Keeping tabs on volatile situations around the world

Violent unrest in the Mideast is raising thorny issues for multinational companies and nonprofits with employees and assets in the region. Stay or evacuate? And would trying to leave put workers in even more danger?

These are the kinds of questions that Annapolis-based iJET Intelligent Risk Systems works to answer. Effectively an intelligence agency for the business crowd, iJET is part of the international risk-management industry that works to ensure that companies can conduct business safely in all corners of the globe.

The firm, founded in 1999 by a former National Security Agency operative and others, keeps track of trouble — from outbreaks of disease to armed conflicts — while also giving clients regular briefings and marshaling help when evacuations are required.

The privately held company, which employs 106, has nearly 500 clients. A spokeswoman says its revenue has increased at a cumulative annual rate of nearly 30 percent in the past seven years, and it expects at least that much growth in the near future.

Ed Daly, one of iJET's two directors of intelligence, oversees the worldwide monitoring effort. He's not an ex-spy; he came to the company in 2004 from the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank. Daly, 43, lives in Arnold.

He chatted recently with The Baltimore Sun about how the company gathers information; what it did for clients in Egypt, where a popular uprising last month unseated a 30-year president, and in Libya, whose dictator has hired foreign mercenaries to quash a civil uprising; and whether iJET has more in common with the Central Intelligence Agency or the United Nations.

Question: Who are your clients?

Answer: It can be a major corporation. It might be a university. It could be a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, that has people out in the field in some fairly dangerous places. It could be someone from the finance sector, from the extract sector — meaning mining or oil. It's a pretty varied group.

Our base is international. We don't like to think of ourselves solely as a U.S. company — we just happen to be based here. Foreign clients who travel here, we're offering them intelligence on the U.S.

Q: What risks are you on the watch for?

A: Typically security is a big one.

There are so many other things that can affect people abroad or just existing operations anywhere. So it could be a transportation disruption. It could be a problem in the airline industry; it could be a problem choking a major artery somewhere.

We'll see a lot of things that are [worth] situation reports about the early stages, a certain trend emerging in a country or region. As that develops more fully, we'll turn that into an alert. Unless it's an absolutely breaking situation, like a bombing, it'll start as an information alert: "This isn't something affecting you now, but you should put it on your radar."

But obviously when you're talking about the Middle East or a country in the Middle East that's exploding, that's a critical event that's going to affect travel.

Q: You're looking for health risks, too, aren't you?

A: H1N1 [or swine flu] and the bird flu … tuberculosis, any number of diseases that could be prevailing in an area in which you're sending people. You want to be aware of that.

Q: Do you have clients with people or operations in Libya? Are you evacuating anyone from that country?

A: By this point, our clients' personnel have departed Libya; they were able to depart without requiring a full-scale evacuation.

Q: When protests or natural disasters turn a country volatile, how do you get workers out?

A: Egypt's probably the best example.

We had to go out and pluck the clients from the various points around Cairo using a local, secure transportation provider. Our analysts arranged that in Cairo. So we picked them up individually or in groups using secure transport, and we transported them to a safe haven.

Once everyone was there, we moved them in a secure convoy to the airport. … We had, waiting for us, a charter plane.

Q: What was the hardest evacuation?

A: Haiti … because there was no infrastructure anywhere. Once the quake happened [in January 2010], it made a difficult situation almost impossible. We had to rely on sporadic Internet access, but really [more on] satellite phones.

The devil is in the details each time. Typically, communication is the challenge.

Q: How does iJET keep track of where clients' employees are?

A: We have a list of itineraries of all of our clients' travelers. Also, we do asset monitoring, which tells us where people's offices are, where their supply chains are located. We have all of that in a database as well as located on a map. So really the client just has to go in and punch in their location, and up will come a list.

Q: How did the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks change your business?

A: When 9/11 happened, our clients … were able to get into the system to see where their people were or were supposed to be.

Others without that ability were absolutely blind and had to wait to hear from people one by one by one. Once word got out that iJET had that ability, we really began to take off.

Q: When Americans think intelligence gathering, what usually comes to mind is the CIA or NSA — or maybe James Bond. What similarities or differences do you see between iJET's intelligence work and the government-sponsored kind?

A: We're both looking for patterns. That's really what both the formal intel community and the private intel community are doing.

When people ask us to predict or prognosticate, we're … predicting based on earlier patterns we've seen over long periods of time.

Intelligence gathering is not really a sexy business. It is a slow, painstaking, trial-and-error business.

Q: Is iJET still staffed largely by retired spies, as it was in the beginning?

A: There are certainly some here from the formal intel community. We also staff the intel community with the people that we train here.

But we are not working in conjunction with them.

Q: How do you monitor risk?

A: We're not really a mini-CIA with guys in trench coats running around. We use a combination of sources. When we hire, we hire with an eye toward bringing in people who have an existing intelligence network.

It would be the wrong impression to say we're just sitting here reading the BBC and the big Western press, because if we wait for information to reach [the news media], we'll never get it in time. So what we want to get is people reading in their languages, so they can get this as early as possible. It might be through an Asian website; it might be on a Twitter feed somewhere. It might be on a blog.

The point is to have as diverse a crew here as possible, so we're reaching out to as many sources in as many languages as possible.

Rather than saying [we're a] mini-CIA, I much prefer the term mini-U.N. Because we do have people from all over the planet, which is one of our greatest strengths.

Q: Is the work fun?

A: I love it, I absolutely love it. Primarily it's the people that keep me here, but it's also the fact that you sort of know what you're doing on a given day, but because it's driven by events, there's always that mystery walking in the door. You never know quite what's going to take over your day.