19

I read about the murders of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen and Maren Ueland.

  • What safety mistakes these girls did during their camping trip?

  • What could have been done to avoid this situation?

  • How can I protect myself in case of an attack like this? Pepper spray? Taser gun? Guns?

Note: Assume that I am foreign to that region. And hiking with a friend or camping alone.

Attackers admitted they choose these girls because other potential victims were with tourist guides. They attacked Ueland, a Norwegian, and her Danish friend, Jespersen, in their sleeping bags, and beheaded them.

This BBC article contains background into the attack and the trial.

24

What mistakes did these girls make during their camping trip?

I don't know that they made any glaring mistakes. The only caution I would note (and you'll see that it's of limited value in this particular case) is that they were two women camping alone in a very remote area of North Africa (although Morocco was not considered a threat to tourists at the time). Camping anywhere outside leaves you inherently vulnerable. Camping in a foreign country moreso. I would get a group together if you're going to a remote area, especially if that area is in another country you might not be all that familiar with.

Beyond that, stay vigilant. I don't know if they would have noticed the men or not, but according to this article

The plotters took note of where the women placed their tent and continued 150 yards downhill to erect their own shelter within sight of the trail.

Trying to notice stuff like a group of men who seem to be following you is important. But, perhaps the most tragic part is this

They were only a 45-minute walk from the village but decided to use the level surface along the north-facing wall of al-Kadi’s shop as their tent site for the night.

If you can avoid being alone camping in remote and unfamiliar territory, I would do it.

How can I protect myself in case of an attack like this?

In this specific case, you're going to be hard pressed to do much of anything. It was four men against two women on a remote mountain trail. Limited places to run and not much in the way of cover. And these men wanted to murder the women to prove their allegiance to ISIS, not rob or rape them. In cases like the latter, they tend to want you alive, which can play in your favor for time or openings. None of that applies if you're facing a group who wants you dead.

As to tools to help you out here

  • Tazers work well facing one opponent, but not so much against multiple assailants.
  • Disabling sprays like mace or pepper spray can be more effective, but are also harder to travel with (TSA allows 4oz only) and might not be readily available abroad. And you tend to need one can per attacker

    It is recommended that the canister be fired until the attacker is incapacitated.

  • The only real weapon of value here would have been a firearm, which typically means permits (which are not easy to get in Morocco, let alone elsewhere) and traveling with a gun (which can be problematic).

In hindsight...

The best option these women had was to carry a knife, then, when the men told them to come out the front of their tent, cut open the back and run out to try and escape. The attackers would probably not have anticipated it and they might have been able to flee into the darkness or feel their way down the trail. Instead, they stayed put, or came out the front.

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    This answer is good, but it could be better - if it just had the simple thing that has been done since humans climbed out of the trees - keep a watch over the camp, sleep on shifts. It is not a failsafe, but it is far better than nothing. – Stian Yttervik Sep 9 at 12:13
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    @StianYttervik The problem here is you had a group of men looking for targets of opportunity to murder. The size of their group gave them strength in numbers, and they were well armed and determined. Sleeping in shifts might have helped some, but the attackers probably would have adjusted tactics. – Machavity Sep 9 at 12:20
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    @Machavity I don't disagree, and while we could debate whether early warning could have lead to other outcomes - i don't think it is a fruitful discussion. My point was, that the single action you can do regarding camp security in these (and in fact "most") circumstances is to set a watch - which in many cases (again, not discussing this case in particular) is both necessary and sufficient. – Stian Yttervik Sep 9 at 13:08
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    @Machavity: according to the WP article, the attackers had adjusted tactics several times in the preceding days in the sense that they decided to not attack those (potential) victims. One of them even went back. I agree that with a group of men determined to become terrorists, it's unfortunately very likely that someone will be hurt. But as bad as that in itself is, I have to conclude that these two women were considered easy victims by the terrorists. The question whether they could have done something to become sufficiently difficult victims is IMHO a somewhat different one. +1 btw – cbeleites Sep 11 at 15:46
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    I'd ague that in untrained hands, defensive weapons (knife, taser, pepper spray, etc) will be more dangerous to campers than not having them at all. It takes something special not to either freeze or run in these situations. – Snow Sep 12 at 13:52
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The way to protect yourself against attacks like this is to greatly reduce the probability of being attacked. Granted, you can be attacked anywhere (Yosemite, the Appalachian Trail) for any reason or for seemingly no reason -- but choose a place for vacation where such attacks are very low probability -- Yosemite and the Appalachian Trail, despite one case each (as far as I remember), qualify.

