How the US Prepares Its Embassies for Potential Attacks

Tuesday’s attack by Iran-backed Shiite militia supporters on the US Embassy in Baghdad, followed by Friday’s US killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, sparked fears of an intense escalation of hostilities in the region.Analysts say US embassies and consulates are prime targets in the wake of these events, and personnel could be in jeopardy. “Iran isn’t going to let this go unanswered,” notes security analyst Brett Bruen, a former US diplomat. “They will seek to attack American senior officials and personnel in a way they never have before.” Embassies will enhance security, but “personnel will still be vulnerable when out moving around in-country.”
How to protect those people and facilities? Much will depend largely on what the State Department and its law enforcement division, the Diplomatic Security Service, learns from Tuesday’s incident. The DSS works with the US Marine Corps and local security forces in host countries to create custom security plans for each embassy and consulate. It folds its lessons into the training curriculum provided for its 2,100 armed, federally sworn special agents at its new Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, which we visited just before its opening in November in Blackstone, Virginia. It also conducts drills at each embassy—one of which I observed during a visit to the US embassy in Dakar, Senegal, in 2018. The embassy ran a simulation of a protest and attack that appeared similar to the one in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Attacks on US diplomatic facilities are not new. Past assaults on US embassies and consulates in Tehran in 1979, Nairobi in 1998, and Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 led to massive changes in embassy design, security strategies, and training protocols for the special agents charged with protecting US diplomatic presences abroad. The Nairobi bombing, for instance, prompted the US to move embassies to larger tracts of land with significant space between perimeter fences and the buildings themselves. Bomb-proof windows and vehicle barricades are now de rigueur at US facilities everywhere.
  • Part of the simulated city at the State Department training center in Virginia. The building in the rear behind the...
  • Officials in Dakar Senegal debrief following a simulated assault on the US embassy there during a training exercise in...
  • Senegalese security personnel on the grounds of the US embassy in Dakar during the training exercise.nbsp

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Photograph: Eric AdamsPart of the simulated city at the State Department training center in Virginia. The building in the rear behind the retaining wall is a simulated US embassy.The DSS deploys its special agents to almost 300 embassies and consulates globally, in addition to facilities in the United States. (It has 45,000 additional personnel.) They secure the physical structures but also prepare for threats away from those compounds, including ensuring personnel have secure safe rooms, instructions on how to respond to threats, and persistent communication to security teams. In Baghdad this week, the DSS’s senior regional security officer is in charge of the embassy’s response to the attack, in consultation with senior State Department officials. They will determine the embassy’s response but also its general “posture” within the country—the visibility of its changes, any adjustments to public engagement, or new security protocols. Separately, the State Department Friday urged US citizens in Iraq to depart immediately—though it didn’t apply to embassy personnel.