The term “Green zone” refers to a heavily fortified international center in a high-threat country—the original Green Zone is in Baghdad, Iraq, an area that American forces overtook in 2003 and turned into an international safe haven. It is now home to the U.S., British, Australian, and Egyptian embassies.
Other diplomatic centers throughout the world have adopted the term. That’s why Afghans were shocked by what occurred in Kabul’s Green Zone just before 8:30 a.m. on May 31, 2017, when a truck exploded in the center of the zone, killing at least 80 people and injuring upwards of 500.
The bomb destroyed buildings and demolished cars in a several-block radius. Although the blast took place in a diplomatic area of the city, it was mostly Afghan civilians who were killed, including guards for several of the embassies in the zone.
The circumstances surrounding the massive blast in the Green Zone create a macabre juxtaposition. Officials have yet to figure out how a vehicle carrying enough explosives to create a 15-foot crater was able to enter the heavily-fortified area surrounded by 10-foot high blast walls. On the other hand, security measures were so heavy that security checkpoints snarled traffic, resulting in the high number of civilian casualties.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack, and investigators reportedly believe that the vehicle carrying the explosives was a waste collection truck, which is perhaps how it was allowed through checkpoints.
But the attack has left diplomatic officials trying to find the balance between fortress-like security measures and fostering a more open and transparent relationship with the host country, both physically and strategically.
The 1998 bombings of American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed more than 220 people, and the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attack that left four dead, all drastically shifted the way the U.S. Department of State approaches embassy security.
The United States has more than 300 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the world—the most of any country. After the 1998 attacks, the State Department determined that more than half of those embassies needed to be completely replaced to meet security requirements. The State Department then created a standard embassy layout that was used all around the world.
Since then, more than 30,000 diplomatic staff have been moved into hardened facilities that meet heightened physical security standards, including a 100-foot setback from the site’s perimeter, anticlimb walls and antiram barriers, hardened building exteriors, and controlled access to the compounds.
American embassies and consulates have different threat levels based on factors such as the overall security landscape and host country crime rates, explains Robert Baggett, CPP, PCI, PSP, a former Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) special agent for the State Department and current cochair of the ASIS International Academic and Training Programs Council.
Baggett led various Regional Security Office portfolios, such as local embassy guard forces and teams that identified security threats for U.S. missions in China, Iraq, and Vietnam. He tells Security Management that the risk ratings for individual embassies and consulates are assessed on a constant basis in light of any changes that may alter security posture.
“Once a post is designated as high-threat, then other facets come into play in terms of additional funding, security preparedness, or staffing,” Baggett notes.
Currently, 78 embassies are ranked as high-threat, high-risk posts, which means that all mission chiefs must receive Foreign Affairs Counter Threat (FACT) training that focuses on topics such as emergency response, first aid, offensive driving, and evacuations.
“FACT training provides familiarization on what can be expected while serving at these posts, thereby improving one’s situational awareness and empowering them to work more effectively and safely in this type of high-threat environment,” Baggett explains.
Approximately 14,000 American foreign service officers and specialists work at U.S. missions around the world. These Americans are bolstered by more than 50,500 locally employed staff, who are typically citizens of the host country where the U.S. mission is located.
Some high-threat posts, such as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, are also staffed by third-country national security forces—many of which hail from South America or Africa—that are employed under American-owned company security contracts. These guards often supplement the mission’s security force that comprises DSS special agents, special protective specialists, American civilian security force operators, and other personnel.
“In any embassy or consulate, you’re going to have to heavily rely on foreign service national staff to support operations, including political and economic sections, human resources, general services, and especially the local guard force,” Baggett notes. “These individuals not only speak the native language, they are truly vital to the mission where they are familiar with host country laws, policies, and customs. They serve as an embassy or consulate’s foundation to conduct U.S. foreign policy overseas, have cultivated host country government contacts, and possess the historical knowledge of the mission, which is truly priceless since foreign service officers and specialists typically rotate assignments every one to three years.”
Maintaining effective communication between a U.S. mission and the host country’s government, regional offices, and local law enforcement is imperative for strengthening the embassy or consulate’s security, as well as the bilateral relationship with the host country, Baggett explains.
“Many times we would hear information through our foreign service national staff or established professional contacts, but we weren’t hearing it through official channels,” he says. “Other times we’d see plainclothes local law enforcement officers in front of our embassy and wonder why, and two hours later there’s a big protest that we didn’t know anything about. Being able to establish and develop professional local law enforcement relationships is paramount in receiving such potential threat information directly from the field rather than waiting on obtaining information from official channels.”
