A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance, Part 4

A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and IgnoranceNearly a quarter million American students embark upon study abroad programs each year, and while most programs result in positive experiences and an expanded understanding of our world there are many study abroad programs that have a much grimmer and more costly ending. A 2010 article titled 7 Student Travel Nightmares paints a gruesome and vivid picture of how study abroad programs can go terribly wrong. From kidnappings to abandonment to murder cases, students have experienced an array of security disasters that have left families broken, higher education institutions writing big checks, and diplomatic agencies in a scramble. No country is without its share of security threats, no city is 100% safe, and no student is immune to becoming the victim of a life-threatening situation.

In the last three articles of this series, “Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know“, I have candidly discussed my own experiences while studying at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. While I enjoyed many unforgettable times in Moscow, I also encountered many experiences that were quite un-enjoyable and unforgettable. At the conclusion of my last article, I left you all at the beginning of what I now call my ‘Taxi-Cab-Kidnapping’ story. I would like to tell the rest of my story, and I sincerely hope that by telling it some student will think twice about the seemingly insignificant decisions they make while studying in a foreign country. Because ultimately, when studying abroad things can go wrong and if they do it happens very, very quickly.

When the Unimaginable Happens

Russian Taxi DriverAt first I could not believe that I was in a situation with an unknown attacker attempting to hurt me…again. Looking back, it seemed like a joke — surely this man knew that I had already been robbed, and surely he was just trying to ‘make a funny’ by driving me to the middle of a remote location before beginning his physical attack. In the moment, however, I had no time to think about the sincerity of his actions, I was simply in response mode, otherwise known as survival mode. As the driver of the taxi continued to wrestle with me for my purse (while driving down a deserted road mind you) I fought back, pulling and tugging on my purse. Without thinking, I punched the man directly on the right side of his face. Despite the likely weak punch I had delivered, he was even more mad and began to swerve down the road as all his attention was focused on forcing me to surrender my belongings. We were exchanging curses, grunts, and hits when all of a sudden the strap on my purse broke, leaving me with the body of the purse in my hands. We both stared at each other wondering what would happen next and at that exact moment, whilst still driving at a significant speed, the driver leaned over, opened my door, and kicked me out of the moving vehicle. Continue reading


A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance, Part 3

The arrogance that accompanied by 21st year of life led me to ignore most safety considerations for the entire six months of my study abroad program in Moscow, Russia. In fact, despite enduring and surviving a rather scary piano-bar attack, towards the end of my stay in Moscow I was more confident than ever in my “guaranteed” security; and more prone to apathetically going about my final days in the city I had grown so fond of.

A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and IgnoranceIn my previous article of the series, “Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know“, I told the detailed story of the attack I encountered at a piano-bar on one of my first nights out on the town in Moscow. After having time to process the occurrence, and truly evaluate the role I played in increasing the potential for security threats to become a reality, I determined that an arrogant attitude coupled with ignorance of cultural cues led to an empty wallet and a night that most students cannot imagine happening on their study abroad adventure. I would like to say that after the night at the piano bar I “wised up” and began to take responsibility for my own safety; but, this could not be further from the truth. In this article, A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance, Part 3, I will describe how apathy began to seep into my daily lifestyle as a student studying abroad. Ultimately, with just one month left in my stay, I was once again the victim of a criminal attack — only this time much worse.

Getting Too Comfortable

Many study abroad programs last for well over a month; in my case, six months. In the course of a six month stay, it is only natural to begin to feel at ‘home’, more familiar with the environment, and more comfortable with your surroundings. A student may begin to learn the unique social ques of the culture, the euphemisms behind much of the language used on the street, or perhaps the style of dress begins to become more attractive. By my third month in Moscow I had secured a part-time job as an English teacher, learned how to navigate the Moscow metro, and even made several local friends. I would certainly describe myself as being comfortable in my new-found environment, so much so that I began to dismiss (even more so than before) the common safety concerns that many international students spoke of in the dormitory. For example, the crowd of “hooligans” (as they were called by local Russians) that congregated around the corner market and the metro stop nearest my dormitory became common place; I seemed to never notice them, and was indifferent to their calls, choosing to tune them out.

It is quite normal to grow accustomed to one’s environment and if we as humans did not adapt appropriately we would have bigger issues. Never-the-less, too much comfort in a rather unfamiliar environment (three to six months can still constitute unfamiliarity!) can result in apathy; I simply did not care about these so-called ‘threats’ because as far as I was concerned I had for the most part disproved them with my comfortable stay in Moscow.

