Assessing Risk

Upon hearing about your travels to a conflict zone most people will look at you with a look of surprise while muttering under their breath that you might be crazy. Those same people fail to realize that no destination is safe. Boston, Paris and Las Vegas are prime examples of “safe places” that became the scenes of appalling terror. That being said, it is true that traveling to a conflict zone is IN GENERAL more dangerous than traveling to a normal country. However, as travelers we can do a lot to almost completely mitigate those risks. Understanding risks and how to reduce those risks is a crucial skill for anyone wanting to travel to a conflict zone. I’ll walk you though how I evaluate the risk in a particular country:

There are three main types of threats:

1. Government. There are governments in the world that simply do not like U.S citizens or citizens of other western nations. This type of threat makes travel to places like North Korea and Iran so uncertain. You might have a great trip only to find yourself arrested when trying to leave the country. This type of threat can be assessed by watching the news and following State Department travel advice. A studious observer can see the way the wind is changing and make plans accordingly. For example, I had a trip planned to Iran for summer 2018. Due to the violence and protests in December of 2017 I decided that going to Iran this summer was a bad idea. Did I think I would be blown up or shot? No. I though that most likely I would not be able to get a visa, but I also thought it possible that I could be detained without cause by the Iranian government as they seek to undermine US foreign policy. No amount of guards, armor or common sense is enough to save you from an entire government.

2. Terrorist Groups. It is an unfortunate fact of life that many of the most beautiful countries in the world are filled with terrorist groups. Luckily it is very easy to avoid this type of threat. Information on regions controlled or contested by terrorist groups is widely available from dozens of sources. It is no secret what regions are controlled by the Taliban, ISIS, etc. These terrorist groups also attack specific targets. Almost all of their attacks are carried out on targets that serve a political purpose and help to further their goals. They attack intelligence headquarters, police stations, military bases, mosques, etc. They typically don’t just to decide to blow up a small cafe full of locals. If you avoid the aforementioned hot spots and regions you will avoid this type of threat.

3. Criminal Violence. This is the threat that worries mothers sending their kids on study abroad. The fear is that they will get a phone call that their child has been beaten in a back alley in Brazil or held up in Cairo. Fear not, this type is generally easy to avoid as well. The first rule is to not go out at night by yourself. This may seem like common sense but it is common sense that is often forgotten. If you go out drinking by yourself and attempt to walk home at night you are just asking to get assaulted. It’s also best to avoid dangerous areas of town. This is where having a local guide is important. My guide in Cairo drew circle on a map indicating areas that were safe for me to walk during the day and areas that were not. If you stay in “safe” areas, act alert, and don’t display gaudy wealth you are unlikely to be bothered. You are far less likely to be bothered by petty criminals if you have a guide or better yet a guard with a gun.

Allow me to walk through my methodology of evaluating risk on two trips:

The Afghan government loves the US because we are their main ally, so I knew that I had no threat from the government. Afghanistan is a hotbed of terrorist activity, but most of it is confined to regions in the south and a few other places. Kabul, Mazar and Balkh have no standing presence of terrorist groups. At that point the threats were then limited to bombings and violent crime. Research showed that every attack in the previous year had been against targets such as police stations, Shia mosques, etc. I also knew that I would have a body guard to prevent the random acts of violence. For me to be killed I would have happened to be driving in close proximity to a target right as a bomb happened to go off. Given that I told my guides to avoid going near those types of targets there was virtually no risk involved.

Unlike Afghanistan there are no places in Yemen that are absent of terrorist groups. Even the capital city has a significant amount of militants at any time. There are no “green zones” and the local militia is virtually powerless. The local government won’t prevent you from leaving the country, and an armed guard could protect you against violent crime, but the terrorism threat there is almost impossible to overcome. The potential for being kidnapped while driving around in the capital is extremely high even if you have an armed guard. If Afghanistan is a 2/5 on the risk scale then Yemen would be a 4/5.

I’ll end with a story. I had a friend that went on a study abroad to Florence, Italy. I don’t think many people would consider Florence to be a conflict zone, but this girl managed to get beaten up and mugged. This happened not once, or twice, but three times in a period of less than a month. Is Florence a dangerous place? No, but my friend is an idiot. She decided to go out drinking late at night and walk home by herself down poorly lit streets. She also made herself a target by having headphones in and listening to music. Each time she was beaten up a little and had her Iphone, Ipod and Ipad stolen in that order. Let that be a shining example of what not to do when you are traveling abroad.

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