For a nice Jewish boy who grew up on Beverly Hills' Whittier Drive, Aaron Cohen has an unusual skill: He can kill people.
He'd prefer not to, but if he must, he will. And it's not a joking matter. It's part of the training that he picked up in three years in the counterterrorism unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It's part of the package he delivers if you sign up to work with his year-and-a-half-old company, IMS (Israeli Military Specialists).
"There's definitely a respect not just in the Jewish community but elsewhere for the IDF," Cohen said. "That gets you in the door. What's going to sell it is the ability to analyze a problem and tell them what they need. There's feel-good security and there's real security. We offer real security."
Cohen, 26, likes to tell people he was "born and raised here, but grew up in Israel." After graduating Beverly Hills High School in 1995, he went to Israel, volunteered for the IDF and was selected for counterterrorism work. He won't give details of training or assignments, which adds to the mystique. He will say he spent three years undercover in the disputed territories, then he came home.
He started his company in October 2000. Jackie Chan was one of his first clients from the showbiz world, one of the few famous ones Cohen will talk about, because they've been seen in public together. "When Jackie Chan is in town, his management company comes only to us. We also deal with major corporate clients, but I can't reveal them," Cohen said.
Then came Sept. 11. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about Israeli-style security, and how Israeli security would have prevented the hijackers from commandeering those passenger jets. Israeli planes already have secure cockpit doors. Israeli pilots know that if someone comes through that door, they shoot. Period.
Cohen explained his approach: "Let's say the president of a corporation is getting threatening e-mails or has a problem with an employee. We consult, analyze and recommend. If hired, we set up everything, from cameras to guards to training to background checks. If they had pre-Sept. 11 security paying $18 an hour for a guard, half of that goes to the guard, half to their company. Nobody's going to risk their lives for $9 an hour.
"I make it clear we're expensive, $5,000 dollars a day for the initial consultation, but I explain why. If you're going to have armed guards, you want people with as much experience as possible."
The media, myself included as a then-correspondent for "EXTRA," couldn't get enough of the Israeli angle. That brought me and a camera crew to a private shooting range in Valencia. Cohen, his staff and trainers, speaking in Hebrew, were all business, as they should be when you're handling live ammunition. Practicing with real bullets and firing Glock 9 mm pistols certainly seems to keep you focused. First it was "Israeli-style tactical shooting." I was on the firing line with Cohen leaning over my shoulder. You draw, aim and shoot in one smooth motion. There is no time wasted sighting. Why? In combat you don't have the time to lock in the sights on your target.
Then it was time for the VIP protection drill. I would be playing that role in the back seat of a rented Lincoln, one guard next to me, another driving. We rolled up to a mock arrival line. I got out, escorted by the guard that was sitting next to me, when the "attack" happened. A masked gunman came at us out of nowhere, pistol blazing. "Gun!" someone shouted. The guard's body shielded mine. He drew his gun and fired. Then I was turned around and propelled back into the backseat of the car, the guard on top of me, as we roared off. It took about five seconds. The gunman who had "attacked" us? Dead. My guard "shot" him before shoving me back into the car. (We switched to blanks loads for this exercise.)
The Israelis have a method: If you attack them, they not only fight back, they make sure you're dead before they leave. Again, it adds to the mystique. A dramatic demonstration for our cameras? Yes, but at the same time, very impressive.
There is competition from larger established companies, but Cohen thinks he has an edge that comes with the "I" in the company name. He says it's not about the money.
"I'd rather have two clients who do what we tell them to do and benefit from our services than 500 clients who have feel-good security and we'd benefit financially."
Yet, he's alarmed because a year after Sept. 11, he sees people starting to relax. Despite the ongoing warnings, Cohen finds that people, companies, executives and celebrities are once again less than vigilant. Not him though. Never.