By Jenni Hesterman
As discussed in my September 22nd blog, if you travel or work internationally, you are a potential target for criminals and terrorists who want to raise funds by putting a price on your life.
The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is the primary clearinghouse for all data related to citizens killed, injured or kidnapped as a result of terrorist activity. The NCTC’s most recent report shows trend data from 2005, 2006 and 2007 concerning “noncombatant” kidnappings. Data shows that there has been a slight increase of kidnappings abroad, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in other areas of instability, such as Africa and Central America.
The State Department “A Safe Trip Abroad” website is full of good information for those traveling and living overseas and worthy of review even by the most seasoned traveler. For instance, at the airport, check in and go through security as soon as possible; do your shopping and dining after you are in the secured area.
Make sure someone at home has your itinerary and knows your general whereabouts and movements. Register your travel online with the State Department. Ensure your personal affairs are in order and that papers such as wills and powers of attorney are in an accessible, known place prior to departure. Read the Country Specific Information, Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts issued by the State Department before traveling. Have a list of emergency contact info for your destination including the embassy and consulates.
Stay in large, modern hotels which typically have good security. Travel light so your hands are free and you aren’t burdened by heavy bags if you need to engage an attacker or run. Do not dress or accessorize in a manner that draws attention or makes you appear affluent.
Avoid areas where you could be easily victimized such as festivals, busy marketplaces and crowded subway and bus stations. Don’t use short cuts or poorly lit streets, stay on main roads and sidewalks. Try not to travel alone. Keep a low profile and do not discuss business or travel situations with strangers, including those on airplanes, driving taxis or at the hotel check in desk.
Bring a satellite phone, extra battery and charger. Also, learn how to use the hotel room phone as well pay phones, and have the right change easily accessible. Learn a few key phrases in the host country’s language so that you can indicate the need for police or security response, or ask bystanders for help.
If you have a laptop and need to leave it at the hotel, secure it in the room safe or the hotel safe. A quick internet search will yield several new locking mechanisms that secure your laptop in the hotel room by anchoring it to stationary objects such as pipes or radiators. You can also lock your hard drive to prevent unauthorized downloading. Remember that your laptop will provide a criminal or terrorist a host of information that can later be used against you if kidnapped, including pictures of family members, financial data and work-related information.
If driving, always check your vehicle thoroughly for tampering or unwanted occupants before entering it. Keep the tank full. Don’t fall for ploys such as someone flagging you down for help. If you get into an accident or are purposely “bumped” in the attempt to get you to exit the vehicle, stay put with the windows up and doors locked. Wait until someone of authority approaches the scene before exiting the vehicle and use your cell phone to call the embassy or the consulate and provide information on the incident. When parking at your destination, do not exit the vehicle if you see suspicious individuals, drive by and return later, or park elsewhere and take a taxi to your destination.
In the unlikely situation that you are taken hostage, there are several steps you can take to minimize the danger. First of all, know that if you are kidnapped in a foreign country, the US government looks to that nation to exercise its responsibility under international law to deal with the situation and ensure safe release. However, US government agencies will engage with the country to bring the situation to resolution.
Part of surviving a stressful event such as a violent crime is mental preparation. Envisioning the scenario and how you might react is a good rehearsal for the potential event. The State Department offers the following advice if you find yourself as a hostage (in any situation):
It is extremely important that you remain calm and alert and manage your own behavior.
Avoid resistance and sudden or threatening movements. Do not struggle or try to escape unless you are certain of being successful. Don’t try to be a hero, endangering yourself and others.
Consciously put yourself in a mode of passive cooperation. Talk normally. Do not complain, avoid belligerency, and comply with all orders and instructions.
If questioned, keep your answers short. Don’t volunteer information or make unnecessary overtures.
Make a concerted effort to relax. Prepare yourself mentally, physically and emotionally for the possibility of a long ordeal.
Try to remain inconspicuous, avoid direct eye contact and the appearance of observing your captors’ actions.
Avoid alcoholic beverages. Eat what they give you, even if it does not look or taste appetizing, but keep consumption of food and drink at a moderate level. A loss of appetite and weight is normal.
If you are involved in a lengthier, drawn-out situation, try to establish a rapport with your captors, avoiding political discussions or other confrontational subjects.
Establish a daily program of mental and physical activity.
Think positively. Avoid a sense of despair. Rely on your inner resources. Remember that you are a valuable commodity to your captors. It is important to them to keep you alive and well.
Protecting family members while abroad is another concern. Just a few weeks ago, a 3 year old girl, a US citizen, was kidnapped for ransom in Guatemala. The girl was taken from outside of her home in the early morning hours as she was going to school. The FBI and The State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service immediately responded to the area, and assisted Guatemala’s anti-kidnapping unit (CAS) with negotiations. While communicating with the kidnappers, they were able to pinpoint her location and the girl was successfully rescued and her 5 kidnappers killed in the ensuing operation.
If living in an area for an extended period of time, always vary your schedule and that of your dependants. Kidnappings are often planned events, and the victim is observed over a long period of time. Change routes of travel, times of departure, who travels in the group, etc. Don’t make yourself and easy target by being predictable and habitual.
Finally, trust your intuition. If you believe that you are being watched, or something or someone seems out of place, go with your instincts and take control of the situation. It could be a matter of life and death.
About the Author
Jenni Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism expert. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also an adjunct professor at homeland security and intelligence studies and is a contributing editor for The Counter Terrorist Magazine.
You may contact the author at JLHBlog@aol.com.