Staying Safe Amid a Violent World

Every year on September 11, U.S. citizens remember the people lost and the dangers the nation faced during and following the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001. The domestic unrest – coupled with the mounting insurgency of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the ongoing drug cartel violence in Mexico, the continuing confrontation in the Ukraine, and the crisis in Gaza – may create the perception that the whole world is unsafe. Despite the current turmoil and looming safety concerns associated with this year’s devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and other severe weather, U.S. citizens still travel abroad routinely for work and pleasure. These natural and unnatural disasters not only escalate public safety awareness, they reaffirm the need for individual emergency preparedness.

Recognizing Threats

Recent headlines have been saturated with the ISIL beheadings of two U.S. journalists. Even more alarming is the fact that ISIL is calling on all Muslims to kidnap U.S., British, and Israeli citizens to be used as “bargaining chips.” Situational awareness and extra vigilance should not be limited to those traveling in the Middle East, but also should include vacationers, contractors, and military personnel, both domestically and abroad.

The callous ISIL now is vowing to broaden its operation to include killing Americans wherever and whenever they can. The U.S. government knows that some Americans have joined ISIL and are prepared to conduct suicide bombings. This concerns the intelligence community, specifically as it will pose risks upon their return. UK officials believe that hundreds of its citizens have now joined the ISIL militants and, from what has been observed, committed some of its most brutal killings. The Agence France Presse reported on 23 September 2014 that about 3,000 Europeans have joined ISIL.

However, ISIL alone has not triggered the spiral downward in global safety. The continuous conflict in Syria, the worsening situation in Ukraine, and civil war in South Sudan all contribute to the downward trend. The world has become less peaceful each year since 2008 according to the 2014 Global Peace Index (GPI). The Institute for Economics and Peace, which prepares the GPI, calculates how safe, secure, and peaceful a country is by looking at several different indicators. The indicators are weighed according to importance, such as the level of perceived criminality in society, political terror scale, number of deaths from organized conflict, number of external and internal conflicts fought, number of homicides, number of internal security officers and police, and the ease of access to small arms and light weapons.

On 10 April 2014, the U.S. Department of State website issued a worldwide caution to “update information on the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world.” The website reminds U.S. citizens to maintain a high level of awareness and to take appropriate steps to increase their security attentiveness.

Taking Precautions

In today’s volatile world, where terrorists target people simply because of their citizenship, U.S. citizens residing or traveling abroad should take certain safety precautions. To avoid being easy targets – especially for theft and assault – it is important to use good judgment and caution when navigating new and foreign surroundings. According to the U.S. Department of State’s website, here are a few recommendations:

  • Register in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive safety and security announcements pertinent to the countries of travel and, in the event of an emergency, the U.S. embassy in that country can contact travelers more easily;
  • Pay attention to travel alerts and warnings available through the Department of State, the Internet, and news outlets, and consider postponing travel to countries experiencing civil unrest, dangerous conditions, terrorist activity or, in some cases, no U.S. diplomatic relations; when traveling, stay in hotels with dependable Internet access and monitor local English-language news websites each morning and evening;
  • Do not advertise U.S. citizenship in countries where there could be anti-Western sentiment – including clothing or markings that identify the United States, religious jewelry, and visible guidebooks and street maps that are common among tourists;
  • Protect U.S. passports and other recognized travel documents when traveling to or from the United States;
  • Make photocopies of all travel documents, information, and pictures of children in case of emergency, loss, or abduction; leave a copy with a family member in the United States; and only carry a passport when necessary – a color photocopy of the passport (the cover and first two pages) can serve as identification while the original is secured in a hotel-room safe; and
  • Contact the U.S. embassy if unaware of foreign laws and legal systems, which can be vastly different from those in the United States – more than one-third of Americans imprisoned abroad are held on drug charges, which include possession and/or trafficking of drugs, possession of prescription drugs purchased legally somewhere else, and purchase of prescription drugs that local authorities alleged were for commercial use.

Age is not a discriminatory factor for becoming a target abroad, especially considering that more than 280,000 U.S. college students studied overseas in 2013, according to the Institute of International Education. Sometimes it is not about being the victim of a crime, but rather being involved in a crime. In April 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) introduced a video to discourage U.S. college students, who have been targeted by foreign governments to serve as spies, from getting involved in espionage. The FBI warns that foreign intelligence officers initially develop a relationship under apparently harmless pretexts, such as an internship, writing assignments, or cultural immersion program. The effort by the FBI is in reaction a U.S. college student from Michigan, Glenn Shriver, who studied in China. After being seduced by Chinese intelligence officers, Shriver agreed to provide national defense information. He received $70,000 over a five-year period for his efforts and ultimately was sentenced to federal prison for four years for attempting to provide sensitive information to China.

Crime and violence are serious problems and can occur anywhere. However, places where pockets of anti-U.S./anti-Western feelings are present raise the threat level for travelers. A Google Consumer Survey conducted between 22 April and 24 August 2014 revealed that only 13 percent of U.S. residents decided to travel abroad for holidays – based on kidnappings, terrorist threats, and general concern for safety – over the previous year. In general, people are concerned for their safety outside the United States, but careful planning can help reduce the risk by researching travel warnings and restrictions, preparing a checklist, double-checking documentation, and most importantly having an emergency plan of action.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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