Understandably, this time of year brings most of us to reflect on the tragic events of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Regardless of whether we personally knew any of the victims of those attacks or not, each and every one of us will no doubt remember where we were and what we were doing when the attacks occurred.
For those of you who are engaged in sales and marketing activities abroad and who frequently travel internationally, the threat of Islamic extremism may very well dwell in your mind far more so than those who travel abroad only for the occasional vacation overseas.
As with past years, government agencies and the media rightfully devoted a good deal of airtime remembering those who perished on 9/11. Equally important is our need to understand how extremist terrorism continues to change in terms of tactics and methods, how the events of 9/11 continue to influence the way we conduct global business in a post-9/11 world, and what we can do reduce our risk of becoming a terrorist victim while working abroad.
Few Attacks at Home, Many Abroad
For many of us, the fact Islamic extremists have not engaged in a major attack in on U.S. soil in the last eight years has caused a lot of us to lower our guard. We assume terrorism is primarily media hype, and conclude the terrorist attacks were nothing more than an anomaly. Others fervently believe a small number of committed, dedicated, and violent terrorists will always be at war with us, and that we can never let our guard down.
Regardless of how seriously you view the threat of extremist terrorism, the fact of the matter is the U.S. and other governments have (fortunately) neutralized several terrorist operations in the years since. And if you happen to think that the terrorist threat really is nothing more than hype, consider the following:
• Three British Muslims were recently sentenced to long prison terms in the U.K. for conspiring to blow up trans-Atlantic U.S. and British flights in the summer of 2006. The group had plotted to use liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks; it's because of their plans you now have to leave most liquids in trash cans before undergoing airport security screenings.
• There are indications the Iran-funded Party of God (a.k.a. Hezbollah) may well activate sleeper cells based in the United States if either the U.S. or Israel takes steps against Iran's nuclear initiatives.
• In January 2008, Taliban fighters stormed the five-star Serena Hotel in Kabul with assault rifles, explosive belts, and hand grenades, killing six people (including one American) and injuring another six.
• In June, an American expatriate who worked in Mauritania for over six years was confronted by two armed gunmen as he was getting out of his car. He was shot to death, an attack al-Qaeda would claim responsibility for.
• In July, al-Qaeda operatives were behind the simultaneous bombings of the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta that killed eight and wounded another 50 persons (including eight Americans).
And the list goes on.
While the U.S. has been very successful in terms of preventing another mass-casualty terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the above incidents illustrate terrorist incidents are a frequent occurrence abroad for Americans.
Most of these incidents also tend to show that while most of the terrorists responsible for these attacks espoused al-Qaeda's global philosophy against the West, very few of them actually took orders from al-Qaeda's central hierarchy. A number of them, in fact, have been independent "players."
What about the Future?
Considering that the U.S.' multifaceted strategies against domestic terrorism has been quite effective in preventing another major terrorist attack at home, terrorism in the coming year is expected to reflect the following characteristics:
• Continuing terrorist attacks in countries and regions where terrorists have been active in the past: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, the U.K., Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, the Sudan, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.
• Continuing attacks on luxury hotels and places where foreigners are known to frequent.
• Increasing attacks by terrorists who embrace al-Qaeda's philosophy, but who in no way are directed by Osama bin Laden's organization.
• Continuing attacks on "soft targets," defined as venues with heavy usage by the public where formidable security deterrents are simply not feasible (shopping malls, universities, business complexes, hotels, etc.).
• Continuing attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets abroad, considering a successful terrorist attack outside of these countries is more likely due to formidable and redundant levels of security internally.
What Can Travelers Do?
Executives who must travel and work abroad can actually do a number of things to become better informed and prepared:
• Go to the U.S. State Department's Website at www.travel.state.gov to learn about security risks in the specific country or countries you are visiting or working in.
• Before departure, register your itinerary with the State Department in the event an embassy or consulate needs to reach you in an emergency.
• Consult with your employer's internal security department for country threat information, advice, guidance, and information on your company's international crisis management plan. If your company has no such office, contact a security consultant with extensive international experience.
• If your company operates abroad, they should be a member of the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council.
• Don't leave home without international medical and evacuation coverage. Your PPO or HMO will not be honored abroad.
• Carry a cell phone at all times while abroad, and know who to call in an emergency (both locally and back home). This cell phone should have local embassy and consulate, police, hospital, client and colleague phone numbers, as well as those for company executives back home.
Your cell phone should also have an e-mail feature and be configured to receive security threat information on the country you are visiting.
• Learn how to render first aid to yourself and others.
• Learn strategies on how to reduce the risk of being a victim in a hotel bombing.
Yes, there is a higher likelihood of your experiencing terrorism abroad than at home. And while even that potentiality is remote, remember that many of the Americans who were injured and killed in the incidents described above never envisioned that they would become a terrorist victim.
Nothing beats being prepared for a foreseeable event, particularly if you're traveling in developing countries. If you ignore security risks completely and assume nothing will happen while you're abroad, the ramifications could be irreversible.
Ed Lee is a retired U.S. State Department diplomat and Regional Security Officer (RSO) who spent most of his life abroad, protecting U.S. diplomats and American business executives. He is the author of Staying Safe Abroad: Traveling, Working & Living in a Post-9/11 World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.