'In harm's way': terrorism and businesses Many U.S. companies focus on security, curtail travel

January 27, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

Saddam Hussein's chilling call to terrorists worldwide to attack U.S. targets has struck home in corporate America, where companies of all sizes are beefing up security, curtailing international travel and dusting off crisis-management plans.

This is not the first time that American companies have faced the threat of stepped-up terrorism. In recent years, similar threats have been made by the military leaders of Panama and Libya, two countries known for sponsoring terrorist acts.

But Mr. Hussein's recent edict is serving to heighten awareness that U.S. companies, maybe now more than ever, are inviting targets for terrorists of all kinds, terrorism experts say.

"It is true that the overall threat of terrorism against American targets has never been higher worldwide in the past 20 years," said Gerard P. Burke, a former director of the National Security Agency and founder of Parvus Co., a Silver Spring-based company that specializes in foreign intelligence.

The likelihood that terrorist groups will try to make good on that threat is greater now that the United States has declared war against Iraq, a country known for its state-supported terrorist activities, said Ed Piper, a Baltimore-based consultant who offers terrorism and security awareness programs to corporate clients.

Because U.S. military and government installations are well guarded, terrorists may look for targets that don't present as manylogistical problems, he said. One likely candidate is U.S. corporations.

"We've got corporate America in harm's way," said Mr. Piper, a former naval intelligence officer.

Instead of targeted attacks in the United States, some terrorist experts think that something similar to what happened in Istanbul, Turkey is more likely.

Monday, three bombs went off at a U.S. military warehouse holding household belongings and cars.

That kind of incident won't end with the war, predicted Peter V. Savage, a Baltimore-based business travel expert and author of "The Safe Travel Book: A Guide for the International Traveler."

"The war is not going to be over in a week, and the notion of Saddam Hussein calling for terrorist activity is not going to stop," Mr. Savage said. "People are just going to have to get used to living with it."

Tagi Sagafi-nejad, professor of international business at Loyola's Sellinger School of Business, thinks companies may do themselves a favor in the current environment to review -- or draft -- a crisis plan.

"Now is as good a time as any to start thinking about crisis management," said Mr. Sagafi-nejad. "Take it off the shelf, dust it off, and look for ways to implement it without panicking."

That message has not been lost on U.S. businesses, which have been hunkering down to prepare for the worst-case scenario since hostilities broke out in the Persian Gulf last August.

Most companies won't talk about their security plans, but many are restricting international travel -- to the point that TWA recently announced it planned to suspend service on some routes because of the number of cancellations. Like most airlines, TWA depends on business travelers for much of its income.

For example, McCormick & Co., the Hunt Valley-based spice maker, has canceled all travel to the Middle East and discouraged employees from making any trips overseas unless necessary, said James J. Harrison Jr., vice president and chief financial officer.

Plans for an experimental spice-growing project in Egypt have been put on hold, as have meetings between McCormick executives and their international partners, said John P. "Jack" Thompson, head of information systems at McCormick.

He said McCormick is exploring the use of videoconferencing so that some of those international meetings can be rescheduled.

Similarly, International Business Machines Corp., which has installations worldwide, has sharply limited international travel and generally restricted travel by executives on an "as-needed basis," said IBM spokesman Mac Jeffery.

IBM is also considering using videoconferencing "when practical," he said.

Some corporate responses to the Persian Gulf crisis have been more strident. Ford Motor Co., for example, has issued a blanket ban on all international travel. As one Ford executive found out, the ban is absolute: He happened to be in London when the policy was announced is now holed up in that city until further notice.

Other published reports indicate that some companies have even clamped down on domestic travel. One dismayed advertising executive, quoted in the Wall Street Journal Friday, noted that some of his colleagues had canceled trips between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati even though the Iraqis "don't even know where Pittsburgh is."

Larry Laser, vice president of Parvus, said such extreme responses are counterproductive because people stop taking the measures seriously and even find ways to get around them after a while if nothing unusual happens.

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