In recent weeks, U.S. embassies around the world have released alerts regarding threats to Americans overseas. While this is a standard procedure — and happens more often than many people realize — these alerts mention specifically that American children may be targets of terrorism. It is critical that families with the greatest exposure – e.g., those traveling abroad, those with children participating in overseas internships or academic programs, and those involved in philanthropic endeavors in other countries – are equipped with the necessary information and resources to ensure their safety.

The Threats: What to Watch Out For to Reduce Risk

The alerts issued by the U.S government mention the possibility of a variety of tactics used by terrorists to harm U.S. citizens, including violent assaults and kidnappings. In the past, terrorists have used weapons such as knives and guns as well as explosives and vehicles as ramming devices. Terrorists may target schools, hospitals, churches, tourist locations, transportation hubs and other popular public venues. In fact, a posting on a pro-ISIS media site suggested targeting kindergartens and maternity hospitals. These groups indicate a willingness to travel to Western countries to select targets that include American youth vacationing or studying abroad.

American students and interns working abroad should remain keenly aware of their surroundings and understand what resources are available should an unexpected incident or crisis event occur. Potential events range from something as innocuous as a “friend” who shows unusual interest in a young person, to an attack on a major event that hosts young people, such as a concert or sporting event.

The Resources: What to Employ to Ensure Safety

U.S. embassies have resources available for U.S. families traveling or stationed overseas to enhance their situational awareness and assist with developing mitigation strategies to avoid danger. For example, the U.S. Department of State offers a free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) that allows U.S. citizens to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. embassy and to receive security updates and alerts while abroad.

It is also critical to develop redundant communication plans and identify resources that can provide quick emergency assistance during crisis events. The following are some basic safety and security practices to employ while overseas:

  • Educate yourself and/or your family regarding potential threats in the region you are visiting
  • Be alert and aware of your surroundings, especially in public places
  • Keep a low profile
  • Always have adequate communication devices with pre-programmed emergency numbers
  • Register with the U.S. embassy for the country you are visiting
  • Establish a personal or family emergency plan

Transportation and housing are also key elements of overseas security. Attacks on public trains throughout Europe are well documented, and some of these attacks are capable of defeating even the most detailed and practiced personal security plans. That said, we recommend that you use other forms of transportation. Travelers should develop secure and vetted transportation services for themselves and their families. For students studying abroad, a residence that considers best security practices and provides safe transportation to and from academic and group gathering points is paramount. This should involve an advanced on-site visit and collaboration with the sponsoring university and security officials.

The Plan: What to Do to Arrive Safely

A real-life example of the importance of using vetted, secure transportation methods while abroad involves a person traveling alone to a resort in Mexico, where she would meet up with friends. She recognized the transportation from the airport to the resort presented a certain level of vulnerability – it would be obvious she was American, she was alone, and, based on the resort she was traveling to, she possessed a certain level of wealth.

The plan: arrange for a reputable transportation service, photograph the car and driver, and send that to a trusted third party. Also, establish a code word that she could use discreetly if she was in distress, if the driver took her off her designated route, or if anything unusual happened. She notified the trusted third party when she got into the car and when she arrived at the resort. If for any reason she had used the code word in a phone call or text, or was not heard from in the allotted drive time from the airport to hotel, local authorities could be immediately alerted. This plan could be altered for various circumstances and used over and over again in a variety of situations abroad.

As the world continues to face threats from terrorist groups and others intending harm, it is critical for American citizens traveling abroad to arm themselves with a security or personal emergency plan to ensure their safety and the safety of their young ones. A well thought-out plan can make all the difference, especially when it involves the safety of one’s family.