Five embassies on high alert.
As the most visible symbols of U.S. foreign policy around the world, embassies have always been a target for political violence. Last weekend’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Peshawar was just the most recent example. But embassies are addressing their vulnerabilities, as the Peshawar case shows: While two consulate employees were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside, the casualties could have been much worse if gunmen had breached the mission’s heavily guarded gate. Following are five U.S. facilities around the world that are ramping up security in response to worsening local conditions.
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Risks: Located in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahuá, Ciudad Juarez has long been at the center of Mexico’s broiling drug war. In the past year, more than 2,600 people were killed in drug-related violence in the city. The U.S. consulate workers in Ciudad Juarez, who spend much of their time handling immigration affairs and adjudicating more than 800 passport cases a day, are not immune from the violence. On March 15, the American public was reminded of this fact when gunmen suspected of working for a drug cartel shot and killed an American consulate worker and two others Mexican employees on their way back from a children’s birthday party. According to the New York Times, this was the first time that drug gang members had intentionally targeted U.S. government employees.
Precaution: In response to the attack, the consulate has authorized the departure of consular employees' family members and publicly urged U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Ciudad Juarez and all other cities in the restive state of Chihuahua. Even with the ongoing sweep operations that FBI and DEA agents are conducting against drug gangs in the area, the consulate continues to impose a de facto curfew and restrict its employees' movements.
Risks: The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum has been largely spared from the violence that the rest of Sudan has experienced over the past decade. Nevertheless, Khartoum is still a very dangerous place, and Americans working at and around the embassy have seen their share of bloodshed and peril. On Jan. 1, 2008, John Granville, a 33-year-old USAID diplomat, and his Sudanese driver were shot and killed in what the State Department classified as an act of terrorism. More recently, extremists have threatened to blow up an Air Uganda flight between Entebee, Uganda and Juba, Sudan.
Precautions: The embassy's chargé d'affaires Robert E. Whitehead -- the ambassadorship is currently vacant -- has stepped up security measures at the embassy and recommended security precautions for employees. For example, the embassy requires that employees travel in embassy-operated vehicles at all times and suggests that Americans avoid any location where expatriates gather or Western businesses operate. Unfortunately, the security situation is expected to further deteriorate over the next couple of years, since Sudan will be having national elections in 2010 and a referendum on South Sudan's independence in 2011.
Risks: Yemen's 15 minutes of fame in the U.S. media following the failed 2009 Christmas bombing plot have ended, but that doesn't make the capital city of Sana'a any safer. One year before the bomb plot, Yemeni militants used grenades, assault rifles, and vehicular bombs to stage an attack against the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a in which 10 people were killed. This January, one day after a visit from Gen. David Petraeus, the embassy was forced to close for two days in response to threats made by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attack what a State Department release referred to as "American interests" in Sana'a -- which could be a diplomatic euphemism for the embassy itself. Information on the threats remains scarce. Upon re-opening, the embassy issued a short, cryptic press release stating that "successful counter-terrorism operations conducted by Yemen[i] security forces... have addressed a specific area of concern, and have contributed to the Embassy's decision to resume operations."
Precautions: Unfortunately, the embassy in Sana'a doesn't have the security resources of, say, the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, whose fortress-like fortifications dwarf those of its comparatively tiny, poorly guarded counterpart in Yemen. Consequently, the embassy can do no more to ensure the safety of its employees than restrict their travel to Sana'a and recommend that they follow some very commonsensical security precautions: exercise caution when going out in public places, avoid large gatherings of foreigners and expatriates, and avoid attending political or religious demonstrations.
Risks: There has been little Western media coverage of Eritrea's ongoing standoff with Ethiopia, dating back to Eritrea's secession from Ethiopia in 1993 and flaring into all-out war between 1998 and 2000. Still, because of the border skirmishes that still routinely break out between the two countries, not to mention the occasional fighting between Eritrea and its other neighbors, Djibouti and Sudan, the embassy recommends that Americans avoid any travel near the country's dangerous borders. The Eritrean government itself seems to take a similar perspective: It requires that all foreign nationals, including diplomats, apply at least 10 days in advance for permission to travel outside of Asmara, which is located in the center of Eritrea.
Precaution: Unfortunately, the situation isn't much better in the capital. Since the beginning of 2010, the U.S. Embassy has reported a steady uptick in the number of Eritrean-American dual citizens whom the Eritrean government has arrested and detained without explanation. But the boldness of the Eritrean government goes beyond arbitrary arrests and detentions. As the Asmara Embassy Warden noted in 2008, the Eritrean government has repeatedly and illegally interfered with the delivery of mail to the embassy. The interference was so disruptive that the embassy was forced to suspend all non-emergency services between February 19 and March 29, 2010. Given this history of harassment, as well as growing anti-Western sentiment shared by Eritreans angered by recent sanctions laid down by the Security Council, the embassy recommends that Americans avoid traveling to the country altogether.
Risks: Over the past five years Algeria has witnessed an increasingly large number of terrorist attacks. From car bombs and suicide bombings to kidnappings and assassinations, political violence rocks Algeria on a fairly routine basis. Between 2007 and 2008, for example, the capital city of Algiers and the surrounding areas suffered at least 17 suicide bombings at the hands of al Qaeda in the Maghreb. Approximately 34 were killed and 89 were injured, many of whom were civilians.
Precautions: Because of the prevalence of roadside bombings in and around Algiers, the U.S. Embassy recommends that while in Algeria, Americans should travel as infrequently as possible and avoid the large crowds that have often been terrorists' targets of choice. It also restricts travel by its own employees around the country. Meanwhile, the Algerian government must vet the itineraries of all foreign nationals travelling to either the Kasbah, which still serves as a gathering place for violent extremists a decade after Algeria's civil war, or Hassi Messaoud, a southeastern oil town whose petro-industrial complex is guarded by a sizeable Algerian military presence.
AFP/Getty Images; algiera.usembassy.gov