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. Read more
In Latin America, the mid to late 20th Century was a time characterized by military governments, guerrilla movements, and intense political turmoil — which often led to intense political drama. On February 27, 1980, the Colombian socialist guerrilla group known as the April 19th Movement, or M-19, burst into the Dominican Embassy in Bogota during a reception celebrating Dominican Independence Day and took dozens of people hostage, including several ambassadors. One of those was Diego Asencio, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia. The crisis lasted 61 days, until April 27, when the captors agreed to release the hostages in exchange for (a much reduced) ransom and a flight to Havana.
Asencio, who served in Bogota from 1977 to 1980, recounts the dramatic events surrounding his capture; how he negotiated with the kidnappers and was able to moderate their demands; life inside the Dominican Embassy, including some tensions with other detainees over a case of champagne, and the “ambassadorial seminars” held with their captors; and his role as a symbol for the State Department following his release. Read more
Mozambique in the 1980s was a country in the midst of a bloody civil war, when at least 100,000 people were slaughtered in the span of ten years. Both sides, FRELIMO, the National Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, and RENAMO, Mozambique National Resistance, used child soldiers. These children, as well as other children who experienced the horrors of war, were severely traumatized and were in dire need of counseling and rehabilitation. Read more
For more than 30 years, it has been a political force in Lebanon and beyond, at times praised for its extensive work providing social services while condemned by many for its terrorist acts against the U.S. and others. Hezbollah, or “Party of God”, was established by Shia Islamist militants in reaction to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. With initial funding from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah quickly grew into one of the most powerful and well-established terrorist groups in the world. Infamous Hezbollah members include Imad Mughniyeh, mastermind of countless atrocities, including the U.S. Embassy Beirut bombing and the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon. Read more
Central America in the 1980’s became a focal point for foreign policy during the Reagan administration, as concern over gains by leftist groups, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, led to considerable military support for anti-Communist groups, such as the Contras. Support operations were overseen in part by Oliver North, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel who had been detailed to the National Security Council. He kept matters so close to the chest that most U.S. Foreign Service officers at post almost never knew what was happening. That is, unless they were tipped off inadvertently… Read more
Imad Mughniyah, Chief of Hezbollah International Operations, was one of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists and was sought by authorities in 42 other countries. Over a 30-year span, Mughniyah repeatedly eluded capture, masterminding a slew of major terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983, the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, the suicide bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996. As revealed in a January 30, 2015 Washington Post article, CIA officials worked with Israel’s Mossad to design and test a bomb which was placed in a spare tire of an SUV parked in Damascus on February 12, 2008, near Mughniyah’s usual route. CIA spotters tracked his movements but it was Mossad which detonated the explosive, killing him instantly. Until recently, CIA cooperation in the controversial joint effort had been unbeknownst to the public, though its involvement was strongly suspected.
Ambassador Robert Oakley, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism from 1984-1986, discusses a moment when the U.S. believed it had actionable intelligence as to Mughniyah’s exact whereabouts in Paris. Read more
The ongoing political tumult in Yemen threatens to undermine the country as well as American counterterrorism efforts in the region. In August 2014, unrest led to Houthi militias taking over Sana’a and the formation of a new unity government, which included a range of Yemeni factions. This, however, did not last long because of a political impasse caused by the Houthis, an anti-American Shiite minority. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had previously been Vice President under Ali Saleh, and his cabinet resigned in January 2015.
For the U.S., the road to partnership with Yemen was not an easy one, and its loss could be devastating as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is just one of the many formidable threats in the region. After the first Gulf War, bilateral relations had been poor, leading Washington to terminate most of its military and economic assistance programs. Moreover, the U.S. was unsure just what the Yemeni government had known about the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
January 30th, 1968 marked the beginning of one of the most significant campaigns of the Vietnam War: the Tet Offensive. Named for the traditional Vietnamese New Year, Tết Nguyên Đán, it was the day the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces launched their surprise attacks on military and civilian command-and-control centers throughout South Vietnam, including Embassy Saigon. The normal celebratory drums and fireworks were replaced by the sound of gunfire. James R. Bullington served in Vietnam during Tet and spent the weeks during the battle holed up in Hue, not far from VC troops. Bullington recollects how he had to hide in a mission disquised as a priest as he worried about the safety of his bride-to-be. Read more