Avoiding Unwanted Attention

How threat groups may target you while travelling in higher-risk environments and why people notice things.

4 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 12 Jun 2023

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As a key principle to ensure your safety and security while travelling in higher-risk locations, you’ll need to avoid gaining the attention of threat groups. In addition, you’ll also need to avoid the attention of other people within the community who may report your presence and activities to threat groups. To do so, you’ll need to actively manage your profile in such a way that you avoid the attention of these groups before and during travel.

To avoid attention, you’ll have to make a conscious effort to reduce your visibility, influence perception, and manage the depth and breadth of your social interactions. This chapter will explore these approaches and guide you on ways you can manage your profile and minimise risk while travelling.

Before getting into these approaches, there’s value in understanding how threat groups operate. Specifically, how exactly does a terrorist, kidnapper or criminal target you as a traveller?

Understanding the targeting process

One way to better appreciate the importance of maintaining a low profile is to examine the approach a threat group will take to target you. Once you understand how threat groups operate, you’ll understand the imperative of avoiding attention.

Most threat groups will go through a relatively deliberate targeting process, as outlined below:

Step 1. Identification

The threat group initially identifies a potential target based on factors such as appearance, behaviour, or perceived vulnerability. During this process, the group may observe the target in public spaces, review their social media activity, or use other sources of information.

Step 2. Observation

After identifying a potential target, the threat group will intensify their surveillance, closely observing the target’s habits and routines. The objectives at this stage is to qualify the suitability of the target and to identify potential vulnerabilities. Activities at this stage could include tracking the target’s movements, identifying patterns, and gathering information about their lifestyle or assets.

Step 3. Assessment

Armed with the knowledge gained from the previous step, the threat group will evaluate the potential payoff and risk associated with targeting the individual. In doing so, they’ll weigh a range of factors such as the target’s perceived value, security measures, and ease of access against the potential consequences if caught.

Step 4. Planning

Once the target is deemed worthwhile, the threat group will develop a plan to exploit the identified vulnerabilities. This might involve determining the best time and place to strike, acquiring necessary tools or resources, and coordinating with other groups if needed. At this stage, resources are being committed and the threat group will be increasingly invested in the operation.

Step 5. Execution

The threat group carries out their plan, attempting to achieve their objective while minimising the risk of detection or capture.

Criminals, terrorists, and law enforcement and intelligence agencies will all follow a similar process to that outlined above.

The variables in the process will be the resources the threat group can apply and the amount of time it takes the group to move through each stage of the process.

A key point to note is that the level of commitment and resolve will increase as the threat group progresses through each step. The further along the process they get, the more they’ll become invested in the operation. By the time the threat group enters the planning stage, it’s going to be difficult to deter the execution of the operation.

Examining this process, it’s clear that your objective is to stop the targeting process at the first step. You can do this by not being noticed. Let’s explore why people notice things in the first place.

Why people notice things

When it comes to maintaining a low profile and staying off the radar of threat groups, it pays not to be noticed.

People notice things due to a combination of factors. These factors can be broadly categorised into bottom-up (stimulus-driven) and top-down (goal-directed) processes.

These factors are influenced by the interplay of attention, perception, motivation, and cognitive factors. Let’s break down some of the factors that contribute to people noticing things.

Salience

Salient stimuli, such as bright colours, loud noises, or sudden movements, are more likely to capture attention because they stand out from their surroundings. This is a bottom-up process driven by the physical properties of the stimulus.

Contrast

Objects or elements that contrast with their environment or context are more noticeable. For example, a red object in a field of green objects will likely attract attention due to the difference in colour.

Novelty

People tend to notice things that are new, unexpected, or unfamiliar. Novel stimuli can elicit curiosity and prompt further exploration or investigation.

Relevance

Stimuli that are relevant to an individual’s goals, interests, or needs are more likely to be noticed. This is a top-down process influenced by the person’s internal state and motivations.

As an example, a kidnapper will be primed to notice indications of a person’s wealth and status.

Emotional impact

Stimuli with emotional significance, such as objects or events associated with positive or negative experiences, can capture attention more effectively. Emotional stimuli can also trigger physiological responses, such as changes in heart rate or skin conductance, that facilitate attention.

As a traveller, you may be entering highly charged environments, where people hold high levels of contempt and hate for people from specific countries.

Repetition

Repeated exposure to a stimulus can increase the likelihood of noticing it, as it becomes more familiar and recognisable. However, excessive repetition may also lead to habituation, reducing the stimulus’s attention-grabbing power.

If you’re in a location where there are a lot of people that look like you, this factor may help you to be overlooked. You can influence this factor by choosing to stay in parts of a city that are well frequented by foreigners.

Prior knowledge and expectations

People’s prior knowledge and expectations can influence what they notice. For example, knowing that a specific symbol represents danger (e.g., a skull and crossbones) will make it more likely to be noticed.

Cognitive load

The amount of cognitive resources required to process a stimulus can affect whether it is noticed. If an individual’s cognitive load is high (e.g., they are multitasking or experiencing stress), they may be less likely to notice new or unexpected stimuli.

Moving on the street during busy periods, where there are a lot of people to observe and evaluate, can increase cognitive load and may make it more difficult for a threat group to single you out in the crowd.

These factors are not mutually exclusive, and their effects can vary depending on the context and individual differences. The complex interplay of attention, perception, motivation, and cognitive factors ultimately determines what people notice in their environment.

There’s also some value in flipping this model around to better understand how you observe your immediate environment.

Wrap up

Maintaining a low profile is a critical aspect of not being targeted by threat groups while travelling. Understanding why people notice things will help you manage your profile.

Next week, I’ll continue on the theme of maintaining a low profile while travelling. Again, these articles are excerpts from a book I’m working on focused on information security for travellers. If you find any errors or have anything to add, please get in touch.

Thanks for reading.


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