The problem with choosing not to care is you are choosing to not be aware. Situation awareness is defined as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission.” More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you; and no, it does not only apply to law enforcement officers or armed services members. Any student studying abroad must learn to exercise situational awareness habits on a regular basis. Growing too comfortable, too apathetic to the ebbs and flows of hooliganism, for example, can be dangerous. Sure, tuning out some guys that make incessant cat-calls your way is one thing; but, tuning out the whole picture all together is a risky mistake. Now, let me briefly introduce how my apathy, comfort, and lack of respect for situational awareness divulged into another security threat.

When You Least Expect It

Many of the international students that lived in the dormitory with myself and other Americans were scheduled to leave Moscow soon, and we all decided to gather at one of our favorite ex-pat restaurants for dinner and drinks. I had been to this place, “Papa’s” as we called it, countless times during my stay. At times I had even traveled by metro or taxi to and from the restaurant with absolutely no issues. “Papa’s” had become a safe haven for international students studying in Moscow, and the last place I expected to be scoped out for a dangerous kidnapping scheme.

Tourist taxi study abroadI enjoyed my night with friend, reminiscing about all the adventures we had while studying in Russia. As the night went out I grew tired and decided I should head home. I asked if anyone wanted to accompany me, but did not think twice to wait when no one wanted to go home quite yet. I payed my bill and walked out front where the familiar sight of a row of un-marked taxis waited to take the restaurant patrons home. I negotiated my fare with an average looking fellow, hopped in the front seat (something I had done countless times, yet turned out to be a costly mistake) and told the taxi driver where I would like to be dropped off. Shortly after, I knew something was not right.

As we drove farther and farther away from the center of the city, where my dorm was located, I grew more and more anxious — demanding to know where he was taking me. I began to frantically think of a plan, and curse my own stupidity…my own apathetic, too-comfortable attitude the dangerous realities of the big city. Unfortunately, ‘thinking of a plan’ when you are already in the middle of a dangerous scheme is quite literally too little too late. In the next few moments I suddenly realized that I had skipped over all opportunities for prediction and prevention when it comes to avoiding potential security threats; I now in the middle of my very own nightmare, and the only choice I had was to respond to the threat unfolding in front of my eyes.

Aegis Academy - Travel Security - Duty of Care

I demanded one last time to know where we were going, speaking Russian with some powerful colloquialisms mixed in a futile attempt at talking tough hoping that it would intimidate this man! As soon as I the words were out of my mouth, the real dangerous part of the attack began. While driving down the road, he leaned over and began to hit me while trying to remove my phone and purse from my person. Too little, too late…I was living out the worst possible study abroad adventure I could have ever imagined.


A recent report released by the U.S. State Department in 2015 revealed that choosing to travel or study abroad in Russia requires extra precautions to ensure one’s own safety and security. Criminal activity such as petty crime, physical attacks, and corrupt law enforcement is on the rise in the Russian Federation: “The social and political unrest in Ukraine has led to increasing political tensions between the Russian Federation and the U.S. and other Western nations. As a result, anti-American and anti-Western sentiment appears to be increasing, especially in certain media outlets.” Studying abroad now, even more so than when I studied in Moscow in 2013, carries new security threats. Do not let this deter you to the point of staying home (remember: You will face potential security threats in every country you travel to), rather choose to be prepared, well-equipped, and alert.

The facts are clear, and the warnings are there to benefit travelers…if we choose to listen to them.

In the next article, the last of the series, I will provide a detailed account of the ending to my taxi-cab ordeal. Though the violence escalated, I was able to escape (hence me living to tell about it!). Stay tuned for the end of the story and some final thoughts on how you can be in control of your own safety while studying abroad!

Stay Safe!

Author – Anna Johnson

First Posted on Aegis Academy

A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance, Part 2

Traveling abroad is an opportunity for endless enrichment experiences. Traveling to unfamiliar territory also inevitably invites the opportunity for security threats. In the last article of this series, “Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know“, I provided an introduction to my own travel experiences in Moscow, Russia as a student in a direct exchange program. I briefly shared about how my arrogant attitude towards my own status as an American citizen not only revealed my naivety about foreign cultures, but may have also resulted in the piano bar attack I described.

