What goes on inside one of South Sudan's leading security firms?

A convoy of protection forces from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, together with members of the Ceasefire Transitional Security Arrangement Monitoring Mechanism visited the incident location where six aid workers were killed outside of Juba in March 2017. Photo by: Isaac Billy / UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

“Everything we hear is opinion, not fact. Everything we see is perception, not truth.”

Scribbled in red marker on the large whiteboard in his office, Marcus Aurelius’ words are a daily reminder of Andrew Firth’s complex reality.

“I like this quote,” said Firth, head of risk for WS Insight, one of South Sudan’s leading security firms. “It captures the volatility of the information environment here very well. It’s something we need to bear in mind, both when assessing and providing analysis.”

In a country that’s recently reclaimed the number one spot on the world’s Fragile States Index, South Sudan has been dubbed by many in the aid community as one of harshest climates in which to operate — especially when it comes to verifying and disseminating accurate information.

At one of the most reputable security organizations in South Sudan, the key to ensuring the safety of his clients is being able to gather, analyze and properly contextualize the vast amounts of news they constantly receive, Firth said.

“It’s a culture of storytellers and oral traditions,” Firth said of South Sudan. “Not to mention the curse of social media.”

As the world’s youngest nation heads into its fourth year of conflict, over 80 aid workers have been killed while trying to serve a population of roughly 12 million people. Plagued by fighting, famine and accusations of war crimes — by both government and opposition troops — South Sudan continues spiraling deeper into devastation.

Humanitarians on the ground are both stretched thin and concerned for their safety. As a result, many rely on external security contractors, such as WS Insight, to help inform and guide their movements.The company works with over 50 clients, providing advice to hundreds of people.

“Your own organization would rarely have the resources to be able to put a security team together and manage you across the country,” said the head of mission for a United Kingdom-based international organization and one of the firm’s clients. He spoke on the basis of anonymity out of concern for the company’s safety.

He said even though his organization has its own global security, it’s important to have people on the ground who have the presence, the network and who are able to put a team together and manage your people.

Having operated in South Sudan for the past eight years, WS Insight has roughly 5,000 employees who collate and examine information from across the country and then distribute it to their clients.

In order to sift through the data, every week Firth and his team have a meeting to share thoughts and perspectives.

At 9 a.m. on Friday morning, with coffee in hand, Firth walks the 10 steps from his office across a small compound to the conference room. Joined by colleagues from the central risk consultancy team and a few staff who work with key clients — such as embassies, hotels and compounds — the men take their seats around the table. Maps line the otherwise bare walls, highlighting specific “hot spots” in the nation.

“The soldiers got paid recently,” said one staffer kicking off the discussion, noting that this could lead to increased alcohol consumption and crime.  

“It’s the end of the dry season, which might be attributing to the uptick in violence,” said another member of the team.  

Everyone contributes snippets of news and shares insights they’ve accrued during the week.

Some staff express specific concerns from their clients and a general discussion ensues about the company’s role amongst NGOs, potential threats and emerging hazards that might affect an organization’s ability to operate.

“The goal of these meetings is to share information, highlight issues, decide how serious things are and draw connections from reports,” said Firth, who equates it to putting together pieces of a puzzle.

There was no concrete action plan as the meeting wound down, yet Firth said that’s normal as these sessions are designed to expose perceptions, not necessarily to produce specific results. Sometimes the talks also help fill in the gaps and emphasize areas of focus that need more attention going forward, he added.

If nothing else, these meetings should be able to assist his colleagues in continuing to work with their clients, by having a “broader and deeper understanding of the prevailing operating picture,” Firth said.

It’s this emphasis on understanding the wider context that is key to the firm’s overarching philosophy. They want to enable their clients by helping them to understand the greater framework so that they don’t react instinctively.

“Security can be very reactive,” Firth said, adding that it’s something the company tries to avoid by providing their people with the right information.

In order to do this, WS Insight has employees working across the country, collecting open source knowledge —  from newspapers, televisions, phone calls and text messages — all with the aim of helping organizations better understand their surroundings.

After being analyzed and reviewed, WS Insight’s clients receive a daily email report every day at roughly 5 p.m., with pertinent highlights. It includes breaking news, along with a country map checkered with the most recent and pressing incidents such as looting, rape, murder and abductions amongst other clashes and occurrences. The daily updates also includes short news stories, as well as news about relevant issues in neighboring countries.

“When I read this, I’m looking for the details and the patterns,” said the U.K. organization’s head of mission. “I look at Juba and their mapping and specific incidents to see if they’re picking up trends and if it corresponds to what I’ve seen the week before.”

In addition to the daily report, WS Insight also produces a weekly and monthly report, which provides analysis of broader concepts. For example, a recent issue focused on the potential impact of new appointments within the army. It looked at the possible consequences, as well as what led up to certain changes and what to keep on the radar in the coming months.

What some of WS Insight’s clients find most helpful however, are the daily chats on various social media channels. Every morning clients receive a short snippet of the most relevant information in a message, and throughout the day, if anything urgent unfolds, social media is one of the first mediums for communicating updates.  

“It was their chat group in July that persuaded me that WS Insight was the right company,” said the head of mission, noting that when clashes erupted in Juba last summer, the immediacy of the group helped him see everything that was happening in real time.

Yet as important as the breaking news is, Firth said, it’s imperative for both his staff and his clients not to get stuck on the “first report” of everything that comes out. Instead, he seeks information from multiple sources and encourages his staff to pause and ensure they’re seeing the bigger picture.

“If you adopt an extreme way of doing things, you’ll never find the time to take a step back and see how these things fit together,” Firth said.

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About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.