Traveling in an Age of Terrorism

January 29, 2010

You’ve arrived in a foreign land, and are suddenly surrounded by distress. What do you do in a terrorist attack where you are caught entirely off guard, not fluent in the local language, and have no clue where help might be? It’s a frightening scenario and since 9/11, a concern Americans face when travelling abroad. And while individual travelers might not be able to prevent or predict terrorist activity, there are precautions and tips that help us when we leave home:

Pre Travel Precautions:

  • Check State department Travel Warnings which explain places where our embassy might have constraints in assisting citizens due to present turmoil  (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html)
  • Avail the free Travel Registration Service allowing you to “record information about your upcoming trip abroad so the Department of State may assist you in case of emergency”. This is especially useful for long term international travel because it allows the embassy to know who missing persons are. In times of trouble, they might work with local government contacts to locate you, or if you’re injured, help you find proper medical attention. (https://travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui/)
  • Check in with close friends, family, and trusted contacts to get inside information from people who have visited or lived in your destination country and might know how and whom to address in emergency situations

On Arrival:

  • Check local laws. Certain crimes carry heavier punishments than ours. A good example is the 1996 case of American Michael Fay who was caned for allegedly vandalizing cars with graffiti in Singapore (a charge he denies). Despite strong pressure from the U.S. embassy and even President Bill Clinton urging Singapore to ease the penalty, Fay suffered 12 strokes by cane and 4 months in jail. So be sure to mind local laws that could be vastly different from ours. Other examples include stricter penalties on drugs, including marijuana and even bans on pornography in some Middle Eastern countries.
  • Keep trusted people informed of your plans. Email hotel information and other contact info of who you plan to visit in addition to your itinerary to trusted persons. It’s important others know of your whereabouts to help track you down in case of emergency or if you wind up missing.
  • Maintain photocopies of passports separate from originals in your luggage in case originals are lost.
  • Convert to local currency and carry only a couple credit cards. Americans usually have numerous cards, but Visa and Amex are mostly sufficient abroad. Don’t burden yourself with extraneous modes of payment, or reasons to be mugged!

When Abroad

(especially in places of turmoil, terrorist activity or where there could be Anti-American Sentiment):

  • Consider refraining from using your first name when possible.
  • Keep from walking into crowded places such as local markets when alone.
  • Typical targets of terrorist activity are western hotels, American franchises, resort areas, and shopping places frequented by tourists and while those are places you might be likely to visit, be sure to go with trusted escorts and rarely alone.
  • Be careful about getting into vociferous discussions on touchy political, religious or ideological issues.
  • Merge with local customs and appearances. Don’t be loud or inadvertently disturb cultural sensitivities with your behavior or attire. Especially females. For instance, in some Muslim countries women opt for more modest clothes, and an American in shorts and a tank top might draw unnecessary, and unwanted attention in those situations
  • Avoid public transport. Opt for government/federally authorized taxi services. Saudi Arabia and Mexico have been known for private taxi services that are unreliable if not entirely fake operations!

If An Attack Occurs:

  • Distance yourself from the site of the attack and become as inconspicuous as possible.
  • Don’t argue with authorities. And don’t assume Miranda rights or other American style protection services are immediately available to you. Cooperate with authorities: your “right to remain silent” or to “counsel” is secondary to safety and may not be relevant or offered at all.
  • If transportation is operating normally, find the earliest flight back. If transportation is disrupted, seek assistance from the U.S. embassy
  • Remember the point of terrorism is to instill fear, try not to fall into that trap. Don’t panic & remain calm.

If Kidnapped:

  • Keep quiet & listen carefully. Answer questions but don’t voluntarily divulge extraneous information or opinions.
  • Carefully assess the risk at hand. Is escape a viable opportunity? There is often a high risk involved in attempting to escape.
  • Memorize the appearance of your surroundings and captors. If freed, that will be invaluable to bringing the terrorists to justice.
  • Don’t be aggressive
  • Patiently get to know your kidnappers and pay close attention to their sentiments so as to ensure you don’t offend them. Listening and even pretending to understand or be sympathetic to their cause/ideology, no matter how disturbing, might go a long way in buying negotiation time.
  • Clearly ascertain the situation: what is their objective, demands and cause. Do they have a political objective or are they seeking ransom.
  • Plead

Bomb or Sabotage:

  • Assess the situation & be aware of your surroundings. The first moments are likely followed by shock & chaos. Gather yourself and find safe haven to distance yourself from harm
  • Remain vigilant and listen and watch for where safety/medical attention is available – get to your hotel and contact the embassy who will guide you on what to do.

Chemical Warfare

–       Shield yourself with clothing or something else to act as a gas mask.

–       Most imperative is fleeing the area with some form of covering on your mouth and nose.

–       If you can, wet your shirt and use it as a gas mask and breathe only enough air to get you away from the attack

Hijacking/Hostage Situation:

–       Don’t antagonize your captors. Keep quite and listen.

–       Evaluate the consequences of being proactive in battling terrorists. If hostage takers are on a suicide mission, it might be worthy to take action. If they are negotiating with authorities and have a financial objective, trying to be hero may be an impediment to ultimate safety for everyone. So a careful evaluation of the situation is key.

–       As with kidnappers, memorize the appearance of your captors. Notice names, height, weight, language, hair color, eyes, hair type, clothing and whatever other details will help authorities recognize them in the future.

After an attack:

–       Immediate evacuation might not be necessary, but you should consider cutting the trip short and leaving the country should the situation worsen

–       Seek embassy advice and assistance in the event that there is a complete breakdown of law and order. They can help arrange for your evacuation in the absence of governmental control.

***** DISCLAIMER *****

Zainab Jeewanjee is not a security expert. She is a blogger, sales director and tenured student.

Anything written on this blog are her personal opinions, unless otherwise cited. You can take her advice at your own risk 😉



  1. Nice and useful tips 🙂


  2. well done artical, you really have your bases covered, just so much crime against civil liberty!


  3. This is the difference between your blog and mine — yours actually contains useful information 🙂 This is about as thorough a guide that one could compose. I’m pretty sure the TSA version is much more compact (i.e. a paragraph entitled “PRO TIP: Try to not be brown.”)

    Keep up the good work!


    • Actually, yours has quite useful information that may be overlooked as merely a “rant”

      For instance, the http://daretorant.com/?p=348 piece on the futility of “studies” loll, brilliant 😉


  4. I will take the risk & follow your advice 😉


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