Travel Experiences in Moscow, Russia as a StudentIn “A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance, Part 2″ I would like to elaborate on the piano bar attack using a lens more analytical than theoretical. In doing so I will outline some of the mistakes that I made — be they false assumptions, improper preparation, or just plain old stupidity — which ultimately resulted in potential threats becoming a scary reality. With recent reports showing that each year near 300,000 American students study abroad, roughly 65% of these students are females, more discussion needs to be had on issues of travel security; because ultimately if you find yourself facing an attack situation then you have already made mistakes that led you to this point. Knowing how to prevent safety and security issues when traveling abroad is the best self-defense mechanism you could ever teach yourself.

Lesson One: ‘Prepare for the Worst’ is Not for the Weak!

Traveling to Moscow, Russia I would have never predicted that I would be the victim of a violent attack, let alone the victim of two violent attacks. Growing up in America where statistically two-thirds of Americans will never be the victim of a violent attack, I had grown comfortable with the assumption that my safety was practically guaranteed. My first presumptuous mistake was made long before my plane ever touched down in Moscow — I decided to dismiss the warnings of my friends and family as propaganda-motivated paranoia. I was not even remotely invested in any form of risk analysis — a process which considers any catastrophic events that could occur — but, I should have been. For students who are planning to travel or study abroad for any amount of time, particularly in an Eastern European nation, there are certain warnings which deserve your attention. You should give your attention to these warnings not only to alert your awareness to the possibility of such events, but in order to break down any false or arrogant assumptions you may have about the potential for such security issues. Here is a brief list of the warnings given to me by parents, friends, university officials, and experienced travelers of Russia which I, for the most part, dismissed:

  • Do not be out on the streets of Moscow after dark.
  • Do not go anywhere alone — day or night.
  • Avoid hailing taxis from the street. Instead, call a registered taxi company.
  • Do not drink (for too long) with a Russian. They can tolerate more alcohol than you. (Not a stereotype…a reality.)
  • Pick-pockets are slick. Take extra precautions to avoid being the victim of theft.
  • Do not carry too much cash on you. And never pull out your I-Phone (or smart phone) in an unfamiliar environment.

‘Prepare for the Worst’ is Not for the Weak‘Prepare for the Worst’ is Not for the WeakI failed to acknowledge, at one point or another throughout my stay in Moscow, nearly all of the above listed warnings. The series of events that led up to me being the victim of an attack at the piano bar, however, were the direct result of me assuming I need not pay attention to four of the above warnings. Talk about arrogant! Being prepared, cautious, and alert is not a sign of weakness. To the contrary, it demonstrates wisdom and a respect for the realities of the world that we live in.

Lesson Two: ‘Playing it By Ear’ Does Not Result in a Good Night Out

I could say that the best way to avoid being the victim of any sort of piano bar attack would be to avoid leaving your Moscow dorm room, unless traveling to class, the grocery store, or your nearest Visa office. The reality is, however, that most twenty-somethings traveling to Moscow, or any country for that matter, will choose to experience the culture in one way or another in daytime and at night. Entirely avoiding a threat may be improbable, but threat avoidance to some degree is certainly still possible with proper planning and situational awareness.

I certainly did not plan ahead to any degree on the night of the piano bar attack. A fellow American student knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to join him as we “went exploring”. Without a second thought, I grabbed my purse, all of my cash, and set out for a busier part of the city. Mistake: not giving it a ‘thought’ is typically not a good idea when traveling in unfamiliar, unforgiving environments.

We popped into a restaurant and ordered some traditional Russian dishes. After a while, we overheard two men sitting next to us speaking with British accents. We decided to be friendly and assumed these men were friendly Westerners. Before long we were sharing stories over drinks and eating up every word that these ‘friendly Westerners’ were telling us. Not once did we think to ‘red flag’ these men, despite the discrepancies in their conversation: misplaced accents with un-matching stories of origin, unusual advice which was contrary to all the warnings we had received elsewhere, and vague information about their own professional endeavors in Moscow. We simply went along with the coincidence of the night — we had found two friendly tour guides and it was time to play the rest of the night by ear. Mistake: assuming friendly strangers, no matter how much you may have in common with them, genuinely want to show you a good time.

Lesson Three: If It Seems Dangerous, it Probably Is

Threat avoidanceThreat avoidance is a period within the progression of any given attack cycle that only lasts so long. Eventually, a threat shifts from being potential to imminent. At such a point, there is no more avoiding a threat, only mitigating such threats.

