WHAT MIGHT GADDAFI DO?
By Joe Brancatelli
March 23, 2011 -- Regardless of how they feel about U.S. military action in Libya, smart business travelers know one thing: If Muammar Gaddafi survives and holds on to power, life on the road everywhere will get much uglier—and deadlier.
Alone among tin-pot dictators and banana-republic strongmen, Gaddafi has boasted of using terror tactics and targeting civilians in his asymmetrical battles against the West. He condoned and possibly personally ordered the attack on Pan Am 103 in 1988. His government directed the attack on UTA Flight 772 in 1989. He praised the Lod Airport massacre in 1972. His hired thugs have been involved in everything from assassinations to kidnappings, and he's generously funded terrorist organizations in Ireland, Colombia, and the Balkans.
Despite his public rehabilitation a few years ago by Western leaders like President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Gaddafi has always been a madman. And if he again survives the West's assaults, he will retaliate in sickeningly familiar ways.
"If Gaddafi wanted to destroy the European summer, bomb Fiumicino [Rome's airport], the Louvre, and Trafalgar Square, and derail a train or two, he would do it. He's not only capable of such carnage, but likely to order it," says Fred Francis of the media-training organization 15 Seconds.
Francis should know. A much-consulted expert on the nuances of the Middle East, he interviewed Gaddafi as a correspondent for NBC News. And he has no doubt about the Libyan dictator's mind-set.
"He is nuts enough to use terrorism to go after Western travel targets or civilian sites," Francis says. "Gaddafi is in a class of the deranged by himself. On the 10 scale, he is a 14."
So what's a savvy business traveler to do if and when Gaddafi and his forces once again make public places the front lines? Here are some thoughts about how to think and act in what might soon become the newest "new normal."
Any Time, Any Place
It's a mistake to assume Gaddafi's reach would be limited to the Middle East or Africa. For decades he funded terrorism around the world. And while his network is substantially degraded, Gaddafi has billions in oil wealth to spread around. With that kind of money, he'll find willing allies everywhere. So assume that anywhere you travel is a potential target of opportunity. That's not paranoid, just logical. Gaddafi needn't have a coordinated, well-thought-out plan of attack. Just the willingness to strike any place or any time.
Airplanes Aren't the Sweet Spot Now
It's natural to think that Gaddafi's first target would be commercial aircraft, specifically airplanes flown by Western carriers. Bombing a Western jetliner still offers the biggest bang for the terrorist buck. But it's also the hardest thing to accomplish. Regardless of what you think of modern security regimens, they have been largely effective in protecting aircraft and airline passengers. There are some weak spots—airports in central Africa and other areas at the edge of the global route map—but here's a general rule: If you make it onto a plane these days, you're probably beyond Gaddafi's reach.
The Rising Risk at Airports
With the post-security airline network comparatively safe, it's no surprise that the last two air-travel attacks have happened at airports. As the January incident at the baggage-claim area at a Moscow's Domodedovo airport showed, it's easy to kill innocents as they queue up in lines or gather in large clumps at areas that don't require security clearance. That makes public dining areas, ticket counters, baggage claim, and even those lines in front of the security checkpoints tempting targets for terrorists. And as this month's shooting of two U.S. military personnel in front of a terminal building at Frankfurt airport proved, the simple act of being at an airport is now risky. Gaddafi's operatives surely know this, and so should you. Bottom line: Don't dawdle in airport public areas. (The industry calls these "landside" areas.) Do your business and get away from the airport. Fast.
Hotels as Soft Targets
Even more risky than airports? Hotels, which have become tempting "soft targets" for terrorists intent on garnering international publicity and scoring points in the war against Western nations. And as we've discussed in the past, many of our assumptions about how to use hotels as a "safe zone" in risky areas have been proven incorrect or are now outdated.
But the reality is that we have to stay somewhere on the road. Regardless of whether it actually is safe, most American travelers will feel most secure at branches of the chain properties they use back home. That's understandable. Just know that you're a potential target and do some basic preparations.
Insist on a room situated between the lowest levels (easiest access for terrorists looking for a quick hit) and the highest floors (difficult for you to evacuate if the power is knocked out and the elevators are disabled). Know the layout of your floor (those floor-plan diagrams are on the back of your door for a reason) and make sure you know how to reach staircases and other exits. Limit time spent in public areas such as lobbies, ballrooms and restaurants. Finally, make some preparations for waiting out a siege situation. Always have water and shelf-stable food items in the room. Make sure your mobile-phone and computer batteries are always fully charged, which will give you extra communications time if the power is cut.
Think Globally, Dress Locally
If Gaddafi and his henchmen renew their terrorist agenda, they are most likely to go for large, showy attacks on large groups. But you can never discount an attack because you've turned yourself into a target of opportunity. So don't call attention to yourself. Dress like a local. Don't wear too much jewelry. Understand the local streetscape and try to blend in. Don't hand out your business cards to strangers, and certainly don't use business cards as luggage tags. (They are dead giveaways that you are a visitor from a Western nation.) Don't go out in public dragging your rolling bag behind you. (It screams traveler.) Avoid hailing cabs on the street. (Have your hotel book a reliable car service.)
Prepare for the Worst
Whether it's a terrorist attack or a paralyzing snowstorm, business travelers need to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. And there are commonsense rules for what you should carry with you. Follow them. A bit of intelligent forethought will go a long way in a stressful situation.
Don't put your financial life in one basket. Make sure you keep at least one credit card, a backup ATM card, and some cash separate from your wallet or pocketbook. Ditto for your important travel documents. Always have copies of your passport's key pages and store them away from where you keep your passport on the road. If you have prescription medicines and eyeglasses, have backup copies available. One useful tip: Scan passports, prescriptions, and the like into your computer, then send an electronic copy to your email and mobile phone.
Take Yogi's Advice
He didn't say it in the context of terrorism, but follow a classic Yogi Berra maxim: "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." Crowds in public places—markets, museums, bus or train stations and the restaurants frequented by Western visitors—are the easiest targets of opportunity for terrorists. The security is minimal, and attackers can take out large numbers of people with a single explosive device or a spray of automatic weapons fire. So the safest approach is simply to avoid places where people gather because crowds of people mean crowds of potential victims.
The Fine Print…
There's a fine line between precaution and paranoia. Even as I was writing this, the business traveler in me was alternating between "I'll just stay home and die by slipping in my bathtub" and "I'll be damned if I let the terrorists dictate how I will travel." Neither extreme, however, is a smart approach to a life on the road. Every traveler has their own comfort zone, and don't apologize for whatever safety measures you do (or do not) take. But also read and consider all of the tips you can get your hands on. Then adopt the ones that make the most sense for you and your travel situation.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2011 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.