Commentary: Killers target diplomats worldwide

Special to McClatchy NewspapersDecember 30, 2012 

Death stalks our diplomats, our aid workers, our businessmen and our Peace Corps volunteers.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a U.S. Navy Seal died to save an American doctor from Colorado Springs kidnapped by Taliban while delivering medical aid to impoverished Afghans. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens died in September when attacked by anti-American Islamists in Libya.

And unless we figure out how to live with this threat, we will find ourselves increasingly pushed into a corner and separated from the people of the world with whom we share this planet and all its wonders and troubles.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was dropped from consideration to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state after Republicans criticized her for downplaying terrorism in the murder of Stevens. But whatever the truth in that dispute, a wider truth is that our modern world has turned a page in history – and the future is not pretty.

Assassination is an old tactic going back millennia. After the decisive defeat of Nazism, Fascism and Japanese militarism in World War II, it seemed we had earned some respite from targeted attacks on people based on their country, their race and their religion. At home we lost John Kennedy and Martin Luther King to assassins. But abroad, it was a time we could travel from Paris to Calcutta on anything from shoestring to a scholarship to a diplomatic passport without worrying that we were targets.

Today, we are targets. And being a diplomat, an aid worker a Peace Corps Volunteers or a backpacking traveler to the Third World does not provide us with any protection.

The Islamist thugs who seized Northern Mali in April openly declare they are seeking to kidnap as many more European and American civilians as they can to extract ransom and concessions already worth close to $90 million. Increasingly the State Department issues travel warnings to places once thought open and free.

Which leads me to ask why Ambassador Stephens ignored those warnings and ventured to Benghazi in September, making history as the first US ambassador killed in 30 years? Was he not aware of the Islamist militias and pro al-Qaida types roaming the desert and operating inside Benghazi in pickup trucks laden with rockets and machine guns?

Was he simply a hero defying the threats, intent on carrying out his important mission of helping Libyans create a just and responsible government after decades of dictatorship under Moammar Gadhafi?

Or was he too much involved in Libya, speaking Arabic and widely acclaimed, to imagine that he could become a target? Was that why he ignored warnings by US security officials that said the Benghazi consulate was not safe?

As ambassador, he is like the captain of a ship. Once sent by the U.S. government, he is the sole authority in his assigned country to which all US official personnel report. USAID workers, Peace Corps volunteers, diplomats, and security teams all listen and obey when the ambassador speaks.

So it was his decision alone to make that trip despite having told others he knew security was problematic.

In all countries, the handful of US Marines guarding the front gate and handful of CIA, Diplomatic Security and private security contractors offer some protection to diplomats. But the ambassador alone can decide where and when he wants to travel.

I've been in Lebanon when the US ambassador wanted to visit a school for orphans where U.S. aid had installed computers, desks and kitchen equipment just a stone's throw from the Israeli border. We rode down from Beirut in a couple of SUVs escorted by a flimsy jeep with a handful of police officers deep into the land that Hassan Nasrallah rules – Hezbollah country. His bearded, corpulent,self-satisfied face beamed down from billboards.

Had he wanted, he could have taken us all prisoner, or worse.

This is the kind of life we lead when we join the diplomatic service or USAID or other international arms of the US government.

As a former official in a U.S. agency, I had to travel frequently into Indian Country far beyond the Green Zone or fortified sites held by U.S. forces. I rode across Iraq in the back of a Purdah taxi, the back seat cloaked in curtains so women could remove veils and chat in privacy. We made it to Hilla safely.

A few days later, stalled in a traffic jam near Baghdad and unable to escape should anti-American insurgents appear, my lone bodyguard rolled down his window and rested the barrel of his machine gun on the door. Just to say that we might not be in a powerfully armed convoy but we had some sting and were ready to use it.

We accepted this risk and many others to get stories of American aid programs fixing schools, clinics, electricity and local government offices. Stories and photos showing what we had accomplished were printed in magazines and posted on websites.

Stevens also had a task to carry out. He was meeting with local officials to discuss efforts to tamp down militias, improve security and assist the rebirth of Libya's Western capital. Since Gadhafi was killed, Libya's tribes, militias and sects have been fighting to rule over their rivals. Worst of all, some of them believe that God intends for them to slaughter not just diplomats and other unarmed people, but all who question their hard line beliefs.

For all of us the challenge is how to do business in the modern world where a reporter can be beheaded, hikers can be incarcerated as spies, aid workers can be shot, and the decent people who work with these foreigners can also be murdered for contact with foreign agents.

Among the imperfect and frustrating compromises we have made in adjusting to the modern use of murder to deal with rivals and diversity are:

  • U.S. embassies are now foreboding cement fortresses rather than open and welcoming places for locals to visit.

  • Diplomatic security officers, who are rewarded for not losing anyone on their watch, now block diplomats and aid workers from many important trips to meet locals, see schools and meet at universities.

  • Many U.S. professors, experts and journalists now are reluctant to travel in places such as Pakistan where a 70 year old aid worker remains held by al-Qaida and others are targets.

  • Foreign aid is outsourced to local NGOs who build the schools, clinics and irrigation systems that our U.S. aid staff are unable to actually visit. Unfortunately this also means outsourcing death. In 2012, some 400 civilian contractors died in Afghanistan – more than the 250 American troops who died in combat there.

  • Drones and cyber intelligence have replaced Humint – human intelligence gathered by people on the ground who get a sense of what people think and feel about issues of concern.

    There are many other ways to tweak our diplomatic and foreign aid activities to reduce risk and still carry out the mission of extending the hand of friendship and assistance to those who reach out to us. These may mean working with religious groups overseas to share ideas on faith, morality, ethics and tolerance despite the U.S. Constitutional ban on government aid to religion.

    We may also have to reign in our direct efforts to push American-style democracy on countries that are centuries behind in this activity. U.S. democracy assistance programs have been banned in Ethiopia, Russia and other countries where no responsible system of changing governments has any credibility. And even when the democracy advocates triumph, as in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the old guard came back in the next election and clamped down.

    Finally, even when we find that a majority of people in countries are helpful and hopeful and respectful if not friendly to the United States, it only takes a few dozen bad guys to ruin things for us all. Often they hope that an attack on U.S. citizens will provoke a violent response that kills innocent civilians and creates a backlash.

    The greatest challenge diplomacy and aid faces in the coming decade is to defeat the assassins and mad bombers while not alienating the civilian population.


    Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2013 by He can be reached at

    McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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