PHOTO: Giza, Egypt and its legendary ancient pyramids are part of a volatile region. (photo by David Cogswell)
Some say World War III has already begun, and the reason we don’t recognize it as such is that modern war is decentralized. There are no more fronts. War is everywhere.
Surely, if we count not only politically motivated terrorism but also random acts of violence, we must admit that there is no sure way to predict where the next crisis will erupt, and no absolutely safe haven. Our chance of encountering violence in our hometown is about the same as when we are traveling in Paris or Stockholm—just ask the citizens of Orlando or San Bernardino.
One thing is agreed upon even in the divided states of America: The world is a dangerous place.
Yet, not all would agree on how to respond to that fact.
The probability of being caught up in an act of terrorism is infinitesimal, but it is impossible to totally eliminate the possibility of violence from your life. So, what reasonable precautions should you take when traveling?
Following a week that included bombings in Egypt and Stockholm, I asked George Taylor, the vice president of global operations of iJet International—a globally integrated risk management company—how travelers can improve their security while traveling.
In doing so, I got a rare glimpse into the mindset of a man whose specialist knowledge is how to stay safe in high-risk places.
Travel companies only represent a small part of the range of companies that make up iJet’s client list, which includes the extraction, financial, production, manufacturing and insurance industries as well as any kind of business that operates internationally.
Taylor was trained in the Wharton School’s ASIS Executive Security Program and has had more than 20 years experience plying his trade around the world, often in places so dangerous most of us would not dare go near.
“We help clients prepare, monitor and respond,” he told me, “to enable them to operate globally with confidence. We provide intelligence, trip briefs, special reports and other vital information. We alert them when there are ongoing or emerging incidents or crises that may need some action taken.”
When crisis situations escalate beyond the scope of what individual companies or employees can handle, iJet has a crisis response team that can step in and take emergency steps to move people out of danger to safe havens or back to their home countries.
“When there are terrorist incidents, we work with clients to help them understand what the impact is,” said Taylor. “While the incident is ongoing we help them account for their people, their resources and their assets that may be impacted by the event. Then we help them build processes and procedures, and maybe update their policies on how to handle a situation like this for the future.”
Taylor is used to living with the threat of terrorism. It does not unnerve him. He sees terrorism as a part of life in the 21st Century. Still, we do not need to let it disrupt our lives if we take steps to improve security. It breaks down primarily to what Taylor calls “situational awareness.”
The recent bombings in Egypt, in Taylor’s view, were not something to be greatly alarmed about.
“I don’t want to minimize it, but I’m not going to suggest anything radical in response to the bombings,” said Taylor. “I would say there are a couple of indicators to me from this incident. It indicates to me that ISIS is still pretty strong in Egypt and can do some things. On this day, they had a significant day. It happened."
“However, people can’t just go to their basements and stay there because there have been some bombings and killings. I’m not trying to trivialize it, but I’m saying people are still going to do things. So, it goes back to my core message: If people are going to go somewhere, they have to have a plan.”
IJet operates in war zones. Dealing with the threat of terrorism relatively much less demanding.
“When you’re going in somewhere that has been hit by terrorism, it’s not like sending someone into a combat zone,” he said. “It’s not like sending someone into Yemen where it is outright warfare. But terrorism is warfare by other means. They have agendas and they are trying to sway some events by doing some really violent things.”
Situational awareness. It is wise to take certain steps to protect yourself in any strange environment, to gain some familiarity with your surroundings. It boils down to a kind of international street smarts, paying attention so that you are aware if any danger should present itself.
“As a tourist, you probably get your map and a list of places you’re going to visit. Well, maybe you should start adding in things like: ‘I know there’s a hospital here,’ and things like that. Or, ‘if something happens there’s an area I can move through here,’ to build a little more situational awareness.”
In matters of security, communication is vital.
“You may be with your family on vacation, and at least want to be able to check in and report your well-being,” he said.
IJet provides webinars on being situationally aware.
“We’re trying to make people more alert while they are traveling,” said Taylor. “Are they being surveilled? Are some weird things happening? Is somebody leaving a package next to something? How are they dressed? There’s a lot of ways you can look at people to figure out some things.”
Working “all over the world in some not very great places” you learn to trust your gut, he said. “People make jokes about it, but sometimes your gut tells you this doesn’t feel right. And what is the worst that can happen if you listen to your gut and leave an area that doesn’t feel right? Later you can always go back to the same place.”
Here are Taylor’s four bullet points on improving your security in high-risk places.
—Have a communication plan
—Maintain situational awareness
—Rehearse and drill
“Rehearse and drill” is not as rigorous as it sounds. It’s mostly mental exercise to prepare yourself for emergencies.
“Say you go to the hotel, what are you going to do?” said Taylor. “Anytime I’m in the hotel room I’m going to lock the dead bolt and hook the chain. When you get to your room you are going to walk the fire exits, so you get a little bit familiar with them. This is your plan."
"How am I going to get out of the hotel if things go bad?" He continued. "If nothing happens, what have you lost? You got some exercise walking down the steps. But, if it goes bad, the first time you had to find the exit is not when you have violence going on. You did it in broad daylight when you were calm and rational, and you can get a little bit of muscle memory.”
When you leave your hotel for the streets you make a plan.
“Look at the route,” said Taylor. “How are you going to get there? Are you going to take a cab? Are you going to rent a car? You look at the route and then you look at two other routes that will allow you to get there, or to a safe haven. You mark them on your map or mentally rehearse them.”
When you are out on the street, pay attention to your surroundings.
“If you’re walking in the streets, keep your head up,” said Taylor. “Don't be staring down at your phone. Maintain situational awareness.
“Those are very simple things that can be constituted as a plan. Some of it is just mental rehearsal and some of it is physical rehearsal.
If it sounds like a lot of trouble, Taylor says situational awareness actually enhances the travel experience.
“People say, ‘Oh man, I’m just on vacation, I want to relax.’ But everything I talked about is probably going to take you 15 or 20 minutes. And what have you lost by doing your mental rehearsal? You’ve built a pattern of always double locking your door. You’ve actually walked the fire exits. It may help you help yourself and others who have not done what you’ve done.”
Taylor believes situational awareness actually helps you get more out of your travels.
“You are probably going to end up taking in more sights and realizing more things than you would have,” he said. “It pays dividends because you are paying attention to the environment more.”
Being more situationally aware also makes you safer from street crime.
“When you are more alert and aware, it makes you a harder target compared to the person who goes over there and doesn’t do any of this,” said Taylor. “Not only are they more apt to be impacted by a major event, they are also more apt, in a place where there are street thugs or crime, to be profiled as someone who is easy to take advantage of than somebody who is aware.”
By building resilience, we undermine the purpose of terrorism, and we can defeat it.
“You may remember when all the bombings going on in Europe back in the ‘70s,” said Taylor. “That cycle completed itself. People didn't let it defeat them then. I would say now this is a whole new breed of terrorism, and much more vicious. At the same time people have still got to live their lives, businesses have to operate globally.”
"We have to live with terror, but we don’t have to live in terror.”