at the door of the Hotel Kibbutz Shefayim. There are Germans, French, a couple of Brits and rather a lot of Russians. They are all armed with the locally produced 9mm. Jericho pistol. They carry these guns all day; and they sleep with them at night. Limbering up with personal fitness exercises, at six on the dot they are off on a 3km. run. Later you might see some curious goings on the rolling green lawns around the kibbutz: individuals fighting off apparently savage attacks with knives, guns, clubs and other weaponry. On the roads in the area, the doors of white sedans are apt to fly open and men wearing blue and white T-shirts emblazoned with ‘VIP Protection Training Centre Israel’ draw guns from their waistband-holsters in a bid to fight off some imaginary attack.

It all looks decidedly Starsky & Hutch but it is deadly serious. A car full of Russians have been doing spectacular handbrake turns and screeching, two-wheeled cornering in the dust of the car park. The boss is not amused. "A vip protection officer is a cool, thinking person. There is no place here for fantasies. You are not taking your girlfriend to Macdonalds," instructs Mirza David. Or Galle Face Hotel, for that matter, he might have added. The Russkies look decidedly downcast.

The regime is tough and exacting. After breakfast, the team gathers at 10 a.m. Two members of the team are one minute late. This occasions a stern lecture from Mirza David. "That is the one minute in which your vip might have died." VIP clients are referred to as vips here. "You are all part of a team and it is clear you need more exercise in teamwork." So, tonight, the working day will not end at 11p.m. but, instead, there will be an hour of exercises in teamwork up to midnight. That leaves something over five hours for sleep before the next day’s work starts.

There is no smoking or drinking allowed and the pressure is maintained eighteen hours a day, every day on the three week long course. The instructors are tough on the students. During close combat training one pulls a muscle in his leg. The instructor, Tal, a shaven-headed serving Israeli counter terrorist officer, dismisses the injury. "Hey, do you want a tissue? If he can’t walk, shoot him in the head." You get the feeling that in the real world outside the training ground that is exactly what might happen.

During the afternoon the action moves to the combat shooting in Herzeliya.. Here there is target-shooting, simulated vehicle attack, the opportunity to handle more than a dozen different weapons favoured by terrorists around the world, and the live fire exercise in the basement disco. The live-fire exercise in the disco, which is transformed into a killing ground, is the climax of the VIP protection course.

Alexandra Kanakaris is the managing director of ISS International Security School and Services in Roesrath, Germany. A striking blonde of 32, she used to be a nuclear physicist, qualifying in 1994. She says she was always interested in security issues and that training as a nuclear physicist helps her in her security work. She thinks that the skills required for both jobs are remarkably similar. "I specialise in analysis and planning."

Mirza does not like journalists who portray the products of his academy as out of control, brainless bruisers. "This is not a school for Rambos. This is not so much about glamour as about pain." More than 9,900 students have passed through the International Security Academy. One may be in your local discotheque. But one thing is sure. He, or she, won’t pull their gun until the time they intend to use it; and they won’t be firing in the air. Threaten their principal and you will be - almost certainly - dead. Some guys around here could do with some hard lessons at the International Security Academy.