Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
The New Face of Terrorism
December 3, 2015 -- Overlooked in the horror of last month's terrorist attacks in Paris was a simultaneously grim and reassuring truth: it might have been much worse.

The terrorists' primary target on the evening of November 13 was the Stade de France, Europe's fifth largest stadium with a seating capacity of more than 80,000. An attacker wearing a suicide vest tried to gain entry to the arena during the soccer match between France and Germany. He was stopped by a security guard during a routine pat down. Two other vested terrorists waited just outside, prepared to detonate their bombs as frightened fans evacuated the stadium after the initial attack.

The reassuring truth? Mass casualties were avoided at the Stade de France because security forces had "hardened" the massive sports venue with extra security to guard against just such an attack.

The grim truth? It's nearly impossible to harden smaller venues such as the Bataclan nightclub, where dozens of concertgoers were slaughtered, or everyday places such as restaurants, bars, cafes and a city's streets and squares.

Welcome to the even more frightening new face of terrorism in the 21st century. As Wednesday's tragedy in San Bernardino proved again, there are only so many places you can "harden" and protect in free societies. Terrorists seem to have learned that their future "successes" are rooted in attacks against "soft targets," places such as lightly guarded hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, outdoor markets and just about any place people mingle and linger.

"We're surrounded by soft targets," says former New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. "We live in an open society. We're vulnerable."

Kelly was specifically referring to New York more than 14 years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, but his worrying words are valid for any major business travel destination. From leafy London to straight-laced Singapore, we're at risk anywhere in the world now and not just when we're on an aircraft or at an airport.

In fact, last month's Paris massacre is hardly unprecedented. Security experts point out that it was eerily similar to the 2008 raids in Mumbai, where marauders hit two hotels, a restaurant, a movie theater and other public places. In 2013, more than 60 were killed and nearly 200 injured when gunmen assaulted an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi. And just days after Paris, terrorists laid siege to the Radisson Blu, the best hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali.

How do we road warriors protect ourselves as terrorism morphs and tactics change? Here are some thoughts and ideas gleaned from speaking with dozens of security experts in the last few weeks.

Do more homework

The one thing I constantly hear from the pros is that business travelers don't do enough homework when they travel internationally. Americans, they say, are woefully undereducated about local conditions and political situations. At an absolute minimum, know what the U.S. State Department says about any country you're preparing to visit. State's Consular Information Sheets are a good place to start. For perspective, check what the United Kingdom and Canada think. Your company's travel department probably has access to useful private security resources such as iJet. Before you depart, consume as much news about your destination as possible. (These days, virtually all local newspapers and television news outlets have Web presences.) And don't forget to talk to your local clients and contacts about their assessment of prevailing conditions.

Avoid public places

As the Paris, Nairobi and Mumbai attacks have shown, terrorists now consciously target places where people gather for social occasions. And they no longer restrict themselves to venues where foreigners are known to congregate. The simple and overly simplistic solution is to avoid restaurants and bars, shopping malls, public markets, nightclubs and concert halls. That makes for a dreary trip, however. How willing you are to shut yourself off from public contact depends on your personal level of comfort.

Be wary of public transportation

The same can be said about public transportation in major cities around the world. Avoiding them is best, but you may be unwilling to forego the convenience of the London Underground, the Paris Metro or New York's subways. Still, security experts say vetted, prearranged private cars are generally the safest way get around an unfamiliar city. At a minimum, they say, avoid the largest and most crowded stations, termini and transfer stops. Why? Terrorists are most likely to hit the busiest stations rather than less-trafficked stops and outlying transfer points.

Improve your situational awareness

Business travelers notoriously ignore flight attendants as they point out emergency exits and other self-protection measures. So this one is hard, but you have to do it: Assume the worst in any public situation and sharpen your situational awareness. Wherever you are, assess the terrain. Search for exit strategies and options for sheltering in place. Don't be paranoid, but complacency is dangerous. And don't go out in public when you are fatigued, jetlagged or otherwise have impaired senses.

Choose lodgings more carefully

The experts I've consulted remain split on the best strategies for choosing lodgings. Some say the overseas outposts of Western-branded international chains are safest because the chains understand the risk and have implemented "layers of security" to keep terrorists away from the front door. Others point to last month's Bamako attack and the raid on the Marriott in Islamabad several years ago and contend Western brands are too dangerous regardless of their perceived readiness. We discussed "hotel insecurity" in depth several years ago and, sadly, there's no consensus. In fact, I couldn't even get security pros to agree whether you should book a room on low floor (easier to escape if required) or a high floor (less chance terrorists will reach you).

Consider the new dynamics

Several experts strongly insist that travelers must grasp an ugly new facet of terrorism: death is the name of the game. In years past, these experts say, terrorists took hostages for leverage in future negotiations. Now, they claim, ISIS and similar groups are solely interested in running up the body count. They aren't looking to use hostages as pawns, but are specifically trying to kill anyone and everyone. What's that mean to business travelers? According to these experts, if you are involved in a terror attack, assume the bad guys want you dead. Don't surrender and hope to stay alive. Do what you can to escape, even if it is a high-risk scenario. Or, the experts say, fight back because the terrorists plan to kill you anyway.

This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.