Tips & Resources

Avoiding Terrorism while Travelling

By James Daw, Contributing Writer

Terrorist attacks are widely reported yet extremely rare, particularly in North America. The odds of an American being attacked is roughly one in 20 million, The Washington Post reported in April of 2013. Yet, as rare as the attacks may be, their impact can be severe. So travellers should contemplate how to reduce their risk of personal injury, stress, and disruption. Such attacks come without warning, perhaps more so now as the nature of terrorism is changing, according to some experts. Even close friends and family can have no inkling about their loved ones' intentions to commit violent and shocking acts. Perpetrators can find inspiration and instructions online. Travellers can too.

Terrorist attacks on the rise again

Reported terrorist attacks around the globe numbered 104,000 from 1970 through 2011. This amounted to an average 2,476 per year. The number of annual incidents peaked at more than 4,500 in 1990, and then declined to fewer than 1,000 by 1998. Numbers have since risen, approaching some of the highest levels reported by 2009. A Canadian government report cites an estimate of more than 7,000 terrorist incidents around the world in 2012. Since 2001, 194 Canadians have died in terrorist incidents. An interactive chart (requires Adobe Flash) that includes statistics about terrorist attacks can be found at the website of The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism—better known as START—a university-based research centre headquartered at the University of Maryland.

Watch for travel warnings: Step one in protecting yourself is to visit government websites where travel bans and warnings are posted. They will indicate which countries have the highest frequency of attacks on visitors due to criminal or ideological motives. Unless you must attend to critical family or business responsibilities, you would be prudent to avoid certain countries around the world, according to Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. The Canadian government is concerned that the civil war in Syria and actions by the government of Iran will spawn more terrorist attacks. Before you head to a country experiencing social disruption, or various naturally occurring dangers, it is a good idea to sign up to receive assistance during an emergency, and up-to-date warnings and advice from your home country. You can also take it upon yourself to research the safety of the countries you plan to visit online.

Residents from Canada, the United States, or Australia can register for information and assistance while travelling. The United Kingdom no longer invites its foreign travellers and expatriates to register for help in a crisis while out of the country. Instead, it encourages travellers to visit a website for country-specific information, or receive alerts via Twitter and other social media.

Choose your public activities carefully: Major airports and tourist attractions like the Empire State Building and the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center in New York have a high level of security procedures to protect visitors. An attempted vehicle bombing in Times Square was foiled in 2010. But other public places known to attract crowds, particularly affluent foreigners, are not as well protected. At the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, two young brothers carried shrapnel bombs in their backpacks and managed to kill three persons and injure more than 260 others in what was originally alleged to be an ideological terrorist attack. (Since then, the elder was reported to have had mental health issues and the younger was reported to be a failing student who lived on money he made selling marijuana.) Later that year, on September 11, as few as four unknown gunmen, suspected to be associated with the al Qaeda-affiliated group al Shabaab, managed to kill more than 60 civilians and six soldiers at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

Political protests in most nations will draw a crowd, but it would not be wise to join in. Public authorities there could decide to terrorize their own citizens, even those exercising the rights to free speech you enjoy in your home country. So it is always best to avoid getting into the thick of the action.

Don’t dress like an affluent westerner: Anger toward the United States has been fuelled by the use of military drones to target antagonists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Those same drones have also killed civilians. For this and other reasons, some US travel advisers urge American citizens not to look conspicuous abroad. Travellers to foreign countries may want to forego wearing clothing that makes them look American, warns travel writer Wendy Perrin. “No Nikes, jeans, baseball caps, or logos.”

Know who to call: Turn to your government’s overseas consulates and embassies for advice and assistance if you ever find yourself in the midst of a dangerous situation, including a terrorist attack. There is a certain risk that terrorist attacks could disrupt public services, like electricity, banking machines, and cellular telephone services. So don’t be solely reliant on electronic communication devices. Carry paper copies of emergency contact numbers, such as the nearest consulate, the local emergency call centre, or a taxi company. Carry some cash in addition to credit cards, and keep both well hidden in case you need to pay for transportation away from a danger zone.

React quickly to alarming noises and chemicals: Proceed directly to an exit as soon as you hear an alarm, or the sound of an explosion. Survivors of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 left their offices quickly. Others who stayed behind with their bosses, or listened to reassurances that the buildings were safe, did not survive. Choose a path that will minimize the risk of being trampled on, or injured while passing windows or through parts of a building destabilized by an explosion. If you hear gunshots, dive for the floor or ground. Crawl toward a protective shield if you are sure you are out of sight of the shooters. If you notice unexpected odours, unexplained vapours or droplets, dead or dying animals, people with sudden symptoms like nausea or difficulty breathing, or people wearing breathing protection in a busy public space, seek shelter, strip, shower, then rush to a hospital. In case you become separated from your travel companions, agree each day where to meet later, perhaps in the safety of a police station, hospital, hotel, or bank building.

Prepare yourself for danger: When venturing into foreign territory or crowded public spaces, it is important to be alert. This will not be easy if you drink alcohol, take certain medications, or use illegal drugs. Walking around in a haze will make you an easier target for criminals, whether or not there is a terrorist attack. In case you are ever injured, a personal first-aid kit could increase your chances of survival until you reach a hospital. A Canadian government website geared to women suggests taking a self-defense course before travelling abroad. Other safety tips suitable for both women and men are also provided. Other sources suggest a course in life-saving techniques.

Terrorism is only one type of danger that travellers could confront while away from the comforts of home. Violence, explosions, or gunfire could occur—and do occur—in most countries to one extent or another. The motivation to strike out could arise for reasons other than political or ideological ones. But preparing for terrorism could mean avoiding or reacting to dangers of other sorts, helping you return to your friends, colleagues, and family safe and sound.