When Rachel Madhogarhia ’17 scrolled through her Facebook feed filled with the typical stream of status updates and album posts on July 14, her Facebook check seemed routine. But then, at all once, multiple articles on a recent terrorist attack in Nice, France popped up.
While Madhogarhia had seen Facebook news reports on terrorism before, the sense of urgency and fear that this terrorist attack elicited in Madhogharia, she said, was distinct from her reaction to previous ones: her best friend was in Nice.
“All the terrorist attacks were surreal to me until that day,” Madhogarhia said. “Suddenly everything was very, very real.”
Madhogarhia said she frantically texted her friend but received no response. As Madhogarhia’s anxiety began to peak, a notification appeared on her laptop screen: her friend “marked herself safe during the Nice attack in France.
Madhogarhia said that, although she felt a sense of relief that her friend was not among the 86 killed on the Promenade des Anglais, she still had not spoken to her friend directly and feared that her friend may have been injured or might become the victim of a follow-up attack.
“Some of [my friend]’s other friends texted me freaking out, wondering if I knew anything, and it was pretty chaotic and terrifying until we got in touch with her,” Madhogarhia said.
Madhogarhia said it took three hours for her to connect with her friend and confirm that even though she was on the beach adjacent to the promenade at the time of the firework show, she was not among the 202 injured by the Islamic State-inspired attacker who barreled a truck through the pedestrian filled walkway during the Bastille Day celebration.
Many high school students, like Madhogarhia’s friend, travel abroad to Europe in the summer for family vacations or language immersion programs. A spike in recent terrorist activity has forced students to travel under a seemingly omnipresent threat of terrorism, as evidenced by the State Department’s May 31 travel alert. The warning said that a general threat could be posed at large events that draw big crowds during the summer in Europe.
This announcement came days after ISIS called for June to be a “month of conquest and jihad,” according to the American Enterprise Institute. ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani called on jihadists to “get prepared, be ready […] to make it a month of calamity everywhere for nonbelievers […] especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America.”
Fifty-three percent of students who traveled to Europe expressed concern about the threats posed by ISIS, according to a Chronicle poll of 134 students.
Ashley Frey ’17 and her family were also among those who ventured to Europe despite the State Department’s advisory and had their perceptions of European travel altered by the events in the Nice.
At the time of the promenade attack, Frey was in Loche, France as part of a School Year Abroad program. She was scheduled to join the rest of her family in Paris, where they had been vacationing and spent Bastille Day at the Eiffel Tower.
“The next morning my mom told me she couldn’t get out of bed because she felt so sick,” Frey said. “She couldn’t believe that she put herself and my brother in a situation with over a million people. She realized that if there would be a terrorist attack, it could have easily been at the Eiffel Tower.”
After the events at the Nice boardwalk, Frey’s family resolved to avoid public settings with large crowds for the remainder of their trip.
Despite their efforts to steer clear of popular tourist destinations that could likely be terrorist targets, they still encountered a threat during a ride on the underground metro train.
“Everyone at the metro had to line up on the wall single file while armed guards and police were hurrying past,” Frey said. “There was an unidentifiable object and the police were called to blow it up.”
While the Freys decided to stay in France but avoid large crowds, Madhogarhia’s friend opted to leave her foreign language immersion program and return home to Los Angeles.
Similarly, Mia Stent ’18, who was participating in a French program in St. Laurent Du Var, decided to leave France early after the attacks. Stent said that though she knows that her summer program took more precautions in light of the massacre by avoiding public transportation and large crowds, she chose instead to meet her family at their summer home in England.
For students who had intended to travel to France later in the summer, such as Lara Mikhail ’18, the decision of whether or not to proceed with the trip became a serious debate.
After the May 19 disappearance of Egypt Air Flight 804 en route from Paris to Cairo, Mikhail said, her grandparents began suggesting to her parents that she should not attend the Mourataglou Tennis Academy in Biot, France in August.
Yet, she said, her parents saw no valid reason to keep her from attending.
“My mom didn’t really think that anything was going to happen in the south of France, but then it did, which was scary,” Mikhail said. “For the first few days after the attack, my parents were debating if this was really a good idea to go.”
Ultimately, Mikhail’s parents decided that it would be safe for her to participate in the tennis program because they believed that French authorities would heighten national security to prevent further acts of violence. Mikhail said her parents’ expectations of increased security were confirmed when Mikhail arrived at the Nice airport. She said European airports generally have a more lenient security system than those in American airports, but that was no longer than case following the attack.
“Unlike other trips, the airport security had us take our shoes off and they thoroughly searched our bags,” she said. “I had a water bottle that was empty and they opened it and shook it, looking for explosives.”
This heightened state of alert was observed in other European countries, as noted by Layla Moghavem ’17, who travelled to Rome 10 days after the attack in France.
“I have been to Rome before but it was definitely very different in terms of security and general attitudes,” Moghavem said. “There was a lot more security everywhere, especially at tourist attractions. At the Trevi Fountain, there were tons and tons of armed guards carrying huge guns.”
Moghavem, who is a managing editor of The Chronicle, said she noted a shift in the attitudes of both tourists and locals in Rome.
With Rome’s reputation as a popular tourist destination, shop owners spoke openly about fears that their city would be a likely target of ISIS, she said.
Moghavem also said that there were fewer tourists in the Italian capital than there were in her previous visits to the city and there was an air of caution among those who were there.
She added that she was more observant and aware of her surroundings, but the increased presence of security did little to ease her apprehension.
“The fact that there was a lot of security should make me feel safer, but it was a little alarming that Italy felt the need to have that much security,” Moghavem said.
In contrast, Assistant Track and Field Coach Matthew Lachman ’03 said he gained comfort from the heightened security he encountered on his trip to the Rio Olympics.
Jihadi websites called for attacks against the Olympic games and Brazilian authorities arrested 12 individuals suspected of planning ISIS inspired terrorist attacks at the Olympics on July 21, CNN reported. Despite the looming threats, Lachman said he had faith that the security would be able to foil any terrorist plots.
His confidence was rooted in his visit to the 2008 Beijing Olympics which he regarded as well protected. However, Lachman said he quickly observed that security in Rio went far beyond what he experienced in Beijing.
He added that while both Rio and Beijing required spectators to go through three different security checkpoints, which included metal detectors and x-ray machines, Rio had a uniformed security presence throughout the city.
“The main difference between the two Olympics was that the police in Rio were much more visible than in Beijing,” Lachman said. “The military had large guns and it set a tone where you felt like the police were there watching the city and making sure everything went smoothly.”
While Lachman said he was not too concerned about terrorism during his trip to a potential ISIS target, 78 percent of students polled who traveled to Europe said that terrorism affected their travel plans.
With the summer attacks across the Western world, students said they were more concerned about traveling abroad than in previous years, especially in light of experiences similar to Madhogarhia’s friend.
“You always read about the attacks and see pictures, but knowing someone who narrowly escaped one changes everything,” Madhogarhia said. “It is definitely real now.”