State Department Issues Travel Alert Over Potential Al-Qaeda Attack

State Department
U.S. Department of State

The State Department has issued a worldwide travel alert that Al-Qaeda is planning an attack in the Middle East or North Africa in the month of August.

The press release, which has not yet appeared on the State Department website [Update: Here’s the alert] but is reprinted by Business Insider in full, warns,

“The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula. Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August. This Travel Alert expires on August 31, 2013.”It adds, “We strongly recommend that U.S. citizens Traveling abroad enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP enrollment gives you the latest security updates, and makes it easier for the U.S. embassy or nearest U.S. consulate to contact you in an emergency. If you don’t have Internet access, enroll directly with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.”

CNN is reporting that some U.S. embassies in the region, including those in Egypt and Israel, will close starting on Sunday for an unspecified length of time.

As of this writing, there is no detail about the nature of the threat.

Update: August 5, 10:07 a.m.
Nineteen U.S. diplomatic posts have also been closed, at least through this week.

Posts in 19 Countries to Remain Closed

Planned England To Pakistan Bus Route Hits Bump In The Road

PakistanA proposed bus route from England to Pakistan has been delayed due to trouble getting permits, the BBC reports.

The proposed route is the brainchild of Tahir Khokher, transport chief for the Mirpur region of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The route starts in the northern English city of Birmingham, where many Pakistanis from the Mirpur region live, and runs 4,000 miles through Europe, Turkey, and Iran before reaching northeastern Pakistan and ending at Mirpur.

The problem, of course, is the route itself. It runs straight through Iran and continues on to Quetta in Pakistan, which is a popular hangout for Al-Qaeda. The Kashmir region, which has been the scene of conflict between Pakistan and India since those nations were formed, isn’t exactly the safest place in the world either. A recent survey found Pakistan the seventh unfriendliest country in the world, right after Iran.

On the other hand, a trip will only cost £130 ($200), making it an awesome budget travel option for the adventurous.

The Daily Mail quotes a Birmingham Minister of Parliament expressing concerns that the route could be dangerous. There is also the question of whether it would be used as a low-cost conduit for terrorists.

Khokher says the problems with permits should be ironed out within a month. Stay tuned for more news about the 12-day bus ride through one of the toughest regions in the world.

[Photo Pakistani bus courtesy Flickr user ix4svs. One hopes the new service uses better buses than this.]

The best way to fight terrorism is to ignore it

terrorismLast week, the global intelligence company Stratfor finished a series about terrorism. Their final article, “Keeping Terrorism in Perspective” is especially important for travelers. The entire series is fascinating and enlightening and I recommend it highly.

In a nutshell, the analysts at Stratfor say terrorism is not going to go away and can never be entirely defeated. No government, even the most authoritarian, can keep its people and property entirely safe. Also, public and official reaction can often be more harmful than the attack itself.

To take an example from history, at the turn of the last century in Barcelona there was a wave of anarchist bombings. While most of the bombs were small and did little damage, they caused a general panic. Sidewalk urinals became popular targets. It was a public place where a man could be alone for a few moments to plant a bomb. After several explosions in urinals, the city got rid of them. The anarchists moved on to other targets and the entire male population became burdened with a major inconvenience.

A modern example of how terrorism can have an effect far beyond its ability to do damage is the case of shoe bomber Richard Reid. After Reid failed to ignite his shoe bomb on a flight, airport security responded by forcing everyone to take off their shoes. The authors of “Superfreakonomics” did some interesting math on this, “Let’s say it takes an average of one minute to remove and replace your shoes in the airport security line. In the United States alone, this procedure happens roughly 560 million times per year. . .Five hundred and sixty million minutes equals more than 1,065 years — which, divided by 77.8 years (the average U.S. life expectancy at birth), yields a total of nearly 14 person-lives. So even though Richard Reid failed to kill a single person, he levied a tax that is the time equivalent of 14 lives per year.”Terrorism is used by groups that are not powerful enough to attain their goals politically or militarily. While terrorist attacks can be deadly, they don’t pose a fatal threat to states or economies except by consent. Terrorists rely on public reaction to increase their effectiveness. Media hype, Internet rumors and finger-pointing politicians accusing their opponents of being “soft on terrorism” all act as, what Stratfor terms, “terror magnifiers.” As Stratfor says, “A target population responding to a terrorist attack with panic and hysteria allows the perpetrators to obtain a maximum return on their physical effort.”