As the first restaurant closed, we hopped in a street taxi (See above warnings) with our new British comrades and headed for Chinatown — a notoriously criminal part of Moscow. It would have behooved my friend and I if we had chosen to call it a night before heading to Chinatown, but again we assumed there was no need to worry. We arrived on a busy street and one of our British friends led us to his “favorite little pub” – a piano bar located undergrounds. The night carried on; I was consumed in conversation with our British friends, while my American friend struck up conversations with Russian patrons who, quite frankly, had had way too much to drink. All five of us (two Americans, two British, and a Russian) moved, on the request of the Brits to a small table secluded in the back corner of the restaurant — on the side without the piano. (Just a note: my hope is that at this point in the story you, my reader, are picking up on the numerous naïve, dangerous, and careless decisions that we made that night.) An older Russian gentleman had been pestering me all night, but my new-found British friend assured me that he was a regular here, and to pay him no mind.
Then, all of a sudden, one of the British men proclaimed he had received a text stating his mother had had a heart attack and that they must leave immediately. We offered our shocked condolences and encouraged him to be on his way. We, being filled with joviality at the nights festivities, decided to stay to talk to more Russians. Mistake: do not stay late, in a dark corner of an underground bar, with no one but locals around. Two are easily outnumbered.

We had stayed maybe twenty minutes after our British friends left when my friend excused himself to the bathroom. I told him we ought to leave when he returned. I was all alone in the corner when the older Russian man that had been a slight annoyance all night suddenly turned aggressive. And thus, the potential threats that had been there since the before we had ever left our dormitory were realized in actuality. I had not avoided them, I had not mitigated them, and now I was left to defend myself against these actual threats.

Physical ViolenceThe man pushed me into the corner of the table, while I yelled for help to anyone in the bar, while another Russian (the one that we had befriended throughout the night) stole my money and phone. Not a single bar patron looked our way — they were locals and knew better. My friend came out of the restroom only to be greeted by another Russian man in cohorts with this criminal scheme wielding a knife. He warned my friend not to interfere and that we would be able to leave soon. Sure enough, just as I thought that the physical violence was going to escalate to a point of serious injury, the older man stepped off of me and they fled the piano bar.

I tell this story not to dramatize the stupidity of the decisions I made that night, nor to fulfill any stereotypes about criminal activity on the streets of Moscow. I am telling this to encourage readers, especially those who may find themselves studying or traveling abroad in the near future, to take the time to think about your daily or nightly excursions. Listen to the warnings of those that care about you. Have a plan and stick to it. And most of all, do not walk into a trap — if it seems dangerous (underground bar in a criminal part of town) it most likely is.

Stay tuned for the next part in this article series, “ Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know“, where I will introduce a different attack experience I encountered towards the end of my stay in Moscow. Along with this introduction, I will conceptualize apathy in terms of personal safety and security.

Stay Safe!

Author – Anna Johnson

Originaly posted at Aegis Academy

A Semester Abroad: Arrogance, Apathy and Ignorance Part 1

“Assumptions are dangerous things.”– Agatha Christie

Student Traveling AbroadUniversity-aged students are more and more choosing to travel to foreign countries to participate in study abroad, direct exchange, and semester abroad programs. While these education and travel opportunities provide invaluable experience to young adults, they also come with hefty price tags and unique security concerns. If you are a student, or a parent of a student, who may be traveling abroad to study in the near future then this article series is for you. Your student’s life is far more valuable than any Ivy-League education — learn how to prepare for a semester abroad by reading through my own mistakes while traveling abroad in Russia, in this article series “ Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What a Student Traveling Abroad Ought to Know.”

In the first article of the series covering ‘arrogance’, I will explore how an arrogant perspective can lead to false assumptions about one’s safety while traveling abroad. A spirit of honest reflection has allowed me to identify many flaws in my attitude, the ways in which I prepared, and the habits I practiced before and during my time in Russia. Here, I will specifically focus on how danger manifested itself in my arrogance towards the Russian culture, which lead to costly assumptions about the likelihood that I would be the victim of a violent attack.

Finding myself staring into the eyes of my intoxicated Russian assailant was most certainly not the way I had envisioned my first acquaintance with the sleepless Moscow nightlife. Yet, there I was feeling utterly helpless as my pleas for help to the local bartender, just a pace or two away, were blatantly neglected. The attacker’s breath reeked of a lifetime of vodka, as he asserted himself more until his nose was pressed against my cheek.