You could try Travel SE, but recast the question, such as:

I am a citizen of X country, and a woman. (You should specify your sex.) I enjoy spectacular, remote places to travel alone or with one other person [specify sex], including hiking and camping. This article [the one you linked in the question you just posted] makes me concerned about safety. I can't afford private tourist guides, and I dislike travelling in a group. How do I find out what areas to avoid to minimize an attack like the one in the above link?

You might want to add that TGO didn't much to say about what to do to protect yourself in the course of an attack.

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    Sounds like a reasonable idea in general but does it really address the question? I don't remember any similar attack in Morocco, it's the only country in Africa where my government advises “normal precautions" (everything else is at least “increased caution"), the same advice they give for the US. – Relaxed Sep 9 at 21:25
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    Yes, I am well aware of this attack, which is also mentioned in the travel advisory I was referring to. In other words: 8 years without any other attack, more than you can say about Paris, London, Istanbul... or mass shootings in the US. – Relaxed Sep 10 at 18:50
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    The comparison with Paris is enlightening. I live there and don't have the feeling it's very dangerous but it has suffered repeated terror attacks over the last few years together with many other minor issues. So what's your advice? Avoiding places that have seen recent attacks? But then how would it have helped prevent the attack in Morocco? Not going anywhere? Either Paris is more dangerous or it isn't. Or just avoiding Morocco but based on what exactly? – Relaxed Sep 10 at 18:54
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    The problem with this answer is that Morocco is somewhere attacks are low probability. The question asks how to prepare for such rare cases. "I doubt that one would get one's head hacked off with a kitchen knife in the Bois de Boulogne" - why not? A man's head was hacked off on a bus in central Canada. Between that other attacks, like the shooting of two British tourists in Florida, is North America too dangerous? – user568458 Sep 11 at 11:00
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    @user568458: yes, Morocco is a place with low attack probability. OTOH, it is also a place where it is recommended that women do not stay outside after nightfall - or at least not without a man accompanying them. – cbeleites Sep 15 at 19:20
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I'd like to first say that I'm not sure that these suggestions would have helped the hikers described in the post. Here are some suggestions which may help to avoid human threats.

  1. Camp relatively near many other groups of campers or, preferably, near authorities, such as near a park ranger station
  2. As #1 isn't always possible, it can be possible to camp in a place that is difficult-to-access, obscure, or relatively defensible. It should be noted that this can increase your risks from other threats (getting lost, falls, weather, bears, health emergencies, etc.)
  3. If some people nearby where you are camping or hiking seem suspicious, try to reach a safe place (campsite with many people or ranger station) or try to lose the suspicious people (by hiking in a different direction, stopping or hiding to wait for the suspicious people to pass by, or joining another group of hikers that seems more trustworthy).

I'm not sure that the murderers acted in any way that could have given the victims a clue that they might take aggressive actions. However, if you find yourself near people who make you nervous for any reason, maybe it's best to trust your gut and to get away from them.

I have been in a situation where I was hiking alone and found that some of the people around the campsite where I had planned to stay seemed untrustworthy (drinking heavily and making conversation with me that made me uncomfortable). There were no other campsites nearby, so I trail-ran another 1.5 miles, making sure I was not followed. I walked off the trail about a quarter of a mile and found a location that could not be seen from the trail to set up my tent and sleep. The place that I put my tent also seemed somewhat "defensible", in that it was difficult to access without making a lot of noise. Of course, this put me at greater risk of getting lost, but I was careful to note the direction to the trail and distance using my GPS and compass. I was somewhat relying on "security by obscurity." Camping outside of a campsite was also against the rules at the park I was at, but I figured that in the unlikely situation that I was caught by a park ranger, I would explain the situation.

Often when I camp on my own, I find a place to set up my tent that is hidden and difficult to access, just because it feels safer to me. If you have skills and gear that other people don't have, you might be able to camp (or otherwise escape) to a place inaccessible to them. I've camped on top of a rock formation that is only accessible by technical climbing (using a rope, belayer, and other climbing gear to be safely reached). Despite its inaccessibility, the top was spacious and had a secure flat place to put up a tent. It was also a very beautiful place to see the sun rise. Of course, camping in such a place could increase risk of falls and could be risky in other types of emergencies. As climbing gear gives access to otherwise inaccessible places, so do boats.

In a different situation than that experienced by the victims (taken hostage), Tommy Caldwell and his partner took advantage of their better climbing skills than their lone captor. I'm not sure how likely such a situation is, but we are talking about unlikely situations to begin with.

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After an introductory reading into the matter (Wikipedia and news), I would say there are no definite safety mistakes that I can see. If the attackers were noticed and seemed suspicious, maybe they could have done more, maybe not. Even if they were aware, perhaps the attackers were not acting suspicious.

In general though there are some things you can do.

Note: I am not suggesting that you always do all of these actions whenever you camp. They are merely extra measures to take if you feel appropriate.

1) If you think someone may have, for nefarious purposes, taken note of where you started setting up camp: only unpack enough that it looks like you're setting up camp. Half set up your tent, make sure nobody is currently watching, then take the tent down and move even further into the brush.

2) Do not sleep in your tent. The purpose for this one would be to use the tent as a decoy. In the Moroccan situation, if the women had been sleeping hidden in the brush away from their tent, they could have kept silent and ignored the attackers' demands. When the attackers entered the tent and found nobody there they may be angry but at least the women would be hidden and relatively safe.

3) Use camouflage netting which you can toss over your stuff to make it harder to find.

However, all of these things are not necessary 99% of the time. So although you ask what could you do to mitigate such risks, your suggested use case was likely an unexpected attack, so you also need to ask yourself if you are willing to do these things as habit every single time you camp. If you don't commit to making this your normal, then it cannot help you against unexpected attacks.

Be prepared for others to think you're weird, or even that you are suspicious for doing these things. I don't say that to deter you, merely to make you think about how others will react to it.

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More about weapons. I already commented

If you think you need weapons to protect yourself, and you don't already habitually carry such weapons and are accustomed to using them, then the choice of location is wrong.

The answer from @Machavity also pointed out that sprays and tazers will be ineffective against a group, and carrying firearms may be problematic.

There is another problem with using weapons. Suppose you make the first strike, or a panic attack, against a perceived enemy, and injure or possibly kill them. You are now in deep trouble, and although you might be able to get off any charges you will have a difficult ordeal ahead, perhaps in custody, especially as a foreigner in another country.

What then if you wait to be attacked first, so you have a legitimate claim of self-defense? You may not even get a chance to deploy your weapon. You can assume that any attacker will know what they are doing, and be better at it than you.

No, the main purpose of carrying a weapon would be to demonstrate to others that you will not be an easy target. If you must carry a weapon it should be visible, a deterrent, not some vague plan that you might be able to somehow beat off an attacker.


The question is asking how to deal with a situation that is already too late for a good outcome, for anyone except a movie hero.

My answer is that it must never come to that. It is true that this was an extreme and rare situation, but the fact that there was no warning for Morocco does not make it a safe place, especially in remote areas.

A school friend of mine, John Charles Elcoate and his girlfriend Wendy Margaret Mills, were murdered on the road to India in 1971. They were backpacking and sleeping rough, and were killed for their possessions, as I heard it at the time.

