Source: Attack Like Benghazi Will Happen Again

Middle East embassies will be threatened as long as Hezbollah exists, a source says

An armed Libyan man flashes the victory sign in front of a fire at the hardline Islamist group Ansar el-Sharia headquarters on September 21, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya.
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The State Department has learned from the deadly assault on the consulate in Benghazi, though a similar attack could well happen again, a source tells U.S. News & World Report.

The most important element in protecting a diplomatic mission abroad is the local troops, says a former State Department official with experience in the Middle East, who asked to remain anonymous. They must be professional, loyal and well-trained, which are among the apparent failures of the British and local security contractors who were charged with protecting the consulate in Benghazi that was attacked on Sept. 11.

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The existing political and military powers in Iran pose a consistent threat to America's remaining diplomatic presence in the Middle East. This is particularly true in Lebanon, which is now a critical diplomatic linchpin following the State Department's withdrawal from neighboring Syria earlier this year.

"As long as Hezbollah is in Lebanon and controlled by the Mullahs, there will never be peace in Lebanon," the source says. "As long as they exist, we're going to have problems."

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story.

Emails released Wednesday show security officials at the Consulate in Benghazi, Libya alerted the White House, State Department and FBI claiming that an Islamist group, not opportunistic protesters, was responsible for the assault on Sept. 11. Documents released by Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Calif., last week show the Consulate had been worried about security conditions there for months and repeatedly asked Washington for more assistance.

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The U.S. embassy in Lebanon issued an alert Saturday to all U.S. citizens in the region, a day after the Oct. 19 assassination of Lebanese intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan.

"Public demonstrations in Lebanon can occur at any time and have the potential to become violent," according to the statement. "Likewise, the potential in Lebanon for a spontaneous upsurge in violence remains. U.S.citizens should continue to monitor local media and maintain a low profile."

The State Department closed its embassy in Syria and withdrew its staff in February 2012 citing security concerns. Diplomacy in the war-torn country, ravaged by a 19-month-old civil war, has been left primarily to U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

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But the embassy in Lebanon, positioned in Awkar just to the north of the capital Beirut, is much better prepared for regional threats than the consulate in Libya, the State Department source says.

In September, local forces began increasing security around the embassy in Awkar, according to Lebanese news agency The Daily Star. Soldiers, police officers and members of the nternal ecurity orces deployed to the roads leading up to the embassy.

"There is no guard force more professional, loyal and well-trained than the local guard force at the embassy in Beirut," says the source.

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Security at the embassy has been a top priority in recent decades, following a tumultuous series of events in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The current situation is a mirror image of the situation in 1991, when the State Department evacuated diplomatic staff in Beirut while continuing to operate out of its embassy in Damascus due to the volatile situation in Lebanon, and the Gulf War.

In April 1983, 62 people were killed and roughly 100 were wounded after a suicide car bomber struck the embassy in Beirut. The Marine barracks near the Beirut airport was bombed the following October, killing 241.

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  • Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com