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Securing Diplomatic Missions

web-post May 12, 2017

Governments’ property portfolios, especially diplomatic missions, are vital and valuable assets that ensure governments can carry out their duties both domestically and internationally. These assets are all possible targets for acts of terrorism and other forms of violence.

Government buildings are one of the most common targets for terrorist attacks as the targets fit many of the criteria seen by terrorist organisations as key (eg. iconic buildings, critical infrastructure, significant casualty, disruptive etc.). This is especially true of diplomatic missions overseas where the structures are often the only link between the parent countries and the host country.

With the aim of ensuring the protection, security and safety of diplomatic and consular missions and representatives, the international community has concluded international instruments, including the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations; and on Consular Relations and their Protocols; and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons including Diplomatic Agents.

Article 22 of the Vienna Convention states:

1.The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.

2.The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.

3.The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.

Article 27 of the Vienna Convention states

  1. The receiving State shall permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission for all official purposes. In communicating with the Government and the other missions and consulates of the sending State, wherever situated, the mission may employ all appropriate means, including diplomatic couriers and messages in code or cipher. However, the mission may install and use a wireless transmitter only with the consent of the receiving State.
  2. The official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable. Official correspondence means all correspondence relating to the mission and its functions.
  3. The diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained.
  4. The packages constituting the diplomatic bag must bear visible external marks of their character and may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use.
  5. The diplomatic courier, who shall be provided with an official document indicating his status and the number of packages constituting the diplomatic bag, shall be protected by the receiving State in the performance of his functions. He shall enjoy person inviolability and shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention.
  6. The sending State or the mission may designate diplomatic couriers ad hoc. In such cases the provisions of paragraph 5 of this article shall also apply, except that the immunities therein mentioned shall cease to apply when such a courier has delivered to the consignee the diplomatic bag in his charge.
  7. A diplomatic bag may be entrusted to the captain of a commercial aircraft scheduled to land at an authorized port of entry. He shall be provided with an official document indicating the number of packages constituting the bag but he shall not be considered to be a diplomatic courier. The mission may send one of its members to take possession.

Diplomatic missions, consular posts and international organizations may request the Protection Service of the host country to assist during events that are likely to involve a heightened security risk (typically when large numbers of people are expected to gather – National Day receptions, social events held during visits of top-level representatives, election days during which expatriates cast their vote at the mission).

The Host Country’s Protection Service considers each request in the light of the current security situation of the mission. Requests for assistance during National Day receptions are as a rule granted. Less important events get police coverage only when the security situation demands it.

Protection of assets and personnel overseas is often seen as more important than within the parent country as there is little control over or guarantee from the host security forces and the diplomatic mission is effectively an isolated island in an overseas territory.

Countries often put in extra resources to protect their diplomatic assets in high risk host countries. While mitigation of all risks is not possible, these extra measures over and above what the host nations provide can prove to be crucial.

Some of the risks that embassies and consulates face are hostile vehicle attack (with Improvised Explosive Device), mass attack by gunmen, small explosive device (suicide bombers, brief case and letter bombs), biological attacks (pathogens), kidnapping of diplomats and embassy staffers, critical infrastructure, operational processes and information among other things.

According to William Young of the Rand Corporation, we must begin with an understanding that it is not possible to mitigate all risk. When establishing a diplomatic presence in a high-threat area, we must ask whether the mission is essential, whether the means available to protect the embassy or consulate are commensurate with the level of threat, and whether housing areas and routes to and from the diplomatic offices are likely to be collateral targets for attack.

First and foremost among all security considerations for missions abroad is the amount and type of support provided by the host government. Without local government support, it might not be possible to secure any civilian facility. The host government should be willing to provide a visible military presence outside the embassy or consulate as a deterrent to groups contemplating a protest or attack. It should be willing to use barriers to close roads or limit movement around the facility, to increase the degree of “setback” from the street. This will make it more difficult for attack planners to evaluate their target.

Building on the security foundation provided by the host government, the second most important consideration when developing a strategy to protect a diplomatic mission in a high-threat area are the methods for acquiring knowledge of what’s happening outside the embassy’s fence line, on the streets in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The third consideration in implementing an effective security strategy is the actual structure of the buildings and the layout of the diplomatic compound. Is it an “Inman”-style building with blast-resistant walls and glass, or is it a former house that was the only property available? Are buildings significantly set back from the street? Are housing structures adequately “hardened” against attack? Building a new embassy or consulate can take years.

