The San Francisco peninsula is now home to a slew of private security companies filled with ex-military, former international counterterrorism experts, and government officials who were in charge of cyber-warfare with other nation states. The job of these security outfits is to protect the well-being and safety of not only the richest people on the planet, but also the biggest tech companies on earth. Roderick Jones, who founded one such company, Concentric, works at the center of this growing industry. Before moving to Silicon Valley to work with some of the most prominent CEOs on the planet, Jones used to work for Scotland Yard’s Special Branch on international terrorism and also protected a high-profile British cabinet member.
While Jones could easily be a central character in a John le Carré novel (who knows, maybe he secretly is), he’s been getting more attention in the tech world lately for a new nonprofit he started called the 188 Foundation, which is a first-of-its-kind nonprofit with one simple goal: getting people out of war zones using donations from the tech world. He works with a network of volunteers as well as a team of employees who used to work for a variety of clandestine divisions of the government made up of three-letter acronyms (who could also be characters in the same le Carré novel). Currently, Jones has a team in Ukraine helping to get people to safety in Poland and elsewhere, almost exclusively using donations from people who work for tech companies. The team of volunteers in Ukraine—56 people in all, unarmed, and six dogs, across 19 separate and unique operations—have spent the past three weeks shepherding babies and families out of the country against the backdrop of falling bombs, gunfire, and power outages. While Jones can’t go into the exact specifics of each operation for security reasons, he says the team has been evacuating some of the country’s most vulnerable, including a blind woman they got out of the center of the war. The following is an edited conversation with Jones.
Vanity Fair: You have a team in Ukraine right now getting people out of the country. How is it going so far?
Roderick Jones: The team is led by a couple of experts from the U.S. national security community who are familiar with the country and in particular the Russian threat. They speak the local languages and have the capability to move around the non-occupied parts of the country. Their approach is similar to how we do a lot of private security jobs around the world by sending in domain experts from our company who then integrate local capabilities into the team. The evacuations of citizens all require constant intelligence analysis of Russian presence and occupation, logistical coordination, connecting people to vehicles with the necessary fuel, and permissions and specific paperwork to pass through countless checkpoints.
A sign hangs in a shopwindow in Lviv tallying the number of people killed.Courtesy of The 188 Foundation.
You first started this new kind of work in Afghanistan. How successful was that operation, and how did it come to be?
We evacuated over 188 people from Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan, approximately eight hours before the last American soldiers left the country. Our flight of passengers was Afghan citizens (and their families) who had aided the United States—they’d worked on empowering women, or had worked on the in-country polio eradication efforts. As the situation deteriorated in Kabul, I was initially contacted by a good friend who was trying to help evacuate some of the local Afghans and who had helped document human rights abuses in the country. As a security company, we maintain a large network of people globally, and we were able to connect resources, contacts, and capabilities together rapidly to conduct a rescue. As a result of the war and subsequent success of rescuing people, we founded our own 501(c)(3), the 188 Foundation—after the number of people we were able to save. After that, we knew there would be more opportunities in which we could provide security solutions to philanthropic initiatives, but we didn’t think it would come as swiftly, nor on the mass scale, as the Ukraine humanitarian crisis did.
What’s the difference, in terms of logistics, with getting people out of Ukraine and getting people out of Afghanistan?