October 3rd, 2010
08:26 PM ET

Counterterrorism expert: How to protect yourself abroad

Sunday's travel alert by the U.S. State Department for Americans in Europe should scare no one from going there, but people can use it to remind themselves of common-sense measures to help them avoid being targets of opportunity, current and former State Department officials say.

For those needing a refresher course on those common-sense measures, officials are happy to abide.

The State Department's travel website lists many tips on how people can lessen their chances of being targeted by terrorists and kidnappers, especially those who are looking for American tourists. These tips include minimizing the time spent near airports' public areas (because they are less secure than areas on the other side of the security checkpoints); avoiding luggage tags that would identify you as a tourist; looking for and reporting unattended parcels at an airport; and identifying visitors before opening the door of your hotel room.

Don Hamilton, a counterterrorism expert formerly with the State Department, added these tips in an interview with CNN:

- Take taxis that are clearly identified as taxis, and avoid tour buses. "The tour bus is a big, fat, obvious target," he said.

"I would think regular mass transit would be fine, but you don’t want something that says, hey, busload of Americans."

- Avoid certain clothing that could identify you as an American, Hamilton said.

"Notice that Europeans, for the most part, do not wear shorts unless they’re participating in athletic activities," Hamilton said. "Very few people, other than Americans, wear sporting shoes - sneakers - around when they’re out for a walk."

On the whole, though … you're much more likely, I think, to be the target of a criminal attack or some sort of random accident [than a terrorist attack]," Hamilton said.  "If I had plans to go to Europe, I'd go in a heartbeat, and I'd have a nice time. And I would try to … keep my eyes open for abandoned parcels, strange behavior and try not to stick out in a crowd."

Sunday's advisory, which alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe, comes after last week’s news that intelligence officials have been examining information that al Qaeda or related groups may be planning on that continent something similar to the 2008 attack that killed more than 160 people over three days in Mumbai, India.

The alert reminds U.S. citizens "of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure" and urges them to be aware of their surroundings. It urges Americans to register their travel plans with the State Department's travel registration website.

The advisory is not meant to tell Americans to avoid travel, but to take "common-sense precautions" in case of trouble, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy told reporters Sunday.

Kennedy said the State Department has issued travel alerts for Europe for "a variety of reasons" in the past, including the recent eruption of  volcano in Iceland that snarled air travel across the continent. But he said he could not recall the last time a continent-wide travel alert was issued for security reasons.

- The CNN Wire and CNN's Antoinette Campbell contributed to this report.

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Filed under: Air travel • Europe • Terrorism • Travel
soundoff (127 Responses)
  1. Continually Disappointed!

    Nice of the US Government to inform the NBA playing Citizens currently playing in Europe in advance of their travels. My Wife and Son are there now and I would have appreciated if the general population was not left in the dark and informed as well. What's wrong with the world today???

    October 4, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tee

    Phil, I don't particularly disagree with anyhing you're saying. But that argument puts the proverbial cart before the horse. The manifestations of U.S. failures – in domestical fiscal and economic policy, as well as continued missteps in foreign policy – will have an inevitable effect on the lives of many "global" citizens. You can't expect to reap the benefits of the much-lauded global economy without assuming the risk – so anger at Americans in this respect is even more misplaced. But moreover, to suggest that we must somehow shape our foreign policy to encourage Europeans to like us more, or even to ensure that American tourists are safer abroad, is pure folly. And a very slippery slope. At times, we will be percived as the world's here and benefactor, at others, due to the policy we choose to pursue in our own ration self-interest, we will be hated. Often, America's interests are aligned with the best intersts of many others around the globe...but we're not about them, we're about us. Watch – just saying that on the Internet will get the kiddos crying foul, because they believe we need to be some sort of big, plush cuddly animal for everyone to love. How arrogant! Yes, folks, we know many of you hate us. We'll get over it. Now stop stealing out cultural treasures, like hip-hop and fast food.

    October 4, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tee

    I'm typing too fast, Phil, so please overlook the poor spelling above...

    October 4, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  4. phil

    Tee, in a nutshell people of the world in general don't like us much because of what our government does and does not do. Even our fellow countrymen look down on ea. other based on what a particular party is doing. Most people I've met at home and abroad are decent and just want a life for their family to enjoy. We all have that in common so you would think that we would get along just fine. It's our leaders that try to keep us divided, and in most cases succeed. Political and Religious leaders who are exposed more and more thanks to the internet. This box we post in is a good example. we probably would have never discussed these issues yeatrs ago.

    October 4, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ohnurse41

    Simple fix..Keep American dollars on American soil. Plain and simple. Go abroad and your just asking for an issue to happen.

    October 4, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  6. European

    Who is this idiot and has he ever even been to Europe? Is he even aware of what sort of terrorist attacks have happened in Europe?

    Newsflash: terrorists operating in Europe don't single out Americans. They don't go around looking for tour buses, or checking out what kind of sneakers you wear (and, yes, we do wear them, though we call them trainers). Madrid train bombings in 2004? London bus and Tube bombings in 2005? Those attacked MASS TRANSIT. Not American tour buses.

    Get a new 'expert', CNN – this guy's not only stupid, he's dangerous.

    October 4, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  7. brown

    I have lived in Europe many years, it is very easy to identify people from North America.

    October 5, 2010 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
  8. MrsBerlin

    My American husband and I enjoy pointing out Americans here in Berlin – surprisingly we are always right.
    Running sneakers (has nothing to do with "sporty", because they are actually made for running) are a very precise indicator. But most of all – they mostly speak so loud that you notice right away anyway.
    So, dear Americans, better wear some Lederhosen while you are here and please, do never ask for a light beer.. 🙂

    October 5, 2010 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |
  9. Cedara

    Dear so-called Expert,

    you have obviously never been to Germany. If you were, you'd know that almost everyone wears shorts in summer and sneakers are worn all though the year.

    If you really want travel advice, ask Germans – they'd help you much better.

    Oh, and – dress as you normally would (jeans, t-shirt and sneakers), be polite when you ask a German for the way and you'll do fine.

    October 5, 2010 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. Haywood Jablome

    Europe should produce propaganda advising Muslims that Middle Eastern countries are giving away homes and money to return back to these amazing 3rd world deserts! immigration is out of control and the borders need to be closed off. Im glad I am isolated here in Malta!

    October 5, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  11. woman.

    perhaps begin traveling as appropriately behaved diplomats rather than the stereotyped loud, obnoxious, uninformed american tourists... this way we can avoid hiding from the country we come from.
    ... i suppose that's a tall order though, hmm. alright new suggestion, if you're one of the many annoying idiotic americans, go hide in a ditch.

    December 1, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
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