The primary purpose of physical security measures in place at the mission  is to deter and they should be designed with this in mind. Technology can help. Cameras with pattern-recognition software positioned around the embassy to monitor the streets can show what those streets look like on a normal day and what they look like on a day when there may be protests or an attack. They can capture protesters mobilizing or attackers pre-positioning themselves before an assault. Similarly, predictive analytics can be applied to social media collected from Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts to determine when crowds might form or when an attack is being planned

The Ministry of Home Affairs is said to be in the process of fast-tracking a proposal to set up a dedicated force called the Diplomatic Security Force (DSF) to protect foreign missions and diplomats. Israel is rumoured to have expressed its willingness to train the Force. It has also been stated that the specialized force may be deputed to protect India’s diplomatic missions abroad subsequently. It is understood that the force would draw its personnel from the best trained men and women of the CRPF with commando and tactical training besides expertise in dealing with biological and nuclear emergencies.

However the situation in Indian missions abroad is a cause for concern. Scary as it sounds, India’s diplomatic missions in many countries, especially those in our neighbourhood, are at high risk against terror attacks because the security arrangements of the host nations do not meet global standards of protecting high-risk critical assets. So worrying is the situation that the Indian government has been forced to intervene and direct all its missions abroad to be extra vigilant and work closely with the host countries and their security agencies to ensure the safety of its diplomatic assets.

It was an aborted terror attack on the Indian embassy in France in March 2012 that probably prompted the government to reassess security at all Indian missions and posts abroad, leading to the alarming conclusion that the country’s diplomatic staff faced a serious threat in many countries.

Corrective measures have been taken up and it is understood that external affairs ministry officials have visited various embassies and high commissions to review security preparedness and hold deliberations with the local authorities.  Sources pointed out that the Indian missions, which were already in regular touch with the foreign ministries and security agencies of the host countries, have stepped up their cooperation to safeguard the diplomatic missions. This includes sharing of information on threat perception and activities of terror modules on a real time basis, as Pakistan based terror networks expand their reach to new areas.

In July 2008, the Indian embassy in Kabul was the target of a suicide attack in which 58 people, including an Indian Foreign Service officer were killed. In another suicide blast at the embassy in Afghanistan in October 2009, 17 people were killed. The Taliban was behind the attacks in which Pakistan’s ISI is also believed to have played a role.

The aborted attack in Paris underlines the chilling truth that India’s embassies and consulates in other countries, including European nations too, are now on the radar of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terror outfits. Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people, including three children at a Jewish school, and was later shot dead by the French special forces in Toulouse on March 22, 2012 had also planned to attack the Indian embassy in Paris.

Under reciprocal treaty obligations, host nations are obligated to provide security for the diplomatic facilities of emissary states. However, instances in which host nations have been unable or not fully committed to fulfilling this responsibility have sometimes left facilities vulnerable, especially in extraordinary circumstances. Embassies, therefore, employ a layered approach to security, including not only the measures taken by the host country, but also additional, state coordinated measures, to include armed diplomatic security personnel, hardening of facilities, trained and/or contracted local security guards, physical security systems and access control measures such as crash rated cantilever sliding gates, bollards and barriers and sometimes deploying even ‘special services’ personnel, whose principal role is securing sensitive information.

According to former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) head, Mr. A.S. Dulat, “The threat perception has increased worldwide post 9/11. It is important for any Indian mission to identify where and who the threat is from. This is the key to safeguarding the diplomatic installations. Attackers often spend days or weeks casing buildings, studying the daily movements of people in the target area, and evaluating the security procedures in place at target compounds. Not being able to see inside the embassy or consulate compound increases the level of uncertainty for them and could convince them not to attack.

The emerging risk from drones and balloons mounted with video surveillance cameras is real and security agencies are aware of the look down capabilities from such devices to study the internal areas of foreign missions, which otherwise cannot normally be observed from outside. Drone detection technologies are now said to be deployed to counter this threat.

The host government, through its police force, intelligence service, or local militias, should share information gained from its penetration of terrorist groups and fringe elements. Such an arrangement would help increase the embassy’s level of awareness, strengthen the security posture of diplomatic facilities, and ensure the safety of diplomatic officers as they move through the city.

Emissary nations need to make their own arrangements by remaining on high alert and gathering real time information by sharing inputs with their headquarters and also the host country’s security agencies. In the worst cases, and as an extreme measure, diplomatic missions in West Asia, such as in volatile Syria, have been asked to be on alert and chalk out contingency plans to shift to neighbouring Lebanon or Jordan if the situation worsens.

The use of security automation systems can be a great force multiplier for gathering data and detecting potential threats. They also act as a good as detailed earlier.

