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Chapter 2 The Pre-Travel Consultation Counseling & Advice for Travelers

Perspectives: Terrorism

Ashika Devi Bhan, Ali S. Khan

The explosion on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. The 1997 Luxor massacre in Egypt. The 2002 Bali nightclub bombing. The Madrid train attacks of 2004, and the London Underground explosions the following year. The Mumbai Taj hotel attack in 2008. Even though such events are rare, terrorist attacks arouse a great deal of concern among travelers. They also demonstrate that travelers can become victims of terrorism, either directed against the country in which they are traveling or specifically targeted against foreigners in the country. In the latter case, travelers’ risk is based on their apparent country of origin and may be higher than the overall risk in the country they are visiting. In either circumstance, the unpredictable nature of terrorism has become an unfortunate part of the travel and tourism landscape.

From October 2002 through December 2011, 289 American citizens abroad died as a result of terrorist action (about 4% of nonnatural deaths). In 2010 alone, >11,500 terrorist attacks were reported in 72 countries, injuring approximately 50,000 people and killing 13,200. US citizens were among the victims: 15 were killed and 9 were injured in 2010. More than 75% of these terrorist incidents took place in South Asia and the Near East.

Although these data may alarm potential travelers, it is important to keep the threat of terrorism in perspective. An estimated 28.5 million US residents traveled abroad in 2010, and the leading cause of death of US citizens in foreign countries is not crime or terrorism but motor vehicle crashes. From 2009 through 2011, road traffic crashes accounted for 27% of US citizen deaths abroad due to injuries, followed by homicide (22%) and drowning (12%). When the adverse events that can happen during travel are ranked by likelihood, terrorism is near the bottom of a very long list.

Although unlikely, when terrorism does occur, the aftermath can be devastating, and travelers can take measures to reduce their risk of either being a target or becoming caught in the crossfire. The first and perhaps best protection is to avoid travel to areas with a persistent record of terrorist incidents. Some countries consistently rank among the most dangerous for American travelers. The Department of State ( maintains travel warnings, issues security alerts, and updates reports on global terrorism and countries to avoid.

The Department of State provides additional information about terrorism that can be useful for citizens abroad. Travelers are advised that terrorists may use tactics such as bombings, suicide operations, shootings, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and the use of chemical, biological, radiologic, or nuclear materials. The weapons they use may be conventional or unconventional. Their targets can be both official and private interests, including residential areas, business offices, hotels, restaurants, clubs, markets, schools, places of worship, public areas, high-profile sporting events, and other tourist destinations where travelers gather. Terrorists are also likely to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Many have targeted or attempted to attack not only aviation but also subways, rail systems, and maritime transportation.

Travelers can minimize their risk of being a victim of terrorism abroad by taking a number of common-sense precautions. The following guidelines can be used by any traveler but may be especially important for those who are visiting a high-risk destination:

Before departing:

  • Safety begins before leaving home. The Department of State encourages travelers to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free service provided by the US government to citizens who are traveling to (or living in) a foreign country. This program provides up-to-date safety and security announcements and makes it easier for the embassy to contact enrollees in an emergency.
  • Obtain as much country-specific information as possible from the Department of State, travel agencies, and passport offices. Learn about products and services offering travel assistance.
  • Schedule direct flights and fly to safer cities, if possible. Avoid stops in high-risk airports or areas.
  • Keep luggage to a minimum—overburdened travelers are easy targets. Carry on as little as possible. If luggage is checked, hide luggage tags that include personal information such as name, address, or company name.
  • Leave behind a folder of important information, such as copies of important papers, legal documents, financial records, itineraries, and instructions in case of an incident.
  • When packing, choose clothing that does not single you out as a tourist (such as T-shirts emblazoned with the flag or logos of the traveler’s local sports team). Try to blend in with the locals.

Upon arrival:

  • Minimize time spent in publicly accessible areas of the airport, which are less protected. Move quickly from the check-in counter to secured areas. Leave the airport as soon as possible.
  • Keep an eye out for and avoid abandoned packages, briefcases, and other suspicious items; report them to airport authorities.
  • Register with the US embassy or consulate. Keep a card containing their phone number, along with other emergency numbers.
  • Take only well-marked modes of local transportation. For taxis, check the driver’s name and license. Rent a car (similar to local models) from an established company.
  • Know where the nearest emergency exits are.

While touring the country:

  • Keep a low profile, particularly in areas frequented by foreign tourists. Dress and act so that you avoid attention. Remain as anonymous as possible.
  • Do not give out your name, company, or position to strangers. Be cautious about what you say to strangers or what others may overhear. Do not discuss travel plans with those without a need to know.
  • Exercise caution in public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure, such as subways, train stations, elevators, marketplaces, and festivals.
  • When renting a car, check for loose wires or suspicious activity around it. Drive with the windows closed.
  • Avoid public demonstrations and other civil disturbances.
  • Avoid situations in which anti-American sentiments may be expressed.
  • Do not display items that may be offensive to local customs or culture. These vary by location but may include political documents, religious items, pornography, or liquor.
  • Avoid patterns and routines that provide an easy target. Vary the time and route of regular outings if you are in a location for an extended period. Be wary of people observing your comings and goings.
  • Look out for unattended packages or bags in public places and other crowded areas. Be cautious of unexpected packages. Report any suspicious activity to local police. Many terrorist attacks are foiled by the vigilance of ordinary people.
  • Be aware of the location of safe havens such as police stations, hotels, and hospitals. Devise a plan of action to be used if an incident occurs.
  • Do not invite strangers into your hotel room or meet at unfamiliar or remote locations.
  • Regularly check travel advice and information for the country being visited. Watch and read daily news reports about the region.

These strategies incorporate the same defensive alertness and good judgment that people should use to keep safe from crime at home or abroad. Awareness (not paranoia) is key—taking precautions to be aware of surroundings and adopting protective measures. Although the odds are in favor of a safe trip, travelers can and do become victims of terrorism. The possibility of terrorist threats should not take away from the adventure and joys of travel, but the wise traveler will weigh the risks, plan ahead, and take safety measures to ensure peace of mind during the journey.


  1. Death of US citizens abroad by non-natural causes [database on the Internet]. US Department of State. c2002– [cited 2012 Sep 18]. Available from:
  2. US Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration. Profile of US resident travelers visiting overseas destinations: 2010 outbound. Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce; 2011 [cited 2012 Sep 18]. Available from:
  3. US Department of State. A safe trip abroad. Washington, DC: US Department of State; 2012 [cited 2012 Sep 18]. Available from:
  4. US Department of State. Tips for traveling abroad. Washington, DC: US Department of State; 2012 [cited 2012 Sep 18]. Available from:
  5. US Department of State. Worldwide Caution. Washington, DC: US Department of State; 2012 [cited 2012 Sep 18]. Available from:
  6. US Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. Country reports on terrorism 2010. Washington, DC: US Department of State; 2011 [cited 2012 Sep 19]. Available from: