Security Alerts from U.S. Embassy: What they are and How you can get them

Rumors about Security Alerts:

After the March 13, 2016 attack near Güvenpark in the Kızılay district of Ankara, which killed 35 people, rumors started to spread that the Americans were warned about the terrorist attack beforehand.  While there was some basis for this rumor, the information was misconstrued and the newspapers helped to spread the rumor like wildfire.

I, in fact, received two messages from the Embassy that weekend.  The first was received on March 11th, “Security Message: Protests near Middle East Technical University and Guven Park in Kizilay on March 12, 2016.”  The pertinent information relayed follows:

U.S. Embassy Ankara informs U.S. citizens that spontaneous demonstrations to protest the death of Berkin Elvan during the 2013 Gezi Park events are expected to take place tomorrow, March 12, throughout Ankara, specifically near Middle East Technical University and Guven Park in Kizilay square.

Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence. You should avoid areas of demonstrations, and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstrations

Note that this was a warning of what was planned as a peaceful demonstration.  Guven Park is mentioned but the demonstration was held one day before the attack.  The entire text can be read on the Embassy’s website by clicking the link.

The second message was also sent and received on March 11th, “Security Message for U.S. Citizens: Report of possible threat to Bahcelievler area.  This one did note a potential terrorist attack but no date of attack was provided.  The location in the message, Bahcelievler, did not match the final destination of the massacre which happened in Kizilay.  While civilians at a bus stop were killed, many believe that the target may have been a parking lot for police vehicles that sits not far from the bus stop.

The U.S. Embassy informs U.S. citizens that there is information regarding a potential terrorist plot to attack Turkish government buildings and housing located in the Bahcelievler area of Ankara.  U.S. citizens should avoid this area.

We advise U.S. citizens to review their personal security plans, remain aware of your surroundings and local events, monitor local news stations for updates, and follow local authority instructions.

The full message can be viewed on the Embassy’s website by clicking the link.

Last night, 3 terrorists attacked Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport.  Unconfirmed reports indicate that at least 36 have died by gunfire and suicide bombers.  The number possibly includes the terrorists themselves, and may grow in coming days.

I personally received a warning from the US Embassy on June 27th, one day before the attack.  It was a general message, “Security Message: Turkey Travel Warning” updating its March 29th travel warning. It did not indicate a specific threat at a specific location.  Rather, it contained basic safety information, general locations to avoid, and specific cities in the Southeast region which are known by all to be a hotbed for terrorist activity.  The bulk of that message follows:

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey and to avoid travel to southeastern Turkey.  This replaces the Travel Warning dated March 29, 2016.

Foreign and U.S. tourists have been explicitly targeted by international and indigenous terrorist organizations. As stated in the Worldwide Caution dated March 3, 2016, throughout Europe extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, aviation services, transportation systems, and public venues where people congregate as well as religious sites and high-profile events. U.S. citizens are reminded to review personal security plans and remain vigilant at all times.  U.S. Government personnel in Turkey remain subject to travel restrictions in the southeastern provinces of Hatay, Kilis, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Sirnak, Diyarbakir, Van, Siirt, Mus, Mardin, Batman, Bingol, Tunceli, Hakkari, Bitlis, and Elazig.  U.S. citizens should avoid areas in close proximity to the Syrian border.

The entire message can be read on the Embassy’s website by clicking the link.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

What Are Security Messages?

The United States of America chooses to try to protect its citizens when traveling or living abroad, by providing them with security alerts.  This is effected via its Embassies in many countries, not just in Turkey.  As you can see from the above quotes, the US provides its citizens who live in or travel to foreign countries, rather general security information.  To my knowledge, there has never been a message with specific information regarding any terrorist attack before it occurred.

There are several ways to receive the information which are discussed in the section below, entitled “How Can You Receive Security Messages?”.  It is important to note that:

  • These messages are available in most, if not all, countries where the U.S. has an Embassy.
  • Security alerts are available for travelers to other countries as well as expats.
  • Each message contains information on how to enroll for security alerts, and contact information for all US embassies and consulates in the specific country.  In Turkey, that includes:  Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, and Adana.
  • This information is also available to ANYONE, regardless of citizenship, by checking the relevant Embassy’s website.
  • These messages are not confidential.  They may be shared by anyone with anyone.  I have copied many of these messages in their entirety on this blog and on Facebook, sharing them with my Turkish friends and family.  Many of the Americans here in Turkey have done the same.

