US Department of State Travel Alert for Europe during the Holiday Season

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Background
On 21 November, the US Department of State (DoS) issued a Travel Alert warning US citizens of the heightened risk of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, especially during the forthcoming holiday season. The Alert noted that US citizens should exercise caution at holiday festivals, events, and outdoor markets. According to the message, there is credible information that terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as the Islamic State or IS), al-Qaeda, and their affiliates are continually planning to conduct attacks in Europe, especially during the holiday season. Terrorist groups may target official and private interests, and may use conventional and non-conventional weapons. The Alert recommends that US citizens “exercise vigilance when attending large holiday events, visiting tourist sites, using public transportation, and frequenting places of worship, restaurants, hotels, etc.” It also advises US citizens to avoid large crowds when possible and to be aware of their immediate surroundings. The Travel Alert is scheduled to expire on 20 February 2017.

The DoS issued a similar Travel Alert for Europe to US citizens on 22 March 2016 following the coordinated attacks in Brussels, Belgium, which killed 32 people and injured 230 others, and the attacks in Paris, France, on 13 November 2015, which killed 130 people. IS claimed credit for both attacks. The DoS later updated the Alert in May, warning US citizens again of the heightened risk of terrorist attacks in Europe during the summer months. The Alert subsequently expired on 31 August.

Assessment
DoS officials have reportedly stated that this latest Travel Alert was not motivated by a specific threat. However, according to reports on 21 November, French anti-terrorism police arrested seven men in Strasbourg and Marseille who had allegedly been plotting an attack in France for months. This recent round of arrests, along with arrests made in June, reportedly thwarted an attack on French soil. The arrests in Strasbourg came five days prior to the opening of the city’s Christmas market, a popular attraction among tourists. The Christmas market was previously targeted in a failed terrorist plot in 2000. Whether authorities were able to collect any intelligence during the operation and subsequent questioning of the suspects that pointed towards further planned attacks in Europe in the coming months remains unknown at this time.

As IS continues to face setbacks in Syria and Iraq, the group may be motivated in part by the opportunity to demonstrate its continued relevance and operational capabilities with attacks on soft targets in Europe. The group recently has taken losses in the ongoing battle for Mosul, Iraq, a key stronghold for the group. An Iraqi-led coalition has been engaged in a battle to retake the city for the past month. The leader of IS released a recording earlier in November 2016 that called for the defense of IS territory, including Mosul, and was meant to inspire attacks around the world in order to project the perception of the group’s strength. The Director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and others have warned in recent months that battlefield successes against IS in Iraq and Syria may correlate with increased attacks in Western Europe and the US as IS fighters disperse.

European countries have witnessed a number of attacks and have thwarted attacks in recent years, and there have been several major incidents since the November 2015 attacks in Paris, France. Many attacks have been low-level knife attacks, with minimal casualties. Some significant attacks or thwarted attacks over the past nine months include:

  • 3-8 September: Police detained five individuals in Paris, France in connection with a car that was discovered on 3 September with gas cylinders inside parked near Notre Dame Cathedral.
  • 26 August: Police in the UK announced that they had arrested five men suspected to have been planning to carry out acts of terrorism in two separate raids in the West Midlands region.
  • 17 August: German police arrested a suspected terrorist during a raid in the eastern state of Brandenburg. The man was reportedly planning to detonate a bomb at a festival scheduled to take place later in August.
  • 26 July: At least one person was killed and one other injured after two men armed with knives took several people hostage—including a priest, two nuns, and two worshippers—at a church in the department of Seine-Maritime in France. The priest was killed by the hostage-takers before police shot dead both attackers. IS claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • 24 July: One person was killed and 12 others injured in an explosion in the center of the southern German city of Ansbach. The blast occurred in front of a bar as an open-air music festival was taking place nearby with more than 2,000 people attending. According to authorities, the lone fatality was carrying the explosive device in his backpack and detonated it near the entrance to the music festival.
  • 14 July: At least 86 people were killed and 434 others wounded when a truck rammed into a crowd of people in the southern resort city of Nice, France. The assailant drove a truck onto the Promenade des Anglais seaside walk and fired shots through the window into the crowd before being shot dead by police. IS claimed the attack was carried out by its “soldier.”
  • 22 March: Thirty-two people were killed and at least 230 others were injured in coordinated attacks at the Brussels Zaventem Airport (BRU) and the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels, Belgium. IS claimed responsibility for the attacks.
In addition, Turkey has experienced a number of attacks, including in its major cities of Ankara and Istanbul, over the past 18 months. Many of the attacks have been claimed by, or suspected to have been committed by, groups like IS, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and a PKK-offshoot group known as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). Most notably, on 28 June, an attack consisting of shootings and suicide bombings occurred at Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST), killing 45 people and injuring more than 230 others.

Just as with the Travel Alerts that DoS issued for Europe earlier in 2016, this latest alert does not necessarily mean that US citizens should avoid travel to Europe over the holiday season. The threat from terrorism in Europe has existed in various forms for decades, and the odds of being affected directly by an attack remain very small. However, travelers should expect increased security presence at events, transportation hubs, and tourist attractions.

Advice
The most important piece of advice for travelers will be to practice patience and account for longer wait times at airports and train stations. In order to reduce these wait times, and reduce the amount of time travelers will spend outside of security, travelers should:

  • Arrive early during non-peak times and avoid rush hour.
  • Conduct early check-in, if available.
  • Only pack enough luggage that can be comfortably carried or rolled. If possible, try to pack carry-on only.
Prior to travelling, always conduct research on your destination. Most governments offer up-to-date travel alerts and restrictions on their foreign office’s website or Twitter feed. Many offer an email alert subscription as well. Register your travel with your embassy’s travel notification program so you will be kept informed of any alerts.

While traveling within a city, consider using taxi or ride sharing services (like Uber) to reduce exposure to crowds and large gatherings. Always have local currency and an ATM or credit card available. This will allow you to pay for transportation and other needs in the event of an emergency. Also, always have a paper map available to use in the event cellular and/or internet connection is limited and you need to navigate across the city. Ensure your travel companions are using the same map. Local maps are often provided by hotels.

Have a plan to communicate with someone back home, in case of emergency or in the event of a crisis or attack. Cellular networks can become quickly overwhelmed, as was the case in Brussels and Paris immediately following the attacks, so having alternate means of communication is a must.

  • A satellite phone is a great option.
  • Utilize an internet connection to communicate via email, messaging app, or social media.
  • Leave an itinerary and hotel information with someone back home, and communicate any changes to travel plans.
  • Establish and review a rally point with your travel companions each day (such as your hotel). If you are separated for whatever reason and cannot communicate with one another, meet at that location.
Lastly, if a traveler should find themselves in a dangerous situation, remember to move away from the area as quickly and safely as possible. Follow all instructions from emergency personnel, and do not attempt to return to the scene to help or gawk. Remember that your life is not worth recovering luggage or capturing a cellphone video.
 

sierraone

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I would like to add a couple of things. Most American under 35-40 years unless they have been in the military have no idea how to read a map, or a compass for that matter. Their cell phones go down, most will just stop and cry. I blame their parents for that. This same age group of Americans and Europeans will be the ones who desire to lay out most of the night at clubs. IMO that puts a target on your back, an easy one at that. The best advice given above, know where you are, where you are going, have a plan and a sat phone. Just my opinion.
 

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