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On Point

The World is Al Qaeda's Battlefield


by Austin Bay
December 7, 2004

Monday's attack on the U.S. consulate in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, demonstrates a brutal fact of 21st century life: America's diplomats are always on the front line.

Saudi Arabia is obviously a high-risk assignment, but the truth is Al Qaeda sees the world as a battlefield, where no one has diplomatic immunity.

In December 2002, I stood in a bus kiosk across the street from the U.S. embassy in Singapore. Men and women in sharp business suits strolled along the boulevard. A young lady wearing a baseball cap pushed a baby carriage. Taxis honked -- but they were Singaporean drivers, so even their honks were polite. Yet this spic and span urban scene was a war zone. Six months earlier, two terrorists belonging to Jemaah Islamiya (Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia) had stood in the same kiosk and shot videotape of the U.S. embassy and the nearby Australian High Commission building.

Singapore's police busted the terrorists. Since I was working on an article surveying counter-terror operations in Asia, an officer arranged for me to see the captured tape. As spy work, it's primitive but effective: The camera catches the back of a man's head, then pans over the obstacles blocking the embassy's driveway. For a split-second, the camera focuses on the American eagle plaque above the embassy's entrance.

The terrorists intended to kill Western diplomats using a car or truck bomb. Superb police and intelligence work by Singapore's counter-terror task force foiled the plot. One Singaporean officer told me that intelligence cooperation with the United States and other allies was absolutely key to stopping Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism. The officer emphasized that there are limits to "passive defense for embassies" (e.g., fences, sandbags, etc.), even on what he described with obvious pride as his "comparatively safe island."

The U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were the targets of Al Qaeda's most devastating pre-9/11 attacks. In February 1998, Osama bin Laden declared war on America. In August of that same year, he showed us what that meant.

A small plaza now occupies the site of the destroyed U.S. embassy in Nairobi. I visited it in September 2002. The Kenyan government dedicated the park and its monumental arch to the 212 Kenyan citizens and 12 Americans murdered there.

Nairobi is a noisy madhouse of a city, but that park is a place of insistent solemnity. I remember seeing a man and woman sitting on a park bench, their heads bowed as if they were in church. My Kenyan driver reminded me that glass and brick debris from the blast injured another 2,000 Kenyans. "We were their targets, too," he said.

American and Western embassies have now become fortresses. They have to be, because our enemies make them front-line targets. Credit the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense with the extraordinary improvement in embassy security we've seen since 1998.

The FBI has also played an important role. Better "immediate action" training for diplomatic personnel is an underappreciated component of the improved security situation. This training may have paid off at Jidda. A U.S. State Department spokesman said that "timely action by U.S. Marine guards and embassy employees" helped frustrate the Jidda attack.

All host nations don't take the terror threat as seriously as Singapore, but they should -- and America must make certain they do. President Bush's War on Terror dictum "you're either with us or against us" has life-or-death meaning when it comes to protecting diplomats.

Saudi police say four Saudi National Guard troops died fighting the terrorists who attacked the Jidda consulate. Those men sacrificed themselves to protect Americans, and that debt needs to be acknowledged.

The Saudi government, however, is doing a poor job of protecting diplomats and foreign nationals. Reinforcing Saudi National Guard positions and increasing patrols around embassies, consulates and foreign compounds is only an interim answer. The best response is eliminating Al Qaeda cells within the Saudi kingdom -- and that includes arresting the radical Islamist clerics who promote the politics of murder.


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