Many American travelers have become uneasy about traveling overseas after last month's terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the United States' subsequent missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan.
There's enough happening to make almost any vacationer or business traveler nervous. There have been threats of more attacks against U.S. interests; a worldwide caution on travel has been issued by the U.S. government; and more police and tougher security checks have cropped up at airports in the U.S. and abroad, along with warnings to watch out for unattended luggage or illegally parked cars that could contain bombs."The possibility of retaliatory attacks by terrorist groups against U.S. targets, either government or private sector, is extremely high. . .. (they) could occur both outside and within the U.S.," warned the Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services, which specializes in travel-security services and risk analysis for major corporations.
"Companies and travelers need to plan accordingly by minimizing their exposure. There also is a significant likelihood that individuals or small, previously unheard of organizations might carry out attacks in a show of sympathy and solidarity," said Pinkerton in a statement last week.
In more muted, official tones, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide caution urging travelers to be extra vigilant of their personal security. And the Federal Aviation Administration has ordered more security staff to patrol U.S. airports; tougher screening of passengers and luggage; and strict enforcement in no-parking zones to prevent car-bombings. FAA staff have been sent overseas to help U.S. airlines with security.
Airports and planes have been the traditional targets of international terrorists in the past few decades - along with official U.S. buildings overseas such as embassies - so travelers' nervousness is understandable. And memories of past terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 in which 270 people died, surface in people's minds during times like this - just the shock value and chilling effect that terrorists want.
But given the millions of people traveling each day, the risk of a traveler being caught in a terrorist attack is extremely low - probably less than being injured in a traffic accident overseas. And tourists are less at risk than those working overseas for U.S. corporations or government agencies whose buildings or staff can be more easily targeted.
Still, the State Department, which monitors travel conditions in countries worldwide and issues statements about them, has been flooded with is-it-safe-to-go inquiries from the public in the past two weeks. It's a question that, so far, travelers must answer for themselves based on their ability to cope with uncertainty: Nobody really knows what's going to happen.
There are a few countries that the State Department currently urges Americans to avoid completely because of political/social upheaval and violence (such as Algeria); because of anti-U.S. sentiment (such as Sudan and Pakistan); or a combination of both (Afghanistan).
But the State Department isn't telling Americans to stay home, to cancel that fall trip to Europe or Southeast Asia. Rather, it issues travel information on countries (see box) and general statements such as the Aug. 20 worldwide caution. This, the department stated last week, "allows the traveler to make his or her own determination based on the available information."
In its worldwide caution, the department urged Americans traveling or living abroad "to review their security practices, to remain alert to the changing situation and to exercise much greater caution than usual. Large crowds and other situations in which anti-American sentiments may be expressed should be avoided."
It's common-sense advice to which a few more precautions could be added:
- Don't make it obvious that you're American in the way you dress or by gathering with large groups of Americans.
- Check with U.S. embassies or consulates overseas by telephone or fax for security information, particularly if you're in volatile countries in the Mideast or Africa. And let someone at home know your itinerary.
- One of the places in an airport most vulnerable to terrorist attack is the check-in area. Check in for a flight as quickly as possible and then pass through security controls to the departure area.
Here are some sources for more information:
- The State Department's information sheets on travel in countries worldwide and its travel warnings, including the Aug. 20 worldwide caution, are available by recorded phone line: 202-647-5225; by automated fax, phone 202-647-3000 from a fax machine; on the Web at: (http://travel.state.gov).
Each gives information on crime and other issues in the country, plus the phone numbers for U.S. embassies and consulates.
- Texts of Federal Aviation Administration statements on air-travel security are on the Web: (http://www.faa.gov).
- Travel-safety reports and security analyses by Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services can be read on its Web site:(http://www.pinkertons.com).
- More limited information on travel safety is offered on the Web site of Kroll Associates, another corporate-security firm: (http://www.krollassociates.com) (click on Kroll Travel Watch).
And for those who want to test their knowledge of terrorist groups, Kroll's Web site has a "terrorist IQ" quiz.