On December 5, 1988, an unidentified man with an Arabic accent telephoned the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, and warned of a plot by the Abu Nidal Organisation to blow up, within two weeks, a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the US issued a security alert the same day to all US airline companies having flights to Europe. The US State Department forwarded the same day copies of the FAA alert to all US diplomatic and consular missions in Europe. On December 13,1988, the security officer of the US Embassy in Moscow posted the security alert received from Washington DC on the bulletin board for US citizens living in Moscow in the U.S. Embassy and also mailed copies to all US citizens living in the USSR.American nationals living in the USSR reportedly cancelled or changed their travel plans after seeing the travel advisory.
On December 21, 1988, a Pan Am aircraft flying from London to New York was blown up in mid-air near Lockerbie in Southern Scotland killing all the 259 persons on board. Eleven villagers on the ground were killed by the falling parts of the disintegrating plane.
During the subsequent enquiries, inconvenient questions were raised as to why the US nationals except in the USSR were not informed of this threat and why the security advisory was circulated only to the US missions in Europe and the US airline offices and not shared with the general public. The practice of issuing in a systematic manner travel advisories cautioning US nationals about likely threats to their security when they are abroad started after this incident. Many other countries started emulating the US practice. After 9/11, many private companies in the travel industry and many banks started issuing their own travel advisories to their customers travelling abroad. This caused some confusion.
At the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security held at Madrid from March 8 to 11,2005, I had raised during a panel discussion the tendency of the US and the UK to issue frequent travel advisories against travel to certain countries on the basis of weak intelligence or, in some instances, even rumours. I pointed out how this practice of these two countries often created problems for India and other countries in Asia. I also narrated an instance of November,2002, when an American private bank in Thailand issued its own terrorism alert to its customers visiting Thailand, the nervousness it caused amongst tourists of all nationalities and the strong protests it evoked from the Thai authorities.
While there was no response to my intervention from any of the American experts present in the Panel, a British expert clarified that following strong representations from the airline industry, the British authorities were much more careful before issuing such advisories. I also stressed that travel advisories, where really necessary, should be issued only by Governments on the basis of advice from their intelligence agencies and that the practice of private companies issuing their own advisories should be discouraged. In this connection, kindly refer to my article of April 7,2005, titled "MADRID IMPRESSIONS--II: Economic Impact of Terrorism " .
Against this background, one cannot find fault with the travel advisories issued by the US, Japan and some other countries to their nationals after the receipt of some information regarding the alleged plans of Al Qaeda and its associates to organise Mumbai--26/11 like terrorist strikes in the UK, France and Germany and by the authorities of Australia regarding the likelihood of terrorist incidents during the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Admittedly, the information on the basis of which they had issued their security alert is weak and uncorrobated, but their Governments have an obligation to inform their citizens that they are in receipt of such information. Otherwise, if the information proves to be correct and there is a terrorist incident, their Governments may find themselves taken to court for not cautioning the travelling public.
In the Western countries, victim activism in taking their Governments to task for not protecting them from terrorism is very strong after the Lockerbie incident and 9/11. The Governments have, therefore, to be very careful and keep their public informed. In India, despite the fact that it is one of the worst victims of terrorism, there is no victim activism even today. As a result, our Governments are able to get away with any sins of commission and omission.We saw it in the case of Mumbai-26/11. None of the relatives of the 141 Indian nationals killed has taken the Government to task for failing to protect them despite the availability of intelligence regarding the plans of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) to attack some hotels on the sea-front.Not even the Bharatiya Janata Parrty (BJP), which talks loudly from the roof-top about its hard stance on terrorism, has ever fought for the principle of victim activism and for victims' rights. ( 5-10-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. )