A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Thoughts On The Murder Of 4 American Diplomats In Libya

On Tuesday night, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, four American diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in Libya when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their vehicle in Benghazi, Libya. They were fleeing the U.S. consulate, which was attacked by a Salafi Islamist mob that was outraged over a film that, according to the Telegraph, depicted the Prophet Mohammed as “a fraud, a womanizer and a madman” and “showed him having sex and calling for massacres.”

Protestors also made it over the wall at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but luckily no one there was hurt. The film, which was also being promoted by the infamous Koran-burning Pastor, Terry Jones, was made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American who has been described in the press as “unrepentant,” “defiant,” and “unapologetic.”

Bacile told the Associated Press that he made the film with $5 million in backing from 100 Jewish donors and declined to accept any responsibility for the attack.

“I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,” he said. “America should do something to change it.”

When tragedies like this one occur, every current and former Foreign Service Officer (FSO), myself included, feels the loss. The Foreign Service is a family, a big dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless, and everyone grieves along with these families.

The tragedy underscores the risks FSOs and their family members take in serving their countries overseas. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) maintains two plaques inside the State Department’s Harry S. Truman building that contain the names of 236 diplomats who have perished while serving their country overseas.

The media often derides American embassies and consulates overseas as “fortresses” but when I was in the Foreign Service, I wanted our missions to be as secure as possible. All three of the overseas posts where I served were deemed insecure facilities that needed to be replaced, and in Skopje, the wing of the embassy that my wife worked in was deemed particularly vulnerable. (A new embassy has since opened there) I would invite any journalist that wants to criticize American security to go work in one of these facilities and see if their perspective changes.

Several years ago, I remember strolling right into the Hungarian embassy in Washington with no security in sight and thinking how nice it would be to be from a country that wasn’t a target for terrorists and other evildoers. I wouldn’t trade my citizenship for that of any other country, but I wish that the Sam Bacile’s and Terry Jones’s of the world would understand how their actions put Americans overseas in danger.

They should be ashamed of themselves, but obviously the blame for this incident goes directly to the evil perpetrators of the crime itself. Let’s hope they are brought to swift justice and are treated in the harshest way imaginable. Many on the right will recoil at the idea of blaming anti-Islam crusaders like Bacile and Jones. Mitt Romney hasn’t commented on the video itself but claimed that President Obama “sympathized with the protesters.

Romney apparently objected to an apparently unauthorized statement put out by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, hours before they were under siege. Governor Romney hasn’t spent much time in the Middle East and other parts of the world where being an American carries great risks and apparently isn’t aware of the need to try to keep a lid on the protests that have occurred around the Muslim World.

We know from past experience that ultra-conservative Muslims around the world don’t simply shrug off attacks on the Prophet Mohammed as the work of fringe zealots and yet people like Bacile continue to stir the pot, oblivious to the risks and the damage their work does to our country’s image. Why?

I didn’t know Ambassador Stevens, but some of my former colleagues did and from what I can gather, he was an outstanding diplomat and an all around great guy. One described him on Facebook as a “genuinely nice person,” “a gifted diplomat, and a good man,” while another wrote that he was “a peacemaker” and “one of (our) best Middle East diplomats,” who was a “scholar, a jogger, and a mentor.”

The State Department also released the identity of one of the other three victims. He was Sean Smith, an Information Management Officer who was a father of two and a ten-year Foreign Service veteran with previous postings in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal, and most recently the Hague.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of all of the victims of this horrific tragedy. Their service, and the work done by everyone in the Foreign Service tends to go practically unnoticed in a country that takes too much for granted.

The public tends to think of diplomats as highbrow types who spend their time sipping cocktails in the European capitals, oblivious to the reality that many, if not most, are hunkered down in downright unpleasant places doing important, sometimes dangerous work.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to remind us to be thankful for the sacrifices they make for our country, but as we grieve along with their families, we ought to also thank all those who serve their country overseas – soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, everyone – for their service.

UPDATE: News reports indicate that the Libyan attackers may have used the protests over the anti-Muslim film as cover to launch their attack on the consulate and the American FSO’s who died may have been in the compound, rather than fleeing in a vehicle. It will probably be months before we know exactly what went down but I stand by what I wrote this morning. The attackers are to blame but the filmaker/s should be ashamed of themselves for putting Americans at risk. News outlets have also called into question the identity of Sam Bacile, which may be a pseudonym. Romney, meanwhile, is standing by his ludicrous, slimy, uninformed criticism of the President, which has in some ways overshadowed the tragedy itself.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

Roman sites in Libya survived the war mostly unscathed, initial reports show

The recent fighting in Libya that toppled Gaddafi destroyed many lives and laid waste to many neighborhoods. Now that the country is beginning to rebuild, Libyans are taking stock of other effects of the war.

