Fortress America

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Embassies are natural targets. They are the forward operating bases of American diplomacy, and as such, often the focal point of demonstrations and attacks. Security at U.S. embassies has changed dramatically in recent decades -- a process sparked by the shock bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and re-emphasized after the coordinated attacks in Africa in 1998 -- as one layer of defense has been stacked upon another. In the decade after the 1998 bombings, the annual budget of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security skyrocketed from $200 million to $1.8 billion; in those same 10 years, there were 39 attacks on U.S. embassies, consulates, and official personnel, according to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Discussing the plans for the new U.S. Embassy in London, the Economist glibly described the U.S. process: "First, dig your moat." U.S. embassies are more secure than ever, but there could be a diplomatic cost to all the gates within blast walls within reinforced-concrete Hesco barriers. After all, this is the image the United States is presenting to the world. And even then, as events this week have demonstrated, despite all these defenses, embassies are not impregnable fortresses.

Above, rioters at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, try to break a security camera on Thursday, Sept. 13.

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Above, graffiti is scrawled across the main entrance of the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 13. An attack on the building late on Sept. 11 resulted in the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. nationals.

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The consulate building in Benghazi caught fire when it came under attack, trapping three people inside. Among them was Ambassador Stevens. Above, the charred interior of the building on Sept. 13.

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Egyptian riot police stand guard in front of the entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 12. A day earlier, protesters scaled the wall of the embassy and tore down the American flag. Graffiti and a flag bearing the seal of the Prophet Mohammed are still visible on the gates behind the guards.

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Of course, the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans was not the first to target a U.S. diplomatic post. Neither were the attacks on Aug. 7, 1998, orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which terrorists simultaneously detonated truck bombs outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The shocking violence spurred new investments in embassy security.

Here, the scarred shell of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi days after the bomb blast that killed over 200 people, including 12 Americans.

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The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was moved from a cluster of buildings in the city center to 17 acres in a more upscale suburb, giving designers room to set the main building more than 100 feet behind the large walls, gates, and literal moat that now encircle the complex. Reopened in 2003, the new building took lessons from the 9/11 attacks as well. Reports at the time the embassy opened noted that it was designed with fewer windows, and what windows it had were made of reinforced glass. Its reinforced roof was engineered to be resilient against potential attacks by airplanes. 

Above, the new embassy in Nairobi in June 2003.

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Since 2003, U.S. embassies have maintained operations in security environments that previously would have resulted in closures. The GAO records a slight growth in the number of countries that the State Department considers to be under enough of a security threat to warrant "danger pay," while the number of security closures of U.S. embassies declined sharply between 2003 and 2009.

This picture shows the gate outside the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 11, 2003, after the United States suspended operations for a week during a security scare.

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Turkish police stand guard in front of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul following an attack that killed three policemen and three gunmen on July 9, 2008. The shootout took place on the street, outside the consulate's outermost gate. The building was moved after the 9/11 attacks to a less accessible location, and the new building sits atop a hill behind high walls. 

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No embassy epitomizes the U.S. shift toward secure bunkers as much as the outpost in Baghdad. A fortress within a fortress, the embassy -- the largest in the world -- was built at a cost of $736 million within the already heavily secured Green Zone. According to the GAO, as of 2009, a third of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security's armored vehicles were assigned to the Baghdad embassy.

Pictured here in October 2007, the embassy is still under construction.

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Domestic police forces and militaries help guard U.S. embassies overseas. Above, Chinese military policemen stand at attention at the changing of the guard outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on May 2, 2012. A guardhouse and security cameras are visible in the background; a high blast wall protects the main building.

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Turkish riot police form a roadblock as members of a leftist labor union, accusing the United States of supporting the 1980 military coup in Turkey, stage a protest near the U.S. Embassy in Ankara on April 3, 2012, on the eve of a trial against coup leaders.

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Jordanian riot police stand guard outside the U.S. Embassy in Amman on Sept. 14, 2011, during a protest against U.S. policies in the Middle East.

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Domestic guards aren't always enough to prevent a security breach at an embassy, as was the case at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa on Thursday, Sept. 13. Reporters Iona Craig and Adam Baron, who witnessed the riot, said that some of the Yemeni military forces supposedly guarding the embassy stepped aside to let the rioters through, some even joining the mob.

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On the American soil within the wall of U.S. embassies, diplomatic posts are secured by U.S. Marines and diplomatic security staff, like those pictured here in Haiti in 2004.

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A U.S. Marine stands guard in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Dec. 21, 2001, soon after it reopened for the first time since 1989. Since 2001, the embassy has been rebuilt into a massive 15-building complex designed by the same architectural firm currently redesigning the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When Taliban insurgents attacked the compound in 2011, they scaled a 14-story building under construction several blocks away in order to have a line of sight over the compound's high walls.

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The continuing protests in the Middle East highlight the need for comprehensive and secure defensive fortifications. Above, in a picture from 2008, Syrian guards mill about in front of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, which closed earlier this year.

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