Local Knowledge

by | 03 November 2023 | Recent Incidents

A few weeks ago I was conducting a debrief session with an American who served in the Middle East. A close colleague of his had been the victim of a targeted killing. The follow-up investigation revealed that the man with whom I was speaking was likely scheduled to be killed as well.

Thankfully, the man sitting in front of me had outstanding relationships with key locals and stepped out of the area at just the right time. We discuss the importance of such relationships in topic 02.02 of the Panoplia.org Soft Skills and Tactics (SST) course. We refer to this subject matter area as “Strategic Intercultural Relations” (SIR).

Much of the debrief session centered on the incident and the aftermath. We spend a great deal of our time and effort training individuals and teams to avoid such circumstances. Yet, when an incident does take place we analyze it from numerous angles in order to learn lessons that we can pass on to others.

Many specialists who conduct post-incident debrief sessions make use of a structured interview process. They go in with a standard, lengthy set of questions. We take a different approach. We use an unstructured process whereby we simply ask the individual who was involved in the incident to tell us his or her story from the beginning. We ask them to start at the point when they decided to get into the work that led them to serve in a challenging, international area, and then allow them to tell their story right up until the present moment.

The value of an unstructured debrief process is that information is often gained that has little to do with a standard set of questions. The person conducting the debrief can gently steer the conversation when necessary to obtain certain key insights, yet for the most part we’ve found that allowing the individual to simply offer their own account will give us what we need, and at times much more.

During the recent debrief session, one of the more interesting side points concerned a seemingly insignificant conversation that the Individual had with a local taxi driver. A few moments after he got into a local taxi, the driver said to him, “What western country are you from.” This surprised the Individual because not only can he often pass for a local based on his outstanding language skills, but he also happens to look like someone from the wider region. People often assume that he is from Syria.

After answering the Taxi Driver’s question, he said, “Many people assume that I’m an Arab from Syria. What made you think that I’m from a western country?” The answer was amazing, and insightful. The Taxi Driver said something along the lines of, “Local men your age wear jeans, westerners wear khaki pants.” This is an outstanding example of Local Knowledge.

I’ve been residing in, working in, or advising teams in the Islamic world and other challenging areas of operation for over 35 years. It never ceases to amaze me how little time westerners serving in such places take to learn about how the locals among whom they live see the world. The ability to see the world through the eyes of cultural insiders is among the most important skill that anyone serving in a challenging location can have.

The discussion with the Taxi Driver noted above is one of a thousand small examples of how very basic local knowledge can be helpful. For example, if after the discussion with the Taxi Driver the Individual serving in that location chose to study exactly what kind of jeans local men his age wear, and to do the same, he would blend in all the more when and if it was an advantage for him to do so.

We discuss Local Knowledge at length in topic 02.01.01 of the Panoplia.org Soft Skills and Tactics (SST) course. This skill has many benefits for those serving in very challenging locations overseas. Yet, it can also be useful to any “outsider” who finds himself or herself in a less-familiar area during times of chaos or conflict, even just a few miles from home. We encourage you to think about developing the art of how to obtain Local Knowledge. It goes a long way toward one being able to see the world through the eyes of others.


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