On December 11th 2018, a man attacked the Christmas Market in Strasbourg, France, killing five people and wounding 11 more.
Christmas Markets happen across Europe every winter, and they are very popular with locals and tourists alike. Crowds of people having a good time make these events attractive targets for terrorists – something multiple governments have warned about.
Security efforts have been stepped up in many towns and cities over the festive period, and law enforcement agencies are working hard to share information and disrupt attacks before they occur. We should also remember that a key goal of terrorists is to disrupt and destroy our way of life. If we stop going out and stop doing the things that make us happy because we are scared, then those violent bullies have won.
We want to help you feel safe when you go visit these Christmas Markets. To do this, we three experts what the risks are at the markets, and what you can do to stay safe and reduce the likelihood of something going awry.
A2 Global Risk
A2 Global Risk is an international security risk management and analysis consultancy providing services to a wide range of clients operating in challenging environments.
How safe is it to visit Christmas markets?
The 11 December terrorist attack targeting the Strasbourg Christmas market, which attracts over two million visitors each year, highlighted the security risk facing visitors to such festive events throughout Europe. Christmas markets have been targeted in recent years by supporters or sympathisers of terrorist groups such as Islamic State because they are extremely popular with visitors – posing a challenging security proposition for police – and due to their religious symbolism. Christmas markets are also mentioned on extremist websites and Islamic State has urged sympathisers to target such events and other popular festivities during Christmas. The incident in Strasbourg, which began when a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon on a crowd at the Rue des Orfèvres, near the Christmas market, is the latest in a series of terrorist attacks on European soil in recent years. Five people were killed and 11 injured in the incident. Chérif Chekatt, the gunman who was shot dead in a shootout with police on 13 December, was known to French intelligence services and had been on a terrorist watch list.
The risk facing Christmas markets varies across Europe, with countries that have experienced terrorist attacks in recent years – including France, Germany and the UK – most at risk. High-risk countries have increased the presence of security forces in popular tourist sites and locations, including Christmas markets, to deter and effectively respond to potential terrorist incidents. After a terrorist drove a truck into visitors at Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz Christmas market on 19 December 2016, killing 12 people and injuring 56, preventative measures were put in place at Christmas markets across Europe. These included erecting concrete barriers and perimeter fences on pedestrianised streets and around popular city squares. While such measures will possibly deter mass casualty attacks using vehicles, as the incident in Strasbourg showed this will have a limited impact towards deterring the risk posed by individuals using firearms.
Fortunately, despite the tragic events in Strasbourg, the probability of such attacks is lowered. More likely risks to Christmas market visitors are everyday petty crime concerns, such as pickpocketing and bag-snatching. Markets attract a large number of local residents and tourists, usually in central areas of cities or towns. This, combined with the fact that entrance to most Christmas markets is free, makes them especially appealing to petty criminals. Moreover, many foreign tourists and other visitors will be inclined to carry large amounts of cash when visiting, since some stalls will not accept card payments. This heightens the risk of theft. Visitors should ensure valuables such as mobile phones and wallets are safely stored out of sight and refrain from carrying large sums of cash.
An often overlooked risk is a stampeding crowd in the event of a false alarm. Given the current heightened concerns over terrorism, visitors will likely respond with alarm to any sudden loud noises mimicking an explosion, which can quickly lead to mass panic. In such cases, individuals should react calmly and attempt to move in a direction away from panicked crowds. Another often overlooked element during unconfirmed security incidents is the potential for misreporting an event, which can be amplified on social media. Visitors should only rely on trusted sources when assessing such incidents and consider using services providing real-time alerting. This can help individuals make an informed judgement on a fast-developing situation and avoid being caught up in panicked responses to rumours.
Visitors should try and walk around areas near a Christmas market before they go to the market itself. This will enable them to become familiar with the area and identify possible escape routes in the event of a security incident. At these venues, visitors should exercise additional situational awareness and follow instructions from security staff and police in the event of any incident. Staff with plans to travel on business trips in Europe should be informed of potential security issues and risks concerning Christmas markets.
By taking some preventative steps, business travellers and foreign visitors can minimise risk and help ensure that their visit to one of Europe’s charming Christmas markets is a highlight of the festive season. Merry Christmas!
Danny Kaine is the Head of Assistance for Traveller Assist Group
Danny Kaine is the Head of Assistance at Traveller Assist, a medical and security assistance company. He is an ex-soldier and traveller with over 20 years experience operating in complex environments.
How safe is it to visit Christmas markets?
As an avid traveller, both for business and pleasure, I refuse to let terrorist threats dictate my travel plans. If ‘we’ do that, ‘they’ have won, and that’s not okay with me. Just recently, in a group on encrypted chat-app, Telegram – ISIS have threatened attacks on Christmas markets throughout Europe, and called for more ‘lone attackers’ to carry out similar attacks to the 2016 Berlin truck attack. Just days after those threats were made, a lone gunman killed five and injured 11 at a Christmas market in Strasbourg. Should this stop us from travelling? In my opinion, no!
There are things you can do however to travel safer. In the unlikely event of an attack on a Christmas market that you happen to be visiting, you should have an emergency action plan ready.
- Before you leave your hotel, study a map. Learn the route to and from the market. If you are travelling with family or friends, agree on a meeting point in the event you get separated.
- Avoid large crowds. If you get stuck in a crowd, walk/step sideways to get out of it.
- In the event of an attack or warning, follow the instructions of local authorities.
- Remain vigilant at all times. If something doesn’t seem right, it usually isn’t. Report it!
- Remember, in case of an emergency in all EU countries , you dial 112 – NOT 999.