The Bureau of Security (BOS) in the Indian external affairs ministry, comprising officials drawn from the Home Ministry and the Intelligence Bureau, makes the security assessment of diplomatic missions worldwide. Key Indian diplomatic missions in the US, the UK, Russia and neighbours such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan each have an officer from the BOS who is in charge of overall security of the respective embassies. BOS representatives posted abroad coordinate with security and intelligence agencies of the host countries as well as coordinate alternate security measures involving private guards and system integrators.

In many countries, the security infrastructure of the host countries is incapable of providing the required protection while in some cases, safety is compromised because of hostile ties. Strategic affairs expert Mr. Sushant Sareen feels that the Indian mission in Pakistan faces a threat because terror activities against India are sponsored by the state.

‘Certain Indian missions in South Asia and China have an intrusive security infrastructure due to the hostility that exists there. Western countries have their internal security systems in place that can detect a threat in advance. They also communicate and exchange intelligence with our embassy personnel regularly. Besides, they do not sponsor terror against India. ‘There are terror cells in these (other) countries and it is essential for the local security to penetrate these cells to thwart any threat,’ said Sareen.

According to noted security expert Dr. Ajai Sahni, diplomatic missions in South Asia are vulnerable due to the porous borders across the region and because ‘the supply line of terrorists from Pakistan’ is too close to Nepal, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. ‘This increases the vulnerability of the Indian missions there. While the local security agencies assure the Indian embassies of providing elaborate security, we do not take any chances in chalking out our plans of protecting the missions,’ an informed source said.

Embassies in such regions are at high risk and need to be deploy extra resources to protect themselves.

In The United States for instance, the Secretary of State, and by extension, the Chief of Mission (COM), are responsible for developing and implementing security policies and programs that provide for the protection of all U.S. Government personnel (including accompanying dependents) on official duty abroad. This mission is executed through the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS). Personal and facility protection are the most critical elements of the DS mission abroad as they directly impact upon the Department’s ability to carry out its foreign policy. With terrorist organizations and coalitions operating across international borders, the threat of terrorism against U.S. interests remains great. Therefore, any U.S. mission overseas can be a target even if identified as being in a low-threat environment.

RSOs, in concert with other U.S. Government agencies represented at the post, formulate plans to deal with various emergency contingencies, including defining emergency management responsibilities for incidents ranging from hostage taking to evacuations. Often, in times of crisis and political instability, RSOs rely on the U.S. military for assistance. Unified commands have the capability to supply the post with combat-equipped troops, e.g., Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams (FAST), to augment post security requirements.

RSOs are the primary liaison with foreign police and security services overseas in support of U.S. law enforcement initiatives and investigations. Much of the investigative and law enforcement liaison work accomplished by RSOs abroad is on behalf of other federal, state, and local agencies. DS has achieved noteworthy success in locating and apprehending hundreds of wanted fugitives who have fled the United States.

US embassy access is controlled with multiple techniques. All visitors, including U.S. citizens, must be screened prior to entering the U.S. Embassy or Consulate and are subject to inspection via walk-through metal detector and a hand-held metal detector. All personal items will undergo full inspection by use of x-ray and other detection equipment.

Any visitor refusing to submit to security screening shall be prohibited from entering.

The following items are prohibited inside the U.S. Embassy and Consulates:

  • Backpacks, bags, luggage, or large purses (purses 12 x 10 x 6 in. and smaller will be permitted)
  • Food and beverages
  • Weapons, including mace or pepper spray
  • Tools, including any sharp or bladed objects
  • Any oils, aerosols or pump sprays, liquids, lotions and powders
  • Any type of fire starter
  • Helmets of any type
  • Strollers will be determined on a case-by-case basis
  • Electronic or recording equipment of any kind, including, but not limited to:
    • Cameras
    • Laptop computers
    • Mobile phones
    • MP3, CD, or cassette players
    • Pagers

For many years, the United States government has tried to calculate risk in a systematic way. As early as the 1990s, every post in the world, whether large or small, was placed in a series of threat categories (critical, high, medium, low) related to terrorism, crime, political instability and technical vulnerability. These designations were worked out by DS professionals in collaboration with the intelligence community and diplomatic personnel abroad.

These early efforts were designed primarily to assist decision-makers in determining what resources, both human and financial, should be deployed and where they were most needed. It was assumed that meaningful distinctions were possible and that threats were not universal.

Unfortunately, since then it has become clear that terrorist threats exist virtually everywhere, from Ottawa and London to Tripoli and Sana’a. Some are more obvious than others, or more likely to happen, but the reality is the same: Terrorists can carry out a unilateral attack almost anywhere in the world if they are willing to sacrifice their own lives to take the lives of others. Good intelligence can minimize that risk; good security can mitigate the damage in terms of both physical destruction and loss of life, but no system is fail-safe.

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