Diplomatic Insecurity: The State Department Leaves the U.S. Embassy in Morocco in Peril
Threats against embassies are an ongoing concern that heads of mission, especially in certain parts of the world like the Middle East, must contend with on an ongoing basis. In the post-9/11 world, the State Department has been proactive in building bomb-resistant embassies, beefing up security along the perimeter, and taking steps to ensure the safety of those who work within embassy walls. However, it has not always been so. Joan Plaisted, who served as Chargé at Embassy Rabat from 1991-94, recalls her experience when she learned of a credible threat from Hezbollah to detonate a car bomb on embassy grounds. While the Moroccan government was very helpful, back in Washington D.C., the Bureau of Diplomatic Security was less so.
Plaisted was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 2001. Read also about the rise of Hezbollah and the 1983 Embassy Beirut bombing, as well as the 1998 Embassy Nairobi bombing, where Ambassador Bushnell had also warned the Department of a possible attack.
“’If Hezbollah wants to do this, well, you have to live with it. You are going to lose some people.’”
PLAISTED: I think of all the things that happened when I was in Morocco…the thing that stands out in my mind the most was when I was Chargé we received…a very credible threat that Hezbollah had targeted the embassy.
Hezbollah is debatable. The French Foreign Minister almost got thrown out of office for calling them a terrorist group. To the United States and to me, after living through this threat from Hezbollah, we certainly treated them as a terrorist group — a group originally based in Lebanon operating in the Middle East.
We received a lot of specifics: it would be a car/truck bomb. The vehicle would be driven onto the embassy compound, or as close to the embassy compound as possible. The moment we received this threat, we instantly went into action. I was the Chargé. Originally we had about 660 people in Morocco. We had managed to cut staff substantially so we had about 500+ people at this point — Americans, Moroccans, and some other nationalities working for the embassy, consulate, and Voice of America. I was responsible for their security, and we had this very specific threat.
The security officer and I — our Regional Security Officer — I remember we were walking the compound the day we received the threat and talking about how we can step up security immediately, which roads to close down. Then I realized I am out of my league. I am not a security expert. We truly have to get more help. Our security officer was very good but we needed all the expertise we could get.
I talked to the military base in Germany in Wiesbaden. They were the closest to come to our assistance. They agreed to send down some security experts immediately. The experts were very impressed with the measures the security officer had already taken at the embassy.
Of course during this time we are having staff meetings to alert the staff and the community to the threat and to explain to them why they had to park two blocks from the embassy. We closed the whole compound, but we couldn’t close the busy road in front of the embassy.
I went immediately to the Moroccan authorities, to the palace, to tell them we had received this threat and to remind them it is their responsibility to protect us. The Moroccans were quite cooperative, gave us police protection, closed down any streets you could possibly close down within reason. You couldn’t cut off the main artery, the main highway in front of the embassy, but the Moroccans closed down the other streets, and they did give us stepped-up, 24-hour protection. We brought in more concrete barricades.
Then I even went back to Washington. I wanted to see the head of Diplomatic Security to do everything possible to protect the embassy against a car bomb. I was told, in the final analysis, “If Hezbollah pulls a car with a bomb in it up to your embassy, Lady, you are going to lose some people. You know, it is probably going to be people on the ground floor. You might not die if you are up in your office, but people who are walking into the embassy at the time and in your ground floor offices will die. If Hezbollah manages to pull a car bomb up to the embassy, some people are going to die under your watch.”
That was a terrible thing to live with. I wanted to talk to the head of Diplomatic Security. I was received by his deputy, who told me, “Hey, we have worse threats in the world than the one you are facing. If Hezbollah wants to do this, well, you have to live with it. You are going to lose some people.”
I was furious. This was just not a very satisfactory meeting at all: “You have got problems; we have got bigger problems.”
When I look back on my tour in Morocco, and when I retired from the Foreign Service, I think what I was most relieved about was thank goodness this never happened, no one died under my watch in the Foreign Service, because it would be just such a terrible thing to have to live with to have the embassy blown up.
Now why it didn’t happen, we are never really going to know. Was the threat real in the beginning?
There was some thought later that maybe the threat wasn’t a real threat, but at the time it sounded very specific. Had Hezbollah indeed targeted the embassy? Embassy Morocco probably was a soft target if you are looking for embassies to target. Did they indeed target the embassy, and then realize that we had stepped up security?…
I immediately got the armored car back. I was Chargé….The bodyguards would follow me everywhere. If I wanted to go to the beach on weekends, here would come the parade of cars, “the Ambassador is going to the beach today.”…
I had a German shepherd in Rabat whom I had named “Killer,” hoping others would think this gentle dog was fierce. I loved to take Killer out for walks particularly on the weekends. I was not allowed to leave my compound without at least a couple of security guards. So I had to try to explain to the German shepherd why I could no longer take him for walks.
It was a very frightening period and very stressful.