There is hardly a place in the world where there isn't a ne'er-do-well looking for an opportunity. The same principles apply as always. Do not make yourself an easy target for sneak thieves, con artists, muggers, rapists or even murderers. All of them want to pick the weakest victim they can find, to minimise the risk to themselves, and maximise their chance of success. This was apparently confirmed by the Morocco attackers: they picked the easiest target.

So I recommend that if you can afford to take accommodation, do so. In a remote area, travel in a party. Save the solo camping adventures for places that are not so wild and lawless.

And in any case, what mindset do you want during the trip? To be constantly on your guard against (possibly imagined) threats, or to have a relaxed and carefree trip – apart from any personal challenges you may have set yourself? There is an obvious answer to that.

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Summary: all in all, In my humble opinion the two had the super bad luck to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

There may still have been things that they could reasonably be expected to have done (in the sense of things they may have normally done without being particularly suspicious about the group of attackers) which may have lead to a different outcome: just like the other 3+ people/groups who were not attacked by the same terrorists before these two were murdered probably did something that convinced the terrorists that they were not the victims they were looking for.


What safety mistakes these girls did during their camping trip?

My most prominent source is the Washington Post article linked in @Machavity's answer.

"Mistakes" is a big word - I don't see any clear cut mistakes.

With the possible exception that the women may have been surprised by sunset - we'll never know if that was the case or whether they planned to stay where they did: according to WP, the women camped at a shop site, and they arrived after the shop owner closed in time to go to Imlil for the night.

From looking at google maps, opentopomap and some of the news photos of the location I think this or the other hut some 600 m up the valley/to the west may be the site. It's very roughly halfway between the French Alpine Club + 2nd hut (including a campground) and the houses at Sidi Chamarough which according to google maps feature an auberge.

Being caught by sunset in the mountains is what I'd generally consider a mistake in the context of an outdoors forum. Still, one wouldn't expect to be murdered as a consequence. The women may have made the mountain safety decision to not try and hike on for Sidi Chamarough or Imlil in the dark and instead stay at that site overnight.

The campground at the Alpine Club hut btw. has descriptions of being very littered and possibly unhygienic. Who knows whether this triggered the decision to go on?

In general, I'd consider it quite suspicious if when wild camping another group pitches their tent within just 150 m of where my tent is when there are km and km of wilderness available. Unless there's a good reason for this, of course. But, if I consider sunset a valid reason to put up my tent where I am, and another group arrives around the same time - that would be a valid, unsuspicious reason for them as well, wouldn't it?

Sattelite images and photos of the site show that their campsite is in a very open landscape - definitively not as easy to silently vanish there when someone suspicious approaches the tent as in a Telemark forest.

What could have been done to avoid this situation?

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts:

  • In general, a knife is not going to help against a group of terrorists determined to harm you. However, what none of the other posts mentions so far: we have 3 attackers against 2 victims - that's not an overwhelming majority. These attackers (who btw. initially were a group of 4, one of them left the group the day before the attack) who did indeed come into that region with the purpose of becoming terrorists in the preceding days had made 4 or 5 attempts to murder people but in the end decided that those weren't the victims they were looking for.
    We will of course never know whether the two women doing guard shifts and visibly whittling their 2m Bergstock and eating their dinner with their suitably large Scandinavian work knives* may have looked sufficiently more difficult victims to make these attackers cancel that attempt as well (though in all probability, murder someone else).

    * If you read German, have a look at "Knife for gender equality" by Andrea Jeska - a journalist doing lots of solo travel in male-dominated cultures. She describes that her 18 cm blade Georgian knife produces gender equality e.g. when she uses this knife just the same as her male travel acquaintances use their similar sized knives to cut their food etc.

  • One may also argue that having a local guide would have lead to there being a 3 : 3 situation - and a situation of which we know that the terrorists backed off an attack the day before.
    Also, another friend planned to come with them but spontaneously went with other friends to the coast.


How can I protect myself in case of an attack like this? Pepper spray? Taser gun? Guns?