My mind was racing in disbelief. How could my seemingly innocent decision to stop at the local piano bar have divulged into a terror of this sorts? Where was my American friend—had he not only stepped off to the restroom? Why was everyone acting like this was not even happening? Could not one patron see this aggressive man as he pinned me down on the table and began his assault? I had heard of those students who traveled to a foreign country for the semester of a lifetime, and were never heard of again – but that was not me! I had taken precautions: bought the anti-theft wallet, spent years learning the language, and immersed myself into studying the nuances of the Russian persona. Suddenly, it was clear that I had made some hefty assumptions about what “safety in Russia” meant; and to assume too much in an unforgiving place such as the streets of Moscow, had turned out to be a very dangerous thing.

Arrogance comes in many forms; it can be prideful, justified, and presumptuous. My arrogance assumed a more subtle role during my travel experiences in Moscow. Armed with my two and a half years of Russian studies at the university, I felt confident that I had a rather solid grasp on how the Russian mind worked. Refusing to buy into the American propaganda machine, I had made many assumptions about the Russian population – that all Muscovites were familiar with a tourist culture, and must have friendly intrigue towards the American tourist. I flippantly dismissed the warnings of friends and family concerning the high volume of criminals masked as unsuspecting and welcoming figures, as nothing more than paranoia. (It was clear they had been watching too many movies with Cold-War undertones!)

My arrogance showed itself in the form of assumptions. While it is only natural to make a certain degree of assumptions concerning one’s safety while traveling, I had gone much further than that and assumed absolute safety in a place where not even the residents make such arrogant assumptions. In my mind, I was safe as long as I did not wander off into some dark alley or give out personal information to a suspicious-looking individual; but, I need not worry about the café patron who wanted to hear about Hollywood, or ask if I had ever seen Alexander Ovechkin. Indeed, assumptions were frequently made in the first few weeks I spent in Moscow: I was a rare occurrence, I was an American, and I was untouchable. I was doomed for a violent reality-check…

Waking up the next morning I was thankfully alive and physically unharmed, but had an empty purse devoid of nearly two hundred dollars and I-Phone, and a wounded ego. I was bruised and shaken-up, yet determined to deliver a swift dose of justice to this criminal with the help of the Moscow city police department.  Russian policeSurely they would be distraught to hear of my trauma, wondering “How could this man tarnish the image of Moscow by preying on an American traveler?!” And surely the police department would spring into action: checking surveillance cameras, taking a thorough testimony, and investigating the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, my assumptions would again reveal my naivety—the police department was a bureaucratic nightmare with little regard for the plight of unknowing foreigners. I was beginning to realize that I was responsible for my own safety in Russia.

I refuse to believe that my own experiences in Russia are merely ‘unfortunate circumstances’ in which I was the doomed tourist, prey to the schemes of unruly criminals. Rather, I believe that I too am at fault for my assumptions and for my arrogance. Further to that point, I believe these experiences have warranted a careful reflection of the role I played in ensuring my own security. In this series, Arrogance, Apathy, and Ignorance: What A Student Studying Abroad Ought to Know I will meticulously recall the dangerous encounters I had in Russia and further, breakdown the components of each attack. Unfortunately, this incident was not the last of my experiences with criminals during the six months that I spent in Russia.

In the next article, I will provide a detailed timeline of the events leading up to the attack at the piano bar, applying notions of self-defense, preventative action, and travel security to the events that led up to my attack. My hope is that by sharing my travel experiences with you, my readers, I can help you to understand when, where, and how you can intercede in, or even prevent, the ‘attack cycle’ you may find yourself the victim of while you are traveling abroad.

Source: http://aegisacademy.com/community/a-semester-abroad-arrogance-apathy-and-ignorance-part-1/

Author: Anna Johnson

Travel Safety – Is the world getting more dangerous?

Travel Safety - Increased Risk to TravellersIn the past two decades, we have seen Islamist successfully destabilize Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and much of Africa, as well as seen them making significant gains in support globally. We need only look to ISIS and Hamas to see the impact of Islamist control of failed states. Additionally, we are starting to see the impact of mass immigration into Europe, the most visible example of which is the public support and legal acceptance of Sharia Law in some previously exclusively western nations. The reality is that the expansion of Islamist principles places additional risks on Americans (and westerners in general) when travelling abroad.

Terrorism is not the only travel safety and security risk that has become more heightened in recent years. The problem in Crimea and the Ukraine was not an Islamist originated problem, but the result of a weak or grossly ineffective foreign policy on the part of the United States and its allies. Violence in the former soviet bloc has largely been crime related. With the unchecked expansionist goals being demonstrated by Mr. Putin, we can expect that to take on a considerably more militant nature. The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 is an example of the lack of control that Russia has over the separatists it has chosen to train and arm. This support by Russia has put skills and weapons in the hands of people who will cooperate while their interest align, but who will eventually break off and pursue their own goals. For the most part neither entities’ interests will be aligned with American traveller safety interests in the near future.

