Terrorist attacks in mainland Europe and the U.K. over the past few years have impacted the way individuals and businesses view travel to these destinations previously considered “low risk.” Images of gunmen in central Paris, knife-wielding extremists in London, and high-casualty bombings in Belgium are just a few of the events that have triggered U.S. Department of State travel warnings and caused travelers and security experts to question the status of Europe as a relatively safe travel destination. In order to effectively evaluate and manage the risk, we must first understand it and recognize that, while individual travelers and corporations likely cannot directly impact the terrorist threat, they can better manage the risks posed.
“New Age” Terrorism
In Europe and elsewhere, a “new age” of terrorism is being perpetrated by Islamist extremist groups on soft, civilian targets instead of hardened, high-value ones. We are seeing two types of attacks: complex high-casualty attacks, such as the coordinated attacks in Paris in November 2015, and smaller lone-wolf attacks using vehicles and knives, such as in Westminster in March 2017 or Barcelona in August. The Islamic State has encouraged supporters to take up arms against the infidels wherever they are, using whatever means available, rather than attempt the risky journey to strongholds of extremism in the Middle East.
When evaluating any threat, we look at its motivation and capability. Motivation is driven by multiple factors, but one thing is certain: Ideological momentum is unlikely to abate in the near future. Compounding ideological motivation is the desire to retaliate against governments that are combating extremist organizations. Capability varies among individuals and methodologies. Returning fighters and/or extremists entering Europe can stage complex attacks using skills learned directly from terrorist organizations. This capability is not as widespread, though, as that of the lone-wolf attack. Almost anyone can drive a vehicle into a crowd or attack someone with a kitchen knife.
The threats from terrorism are metastasizing throughout the world. As military operations drive terrorist groups out of extremist strongholds, followers are now being asked to take the fight to their home countries. Target selection is driven by leadership and group ideology, but is often also influenced by the attacker’s personal ideas and areas of familiarity. This is especially the case in lone-wolf terrorism and explains why, on first evaluation, some targets may seem random and illogical.
When looking at new age terror tactics, it is crucial to remember the goal of terrorism: to instill fear with the aim of causing change. One man with a knife is not going to make any major impact, but enough men with knives striking at random can shift popular opinion enough to trigger change at national and geopolitical levels. This is the true goal of terrorism. Mass casualty attacks that have a significant impact and gain vital attention are complemented by the smaller attacks that make people feel unsafe in everyday activities. The frequency of attacks keeps the threat of terrorism at the forefront of popular consciousness and can leave people constantly on edge.
Consequence and Response
The threat itself is complex, but when we begin to look at consequence and security response, a picture of risk emerges. While recent attacks shocked the world with their violent and indiscriminate nature, the overall probability of such attacks is still very low compared to more common risks like traffic accidents. The State Department’s travel alert for Europe, issued earlier this year, triggered concerns with both business travelers and tourists. It did not, however, represent a change in the risk—rather, it aligns with their previously issued “worldwide caution.” It does indicate the U.S. government considers the risk of citizens falling victim to an attack while abroad too great to ignore and should provide impetus for travelers and organizations to address their risk exposure.
Despite statistics on the actual frequency and impact of attacks, news coverage and social media hype can magnify the effects by intensifying and prolonging the fear resulting from each event. While there is some potential for terrorism-related injury, travelers to Europe will more than likely be able to enjoy trips without incident. However, due to the high personal consequence in a worst-case scenario and the recent spike in activity, the risk is significant enough to warrant discussion of available mitigation measures.
Security forces are in the process of adapting to new terrorist tactics. While mitigation efforts have increased in response to this new age of terrorism, the number of successful attacks shows that significant vulnerability remains. This is unlikely to change for two reasons: It is impossible to effectively secure soft targets, and the number of potential attackers is large and growing, which stretches surveillance and investigation resources thin. Lone-wolf attacks are especially difficult to prevent as they typically lack the characteristics of more complex attacks that present the opportunities for discovery and disruption. Thus, it is critical for travelers to do more to ensure their personal security, and for risk managers to analyze and prioritize mitigation strategies to help them do so.
Effect on Travelers
Business travel continues to steadily increase and tourism is still at a healthy level, but recent incidents have impacted certain destinations such as France and Turkey, and surveys indicate more travelers are considering terrorism when choosing a destination. Whatever the itinerary, both organizations and individuals should create processes to continually evaluate their risk profile and implement appropriate risk management strategies. Even with thorough planning, it is impossible to offset all residual risk, but travelers should remember the following seven strategies to more proactively reduce risk:
1. Minimize exposure. Attacks typically target crowded areas. Visit popular locations at off hours when they are slightly less crowded. Avoid using public transportation or use only at off-peak hours.
2. Be aware of your surroundings. Learn situational awareness techniques such as recognizing patterns that do not fit, clothing that is out of place, and erratic behaviors.
3. Make note of exit routes. Get in the habit of doing this wherever you go and it will eventually become habit.
4. Flee immediately. If you find yourself in the vicinity of an attack, exit the area right away. Lingering at the attack site to watch or take pictures can risk exposure to a secondary attack.
5. Minimize exposure to police or security forces. These groups are frequently targeted so, for example, pass quickly through entry points manned by law enforcement.
6. Avoid chokepoints. To the extent possible, avoid narrow streets and bridges. If unavoidable, traverse these chokepoints quickly to reduce exposure time.
7. Go with your gut. Do not suppress feelings of insecurity—leave the venue if such feelings arise. The subconscious often picks up on indicators that are otherwise overlooked.