- Know your escape routes when walking around the market. If an attack occurs, each situation will dictate a different plan of action. In the event of gun fire, you need to take cover. Stay low and move fast, until you are safe behind a wall or if a vehicle is close by, behind the engine block. If an explosion occurs, leave the area immediately to avoid being injured in a stampede of panicked people, or in the event of a secondary attack.
- When it is safe to do so, let your family/friends/employers know you are safe.
- Don’t forget your travel insurance. Even if you are only travelling in Europe, don’t rely on your European Health Insurance Card. Yes, it will cover you for emergencies. But, it won’t cover your medical repatriation back to the UK, and there are other benefits of travel insurance, including companion travel expenses, and coverage for lost/damage belongings etc. Always read the small print on your policy, know what you are covered for, and most importantly, what you are not covered for.
Dylan Gwinn, Operations Coordinator at Northcott Global Solutions
Dylan Gwinn is an Operations Co-ordinator at Northcott Global Solutions, an International Emergency Response Company. Dylan has over 13 years of law enforcement experience and has carried out a variety of roles including firearms, overt and covert policing. He has a first-class honours degree in Security Consultancy and has conducted post incident reviews on active shooter incidents within the U.S, co-authored active assailant prevention courses and has carried out extensive research on Terrorism and the Mexican Drug Cartels.
How safe is it to visit Christmas markets?
The recent shooting at a Christmas Market in Strasbourg, Eastern France resulting in several fatalities and a further twelve injuries brings back memories of a similar incident that occurred at a Christmas Market in Berlin, December 2016, where the perpetrator used a truck to plough into members of the public resulting in 12 fatalities and injuring over 48 people. Whilst the circumstances and motivation of the recent shooting in Strasbourg, France, is still under investigation, there are claims that this was terrorist attack and it will encourage people to question how safe it is to visit a Christmas Market. We must remember that Christmas Markets are taking place across Europe, but have we been inundated with terrorist attacks at these events? No, we have not. There is a greater chance of becoming a victim of crime in terms of being robbed or having your mobile phone stolen whilst attending a Christmas Market than being caught up in a terrorist attack.
According to the Institute for Economics and Peace (2018), France, Germany and Belgium saw a 75% reduction in deaths from terrorism. The decline of ISIL in Syria and Iraq is one of the reasons for this decrease along with Western Governments stance on improved counterterrorism security measures. However, terrorists will invariably look at crowded places which have limited security measures in place and, therefore, increases the likelihood of causing mass casualties.
Terrorists are not the only threat. Criminals will also seek to target victims at Christmas Markets and other crowded events, as the likelihood of them being identified and caught is less likely. This is an important concept to understand and to factor in when you are attending a Christmas Market as the risk will vary based on the geographical location, the types of security measures in place and the political, social and economic factors of that area (Lab, 2014; Lilly et al. 2011).
What are the biggest risks? Do these vary from place to place?
Criminal activity is probably one of the biggest risks posed to Christmas Markets. As with any crowded event, these can range from gang confrontations, sexual assaults, theft, robbery and assaults. The sexual assaults on females at a New Year’s event, that occurred in Cologne, Germany is a perfect example as to how social factors can increase risks posed to certain groups within our society due to cultural differences. However, one of the main benefits to the criminal in relation to any crowded event can be the economic benefit of committing crime at events such as a Christmas Market. With the added advantage of lax security measures, large volumes of people in a confined area, this environment makes it a prime location to commit criminal acts as the likelihood of an individual being identified and caught by law enforcement is minimal.
Whilst, criminal activity is the likeliest risk at a Christmas Market, terrorism, is at the forefront of everyone’s mind at Christmas time. Western Governments quite rightly increase security measures around soft targets, including Christmas Markets during this time of year. Within Europe, the use of firearms and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) have been the primary attack method for Christmas Markets. However, terrorists can use a variety of methods to carry out such an attack. London has seen a significant increase in acid attacks in the last few years, although this has mainly been centred around gang related crime and personal robberies (Metropolitan Police Service, 2018). However, this could be a proposed method used by a potential terrorist as the ability to obtain such a substance is relatively easy and can be hidden or disguised with little effort.
The political influences in relation to terrorism can play a significant factor in relation to the risks posed to a country and its geographical region. For example, France has been involved in military operations in Mali, West Africa, against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS in Syria.
Terrorism will always have a political aim or objective. One of these objectives according to Rand is to see French forces withdrawing from Mali, thus allowing Mali to become a safe-haven for terrorist groups. Whilst political is the main factor surrounding the motivations of terrorism, the social and economic factors can also play their part determining the risk profile of a country. According to the Telegraph, Patrick Calvar, France’s Domestic Intelligence Service claimed in 2016, there had been significant confrontation between the far right and the Muslim world, thus placing France on `the verge of civil war’. These factors along with terrorists taking advantage of open borders on mainland Europe may provide some of the reasons as to why a certain country may be subjected to more terrorist attacks than others, thus increasing the risk of such an event taking place.
What are the overlooked risks?
One of the biggest overlooked risk is panic. When an incident occurs that causes people to be in fear of their safety, they run for exits or restricted access points. These exits or restricted access points can then become blocked and individuals can get crushed, causing the casualty rate to increase significantly. The video footage on You Tube showing the fire at a night club on Rhode Island, New York, clearly illustrates this.
 Institute for Economics and Peace, 2018: http://visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2018/12/Global-Terrorism-Index-2018.pdf
 National Counter Terrorism Security Office, 2017: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/701910/170614_crowded-places-guidance_v1a.pdf
 Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, 2014: https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2014/04/CTCSentinel-Vol7Iss4.pdf
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