State Department Issues Travel Alert Over Potential Al-Qaeda Attack

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.

The best way to fight terrorism is to ignore it

Last 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.

9/11 Memorial advance tickets on sale today

After many years of construction, the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City will open on September 12. Advance tickets go on sale today.

It’s officially called the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and entrance is free but reservations must be made over the Internet in advance from the memorial’s website. A phone line will also open to handle group requests of ten or more people. Entry is carefully timed and all visitors must go through security. Once inside, however, visitors can stay as long as they like.

The museum’s opening ceremony will take place on September 11, but entry is reserved for officials and relatives of the victims.

Advance tickets are necessary because the memorial can only hold about 1,500 people at a time.

[9/11 Memorial photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Terrorist attacks forces closure of Russian ski resort

A wave of terrorists attacks in Russia last weekend has left three dead and a burgeoning tourist region closed off to travelers. Those attacks prompted Russian officials to impose a a counter-terrorism regime in two areas of the North Caucasus Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria near Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.

The first attack occurred last weekend when a bus carrying travelers to a ski resort was stopped on the road by five men claiming to be police officers. When the travelers asked to see their identification, the men opened fire on them, killing three and injuring two others.

Other attacks included blowing up a tower supporting a ski gondola, which plummeted to the ground with four passengers aboard. Fortunately they survived with only minor injuries. The leader of a local village wasn’t so lucky, as he was shot dead on the street. Hours later, the hotel at a nearby ski resort was evacuated when a car packed with explosives was discovered parked outside.

The attacks are believed to be the acts of Muslim separatists hoping to to build an Islamic state in the North Caucasus. Rebel activity in the region has been on the rise in recent weeks, and there have been a number of clashes with local police and military. Five suspected rebels were killed over the weekend in a response to the latest wave of terrorism.

Because of the recent terrorist activity, the Russian government has enacted the counter-terrorism regime in an attempt to crack down on the rebels. That means that local resorts are closed for the time being, and travelers are being discouraged from visiting the region.

This move comes as a major blow to Russian tourism efforts. The Mt. Elbrus region is being marketed as a major ski area and with the 2014 Winter Olympics scheduled to take place there, the last thing the need is instability and security issues. Unfortunately, that is exactly what they have for now.

If you were planning a spring break escape to the Northern Caucasus mountains, you may want to rethink those plans for now.

[Photo credit: Reuters]

Al Qaeda Yemen connection suspected in cargo plane bomb scares

The simultaneous bomb scares in Newark, Philadelphia and London are now being linked to al Qaeda activity, according to the latest reporting from CNN. On its live blog covering the suspicious item discoveries, CNN reports, “U.S. officials believe that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was behind the plot that caused a security scare at English and American airports on Friday.”

In Washington, a diplomat from Yemen has said the government there is opening a full investigation into the alleged bomb, adapted from a toner ink cartridge, that was discovered in the United Kingdom at East Midlands Airport.

Look for tighter security all around at airports in the United States, some of which, according to CNN, will be “visible and passengers should expect a mix of security techniques.”

[photo by redjar via Flickr]