Reporters’ deaths point to dangers of working in hotspots abroad

September 4, 2014

File – The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the State Department. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The horrific executions of journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley at the hands of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) demonstrate the dangers Americans and others face when traveling in hotspots abroad.

Those dangers, of course, also are very real for the people living among militant forces who think beheadings, the fate suffered by the two journalists, and mass murder are the way to victory.

Not only do federal employees and contractors faces these same dangers, but they sometimes are targets. They have been marked, for killing or politically motivated imprisonment, even when posted in places thought to have been relatively safe.

Here are a few examples of attacks where U.S. Foreign Service officers were captured or killed:

–Two years ago, four Americans were killed in attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

–Bombs exploded outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on Aug. 7, 1998. U.S. government personnel clearly were targeted , but it was the local people who suffered the most. Of the 224 people who died, 12 were Americans. Thousands were injured.

–In 1979, the U.S. embassy in Iran was stormed and 66 Americans were taken hostage, with most held for 444 days.

–In 1973, the U.S. ambassador and the Charge d’Affaires, along with a Belgian diplomat, were killed when gunmen seized the Saudi Arabian embassy during a reception  in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

The State Department has this list of U.S. ambassadors who “have been killed by militants” since World War II:

• “John Gordon Mein, Ambassador to Guatemala, August 28, 1968. Mein was killed by a gunman in Guatemala City.

• “Cleo A. Noel, Jr., Ambassador to Sudan, March 1, 1973. Noel was taken hostage in Khartoum and killed by his kidnappers.

• “Rodger P. Davies, Ambassador to Cyprus, August 19, 1974. Davies was shot during a demonstration at the Embassy in Nicosia.

• “Francis E. Meloy, Jr., Ambassador to Lebanon, June 16, 1976. Meloy was killed by a gunman in Beruit.

• “Adolph Dubs, Ambassador to Afghanistan, February 14, 1979. Dubs was captured in Kabul and was killed during the rescue attempt.

• “J. Christopher Stevens, Ambassador to Libya, September 11, 2012. Stevens was killed in an attack on the Mission in Benghazi.”

At the C Street NW entrance to the State Department is a memorial plaque, sponsored by the American Foreign Service Association. It honors Americans who died while serving the government abroad. The 245 names on the list include individuals who died from accidents or disease.

“When you are talking to a FSO (Foreign Service officer), you are probably to talking to someone who has lost a colleague ‘in combat,’” said Thomas Boyatt, who has been ambassador to Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Colombia. He can name eight friends and coworkers who died from hostile action on duty during a 15-year period.

“Unhappy memories,” he said.

Another former ambassador, John Limbert, was among the hostages held in Iran for 444 days. That experience left him focused on security.

“I became ferociously security conscious for everyone,” said Limbert, who now teaches at the U. S. Naval Academy.

He was in the Foreign Service for 35 years, recalling “some pretty nasty places.”

Nasty or not, it is the job of diplomats to get out of the office and into places where they meet citizens of the host country.

“If you have to be surrounded by a contingent of Blackwater guards everywhere,” Limbert said,  “it makes it very hard.”

 

 

 

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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Josh Hicks · September 4, 2014