The List

U.S. Outposts in the Crosshairs

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.

Khartoum, Sudan

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.

 

Sana'a, Yemen

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.

Asmara, Eritrea

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.

Algiers, Algeria

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

The List

Real April Fools

Stories from around the world that can't possibly be true -- but are.

"FUCKING HELL" BEER GETS THE EU GO-AHEAD

Country: Germany

The story: There are plenty of oddly named brands of beer -- Fiddler's Elbow, Sick Duck, and Santa's Butt, to name a few -- but the European Union's Trade Marks and Designs Registration Office may have just greenlighted the most offensive beer brand ever: "Fucking Hell."

Although the name may be NSFW in English, it actually makes sense in German. "Fucking" is a village in northern Austria (though that's not where the beer will be brewed) and "Hell" is a word used to describe a light ale in Bavaria and Austria. The EU office recently explained its decision to reverse a previous rejection:

"[T]he word combination claimed contains no semantic indication that could refer to a certain person or group of persons. Nor does it incite a particular act. It cannot even be understood as an instruction that the reader should go to hell. [Fucking Hell is] an interjection used to express a deprecation, but it does not indicate against whom the deprecation is directed. Nor can it be considered as reprehensible to use existing place names in a targeted manner (as a reference to the place), merely because this may have an ambiguous meaning in other languages."

And the best part? The landmark decision creates an important precedent that will allow the use of other obscure, unfortunately named German towns in brand names. Citizens of Kissing, Pissen, and Titting: Watch out.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images


KIM JONG IL BANS 2012

Country: North Korea

The story: The Mayans famously predicted the world's end by concluding their 5,126 year-long calendar on the equivalent of Dec. 21, 2012. The doomsday prophecy inspired Hollywood's most recent blockbuster science-fiction disaster flick, 2012, as well as a host of lesser efforts. It's all in good fun, but the prognostication sits poorly with movie buff and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. You see, the Dear Leader has got plans.

The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of founding father Kim Il Sung's birth, Kim Jong Il's 70th birthday, and the 30th birthday of his reported successor, Kim Jong Un. In celebration, Kim Jong Il has pegged 2012 as North Korea's lucky year, in which the impoverished, famine-plagued state emerges as a global superpower. The government has promised a series of new housing projects, the completion of the stalled Ryugyong Hotel and a wealth of new economic opportunities. And nothing is going to get in his way -- even a fictional sci-fi movie about a mythical environmental apocalypse paired with a romantic subplot. Western movies are routinely banned in North Korea, but 2012 seems to be getting extra scrutiny -- those caught with illegal DVDs of the film are meeting with harsh punishment. We wouldn't want to jinx Pyongyang's rise to greatness, would we?

And the best part? Officials are enforcing the ban by declaring possession of the film as "a grave provocation against the development of the state" -- a charge punishable with up to five years in prison.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

BEIJING'S PERFUMED GARBAGE DUMP

Country: China

The story: Throughout China, Western consumption patterns, an exploding urban population, and underdeveloped infrastructure have had negative environmental and sanitary consequences. In Beijing, concern is growing about the hundreds of enormous and overflowing landfills that have created a public health debacle. Toxins from overflowing dumps have seeped their way into local sources of groundwater, and trash incinerators pump dioxin and heavy metals into the air, increasing the risk of illness in nearby livestock and communities. The city estimates that 18,000 metric tons of waste are added to the sites every day, and the smell is attracting a lot of attention.

City officials first attempted to deal with the problem by installing dozens of incinerators in dumps, but many of those projects have been put on hold after intense pressure from residents worried about toxic fumes poisoning their air. In response, Beijing's Asuwei dump has decided to take a novel approach to dealing with the problem: covering it up. Officials will be installing 100 high-pressure deodorant guns to spray perfume -- up to several gallons per minute -- onto the site, dampening the stench. The "guns," much like powerful sprinklers, can spray up to 50 meters. Think of them as Febreze on steroids.

And the best part? Trash on the city's outskirts, between the fifth and sixth city ring roads, has become such a nuisance that residents have coined a name for the massive wasteland between the city and the suburbs: the "seventh ring."

STEPHEN SHAVER/AFP/Getty Images

SARKOZY'S BOOSTER STAND

Country: France

The story: French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to the United States began with a March 29 speech at Columbia University. But before his keynote address, his staff made a curious request: the French president would not be using the podium provided to him by the university. Instead, he would use a custom-built lectern flown in from France. His aides explained that Sarko wanted to be as comfortable as possible during his delivery. But it's fairly obvious that the French president just wanted something more befitting his 5-foot-5-inch stature.

And the best part? This isn't the first instance of Sarkozy showing his sensitivity about his height. At the June 2009 anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe, he used a footstool while standing at the podium, and in September 2009 he surrounded himself with two dozen shorter people while giving a televised speech.

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

MAHJONG DRUG RINGS

Country: China

The story: Teenage boys aren't the only ones pulling all-night gaming sessions these days. In Shanghai, middle-aged and retired residents have joined the fun, albeit turning to less high-tech games -- namely mahjong.

But the famously addictive tile game has its dark side. Some Shanghai mahjong junkies are turning to banned substances -- namely cocaine, methamphetamines, and ketamine -- to get through marathon games with their friends. This new class of drug addicts, typically 40-to-60- year-olds, are picking up their habit in card rooms, where groups of friends meet to hang out. The last decade alone has seen the proportion of over-35 drug addicts increase nearly 20 percent nationwide. The Guardian quoted from the China Daily:

"'More and more middle-aged and older people take drugs because they feel lonely and empty after retiring or losing their jobs,' said Li Luyan, secretary-general of Shanghai Sports Association for the Aged. 'Their children and society in general should show more care to these people to keep them away from drugs ... they need more activities, such as sports, to fill their spare time.'"

And the best part? Officials have been trying to clean up the game's image for years. In the past, mahjong was linked to activities such as opium smoking and gambling. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party outlawed it in 1949, only to re-legalize it in 1985.

MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images