Walk down Embassy Row in any large city and you'll probably be impressed with the peaceful beauty of the place. The tree-lined streets, stone walls and gardenia bushes paint a picture of quiet diplomacy and grace. However, blaring news clips of horrendous attacks on American and foreign embassies shock us into the reality that embassies are in the crosshairs of terrorists. Protecting embassies in the 21st century demands that security professionals use state-of-the-art perimeter security solutions to resist attack and intrusion.
History of Embassy Protection
As the world emerged from World War II, the primary mission of embassies and consulates was to establish and maintain communication with other governments on a diplomatic level and provide services to travelers and visiting diplomats. However, as the world economy recovered from the war, Foreign Service staff became active in economic and trade matters. Embassies became symbols of power and influence. They became the focus of noisy demonstrations and the target of rock throwing and crudely fashioned firebombs. In 1965, a Viet Cong car bomb exploded in front of the American Embassy in Saigon, killing three embassy employees, and the concept of embassy security changed drastically. Embassies and consulates had become terrorist targets.
Consulates built or leased until recently offer little protection against attack and intrusion. Too often they are on busy streets with almost no setback to provide barriers to vehicle and pedestrian intrusion. Following the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-Es-Salam, the U.S. State Department decreed that future construction of consulates and embassies have a minimum 100-foot setback between the building and the street or adjacent wall. To meet this requirement, the government had to purchase or lease additional land surrounding embassy perimeters. In many cities, this expansion of the perimeter was impractical, and often the only solution was to relocate or build new embassy structures with security as the prime design criterion. Today, only 29 U.S. embassies and two consulates have the 100-foot setback.
Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the U.S. State Department temporarily closed more than 50 embassies in anticipation of further attacks. Several foreign governments closed streets surrounding U.S. and British embassies and posted guard personnel to secure the expanded perimeters. Some of these expanded perimeters remain today. However, closing streets is not a practical or permanent solution in most cities. Complicating the problem are local ordinances that require embassy buildings and grounds to maintain the appearance of residential neighborhoods. Urban planners of the world's capitals do not like buildings in embassy row to look like military bases.
Providing a barrier to vehicle bombs is only part of the security challenge. Last year, embassy row in Beijing was invaded by "jumpers," political refugees from North Korea who illegally crossed the border into China and made their way to Beijing. Living among the Chinese is not an option for illegal Koreans; the Chinese government vigorously enforces immigration laws to prevent a flood of illegal aliens from crossing the border to enjoy the benefits of China's booming economy. Upon arriving in Beijing, many illegal aliens jumped embassy walls and demanded political asylum in whatever country (primarily Eastern European) would take them. The problem became so rampant that the Chinese government had to install security fences outside the stone walls and stationed guard personnel to stop asylum seekers before they reached embassy grounds. Further, in a politically unstable world, even the most neutral and docile countries do not want to find themselves involved in an international incident as a result of people diving into their embassies.