While drug cartels have largely been the source of violence in Latin America, they have until relatively recently avoided attacks on U. S. citizens. The past ten years have increasingly shown this traditional taboo eroded. What kept the deterrent effect in place was the U.S. response to the torture and murder of Kiki Camerana (a DEA agent) in 1985. It would appear that that type of intervention is no longer a credible threat to the cartels.

Politically, even our traditional allies (like Mexico), seem to be disinclined to expedite the judicial process. We see this in the case of our repeatedly denied high-level diplomatic requests for the expeditious release of a Marine arrested on weapons charges. That would not have been the case 10 years ago. What this tells us is that even governments that have traditionally depended on American economics and support, no longer see that as enough of an incentive to do us any favors.

Globally, much of this is due to the economic reality of the United States being on the path to a point where we are no longer the dominant economic force on the planet. More significant is the fact that the entire world views America’s foreign policy as lacking a stick. We may be able to provide a few incentives, but when it comes to use of force we have been shown to be lacking. When “red lines” are drawn, the U.S. has clearly demonstrated that we actually mean those are suggestions, and that the ramifications of ignoring our suggestions is that we will claim that we did not make the suggestion in the first place. Not exactly a recipe for credible or predictable actions on the part of the United States.

Historically American military power and the willingness to use it, has placed the concept of attacking Americans in the category of unacceptable. In the past when it has occurred, foreign military and police forces reacted swiftly and typically in draconian fashion to send the message to attackers that attacking Americans on their soil would not be tolerated. That made our intervention in many cases unnecessary, but the threat of it ultimately translated to a generally safer environment for Americans travelling abroad. That exceptionalism is no longer something we can expect or should rely on.

If we, as Americans no longer enjoy the deterrent effect of a strong foreign policy, then we must seriously reconsider the risk metrics we apply when travelling overseas. The most significant impact on American travellers is not that the world is becoming more violent or more dangerous (although that is certainly the case in many countries). The increasing crime and violence globally more significantly impacts Americans because we now are more likely to receive our portion of the attacks in general.

Additionally, we have far less diplomatic influence than we used to when America carried a big stick. We need only look to Edward Snowden in Russia, Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi in Mexico, and FBI Agent Robert Levinson in Iran to see the grossly ineffective results of our diplomatic efforts. Without the credible threat of force, there is no incentive for compliance with our interests. The decline of diplomatic influence has further degraded “American Exceptionalism” significantly.

To make it worse, we make good targets. The reality is that even poor Americans are rich by most of the developing worlds standards and without a credible deterrent in place, Americans on average are likely to yield a higher return on invested criminal effort. We are, and always have been, dependent on host nation security services to make the point that “attacking Americans will not be tolerated” to criminal and terrorist organizations in their countries. Clearly, that is not something we can rely on for the foreseeable future. We are left with the reality of an increasing risk for U. S. citizens travelling abroad. That risk is increased across the spectrum from random crime, organized criminal entities, as well as terrorism.

Our educational institutions and corporate entities that send students and employees overseas, are just now trying to determine how to effectively deal with the increasing risks. Unfortunately, those risks are already posing a significant threat. The fact is that American travellers have been sheltered by a significant deterrent effect that has allowed us to remain reasonably safe despite the complacency in our approach to travel safety and security. Fortunately, some corporations, educational institutions and private citizens are starting to do something about it.

Our travel safety and security workshops and lectures were nearly exclusively requested by the military and security based organizations that were travelling to high threat regions in the past. That has dramatically expanded into the private sector in recent years. The good news is that the early adopters are starting to learn how professionals evaluate risk, and keep themselves safe. The sad news is far too many Americans are still living in a world where American Exceptionalism protected them.

The increased risk to travellers is something that can be successfully managed and effectively mitigated. The tools and techniques we will discuss in this series are not skills that are reserved for intelligence agents or super spies. It does not take super human abilities to mitigate risk, even in high threat areas. What it does take is an honest evaluation of the risks you face, the impact of political influence on your plans, and the education and training to know how to improve your travel safety and security.

Next months article will cover evaluating international travel risk, and provide some tools and resources to use when creating your own travel risk assessment.

Travel safe and have fun!