In a very real way, a panicky public becomes the terrorists’ ally. Stratfor points to the massive economic upheaval and paranoia after 9/11 as a bad public reaction that increased the terrorists’ success. Less successful were the London bombings of 2005, which saw Londoners back on public transport and going to work the next day. This minimized the economic damage the terrorists had hoped to achieve.

So, will ignoring terror attacks make the terrorists go away? Sadly no, but it will lessen the damage they do. Of course travelers should be cautious and practice situational awareness. Beyond that they shouldn’t change their behavior at all, since that plays into the terrorists’ hands.

To use a personal example, the recent terrorist attack on tourists in Ethiopia will not stop my plans to return there this year. With the increased security in Ethiopia in the wake of the attacks, Ethiopia is probably safer than when I was there in 2011, and to change my plans would only give the terrorists what they want — undercutting the nation’s tourist economy and dividing people with fear.

Terrorist attacks are like other types of violent crime in that they can happen anywhere. I’ll be careful when I’m in Ethiopia just like I was the last two times, but no more careful than I am anywhere else. I’m more nervous walking the streets of London on a Saturday night than traveling in Ethiopia. I’ve had my life threatened in London. That’s never happened in Ethiopia.

There are already experts taking active steps to fight terrorism. Western governments have foiled numerous plots and the Navy Seals tagged Bin Laden. You can help them by chilling out and enjoy your vacation. Doing otherwise only encourages our enemies.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Terrorist gets 15 years for JFK airport plot

JFK, JFK airport, terrorismA terrorist who plotted to blow up fuel tanks at JFK airport has been given 15 years in prison, the BBC reports. Abdel Nur, a citizen from Guyana, tried to meet an Al-Qaeda explosives expert in order to blow up JFK airport’s fuel depot, and the fuel lines that run below an adjoining neighborhood. He hoped to kill thousands in the attack.

Russell Defreitas, Kareem Ibrahim , and Abdul Kadir were also arrested. Kadir is a former member of parliament from Guyana and is now serving a life sentence. Defreitas has been found guilty and will be sentenced in February. Ibrahim’s trial is scheduled for April.

The plot was foiled when Kadir and Defreitas discussed their plans in front of an unnamed informant. This informant recorded their conversation and alerted authorities. This last detail is interesting. These radical Muslims would hardly have discussed such a plan in front of a non-Muslim. It stands to reason, then, that the informant is a Muslim. What these two nutcases didn’t understand is that most Muslims aren’t terrorists. This fact will almost certainly be lost amid the news of another “Muslim terrorist plot”.

There are no hard figures for the number of Muslims in the United States since the U.S. Census doesn’t record religion. One study by Dr. Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago estimates the Muslim population in the U.S. at around 1.9-2.8 million. If most Muslims were terrorists, as many people believe, the U.S. would be suffering attacks every day. Luckily this is not the case. Vigilance defeats terrorists, fear and stereotyping helps them win.

[Photo courtesy Doug Letterman]

Afghan archaeologists race to study Buddhist site before destruction

We all remember the Bamiyan statues, those giant stone Buddhas the Taliban blew up in 2001. One of the 1,500 year-old statues is pictured here. Pictures are all we have left of them.

Now another Buddhist site in Afghanistan is under threat of destruction. This time the danger isn’t the Taliban, but a Chinese mining company. The site of Mes Aynak in eastern Afghanistan was home to a thriving Buddhist monastery in the seventh century. It’s also right next to an abandoned Soviet mine that may have the world’s second-largest reserve of copper. A Chinese mining company has invested $3.5 billion to exploit the mine and Afghan officials are eager for work to get underway.

A team of Afghani archaeologists is busy excavating the site and has found an entire monastery complex with more than 150 statues. They were originally given three years, a woefully inadequate length of time for a team of barely forty people, and now they’re being pressured to finish by the end of this year. The archaeologists fear that once the miners move in, the monastery will get wrecked.

The mine will bring much-needed jobs and wealth to Afghanistan, which is also courting adventure tours, so the in the rush to yank copper out of their land they might want to think about preserving some of their past.

[Photo courtesy Marco Bonavoglia via Wikimedia Commons]