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Embassy security

The killing by drone attack on January 3 of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani – ‘the number-one terrorist anywhere’ according to US President Donald Trump – is only the latest example of how diplomats are in the front line worldwide, writes Mark Rowe.

President Trump justified what he called the ‘flawless precision strike’ against Soleimani in Baghdad partly on the ‘violent assault’ on the United States embassy in Baghdad, carried out according to Trump at the direction of Soleimani. As a sign of the bad blood between the US and Iran, the President tweeted that the United States had 52 Iranian targets ready, which harked back to the 52 hostages taken by the new Iranian revolutionary regime; that overthrew the Shah, more than 40 years ago, and stormed (or allowed the storming of) the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.

A 2018 report by the Canadian auditor-general on that country’s embassy physical security begins with a list of ‘security events’ at world embassies and consulates in the 2010s, including the storming of the UK embassy in Tehran in 2011.

Arguably the most shocking and most controversial embassy security ‘event’ recently was the September 11, 2012 killing of the US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other men, in the then Libyan capital Benghazi. Besides the actual shortcomings in security, the official response became a political football as Republicans claimed a Democrat cover-up in general and by the then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in particular, while Democrats responded by arguing that Republicans were making conspiracy theories.

Official reports ran to enormous length and took years, such as the House of Representatives’ final report in 2016, which included ‘additional views’ by the Representative Michael Pompeo; now President Trump’s Secretary of State. Leaving aside the partisan nature of much of the reporting and investigating, the question was raised why the US had an ambassador and embassy in the country at all, given that the security situation in the city had deteriorated significantly in 2012 and that other countries withdrew. As that House of Representatives’ report quoted, months before the attack one State Department diplomatic security agent viewed the situation as a ‘suicide mission’ where ‘there was a very good chance that everyone was going to die’. As in many other tragedies, there was not one single cause and shortcomings for the deaths but several: personnel, a lack of physical and electronic security, and emergency response and intelligence, given that the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the US was an obvious occasion for an Islamist attack on US interests.

In that case as in others – whether suicide bombs in Kabul, or protests during the Vietnam War in Grosvenor Square outside the US embassy in London – an embassy is an obvious locus for demonstrations and violence by people with an animus against the US or any country. It’s recognised as a symbol for its country, as during the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War in 1968 when North Vietnamese forces broke into the US embassy in the South Vietnam capital Saigon, seen now as a turning point in US opinion about the war.

Or, diplomats can face general crime, get caught up in civil disorder not to do with them, and be victims of espionage by countries seeking an advantage. Yet, just as businesses, academics and aid agencies all have their own reasons to enter dangerous territories, so do diplomats, to represent their countries’ legitimate interests, whether for trade, politics, or to do the admin of visas and traveller passports. For instance, Global Affairs Canada operates 175 diplomatic and consular missions in 110 countries; the United States has embassies, consulates or diplomatic missions from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Indeed, the very fact that a country has problems with extremism, terrorism or weapons proliferation may be a reason to have a presence there, as a National Audit Office report on the UK’s Foreign Office notes.

The money for securing diplomats and their properties abroad is considerable; to take Global Affairs Canada; it received $652 million for work on safety and security of staff and assets at missions abroad in the 2010s; and in October 2017, the Canadian federal government committed a further $1.8 billion in new funding over ten years, according to that auditor’s report. The audit found widespread and basic shortcomings: the Canadian authorities had identified security deficiencies that needed immediate attention at many of its missions, many significant, and several identified years before, yet not all of the recommended measures were in place: such as more video surveillance, alarms, and installation of vehicle barriers at entrances. Most of the capital projects to upgrade security were at least three years behind schedule, usually because of weak project management and oversight. Security assessments were missing or incomplete for many missions, meaning the Canadian authorities did not have the information needed to prioritise where spending was most needed. Until 2017, Canada did not have a central register of its missions’ vulnerabilities to security threats.

While in theory the authorities have a layered and risk-based approach to security of diplomatic sites, the auditors found that actual security did not always fit the threat level (which besides might change quickly); for instance, the audit found one mission in a high-threat place that had no X-ray machine for visitor screening, yet missions in lower-threat places did. The audit found that many staff members posted at high-threat missions had not completed the mandatory training needed for their personal protection. For the audit in full visit the Office of the Auditor General of Canada website.


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