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Published: June 16, 2014

As we write, a major insurgent offensive is underway in Iraq. It began four days ago with ISIS (Al-Qaeda militants) seizing the entire city of Mosul, in the ancient province of Nineva, followed by occupation of other towns en route south to Baghdad. The Iraqi army has managed to contain the assault in Samarrah, 100 kilometres north of the Iraqi capital. For their part, the Kurdish Army has taken the opportunity to occupy Kirkuk, across the inner Iraq frontier but seen as the Iraqi Kurds’ traditional capital.

Pilgrims and our clients were prepared, and thankfully so. In the lead up, our weekly intelligence reports had been monitoring these developments. One week previously we had written:
• ISIS militants have attempted to capture the city of Samarrah, with fatalities on both sides.
• Violence in the northern provinces is concentrated in Mosul.
• The insurgency crisis in Anbar, to the west of Baghdad, is continuing.
• There will very likely be an increase in attacks in Kirkuk, Nineva and northern Baghdad.
• The split between Al Qaeda in Kurdistan and ISIS has the potential for violence on the Kurdish border.
• Baghdad city itself is unlikely to be directly affected for now but events will be closely monitored with security and emergency evacuation plans reviewed.

In the period before the main attacks, we were providing security for clients at locations in the Sunni northern provinces. On the morning in question, one of our consultants called the in-country operations room. Mosul, 2½ hours to the north, was being overrun and he was recommending an exfiltration back to Baghdad. Word was quickly passed to the other client locations, our country manager called the various clients’ own management and the withdrawal plan was on.

The plan involved assets from Baghdad running north to a central point to meet client groupings assembled from their respective locations and their escort southwards back to safety. The Baghdad vehicles left the city mid-morning, arriving at the assembly location early afternoon. Within half an hour, the joined-up group had set off back to the capital, with Pilgrims monitoring the advance of the insurgents hot on their heels to their rear and with traffic slowed by hundreds of refugees moving south. Frustratingly at the time, the convoy was held up for two hours at a checkpoint just north of Baghdad, being run by understandably nervous Iraqi security forces, but arrived back at the client’s HQ in the evening without incident or injury.

At the assembly point earlier that afternoon, Pilgrims had offered other international workers, not our clients and being looked after by other security companies, the chance to join us, but the offer was turned down. That location was subsequently attacked and, although the insurgents later withdrew, at the time of writing many workers have yet to leave.

Pilgrims Group Managing Director, Bill Freear, said: “I am pleased but not surprised that we have kept our clients out of harm’s way; it is what we do and have done in hostile places around the world for well over a decade. It is what we will continue to do. The situation in northern Iraq remains fragile but we will be monitoring and planning closely and will return our clients to their work in Baiji as soon as the risk assessments allow.”

This Pilgrims operation was a success because:
• Predictive intelligence reporting and forecasting had prepared all our teams for such an event.

• A coordinated extraction plan involving our country HQ, our clients and our teams on the grounds had been worked out and implemented quickly.
• Our consultants’ professional and rapid situational awareness led to accurate assessment and speedy decisions.

• Our culture of local decision making, informed judgments, based on sound information, and policy based planning, meant no slow-downs caused by managerial bureaucracy from outside the country.

Sir David Veness, Senior Advisor to Pilgrims Group and former Under-Secretary General for the UN Department of Safety & Security, said: "In present circumstances official travel advice is vital reading. In areas where only essential travel is feasible, a professional security company is indispensable. Such services must include not only high grade protective and defensive measures, but finely tuned continuous assessment of local conditions and rapid reaction to changing threats and risks."

Pilgrims provides comprehensive security risk management for its diplomatic, corporate, industrial, NGO and media clients in Iraq, and elsewhere. Bill Freear continues: We are occasionally put to real tests, such as this one, but our philosophy of planning for and side-stepping hostile events means we can usually keep our clients’ businesses running when others withdraw without solid cause and withdraw at the right time, when others are still deliberating."