Strengthening the strategic relationship between embassy personnel and the host country goes beyond information sharing and includes the physical presence of the embassy.
Almost 15 years after the 1998 Africa bombings and subsequent implementation of standardized, high-security embassy construction, there was a push to allow more flexibility in embassy design while maintaining certain security standards. Dubbed the Excellence Approach, it gave the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) the ability to contract directly with individual design firms to “improve embassies’ appearance in representing the United States, functionality, quality, and operating costs,” according to a new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
“The whole idea of building these new embassies is to get our people into safer and more secure facilities,” says Michael Courts, director of international affairs and trade at GAO. “State Department officials believed they would have greater design control because they could customize the designs to the locations where they were being built.”
This is important because the previous standard design did not allow for embassy customization based on the region, space availability, or climate, lowering the flexibility and functionality when it came to building new embassies, Courts tells Security Management.
Instead, the Excellence Approach requires OBO and design firms to work together to make sure certain security standards are met at each unique facility while emphasizing location and design that will further the diplomatic mission.
The new policy emphasizes considering American values in promoting a sense of openness, accessibility, and transparency through location; proximity to other embassies and host country facilities; and a location that is connected to public transportation and infrastructure, according to the GAO report.
“How you implement those standards can change depending on what sort of site you’re building on, the density of the surrounding urban area—that is going to be somewhat challenging for the State Department because they are going to have to try to adapt to each context as they build their embassies,” Courts notes.
Keith Bobrosky, vice president of sales at Delta Scientific, agrees. “It’s subtle to an outsider, but from what we’ve seen it’s very important,” he explains. “For years they had standard embassies—all one design and arguably very militaristic and not very inviting. Now the embassy needs to mimic the surrounding environment aesthetically a lot more, so we still want to keep the utmost in vehicle barrier and perimeter security, but aesthetics play a far more important part when we’re a guest in some of these other countries.”
Bobrosky has been involved with the implementation of barrier protection at hundreds of overseas building operations for the State Department and the FBI. Despite the design changes, State has been relatively consistent in what it requires for perimeter security at its embassies, he says, but the technology itself is continuously changing to improve longevity and environmental impact.
For example, Bobrosky notes that embassies have always used hydraulic barrier systems—which rely on hydraulic fluids to operate their motion—but some newer builds have started turning to electromechanical barriers because they are more environmentally friendly.
“We’ve seen a paradigm shift from hydraulic to a more politically correct product—electromechanical—because there’s no fluid that could leak in these other countries where we’re really a guest,” Bobrosky says. “Some of them are very environmentally aware where they do not want to have any hydraulic fluid possibly hitting the soil.”
This fits in line with the shift Bobrosky has seen as OBO has implemented the Excellence Approach—placing emphasis on how the embassy can fit in to its surroundings while being respectful of the host country.
“Sometimes these fences are dozens of years old and the barriers we put in have to match,” he notes. “Or the cobblestone street in front of the embassy may be hundreds of years old, so when we install the bollards we have to meticulously move each cobblestone and replace it in the same manner.”
The customized embassy approach has been around for five years, but it’s unclear what effect the new, individualized designs have on security, the GAO report notes. OBO employees are divided on whether the Excellence Approach has improved the construction programs—37 percent agreed that it had, 34 percent disagreed, and the remainder were not sure, according to the GAO report. OBO has not defined performance measures to quantify the success of the new approach, the report explains.
“Without performance measures specific to Excellence and sufficient systems to collect and analyze relevant data, OBO will not be able to demonstrate whether the performance of Excellence projects over time justifies the increased emphasis on and investment in their designs,” according to the report.
Meanwhile, physical security providers such as Bobrosky continue to see small shifts in operations that make embassies more inviting. He notes that all barrier systems include in-ground vehicle detection, which prevents the accidental deployment of a barrier on an innocent party, such as a gate closing on a cleared vehicle.
“We’ve seen some changes in the last few years in this argument between safety and security,” Bobrosky explains.
Some embassies are requiring infrared sensors near their barriers, which are more accurate and would keep barriers or gates from being accidentally deployed on pedestrians.
“It’s a little less secure because there’s more of a chance for someone to keep the gate from operating as it should, but it’s a lot safer for pedestrians and vehicles alike,” he says. “It’s hard to have the best of both safety and security, because you have to take from one to get more of the other.”