I agree with the others who say that once the attack is on, it's in all probability too late. Which doesn't say you shouldn't fight (there wasn't anything further they could have lost), but the odds are then overwhelmingly against you. One of the odds against you is that we'd probably not realize how bad the situation is until it's too late: after all, such attacks happen * rarely*. Also, from the WP description, it looks as if Ueland was too shocked to do anything. Jespersen tried to flee but was stabbed.

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To add to the other answers, in order to stand even a minor chance of such an attack with such odds, it is imperative to be alert, expect the worst and, no matter how provocative, you most likely have to be preemptive.

In terms of defense, it is largely a matter of luck and if the attackers have any means of attacking you from a range (e.g. firearm), you are completely out of luck. However, there are very unconventional things you can do to have slight chances of protecting your life, depending on the circumstances. Note that these are NOT things you should do unless you really understand your life is immediately threatened!

-You could set a medium-to-large sheet (or two) on fire and throw it out close. If done properly (whatever that means), the fire will certainly grow for a while and the scary effect might give you some time to escape, while the attackers might be disoriented for a little while. You must understand, of course, that this can have terrible side effects if the fire spreads, so after your life is safe, you would need to do something about it. Obviously, this is not the best of suggestions but one must know what humans are capable of doing when their life is at risk.

-A couple of medium-sized butane torches can prove to be a very efficient, unexpected, intimidating (and dangerous) counter-arm for many attackers, and one you can justify carrying around much easier than a gun. I would suggest a couple, depending on how much you worry about your life and how much of a threat this really might be for you.

-The least suspicious means of protection that comes to mind is portable stoves. Beyond the fact that you could use them as mini flame throwers (some strong ones produce quite a flame at their maximum output), my suggestion would be to use one or two to keep a significant quantity of water boiling, plus a couple of thermos to maintain a sizable quantity of water as hot as possible. There are few things an attacker would expect less than a sudden splash of boiling hot water on their faces. Despite this sounding like a science fiction scenario, two women with four sizable cups of hot water might stand some chance of preempting four attackers. This can also work with coffee, of course, and if you are walking alone in a deserted "forsaken" place, nobody would ever arrest you for holding two cups/thermos with hot coffee or tea.

I could not state more clearly, of course, that these are NOT things you should do, unless your life is immediately threatened and, since this is very subjective, I would simply wish anyone reading this to never find themselves in a situation necessitating such actions.

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    You forgot to mention setting up trip wires and booby traps, and digging defensive ditches. While putting up a show of force might deter a mugger or opportunist thief (who's first concern would be their own skin) it won't help against a group who is determined to cause you serious harm, in a land they know well and you don't, and especially a group with a mission. The idea that you hold cups of boiling water at the ready at all times is ridiculous. – Weather Vane Sep 9 at 21:07
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    @VectorZita That does seem to be what the highest-voted answer says. – Brilliand Sep 9 at 21:50
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    Indirectly suggested was to recognise the danger of the situation before the attack happened, and either find a place of safety, or run and hide. The attack need not have been an act of terrorism: it could have been any band of ruthless robbers. The fact that Morocco was not flagged as dangerous does not make it safe. – Weather Vane Sep 9 at 22:09
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    I think this kind of "survival" strategies are doing more harm than good. All your disclaimers aside, they give someone the feeling that if they prepare a bit - e.g., by making sure that some utensils like you describe, maybe a pocket knife, propane lighter etc. are always close by hand - they could do something about it. This simply is not true. No matter what, unless the victims are trained, well-practiced and with a rather militant mindset, they have no chance whatsoever against a dedicated attack who presumably is practiced and militant. The other advices (prepare, be aware, etc.) ... – AnoE Sep 10 at 10:26
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    ... are much more important; and if someone reduces those aspects to be have energy/time/focus for these kinds of measures as described here, then actual harm may be done. It's not enough that they have a pot of boiling water, and have read this answer to be aware. When push comes to shove, it is very hard to overrule our ingrained instincts not to cause harm to other humans... – AnoE Sep 10 at 10:27

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