About Author

Patrick Henry – President at Aegis Academy

Patrick HenryPatrick Henry received his operational training and experience from the U. S. Government, 22 years of which were spent in the Marine Corps where he served in the Reconnaissance, Infantry and Intelligence fields. During his active service, he spent more then seven years deployed overseas in combat, operational and training assignments. After the military, Pat worked as a contractor and as the Director of Operations at a private paramilitary company, specializing in training special operations forces and providing protective services to select private clients. His education consists of an MBA from the University of Southern California (USC), and a BS from San Diego State University with an emphasis in Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology and a minor in Psychology. He holds an extensive list of security and training related certifications from a variety of government and nationally recognized entities. He currently sits on the advisory committee at USC’s Master of Veterans Business Program, and is an active member of Infraguard and the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS). He has been a guest speaker at ASIS, the San Diego Industrial Security Awareness Council and other private organizations on physical security, travel security, and competitive intelligence collection counter-measures.

First Published at Aegis Academy

Risk Analysis and Mitigation from a Travel Security Perspective

Travel Security - Risk Analysis & MitigationThe most common and unfortunate state of mind people adopt is that protection is the responsibility of someone else. You can personally exert an extraordinary amount of influence over your own safety and security by controlling your actions. Adopting the mindset that your personal safety and security is up to you is the first step in improving your chances. The next step is learning how to evaluate risk, and implement actions and controls to maintain and advantage in any environment. The first step is analyzing risk.

Finding the “right” risk metrics

In the evaluation of risk, the first and most critical step is to choosing a quality data set. The greatest gift the Internet has given us is a vast supply of information on demand. Unfortunately, much of it consists of un-researched opinion, or worse pure fabrication. When evaluating personal security risk, you have to select, vetted, relevant and appropriate sources of information or you will undoubtedly end up protecting your self against the wrong threats. The Department of State, CIA World Fact Book, UN Office on Drugs on Crime, World Health Organization and the Economic Intelligence unit are great places to start. Alternatively, there a number of professional reports that you can purchase on any city or area to which you may want to travel. Basing risk decisions on what you are fed by the media, Hollywood or that scholarly journal Wikipedia is unlikely to result in productive and useful plans to mitigate that risk!

This should not simply be a physical risk evaluation and it should include risks that could impact the success of your reason for travelling. You are choosing to expose your self to risk for a purpose, and if you don’t accomplish that purpose, you should choose not to take the risk in the first place. If you are travelling to Sierra Leone to import natural resources, anything that will prevent you from obtaining or importing resources is a risk. If you do not account for those risks, you may have a physically safe trip that results in you very adeptly undertaking a risky evolution for no productive reason. Culture, infrastructure, opportunity and preparation all play into it.

Risk Analysis

Once you have selected appropriate sources of information, you are ready to start dealing with the process of determining what to do with it. Analysis is simply a process of systematic evaluation of information. Ultimately, the real goal is to develop a consistent approach to evaluating the information you collect. The first step is to make a determination of what is likely to happen. This is a fairly exhaustive list of what may happen. It consists of the things that are likely to impact traveller to that country and have almost nothing to do with your personal ability, plans or circumstances.

Then next step is to look at the catastrophic impacts that could occur (Death, Permanent Injury, Loss of the deal, etc…). Remember, base these on your data set, not on your personal circumstances at this point. I then combine theses two lists into a set of potential occurrences. Here is the most important step in the process. Cross anything off the list that is completely beyond your control, leaving only the things that you can influence. If someone else with more money, more physical ability, or language skills you do not posses could influence those factors that is irrelevant to your risk evaluation. If you don’t have the skills, money or time to influence the potential occurrences, don’t spend time trying. We want a comprehensive list of things that are likely to occur in the area to which we are travelling.

We can now start to assign a probability and severity rankings to the list. A cold is pretty likely, but pretty low on the severity list. Being murdered is probably a low probability side, but at the top of the severity list. I rank severity in the same manner as we rank the scale of injury. 0 is no impact or no injury. 1 is minor injury with little to long-term impact. 2 are serious but recoverable injury, or serious but recoverable impact. 3 are permanent injures, or permanent unrecoverable impacts. 4 are death or catastrophic impacts. This is a somewhat arbitrary scale in that you simply have to lump it in to one of four categories.

Next we look at the probability of occurrence. Once again we place them into one of five buckets labeled A – E. E is improbable, or a freak occurrence. D is unlikely, or something that may happen once in a blue moon. C is moderate, meaning it might happen. B is likely, or something that will more likely happen then not. A is something that you would be pleasantly surprised if it did not occur.

