Homeland Security

State Dept.: U.S. Travelers to Europe Should 'Keep Their Head on a Swivel'

State Department press secretary John Kirby said the U.S. government won’t discourage Americans from traveling to Europe during the holiday season but travelers should “keep their head on a swivel as they are out and about.”

Kirby told CNN this morning that a warning issued by the State Department before Thanksgiving was never intended to keep Americans at home.

The Nov. 21 message cautioned travelers of a “heightened risk” of terrorist activity in Europe over the holiday season and said U.S. citizens “should exercise caution at holiday festivals, events, and outdoor markets.”

“Credible information indicates the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or Da’esh), al-Qa’ida, and their affiliates continue to plan terrorist attacks in Europe, with a focus on the upcoming holiday season and associated events,” the alert said. “U.S. citizens should also be alert to the possibility that extremist sympathizers or self-radicalized extremists may conduct attacks during this period with little or no warning. Terrorists may employ a wide variety of tactics, using both conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests.”

“While extremists have carried out attacks in Belgium, France, Germany, and Turkey in the past year, the Department remains concerned about the potential for attacks throughout Europe… U.S. citizens should exercise vigilance when attending large holiday events, visiting tourist sites, using public transportation, and frequenting places of worship, restaurants, hotels, etc. Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds, when possible.”

Kirby said today that the purpose of the alert was “we want people to be vigilant, we want them to be self-aware.”

“I myself shopped at that exact Christmas market just a couple of weeks ago when we were in Berlin for an event with the German foreign ministry,” he added. “So you want to be out and about and we don’t want to discourage people from traveling to Europe or to elsewhere around the world, particularly around the holidays. It’s just really a matter of being alert and cognizant of your surroundings and making sure that you’re looking after those in your party as well. But certainly we don’t want to discourage travel to Europe.”

Kirby said “there was no specific threat information” that led to the November alert, which was similar to a travel alert issued for Europe in advance of the summer travel season.

“This is something we typically do, we normally do. So it wasn’t any specific threat information that led to this one back in November, just a general sense that we got through our own inner agency processes that open events like this could be something that, you know, could come under some sort of attack by those who wish us ill, whether it’s Islamic terrorists or others,” he added. “So, I mean, this was just, again, an act of prudence, something that we always do and we’ll continue to do going forward.”

Asked what travelers should do if they’re out shopping and see a truck barreling in their direction, the spokesman noted that “an attack like that is obviously very difficult to predict and certainly to prevent,” but “if you’re an innocent bystander and a shopper… get out of the way.”

“And we’re not at all faulting anybody who fell victim to this terrible attack at all,” Kirby added. “All we’re saying is that there’s enough information out there, nothing specific and credible to a particular market or a particular street, but there’s enough information and concern out there that we want people to just be aware and be vigilant when they’re out and about in an open air setting like that. That was the purpose for the alert.”