(Editor’s note: We’re reposting this war reporter’s survival guide with updates after Monday’s Christmas market attack in Berlin.)
When it comes to staying alive, there is a big difference between simply being paranoid and actually being prepared.
After attacks in Paris. Brussels and Berlin, it would be easy to become paranoid, lock ourselves in our homes and give up on life overseas.
Thankfully, those of us who’ve spent big portions of our lives dodging terror attacks, firefights and roadside bombs in high-threat condition environments can tell you it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can keep on enjoying our international lives to the fullest by simply being smarter and more vigilant.
I’m telling you this, fellow expats, not to scare you, but because we crossed the Rubicon with the 13 November Paris attacks. Monday, Berlin was the target. Which came as no surprise.
So I want to share with you the skills I learned – the keys to surviving for years in the most dangerous places on earth, more useful than you think where ever you might find yourself these days.
Let me be blunt. The post-911 world was different from the post-Paris Terror Attacks world. Osama bin-Laden and al Qaeda went for the sophisticated international, high-casualty symbolic attacks. The U.S.S. Cole. The Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy attacks. The World Trade Center. The Mombasa and Bali bombings.
If you were living someplace obscure, al Qaeda wasn’t much of a threat. As a friend – an Army officer – I knew once observed, “If they have to explain where the place is and its significance, they’re not going to the trouble of blowing it up.”
With attacks in Lebanon, Turkey, Belgium, Paris and now possibly Berlin, Islamic State terrorism, by comparison, is starting to look more random, indigenous and unsophisticated. The New York Times has reported senior ISIS operative Boubaker al-Hakim – who the Times calls “the godfather of French jihadists” – advised followers to abandon choosing symbolic targets: “My advice is to stop looking for specific targets. Hit everyone and everything.”
If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, it doesn’t matter who pulls the trigger.
Full disclosure: In the aftermath of Berlin, I just want to say if European cities close the markets, the Bad Guys win. We went to the Brussels Winter Wonderland Christmas Market two weeks ago, but we took care to avoid the areas where the crowds formed along the streets. Just good OpSec, or operational security. But we WILL go to more. No one is going to take our traditions from us.
In the military and intelligence communities, “situational awareness” is not just a phrase. It’s a way of life. Think what might have happened if Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos (Skarlatos and Stone are both military) weren’t paying attention on that train from Amsterdam to Paris.
Here’s what that means in a few points.
• Always register at the nearest embassy or consulate.
Seems obvious, but I’m always stunned how many expats don’t. Your home country emergency response officials might need to know where the hell you are in the event of a worst-case scenario.
Make sure someone knows where you are at all times, and how to reach you. This sounds anal retentive until the C-17s are idling on the tarmac, getting ready to pick up all your friends and co-workers … and no one has told you there’s an evacuation.
Also, never impulsively leave your country of residence without telling trusted friends or family on both ends of the voyage. To this point, you should check your embassy website daily for information.
• Hope for the best, but plan for the worst
Make sure you have a personal survival plan, including where you’ll go should you need emergency medical attention. If you can afford it, some premium credit cards such as American Express Platinum and emergency insurance companies have plans that can – in some instances – cover emergency evacuation.
Medjet, which promises medical evacuation from anywhere in the world to the hospital of your choice, sells several levels of insurance. If you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from your home and meet transport criteria, Medjet will arrange air medical transfer to the hospital of your choice within your home country at no additional cost, according to their website. All you pay is the membership fee. Interestingly, Medjet offers an Expatriate Membership that covers your or your family for up to a full year.
Annual fees start at $430 per person and go to $985 per family. You should know they supervise their own aircraft.
• If you work for a large multinational, inquire whether your employer has what the military calls a “NEO” – a non-essential evacuation operation plan.
For military communities, that means coordinating communications between, say, command and Department of Defense schools. For civilians, that means your company might have a contract with one of the civilian security/crisis management companies such as Miami-based The Ackerman Group.
For both, it means keeping an evacuation bag packed that includes travel clothes and access to vital documents such as health care documents and insurance policies, passports and visas, multiple forms of IDs, cash and/or credit cards with hefty credit limits.
• Always pay attention – keen attention – to who’s around you all the time.
On the metro. In the airport. In crowds on the streets. In restaurants. This might sound goofy, but paying attention became my favorite sport when I was working in Iraq and Afghanistan as a reporter for European Stars & Stripes. I played it like a game: Who stands out? Who doesn’t belong? Who’s behaving erratically?
This game saved my life several times when I or soldiers I was with noticed people who didn’t look right … who didn’t look like they belonged, or who were unintentionally telegraphing their intentions through nervousness or hyper activity.
A friend once spotted a man with no luggage taking random photos of the trains and schedules in the lower levels of Frankfurt airport. She reported it to military authorities, who followed up with extreme prejudice.
This can be exhausting, but it might keep you from becoming a victim in all sorts of circumstances, including simple street crime.