Libya’s beautiful Roman remains, it appears, got off easy. Earlier this week, the Guardian reported that the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha both survived the war without any significant damage. This news came from Dr. Hafed Walda, a Libyan scholar working at King’s College, London. Dr. Walda has excavated and studied Lepcis Magna for more than 15 years.

On the other hand, the new government displayed a cache of Roman artifacts that it says were going to be sold on the international antiquities market to finance Gaddafi’s fight to stay in power. They were found on the day Tripoli fell to the rebels in the trunk of a car driven by Gaddafi loyalists as they tried to escape. No word on what happened to the pro-Gaddafi fighters. One can imagine.

This brings up the question of how many more artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites, and if any made it abroad into the hands of unscrupulous collectors. Iraq and Afghanistan lost a huge amount of their heritage this way. Much of it disappeared after the main fighting, when armed bands looted what they could before a new regime was installed.

%Gallery-140657%Thousands of coins dating to the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods have gone missing from a collection in Benghazi, the new Libyan government reports.

These are, of course, only initial reports in a country still subject to much chaos and uncertainty. Time will tell how much of Libya’s rich archaeological heritage has survived to attract the next generation of tourists.

I want to be one of the first of that new generation. Libya has always been high on my list of places to see and my wife and I were in the beginning stages of planning a trip there when all hell broke loose. Instead I spent two months out of harm’s way in Harar, Ethiopia.

For anyone interested in history and archaeology, Libya is a great place to go. The nation has five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The two most popular are the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha. Both are on the coast and were founded by the Phoenicians. Libya was an important province in the Roman Empire and these two sites reflect that with their theaters, broad avenues, and large temples. Lepcis Magna was especially grand because it was the birthplace of the Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211).

Other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Libya include the Greek colony of Cyrene, the prehistoric rock art of Tadrart Acacus, and the traditional architecture in the oasis town of Ghadamès.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How to get a second passport

A second passport sounds glamorous. And in point of fact, it is glamorous. There’s no debating the matter. Possessing a second passport gives its bearer bragging rights and the ability to feel a wee bit like a spy, especially when he or she is traveling with both passports in tow.

So you want to get a second passport and feel like an undercover agent? Not so fast. The US State Department allows Americans to obtain a second US passport under two circumstances only: [1] when a particular passport stamp will prevent entry into certain other countries the bearer intends or needs to visit, and [2] when a foreign visa application’s processing time interferes with upcoming international travel.

The first loophole addresses diplomatic barriers to travel. The chief example here is the Israeli passport stamp. Several countries refuse to admit travelers with an Israeli stamp (as well as Jordanian or Egyptian entrance or exit stamps from Israel‘s land border crossings with Jordan and Egypt) in their passports.

With an Israeli stamp in your passport, you may be refused entry to Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Anecdotal evidence from friends and various online sources indicates that some countries are stricter than others, with Lebanon and Syria particularly unbendable. The bearer of a second passport can alternate between passports selectively, thus making sure that he or she will not be refused admission for a years-old Israeli passport stamp at, say, the Damascus airport.

The second circumstance addresses the problem of bureaucratic delays. People with upcoming travel scheduled while their passports are unavailable as a consequence of a foreign visa application (or another procedure involving a foreign government) can apply for and receive a second passport.

The second passport is only valid for two years. In addition to the required form and photographs, applications must include evidence of upcoming travel and a letter explaining the applicant’s specific need for the additional passport.

Gallery: More travel sketches from BBC’s Tim Baynes

We wrote yesterday about Tim Baynes’ delightful travel sketches from around the world on BBC and liked them so much we came back for more. You can (and should!) get lost for hours looking at his drawings on Flickr with fun anecdotes and scribbles bringing depth and humor to his slice-of-life artwork.

Check out some of our favorites in the gallery below, from a look inside the BBC Starbucks to the madness of Dubai immigration during the ash cloud to a quiet barbershop in Tripoli.


See more of Tim Baynes’ work on the BBC, his personal Flickr stream, or order a copy of his book Doors to Automatic and Cross Check, direct from the artist.

All photos courtesy of Tim Baynes.

Visit Libya now says Conde Nast Traveler

Someone at Conde Nast Traveler has been eating paste again …

The April issue of the esteemed travel magazine has named Libya among the “15 best places to see right now,” according to a report on The Atlantic Wire. So, one of two things happened. Either it took a bit of time to put the issue of this print magazine to bed, or someone over there has a fantastic sense of humor. Given the state of the print industry, I’m guessing much “sense of humor” to go around.

Nonetheless, this month’s readers will be treated to travel editorial that describes what is now a war-torn country in, I imagine, glowing terms. I will confess to two things: I haven’t read the article (there doesn’t seem to be much point), and I had planned to go to Libya later this year (which has changed, a bit, of course).

So, what’s the reality here? A day late and a dollar short, I reckon.


[photo by شبكة برق | B.R.Q]