Travel Safety & Terrorism

In light of recent terrorist attacks in France, Germany, Turkey, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, many people’s perceptions have now been skewered from what they believed were generally ‘safe’ countries into places we can’t necessarily presume are any more. Increasingly it feels that virtually nowhere appears safe or exempt from some incident or attack by some radical extremist.  And the recent coup attempt in Turkey only serves to add to this newfound uncertainty. 

The reality is, in fact, very different. 

Statistically, the actual likelihood of personally experiencing a terrorist incident is still (thankfully) extremely low, and we are more likely to be a victim of low-level criminality, such as bag snatching or other street crime, on our holidays or travels. However, with the increased focus by the media towards reporting and highlighting the more terrorist-related matters, only adds to heighten the collective anxiety and uncertainty most people are understandably feeling these days. 

Almost daily I’m asked where is safe to travel to, which has more traditionally been with regards politically fragile, emerging and high-risk countries, but now extends to even typically tourist and leisure destinations. 

The general question of ‘Where is absolutely safe?’  is a difficult question to answer. There are a few countries that do not have a 'history' of terrorism (a pretty accurate recent list can be found at (http://www.theweek.co.uk/64495/the-ten-safest-and-ten-most-dangerous-countries-in-the-world) but most conventionally 'civilised' locations are now deemed vulnerable especially due to the spontaneity of the current trend of attacks and varying ‘delivery’ methods (trains, shopping centre, trucks, nightclubs and now even churches) these extremists are using. But do remember; these incidents are still relatively few when compared to ‘general’ crime. For example, we have approximately forty-five knife related crimes everyday in the UK, alone, which brings some recent incidents perhaps into some degree of perspective (In another post I will discuss how the 'association' behind even low-level attacks needs to be viewed and perhaps considered from alternate perspectives).

Therefore, I’ve endeavoured within this article to counter this anxiety by providing some means of 're-empowering' you with what you and your family can do to keep safe, avoid or if unlucky enough to get caught up in a situation, the best steps you can potentially take.  

I’ve presented this advice within three sections; The Basics, Planning and Reaction.

Basics covers the foundation advice to maintaining basic and general personal safety

Planning will address some of the things to consider when selecting your destination and preparations you should think about before you travel.

Reaction is what to do if you find yourself in an incident. As each situation could be different and potentially in a diversity of situations, this should be considered as ‘general’ advice to apply regardless of whether you are on a beach, a train, a shopping centre or in the middle of a street should it happen. 

THE BASICS

The following two tips are things you should and probably need to start applying every day. These will keep you generally safe and significantly improve your chances of even avoiding criminal, let alone terrorist, threats.

TIP # 1         Trust Your Instinct

This, if nothing else, is probably the best overall piece of advice I can give you with regard your general personal safety. 

This should apply not only on your travels but every-day. Sixth sense, gut-reaction, call it what you like, instincts are our inherent and fundamental self-protective tool and means of often detecting a threat, especially when it isn’t necessarily obvious. 

In many situations leading up to any kind of attack, especially personal ones like a robbery or assault, you may have little else to alert you that you could be at risk. It might be also be all you have and can rely on.

Therefore, if you see someone or a group of people acting ‘suspiciously’ – don’t ignore it, DO SOMETHING. If your ‘gut’ is telling you something’s or someone is wrong, then it probably is. Take action and move as far away as you can from the place or people that are making you feel uncomfortable.

I could probably safely say that if you asked any security professional, anywhere in the world, how much they listen to their instinct I guarantee they will tell you it often takes precedence above all their other training. Paying attention to my instinct has certainly paid-off on more than a few occasions.

TIP # 2        Situational Awareness

We all lead busy lives and these have been made even busier by the technology we have introduced into it. Constant news-feeds, social media postings, emails, texting. We’re bombarded continually and feel obliged or its' necessary to engage immediately through our phones and devices. Walking down any street in any city in the world has become a challenge to avoid colliding with some other person, head down, absorbed by their phone and their various social media, messages, emails and news feeds. And that's not even including those playing Pokemon GO!