In Europe, you can’t NOT take public transportation. It’s one of the best aspects of life here.
Just don’t get complacent.
• Never keep a predictable schedule, and assume you’re being surveilled.
When we first moved to Turkey, we’re looking for one of the unmarked American military buildings in downtown Izmir. A raggedy shoeshine guy sees us standing on the sidewalk, bewildered, and helpfully points out the building. A chap who speaks perfect English! What luck!
What rubes ….
The shoeshine guy worked for the Turkish Interior Ministry. He and other nearly invisible men and women were always monitoring Americans on the street. I never knew if they were helping Turkish security personnel keep us safe, or just collecting random intel about U.S. officials coming and going. It didn’t matter … they were always there.
There were lots of people like our shoeshine friend, who always seemed to be around. Which is why I never left for work at any certain time, and why I always varied my route.
• Never drive a vehicle that stands out
This is really important. Nothing screams “kidnap me” like driving around in one of those big, black Chevy Suburbans so beloved by high-ranking U.S. government officials, or a Mercedes G-Class, the choice of Russian oligarchs everywhere.
When I arrived in Baghdad in mid-2003, my vehicle of choice was a beat up old Toyota with no air conditioning. No one gave me a second look.
On this same point, never get into a vehicle including cabs unless you’re certain it’s legit. That’s as true in super-secure cities such as Zurich and Luxembourg City as it is in sketchy European towns such as Naples or Marseille.
• Never hang around airports or train stations if you can help it
More and more, airports and even train stations are like malls, with high-end retail and restaurants. It’s tempting to walk out of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, say, and linger in the shopping plaza at the arrivals/departures. Don’t. Outside the security checkpoints, airports and train stations are soft targets packed with people. Move along. Also, think about walking if you can rather than taking the strassenbahn or subway. You can use the exercise.
• Blend in.
If you live somewhere the perceived threat to your nationality is higher than to local nationals, blend in. That is, if you’re an American living someplace where anti-American sentiment is rising, start dressing like a local. Time to go incognito: Lose the Indianapolis Colts fan gear and those big Adidas Turbular Xs and get to an H&M for a makeover. Oh, and lose some weight.
• Stay away from Western chain restaurants.
I was in Yemen once when I saw this beautiful new KFC right in the center of Sana’a. Fried chicken with 11 secret herbs and spices! And I’m from Kentucky …. Alas, I made a mental note to avoid it like the plague. Too obvious a target.
Take my advice: Don’t die for empty calories or over-priced coffee.
• Choose your seat like your life depends on it.
So many of the people who died in the Paris attacks were sitting outside at their local French cafes. Bad idea.
Never sit on the street unless there’s no place else. When my fixers and I would go to out to eat in Baghdad, we always sat in the very rear of the building after making certain we’d located the rear exits. First, we could observe everyone coming in. Second, if there was a car bomb, we had a better chance not getting shredded by the glass.
Another tip is, if the restaurant already has been attacked, it’s a keeper. Rarely did insurgents in Baghdad blow up the same place twice. This is NOT true of hotels, which tend to be symbolic targets if they’re frequented by dignitaries, journalists or foreign government officials. Stay away from high-profile hotels unless they have aggressive security.
• When in doubt, look at their feet.
This is going to sound silly, but intelligence operatives know this one trick, as they say on those cheesy clickbait websites: Shoes can be a tip off people aren’t who they say they are. The guy who’s trying to appear wealthy, but has on a pair of cheap, worn shoes. The woman who’s trying to pose as a maid or servant, but is wearing a $725 pair of Tod’s driving mocs.
It’s easy to duck into a thrift shop or discount store and buy a costume. It’s much more difficult to find a pair of shoes that fit in order to complete the transformation. And there’s something about shoes in that people are loathe to give up the pairs they love.
To blend in in Baghdad, I’d buy these really heinous outfits at local stores including matching straw hats my fixer Faris and I would wear. We looked like Laurel and Hardy. But you know what gave me away? My Merrell Chameleon shoes. I could never find shoes in Baghdad to fit my size-12 feet.
• You shouldn’t go anywhere near ANY conflict zone unless you’re trained to deal with the risks, you’re fluent in the local languages and you don’t stand out.
Dear expats: We’re all too adventurous. A few years ago when he was an undergrad, my dear cousin Jordan trekked down to Syria from Europe. On a whim. Bad, bad idea.
For the moment, don’t give into the temptation to play Adventure Man/Adventure Woman. Hold off on making that trip to Damascus unless you’re a native Arabic speaker with experience negotiating civil wars. Think twice before taking that dream job in the Hadramaut oil fields in Yemen. Because, what the hell are you thinking?
I’m afraid we’ll all have stories aplenty to tell our grandchildren just about our adventurous times as brave expats in Europe. But make sure you’re indeed around to bore them with your tales.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.