Some time ago I presented Personal Protection Workshops that involved a range of avoidance skills... one of which was learning how to do a cleaning run.
In counter-surveillance terms a cleaning run is a process that cleans away any tail that you may have picked up. And these days, that tail may well be a petty criminal or a teenage gang who have decided to follow you... waiting for a vulnerable moment to rob or attack you.
The benefit of using a cleaning run is that it exposes exactly who is following you, and how many there are. And that gives you the opportunity to clean-off your tail and suddenly disappear... thereby avoiding any physical confrontation.
To give you an idea of what can be involved, following is a description of a classic cleaning run from the BBC spy drama 'Spooks'.
The story-line involved two MI-5 agents sitting in a car, watching a suspect who was referred to as 'the target'.
The target came out of his house and started walking down the street. One of the agents got out of the car and followed him.
Suddenly the target stopped, bent down to fix his shoe-lace, and casually looked around. It's an old spy trick that's used to see if anyone else stops and waits.
The agent had to walk past him, because stopping would have drawn attention to himself... and that would have exposed him as being 'a tail.'
The target then stood up and started walking back the other way... discreetly checking to see if anyone else turned to follow him.
The target then went down into a subway station... and the agent followed... walking in amongst the crowd.
The agent made his way along the platform until he found where the the target had stopped... but walked straight past him and stood further up the platform.
The target then asked a stranger for directions, and pointing at his small book of street maps. But this was just a ploy to scan the area. As the target spoke he casually glanced around, looking to see if anyone was looking his way.
The target then thanked the stranger, leaned against a wall, and looked down at his book of maps. And from time to time he would casually look around.
A train soon pulled into the subway station, and people stared to get on. But the target didn't move... he just stayed leaning against the wall, as if he didn't want that particular train.
The agent had a hunch that the target might get on the train at the last minute, so he took the chance and stepped into the carriage. Then just as the siren sounded to signal that the doors were about to close, the target suddenly got on the train.
As a side-note, my Ninjutsu teacher in Japan used to always get on and off a train at the very last minute. It was a tactic he practiced to make it hard for anyone to follow him. It certainly made if difficult for me to travel anywhere with him, because he'd suddenly make a move for the door without giving me any warning at all.
But let's get back to the story-line from Spooks. The agent took a seat on the train and watched the target without looking directly at him. Instead, he used the reflections in the windows, and also watched him out of the corner of his eye.
All the time, the target just leaned against the wall and looked down at his book. And every now and then he would look up and casually scan the carriage to see if anyone was watching him.
The train then started to slow down as it pulled into a station. The target kept looking down as if he didn't intend to get off, but the agent noticed that he slowly closed his book.
Recognising that as being a prepration to move, the agent got off as soon as the doors opened... and at the last minute the target got off as well.
As the crowd made their way up the underground escaltors, the agent had no idea how far behind the target was, but he couldn't afford to turn around and look back. He knew that he had already been noticed as a fellow passenger at least twice : once standing on the platform ; and again in the carriiage. So he couldn't risk being noticed a third time.
In counter-surveillance the number '3' is the magic number. If you notice something once, it could mean nothing. If you notice it twice, it could just be a coincidence. But if you notice it 3 times, then it's time to take evasive action and disappear.
As the agent walked out onto the street he stopped and casually leaned up against the wall of the building, making sure that he was facing away from the exit so that his face couldn't easilly be seen by the target as he came out.
Within a matter of seconds the target emerged and walked straight past him to a public telephone, and made a call.
That was the end of the cleaning run, and as you might expect, it was a happy ending for MI-5.
Now here's a summary of the techniques that were presented in that story-line :
- stop to check your pocket or look in your bag (and casually look around)
- turn and walk in the opposite direction (and look for any shocked faces)
- ask a stranger (or police) for directions, and look around as you speak
- look down at a book or ipod, and casually look up now and then
- get on and off a train (or bus) at the very last minute.
It's so easy really... and it just takes a little practice to make it a natural habit.
All you have to do is practice one tactic for a few days each.
It's Primal Protection.