As a result, being so pre-occupied by our ‘technical’ worlds, can often make us oblivious to what is actually going on around us.  How can you anticipate or identify a threat if we don’t even see it till perhaps the very last minute? Our distraction can often be the enemy’s advantage. 

To be safe and see the problem before it becomes a problem – Look Up. Take in what and who is around you. Has someone got on your train carriage or bus that makes you feel ‘uncomfortable’? Is there someone or a group or people walking towards you down the street that could be a threat? See an unattended bag? The earlier we see it, the better chance we have to avoid it? 

Perhaps consider answering or posting those ‘important’ messages or reading the latest social media post when you are static; sat on a train, in your office or at home, rather than when you’re on the move. If it’s really that essential and critical, maybe walk into a shop, café or similar, momentarily, and deal with it there? 

Don’t allow yourself to appear vulnerable, for example like a tourist stood-still, lost, concentrating on their map and standing-out like a perfect target for any would-be pickpocket or mugger.

Equally, when on holiday. I appreciate the whole point is to relax but we still need to keep aware of who is around us -  if only to prevent becoming a victim of crime. When you go for a swim in the pool or the sea, you'll still be conscious of protecting your valuables you left by your lounger?  

PLANNING

So you’re planning a trip for holiday or business, here are a few things to consider;

TIP # 3        Your Destination – taking your pick

As the threat from terrorism is potentially everywhere, the question will continue to be ‘where can I go that’s safe?’. The simple and realistic answer is that there is no absolute safety anywhere. 

Therefore, we have to rely on the best and most reliable sources; our own Government advice is a good start. Dozens of analysts are working round the clock, linking in to our domestic and overseas intelligence agencies and their counterparts in every other country in the world. They are continually and tirelessly monitoring and assessing the threats to ensure they can safeguard not only our nationals living overseas but also those intending to travel on holidays and business.

The government has the responsibility for ensuring, where possible, the optimum safety for its citizens or at least highlight what degree of risk could be presented and where. 

When selecting where you might wish to travel to, refer to the FCO (https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice) and even the US State Department Travel Advisory (https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/go.html) websites. They will outline which countries are currently facing higher risks, any travel alerts you should be aware of as well as useful visa, health and general safety. 

TIP # 4        Prepare & Plan Ahead

Hopefully, and in the vast majority of occasions, your trip will be ‘incident-free’. However, it’s not a bad idea to prepare some ‘contingencies’ in the event something does go wrong. 

So maybe photograph your passports, credit cards and other important documents and email them to yourself (in case you lose your phone), so if you lose these documents while you’re away you can retrieve the details easily if needing a replacement. 

Have a quick search on the internet and find out useful numbers that you may need while you’re out there and keep a record (on your phone) or again email them to yourself so you can retrieve them easily. These could include local Embassy or Consulate numbers and operating hours, your travel insurance number and telephone number, local hospitals, etc.

When you book your hotel, request a room away from the lifts and fire exits. Rooms nearest to these are commonly more often likely to be robbed, so being in the centre of the floor is usually a safer option. If you are more of an ‘adventure’ traveler and going somewhere in the more ‘off-beaten path’ locations, advance request a room between the 1st and 7th floors. In the more emerging and developing parts of the world the Fire Response ladders might not extend higher. 

On arriving at your hotel or resort, take a few moments to ‘familiarise’ yourself with the venue and find out where the fire escapes are, what security there is on the beach, in the hotel or at the entrance. Could be useful to know where to get help should you need it.

It’s not just an old cliché that CIA/Special Ops ‘types’ always first check where their exits are when they enter any room or environment. It’s actually very good practice. So if you’re in a shopping mall, hotel, restaurant or even a café, consider where you might go if your original entry point might be denied. This is also good practice for situations beyond terrorism like even being caught in a fire.

It is also worth agreeing a plan with your partner or family members for where you will all meet if separated or if there’s an emergency either when you’re in the hotel (for example, to meet in one of your rooms, at the reception, etc.) but also when outside and sightseeing away from the hotel (could be at the entrance to a market, a particular shop, café, restaurant or even back at the hotel). Many of you with small children probably do this already in the event they get separated or lost from you on day’s out.

Hopefully you won’t need to action any of these plans, but you may regret it if you haven’t taken the few minutes to do a little research and preparation.

