The US State Department today issued a worldwide travel alert in effect until February 24, 2016.
The alert was issued because authorities believe the likelihood of terrorist attacks will continue, and that terrorists will employ both conventional and nonconventional weapons and targeting official and private events and interests.
So what does this mean? Should you still go on that planned holiday vacation? Or is it time to stay home, cover up with a blanket and bunker in?
Go on vacation. But have some common sense about your travel.
From a practical perspective, expect that airport screening lines will get longer along with processing times at US Ports of Entry, and at customs and immigration processing areas throughout much of the world. Get to the airport sooner and allow extra time for travel.
Exercise vigilance when traveling. There is no need to be overly paranoid, just take a few basic steps particularly if you are traveling overseas. The US State Department alert says that you should exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation and be aware of immediate surroundings, and avoid large crowds or crowded places. That can be kind of difficult if your travel plans call for you to be in large crowds or in crowded places. So let’s take a look at some practical steps you can take.
When going into crowded areas, whether you are in open air venues, or closed-door venues such as theaters, shopping malls, etc., take a look around and identify the closest exits. Consider your options if the shooting starts, such as where you will take cover and how you can egress if the situation arises. Take a casual look around and identify any individuals who seem to be exhibiting behaviors that are not the baseline for that particular venue or activity. Either avoid them, or if they are very suspicious, report them to authorities. Take a look for unattended items.
Know the location and the phone number of the American Embassy, or whatever Embassy is related to your country. Carry a cell phone that works in your area. Program the address of the embassy into your cell phones GPS so that you don’t have to waste time doing this later, during an emergency.
Register with the US Department of State Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This will help US Embassy contact you in an emergency such as a natural disaster, civil unrest or family emergency. Be sure to check in periodically with media and local information sources and be prepared to adjust travel plans and activities as necessary.
If you are traveling with family or friends, establish a rally point should you get separated, and know each other’s emergency points of contact back home, so you can get in touch with family members or friends of your traveling companions.
When travelling by air, actually review the emergency card so that your brain at least has some information about how to open an emergency exit doors of the situation arise. Yes, there is a reason the flight attendants give you this speech every single time. If there is an incident on the aircraft, you need to be able to get out safety. There are plenty of stories of people surviving the crash but then dying due to smoke inhalation or superheated air. Obviously, if you see someone suspicious or acting suspicious on the aircraft, notify the flight attendant immediately.
If you take public transportation, don’t fall asleep on the taxi, bus, subway or train. Be alert. Have an exit strategy. Particularly if you are in a taxi, remember you’re basically in a car with a stranger.
Don’t believe you are any safer in a hotel either. Hotel crime takes place routinely, but also terrorist attacks such as the Mumbai active shooter incident in 2008, targeted some hotels, and hotels have also been targets for terrorist bombings. If you have a choice, get a room between floors 3-6. Criminals tend to target the first two floors, and any higher than the 6th floor, and you might be out of range of fire department ladders. Room by a stairwell may seem like a good estate plan, the criminals often target rooms next to stairwells since they do not have to wait for the elevator in order to escape.
Review the emergency exit map in your hotel room and know where the emergency exits are. Lock your door of course, and I am a proponent of taking your valuables with you. There are plenty of YouTube videos that explain how to break into the hotel safes. You may also consider getting a security bag to keep your valuables in. Get in the habit of locking items in your suitcase when you are away. I recommend taking a non-TSA lock with you as many criminals have now figured out how to obtain keys (thanks to a Twitter post of the TSA keys) to open TSA locks. Many hotel crimes are crimes of opportunity that you don’t make it easy, many criminals will just move on.
What about the deadline? Does it mean it’s all clear after February 24th?
Alert deadlines are established so that we don’t always remain on a high state of alert. It is impossible to always be DEFCON 1. This isn’t to say that the alert won’t be renewed, but from an intelligence perspective, many terrorist operations rely a little bit on timing and logistics. Sometimes alerts are issued to throw off the timing and logistics. Regardless, the terrorist threat will no more end on February 24 than the threat of next year’s flu virus will end on a specific date. It’s just that with recent events, and likely some intelligence chatter, the potential for an attack is greater right now, through the holiday season.
What you should probably not do in light of this worldwide alert, is stay home and be afraid. That is exactly the outcome terrorists want to achieve. The chances of being involved in a terrorist attack are still far lower than dying from a household accident, or a car accident due to distracted driving, or frankly, of heart disease. Enjoy your life, keep a healthy awareness about you, and if something does not feel right, move away from the situation.