Enemies at the Gates

Security Lessons from a Foiled Embassy Attack

Washington faced a 3 AM moment a few months ago when it learned about the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the other Americans who were with him. This was not the first one, of course, nor will it be the last. I was introduced to the idea of the 3 AM moment in 2001, when I was undergoing the two-week training session on embassy leadership in preparation for becoming the U.S. ambassador to Singapore. One of the exercises involved something of a trick question: What is the most important article of clothing for an ambassador? Is it white tails, for state weddings and funerals? Perhaps black tails, for formal dances and banquets? Maybe even an ordinary business suit for ministry calls? In fact, the answer was pajamas and a bathrobe. Simply put, most every ambassador eventually finds himself or herself managing a crisis from the ambassador's residence at 3 AM. Best to have some good PJs and a respectable robe on hand.

The U.S. embassy in Singapore might not have seemed a likely post for crisis management, but when the United States and its allies went into Afghanistan after 9/11, a majority of the U.S. forces that went to war were routed there via Singapore. There is no hard evidence that al Qaeda knew how important the country was to the U.S. mission, but we know that in response to the allied invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda decided to inflict a massive attack on Singapore. It was to be their first post-9/11 strike.

In December 2001, just four months after I arrived at my post, the government of Singapore alerted me that al Qaeda and its affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) planned to target the U.S. embassy with a car bomb. According to the Singapore Internal Security Department (ISD), the group had procured four tons of ammonia nitrate to make the bomb, as well as fuses and a truck. The plot was perhaps days away from being operational. All that was left was for JI to import suicide drivers. British special forces quickly confirmed what the ISD told us. They had uncovered a chilling video in an al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan. In it, jihadis exchanged light-hearted banter, discussed security barriers around the U.S. embassy, and debated a plan to kill us: first, a truck bomb would detonate at our security gates. That would allow the second and larger truck bomb to drive through them and destroy the embassy.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis