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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 12:56 GMT
Protecting Americans abroad
An Indian paramilitary police officer stands guard outside the US embassy in New Delhi
Tight security has been in force in India in recent weeks
Paul Reynolds

The attack on the American Center in Calcutta is a reminder of the vulnerability of American diplomatic and cultural institutions worldwide, especially from militant Islamist groups.

And in this case, there might well have been a double target - the Indian police as well as the American building.

Indeed, since the attack took place in the early morning as the guard was changing, and before the American staff were on duty, it is arguable that India was the principal target.

Crowds gather around American Center, Calcutta
Security has been increased at US missions in India
That has its own implications.

But security at all American missions will have to be further reviewed.

This process started in earnest after the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, for which followers of Osama Bin Laden are serving sentences in American prisons and for which Bin Laden himself was indicted, or charged, in his absence.


Osama Bin Laden's organisation cleverly chose Kenya and Tanzania for their attacks. The embassies there have to function and the conspirators can blend easily into the local population

This review is fundamental - from the placing of guards round buildings to the siting and structure of the buildings themselves.

You see this all around the world, starting in Washington itself.

The State Department is surrounded by great concrete blocks. The White House and Lafayette Park in front are similarly blocked off.

Stern guards in parked armoured four-wheel drives scrutinise passers-by.

There was a bomb scare not long ago when a homeless man left his bag in the entry to a garage opposite the White House.

The resulting security operation was considerable and White House staff on the side facing the park were evacuated. Mr Bush was not.

Increased security

I was in Jerusalem recently. The American consulate in Arab East Jerusalem now has an Israeli guard a bomb- and bullet-proof post outside. An American security agent wanders up and down the street.

US embassy in London
US buildings around the world are possible targets

In Israeli West Jerusalem, the American armoured four-wheel drives of sizeable proportions are lined up, while at the Anglican School in the centre of the city, a big new security fence is being erected.

In London, the American School in St John's Wood now has security guards patrolling on the street outside, and the American embassy is an isolated fortress at one end of Grosvenor Square, with the traffic diverted away.

There is no American building anywhere which can be considered totally safe. And in some places, they are positively dangerous.

Previous attacks

Osama Bin Laden's organisation cleverly chose Kenya and Tanzania for their attacks.

The embassies there have to function and the conspirators can blend easily into the local population.

Attacks on embassies in other countries are reported to have been foiled. No doubt others will be planned.

One such attack was prevented recently in Singapore. The authorities there had been watching a particular group of suspects and rounded them up.

A videotape found in an al-Qaeda house in Afghanistan provided evidence that this group was planning to attack US servicemen and women.

Planning row

People willing to die in mounting an attack have an obvious advantage and concrete blocks are not possible in every case.


The question is sometimes asked - why doesn't the United States pull its people out of the most dangerous areas? The answer is that governments hate doing that. It is a sign of failure

So the State Department has been giving serious thought to the design of future buildings.

This has already led to a row with the German authorities because of the American insistence that the new American embassy in Berlin must be set back from the road.

The Germans wanted it in line with other buildings around the historic Potsdamer Platz.

No withdrawal

The question is sometimes asked - why doesn't the United States pull its people out of the most dangerous areas?

The answer is that governments hate doing that. It is a sign of failure.

From time to time, tactical closures do take place, but a strategic decision to shut up shop in, say, parts of the Middle East or Africa, would signal weakness.

So, the answer has to be security. And not just guards, of course. There has to be liaison with the local police to try to pre-empt any attack.

And there is investigation. The FBI is now very active in worldwide inquiries, as the Kenya and Tanzania bombings showed. It is no longer simply a domestic agency.

And there is punishment. Long sentences have been handed out and the death penalty remains on the statute book from anyone who is convicted of killing Americans abroad.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Tim Irwin
"The gunmen were able to escape apparently unhurt"
The BBC's Subir Bhaumik in Calcutta
"The whole area has been sealed off"
Rex Mozzer from the US consulate in Calcutta
"There were no Americans injured"
See also:

22 Jan 02 | South Asia
Gunmen attack US centre in Calcutta
13 Dec 01 | Europe
Anthrax at US embassy in Vienna
13 Oct 00 | Africa
US closes African embassies
08 Aug 98 | Americas
History of attacks on US personnel
13 Oct 00 | UK
Embassies under guard
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