Town Hall Meeting for US Citizens, Ankara

In April, a little over one month after the Kizilay attack, the US Embassy in Ankara invited 50 of its citizens to a Town Hall meeting. The citizens were chosen fairly, the first 50 to respond to the emailed invitation were invited.  I was one of the fifty.

A conversation ensued regarding this rumor and many other security matters.  At the meeting, I learned the following from Embassy officials:

  • In Turkey, the majority of the intelligence regarding security threats comes from the Turkish government.
  • The messages do not contain specific information because the US does not have specific information.
  • For cases in Turkey where the US was able to obtain more specific details (usually through the Turkish government or military), that information is not shared because Turkey is already handling or has handled it.  We were told that Turkey has done a remarkable job in preventing many terrorist attacks.  This is also evident by reading news articles which indicate the same on almost a daily basis.
  • Americans receive the same information at the same time as Embassy employees.
  • SMS (text messages) via cell phones are sent before the emails in many instances and hence, are received faster.

How Can You Receive Security Messages?

There are two basic ways to receive the security alerts:

  1. Via Email – All Americans living or traveling abroad are encouraged to sign up with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  Sign up is done online by clicking the link.  The website is known to have some glitches.  But generally, it works pretty well.  After signing up, it will take a little time before you start receiving messages.  The information you input is processed by the relevant Embassy or Consulate.  For example, living in Ankara, I receive messages from the Ankara Embassy.  I generally do not receive them from the Istanbul Embassy except after an attack has occurred.  However, if I travel to another city, or country, I would need to go into STEP again and change the location, even if only traveling for a day.  It is, for example, impossible to receive messages from both Ankara and Istanbul at the same time. In that way, the system is not perfect. But, I find it better than nothing.
  2. Via SMS – The US Embassy in Ankara (and likely most of its embassies and consulates in Turkey, and perhaps worldwide) provide text messages to its citizens if requested.  This is done by following the directions on the relevant website.  For example, on the Ankara Embassy’s site, it is located under US Citizen Services>Messages for US Citizens, on the right-hand side of the page.  In Ankara, you may also click this link.  It is important to follow the instructions carefully and double-check your phone number before sending your emailed request.  We learned at the Town Hall meeting that SMS text messages are sent before the emails above.  They are short, in common text message format, so don’t expect full details or be surprised if something is misspelled.

Finally, in Turkey we have what is known as a “Warden” system.  Wardens are volunteer American citizens who assist the Embassies in 2 ways.  First, they help to update the contact information for U.S. citizens living in their designated wards (areas) in Turkey.  My understanding is the information is gathered from the STEP system. From time to time, Wardens make calls and send emails to confirm that the Embassy has the most current contact information.  Therefore, it is important that US citizens 1) sign up for STEP, 2) update their personal information in the STEP system when necessary, and 3) answer the emails and calls of the Wardens as swiftly as possible.

Second, in the case of a dire emergency, wardens would be asked to help contact the U.S. citizens living here in Turkey.

  • See the State Department’s travel website for the Worldwide Caution,Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts, and Turkey’s Country Specific Information.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages and help us locate you in an emergency.
  • Contact the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, located at 110 Ataturk Boulevard, Kavaklidere, 06100 Ankara, at +90-312-455-5555, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The after-hours emergency number for U.S. citizens is +90-312-455-5555 or +90-212-335-9000 (U.S. Consulate General Istanbul).
  • Contact the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, located at 2 Uçsehitler Sokagi, 34460, Istinye, Sariyer, at +90-212-335-9000.
  • Contact the U.S. Consulate in Adana, located at 212 Girne Bulvari, Guzelevler Mahallesi, Yuregir, Adana at +90-322-455-4100.
  • Contact the Consular Agency in Izmir at
  • Call 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States and Canada or 1-202-501-4444 from other countries from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).
  • Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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