US embassy attacks led to security revamp

November 18, 2010 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Nov 18 – The deadly 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya caught the United States by surprise and prompted a radical overhaul of diplomatic security, officials said.

"The attacks of 1998 signaled a new era," the State Department\’s diplomatic security chief Jeffrey Culver told AFP. "Nobody had imagined that terrorists would hit in several locations at a time."

On Wednesday, a New York court found Tanzanian national Ahmed Ghailani, 36, not guilty on all but one of 286 terror charges relating to the attacks, convicting him only of conspiracy against US property.

He will serve a mandatory minimum 20-year jail term, and could even face  life imprisonment when he is sentenced in January.

Twelve years after the twin embassy bombings that killed 224 people and wounded over 5,000 others, Culver said the trauma of those deadly attacks on August 7, 1998 still lingers.

But officials have worked hard to shore up security for American diplomatic teams around the world particularly in hotspots.

Immediately after the attacks, the State Department launched urgent construction projects to build safer structures at 119 embassies and consulates.

The inauguration of the US embassy in Tanzania on a new site in Dar es Salaam in 2003 marked the end of that first phase of reinforced security.

The new building "made our local personnel very proud. It was proof that we were not cutting and running," Culver recalled.

Some 72 new US diplomatic stations have been built since 1998 and another 33 are in the works. A number of others have been revamped from top to bottom.

"We prefer to start from scratch, but sometimes we have to retrofit," Culver said.

"We always try to get the right balance between the need for security, and then the neighborhood issues, the road traffic issues, the architectural integrity."

After most of the victims in Nairobi were killed by fragments of broken glass, US diplomatic posts are now equipped with shatterproof glass.

Doors and gates have also come under extreme scrutiny, reinforced structurally and fitted with steel barriers to prevent attackers from ramming them with vehicles.

Building security depends on a "layering system" with the outer layers the hardest to penetrate, Culver said.

The efforts seem to have yielded results, as in attacks in 2004 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008 in Sanaa and in April this year in Peshawar, Pakistan.

In all three cases, numerous and heavily armed assailants caused casualties outside the diplomatic compounds but failed to penetrate the barriers.

Structures built under the auspices of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security also aim to visually demonstrate American know-how.

In London, the future US embassy – due to be completed in 2017 – will not resemble a fortress as some diplomatic posts have in the past.

Instead, its centerpiece will be a glass cube covered in a very fine "skin" of photovoltaic cells to produce solar energy in a nod to America\’s aim to boost clean energy and sustainable development.

But all these efforts, whether with an eye on security or to showcase innovation, come at a hefty price.

Expanding the US embassy in Kabul and building two consulates in Afghanistan will run an expected bill of 500 million dollars.

And the new American diplomatic compound in Baghdad — already sharply criticized for numerous building defects — beats all previous records, with a 700-million-dollar price tag.


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