on security

Sep 4, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

The Benefits of Traveling 'Gray'

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
A tourist is a little too obvious as he walks away from Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut.
  • Being gray, or not drawing attention to oneself, on trips can help reduce the chances of being targeted by criminals and terrorists or singled out for untoward government attention.
  • Presenting a neutral facade is not just a matter of racial or ethnic appearance. It also involves demeanor, dress and possessions.
  • Being gray while traveling abroad means fading into the crowd, appearing neither valuable nor vulnerable.

Before I took a recent vacation trip to Beirut, a friend asked whether I was concerned about being targeted by jihadists or Hezbollah during my visit to the "pearl of the Middle East." I had done my due diligence research, so I wasn't worried. Besides, I explained, I was going to "be very gray" as I traveled. I first became aware of this concept, which dictates that travelers should blend in with the local environment, during my work at the U.S. State Department. The techniques of traveling gray can benefit other travelers who visit potentially hostile regions.

The Shadow Course

In the Counterterrorism Investigations Division of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, agents were often assigned to provide protective countersurveillance for people and events at high risk. We learned about "being gray" in a course on surveillance techniques, given by another government and often referred to as "the shadow course." For us, countersurveillance involved covert agents looking for hostile surveillance against a person or place our agency was protecting. This including keeping watch on any suspects until they could be identified. To be effective, countersurveillance agents needed to operate without drawing attention to themselves.

The Big Picture

While it is important to properly plan for trips abroad and to understand any potential threats, it is also necessary to be aware of how your behavior can help mitigate threats. Dressing and acting in a way to avoid drawing attention to oneself — being gray — can help ensure a safe trip.

My instructors taught us that being gray meant fading into the environment so well that when the target of your surveillance noticed you — and if you were doing your job correctly, you would occasionally be seen — he or she would not recognize you as hostile. This did indeed mean avoiding bright or distinctive clothing — hence the term gray — but in the larger sense, it meant fitting into the environment in terms of visual impression and flow so an observer would not see you as anomalous.

In the decades since learning these techniques, I have discovered that there are many other benefits to being neutral and bland. In the case of a potential terrorist or criminal act, being gray means not only fitting in with the environment, but also appearing to be an unappealing target. The idea is to influence the person following the attack planning cycle so he or she sees another target as more attractive, thus diverting the threat away from yourself. Being gray means you do not want to appear to be either vulnerable or valuable and can fade into the crowd.

Acting and Looking 'American'

When in a Northern European city, my phenotype — genetically determined skin, eye and hair color — makes it easier for me to blend in than if I were in Guatemala, Uganda or Lebanon. I am pleased when people on the street in Berlin or Rotterdam ask me a question in the local language. It clearly means they have not pegged me as an American. However, being gray is not just a matter of one's race or external appearance. Several other factors can help make someone appear gray even when not part of the area's dominant ethnic group.

Perhaps the most important is demeanor, or the way a person behaves. During my travels, I have found that it is usually easy to spot the Americans in a crowd. They often fit the stereotype: boisterous and loud. You can often hear them before you see them, and their volume also seems even higher when alcohol is involved. Then, when you do see them, they tend to stand out due to their mannerisms and swagger. This is the opposite of being gray. Being aware of cultural differences can also play into one's grayness. One activity Americans take for granted, jogging, can be a dead giveaway in places where people simply don't run for exercise. Although working out by using a treadmill or running the stairs in the hotel can be boring, it is preferable to attracting attention as the only person running on the street.

Tied to demeanor is one's level of situational awareness. Criminals or terrorists watching for targets will be drawn to people appearing oblivious to their surroundings. A proper level of situational awareness can help deter attacks by making a person appear to be too difficult a target. However, hypervigilance is arguably as dangerous as a lack of awareness. Anyone using surveillance detection gimmicks to unmask possible government surveillance not only stands out from the crowd but is also at risk of being perceived as a possible intelligence officer, thus attracting far heavier scrutiny. This is especially risky in places such as Russia and Turkey, where the host country is carefully watching for Western intelligence officers operating under nonofficial cover.


You shouldn't flash cash or valuables — criminals will take far more risk for a Rolex than a Timex.

What one wears is also important. I love my tactical clothing, and I feel comfortable wearing one of my 5.11 Tactical shirts during a visit to the Stratfor office in Austin. But I leave those clothes at home when I head overseas. Very little draws the attention of a government operator more quickly than wearing tactical or military clothing. While more people seem to be wearing camouflage abroad, I avoid it, as well as bright, eye-catching colors. Even in places where hot colors are common, they still have been shown to draw the eye and trigger memory. In addition, wearing clothing that features U.S. flags or carries culturally insensitive statements is another good way to draw unwanted attention. It is important to dress in a culturally aware manner, as well. If people don't wear shorts in a certain locale, for instance, it is a good idea to follow suit.

These same considerations also apply to accessories. My 5.11 Tactical briefcase with an American flag patch stays at home when I travel abroad, as does my backpack with the MOLLE (modular lightweight load-carrying equipment) panel on it. I'm also careful about where I wear my Oakley sunglasses. In some places, such as the sugar cane bateys in the Dominican Republic, they are worth over a month's wages, making them a tempting target. Obviously, this means you shouldn't flash cash or valuables — criminals will take far more risk for a Rolex than a Timex.

Going Gray Digitally

High-end electronics can also catch the eye of criminals. Carefully safeguard any devices you take. For business executives, the information on the phones or computers in your possession is worth far more than the devices themselves. Carrying a large amount of data can increase one's profile and value as a target. Besides, remember that there is absolutely no expectation of privacy when you cross an international border. Any device or data you carry is subject to inspection, and encryption is no protection because you can be required to decrypt any file in your possession. Because of this, I recommend that travelers practice good digital hygiene. Limit the number of devices and amount of data you take to only what is mission-essential. Know local laws affecting electronics before traveling: Some countries do not permit foreigners to possess satellite phones and GPS devices, for instance. Likewise, do not attempt to use software that is illegal in the country you are visiting.

While planning your trip, it is important to be cognizant of your electronic profile. It can be dangerous to provide too many details of your travel plans or other personal data on social media. Sharing that information can make it easier for anyone interested in targeting you. Posting travel details after you return will help you be far grayer than posting before or during your trip.

And finally, where you stay can also affect your degree of grayness. Thieves often stake out high-profile hotels looking for promising victims. Western-branded hotels have also been hit repeatedly by terrorist attacks. I prefer to stay in a lower-profile hotel off the main drag if I can find one with appropriate security for the threat environment.

Remember that being gray during your travels involves more than not wearing bright and distinctive clothing. In the larger sense, it means fitting into the local environment so well that you don't seem anomalous. It also includes exhibiting conservative and culturally sensitive behavior and leaving some of your typically American possessions at home.


Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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