In evaluating our list, we can now cross off everything we have labeled as a 0 or E. If the impact is 0, we are not going to waste time trying to mitigate the risk. If the probability is so low that it falls into the freak occurrence category, we will not spend time trying to reduce it even further. These is the list of things that are likely to happen, and against which we are going to apply time effort and resources to minimizing the impact or the probability that they will occur.

Minimize Probability Risk

The first thing I want to focus on is minimizing the probability. Not having an event occur is always preferable to minimizing the damage it may cause. We can minimize probability by our actions. There is an extensive list of these skills and good habits written out in Preventative Defense. Examples are locking your car doors, inspecting the tires on your rental vehicles, avoiding bad neighborhoods and making a conscious effort to blend in. Anything you can do to minimize the probability is an action.

Minimizing Severity Risk

The next step is focused on minimizing the impact of negative events if our attempts to avoid them fail. Examples are things like wearing a seat belt, carrying some simple trauma management equipment, and learning to ask for help in the local language. Anything you can do to reduce the severity or impact of the event called a control.

Mitigating Risk

As I look at my list of things that are likely to happen, I write our actions and controls that will influence the probability or severity of the event. Every action and control (or risk mitigation tactic) has a cost and an effort level associated with it. The key to actions and controls is that they have to be affordable. If you develop a phenomenal plan to mitigate risk to nearly zero, but it costs a trillion dollars to implement, you may as well rely on a wish from a magic genie. They have to be practical. If you plan is so detailed that it requires 16 hours of your day to execute, you have no time left to accomplish your goal so you may as well not go. Lastly, you have to come up with actions and controls that you will actually do!

After I have listed my actions and controls, I evaluate my list of potential occurrences again and assign a new probability and severity based on the implementation of my actions and controls. Ideally, we are able to reduce both, but the reality is that we are far more adept at developing controls then we are at reducing probability so do not fall into the trap of reducing a probability rating based on a good control. In other words, wearing a bulletproof vest is great control if you are dealing with a risk of being shot. Putting on the vest does not reduce the probability of being shot by one bit.

I now look at my risk matrix again. I am looking for things that fall in likely or catastrophic category. Ideally there is nothing on the list that falls into the 1A category after our actions and controls have been implemented. If there is, then you need to apply more resources to mitigation (Usually money and time), or you need to reevaluate the purpose of your trip.

If we have developed effective actions and controls, things with a severity rating of A should have low probabilities and things with high probabilities should have low severity rating. If we have anything left on our list that does not fit that profile, we need to reconsider our actions and controls to determine is something more can be done.

Putting risk analysis and mitigation plans in action

Some risks are inherent in our work and our lives, and we have to accept them in order to be effective. The concept that we can or should mitigate risk to zero is costly, inefficient and ultimately impractical. Since there are some risks that I must accept, those with moderate or likely occurrence ratings and moderate or severe consequences will result in the development of an emergency action plan. The emergency action plan will be discussed in the next article, but it consist of identifying threat indicators and appropriate responses to break the cycle of violence or injury before it impacts us.

This can at first be an exhaustive process, however, a little practice goes a long ways. The more you do it, the more it becomes second nature. The key piece is to find actions and controls that are practical, executable and that you make the time and effort to actually do. Writing a plan that keeps you away from the local opium den is great, actually staying away from the opium den is what makes you safer.

Plan, Travel Safer and have more fun!

First Published at Aegis Academy

About Author

– Patrick Henry


Patrick HenryPatrick Henry received his operational training and experience from the U. S. Government, 22 years of which were spent in the Marine Corps where he served in the Reconnaissance, Infantry and Intelligence fields. During his active service, he spent more then seven years deployed overseas in combat, operational and training assignments. After the military, Pat worked as a contractor and as the Director of Operations at a private paramilitary company, specializing in training special operations forces and providing protective services to select private clients. His education consists of an MBA from the University of Southern California (USC), and a BS from San Diego State University with an emphasis in Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology and a minor in Psychology. He holds an extensive list of security and training related certifications from a variety of government and nationally recognized entities. He currently sits on the advisory committee at USC’s Master of Veterans Business Program, and is an active member of Infraguard and the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS). He has been a guest speaker at ASIS, the San Diego Industrial Security Awareness Council and other private organizations on physical security, travel security, and competitive intelligence collection counter-measures.