6 attacks that redefined embassy security

Highly symbolic of the nations they represent, embassies are more than diplomatic missions: they are also targets of choice for anyone who has a grudge – peaceful or otherwise – with countries flying their flags abroad. Six attacks in particular have redefined embassy security around the world.

With the growth of fundamentalist terrorism over the last three to four decades, interest in embassy security has grown as embassies have evolved from “soft” to “hard” targets for violent attacks. They were once only lightly guarded and had minimal military or physical protection. Now, after foreign ministries have taken the consequences of revised risk assessments, many – but not all – diplomatic outposts are fortified by a wide range of protective measures. There are many reasons for this evolution, but we believe six embassy attacks in particular played a role in redefining how governments view protection of their consular facilities.

As you’ll see, all attacks took advantage of vulnerabilities in the embassy’s perimeter, shell and cell protection. And many had deadly consequences not only for the embassy under attack, but also for surrounding buildings and their inhabitants.

1. U.S. Embassy in Iran, November 4, 1979-January 21, 1981

The Iran hostage crisis is one of the most well known diplomatic crises in the world. Iranian students and supporters of the Iranian Revolution stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. The move was seen as a response to the U.S. granting asylum to the recently overthrown Shah of Iran.

The attack can be seen as a “brute force” attack: the embassy was stormed by between 300 and 500 students. The chains locking the embassy’s gates were broken using a pair of metal cutters hid beneath a student’s chador. No explosives were employed—it was simply a takeover where the attackers overwhelmed the security measures using sheer numbers.

After numerous negotiations and a failed rescue attempt by the U.S., an accord was finally reached, leading to the release of the hostages.

2. U.S. Embassy in Beirut, April 18, 1983

The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut by Islamic radicals was, at the time, the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic building. It was also one of the first times a car bomb was employed to attack an American building abroad. Motivated by the U.S. intervention in the Lebanese Civil War, the attack killed 63 people—including 32 Lebanese employees and 14 visitors/passersby.

A delivery van packed with almost a ton of explosives was detonated by a suicide bomber who had gained access to the embassy compound. The van crashed into the front of the embassy itself and exploded. Not only were there massive casualties; there was also a tremendous amount of structural damage. The central façade of the building collapsed, throwing debris, metal, and glass fragments. Windows shattered as far as a mile away from the blast site, injuring even more people.

The attack had such a powerful impact that it prompted the CIA to investigate the security measures of diplomatic locations overseas. The results of the investigation, dubbed the Inman Report, led to the improvement of security at embassies across the globe, as well as the creation of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Diplomatic Security Service.

3. U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, August 7, 1998

This was not a single attack, but simultaneous attacks in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi. The attacks were seen as revenge for the arrest and extradition of members of the EIJ by the U.S. Casualties were massive: 213 dead in Nairobi, and 11 in Dar Es Salaam—with over 4,000 wounded in Nairobi. Seismological analyses of the blasts indicated that several tons of explosives were used.

The attacks involved trucks loaded with explosives. In Dar Es Salaam, a corner of the embassy collapsed onto an area where cars were parked, and embassy personnel were trapped under rubble inside the embassy itself. The nearby French and German embassies were also damaged, but no one was injured.

In Nairobi, the attack was far more devastating. The drivers forced their way into the embassy grounds using a stun grenade and weapons to clear a path for the truck. The explosion not only seriously damaged the embassy building, but also led to the collapse of the nearby Ufundi Building where students and college staff lived. The blast shattered windows as far as 10 blocks away.

While the Dar Es Salaam embassy was eventually repaired, the Nairobi building had to be completely rebuilt and relocated.

4. Australian Embassy in Indonesia, September 9, 2004

Much like the Beirut attack, this was a suicide bombing using a one-ton bomb. Carried out by a jihadist in retaliation for Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war and in Indonesia, it killed 9 people and wounded over 150.

This attack was particularly shocking because the explosion of the white delivery van outside the embassy gates did more damage to nearby buildings than to the embassy itself. The Greek Embassy was, to quote newspapers from that period, “gutted”. The Chinese embassy also suffered minor damage. Several office buildings around the embassy were marred by the blast, and broken glass from shattered windows injured numerous workers—much like the other aforementioned suicide bombings.

A text message warning of the blast was sent to the Indonesian authorities 45 minutes prior to the attack; sadly enough, the message was not seen until several hours after the detonation.

5. U.S. Embassy in Yemen, September 17, 2008

One of the most stunning examples of a multipronged assault on a diplomatic building, this 2008 attack resulted in 18 deaths and 16 injuries.

Carried out by the Islamic Jihad of Yemen (an Al Qaeda affiliate), it began with attackers dressed as policemen in order to fool local law enforcement and security. The assailants were heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenades, regular grenades and rifles, and were—according to some reports—backed up by snipers across the road. While the armed men led the assault on the outer security ring located about 250 meters from the embassy itself, car bombs exploded further down the road. The goal was to blow up another security ring and create a hole through which the assailants could penetrate the embassy grounds. The battle lasted roughly 20 minutes, and up to five different explosions were recorded.

6. Danish Embassy in Pakistan, June 2, 2008

The Danish embassy in Islamabad also suffered a car bombing in retaliation to the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten’s, Muhammed cartoons published two years prior and to the deployment of Danish troops in Afghanistan. Over 20 were wounded and 6 were killed.

The suicide bomber drove a car at high speed then braked sharply and detonated his bomb in front of the embassy. While the neighborhood was supposedly “tightly secured”, the attacker bypassed security due to the car’s diplomatic registration plates. The embassy suffered serious structural damage, and the explosion was powerful enough to leave a large crater near the building. The damage was split between the Danish embassy itself and a Pakistani Development Organization building. Other offices and residential buildings were also hit by the attack. For example, the windowpanes of the Indian ambassador’s residence were broken, and the building’s boundary walls were cracked.

What can we learn about embassy security from these 6 attacks?

Those responsible for protecting diplomatic representations can draw some important lessons for embassy security from these and other terrorist attacks.

Although a variety of attack methods were used – everything from the brute force of sheer numbers in Tehran to remotely detonated bombs and suicide bombers to ballistic assault, or a combination of several methods – all of the attacks were made possible by vulnerabilities in perimeter protection.

Similarly, shell and cell protection also played a role in all attacks. Wherever structural damage to the attacked building resulted in loss of life or injuries, improved protection of the building’s exterior may have prevented such lethal consequences. Since embassies are located in capital cities, often in densely populated urban areas, an attack on one building can easily impact neighboring buildings. Blast damage to nearby buildings is a recurring theme in several of the attacks described above; a majority of injuries caused by bomb attacks are from broken window glass.

Of course, better physical protection through integrated improvement of perimeter, shell and cell security cannot prevent all forms of harm due to embassy attacks, but we believe it could go a long way to making embassies and their neighbors safer and more resilient.

Better physical protection of embassies begins with good threat assessments. And in this changing world it’s critical that these are up-to-date. Based on an accurate understanding of current threat levels, embassy security officials should then conduct thorough vulnerability and consequence analyses to determine any weaknesses and the probable results should an attacker exploit these.



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