RESPONSE

Within this section, I cover what to do if you are caught-up in an actual situation.

TIP # 5        RUN

Sounds obvious but it actually isn’t. We will need to resist our inherent human nature to be curious and desire to investigate. If you can, move as quickly as you feasibly can in the opposite direction to any ‘suspicious’ noise until you feel sufficiently far enough away to be safe. Remember, the more distance you create between you and a potential threat, the safer you will be.

TIP # 6        HIDE

If you have little or no other option (i.e. the only direction you can run will or might take you directly into harms’ way), then hiding might be your best and only option. Equally, as in the terrorist situations like Tunisia, remaining indoors could be your much safer option till you can determine what’s going on. However, in situations like the Mumbai terrorist attack, leaving and escaping the hotel could be your best option. Each situation can be different, so prepare as much as you can for every eventuality.

Your best hiding place should be ideally somewhere with more than one exit that can be secured (either lockable or you can barricade). This should also be behind ‘hard cover’ which means in, behind or even beneath a solid structure with concrete walls. This will improve your chances of not being harmed by any gunfire, blast or shrapnel created from an explosion.

TIP # 7        SILENCE IS GOLDEN

If you need to hide, then keeping quiet could very well save you and any others with you. This means turning your devices and friends/family/or others with you to ‘silent’ too. Don’t risk making any phone calls unless it’s really worth the risk. Consider that if there is a marauding threat (terrorist gunmen/Active Shooter), they could come looking for hostages or victims. Don’t make it easy for them. So keep as quiet as you can. Perhaps consider pre-inputting '999' (or 112 if overseas) into your phone and keep it to hand to simply press 'send' if you need to.

TIP # 8        SAFE HAVENS

A Safe Haven is anywhere you can potentially take refuge or even hide in till it’s safe. If there’s gunfire or an explosion, go immediately somewhere you can potentially stay within for an extended period of time. This could be a hotel, restaurant, café, shop. Keep away from the main entrance, windows and any large glass windows, walls or panels. Even hide under a table if nothing else is available. More people are often seriously injured or even die as a result of the shrapnel (broken glass, metal, masonry, etc.) than from the actual explosion of a bomb.

TIP # 9        REGROUP

If you are with friends or family and get separated, decide and agree in advance where you will all meet. This could be a Safe Haven or even at your home or office - if these are reasonable to get to. 

Also, agree a second location in the event that your first choice is either in the area of risk, you may have to cross an area of danger or the others can’t or may not be able to get to it. This second location should be further away but reasonable (based on your group’s physical abilities) to get to. 

For example, if you are in a shopping centre then your 1st location might be the main entrance and your 2nd location is in a nearby coffee shop outside the centre. On a train your 1st could be the guard or driver’s station/cabin and the 2nd the dining car. At a hotel, your 1st could be the reception and the 2nd is one of your bedrooms.

Remember you’re not restricted to only two locations. You may want to select and agree on a third too.

Lastly, agree a timeframe and cut-off within which you need to meet at the first location before you then move to the second location. I would generally advise no longer than waiting more than 1 hour. 

TIP # 10    REPORT IT

Lastly, reporting it. If you can use your mobile – only when it’s safe for you to do so. i.e. not in your hiding place or while you are still in the middle of the situation unless you feel the chances are you will be discovered or captured. Also, only do it when you are at a safe distance. 

If there are any security or police nearby, you can always tell them. Importantly, check-in with your friends, family and work colleagues by call or email (if no service connection but you can use Wi-Fi) to let them know you’re safe. The Media will likely be already publicising what is going on and they will be worried and want to know you’re safe. If the ability to communicate is limited, ask people to contact them and spread the message you’re safe. If you can achieve a wifi connection, check Twitter for the FCO  (Foreign Commonwealth Office) as they frequently post an emergency number the soonest they can for you to contact.

This article has tried to present a concise list of considerations but, in summary, the above should be considered as 'general' advice as every situation can be different. Remember, the chances of finding yourself in a terrorist situation or incident is still statistically small but there's no harm in doing what you can to avoid it, be prepared if it happens and generally keeping safe.