One year after terrorists attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, threats to U.S. embassies and consulates have increased, especially in the Arab world.
The danger has been exacerbated by anti-government uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa since 2010, toppling longtime dictators and creating breeding grounds and battlefields for an array of global terrorists.
"We are most vulnerable where terrorists are most active," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
"That means Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. I'm leaving out plenty, including in South America."
The State Department last week cited potential threats as it withdrew non-emergency personnel and their families from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the U.S. Consulate in Adana in southeastern Turkey.
Protecting U.S. diplomatic missions is never an easy task because of the ever-changing nature of the threats, said Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp.
"The risks to embassies are going to exist in any country that lacks the will or the capacity to provide protection for our foreign missions," he said, referring to a host nation's responsibility to protect foreign diplomats.
"The question is 'Where is that right now?' It is fairly clear that the main focus of risk to our embassies is in the Middle East simply because of the turbulence that has gone on there over the course of the last couple of years."
The danger to U.S. diplomatic facilities and Americans overseas has increased from al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups across the Middle East and North Africa and so-called lone wolves acting on their own.
A State Department official declined to say whether Washington has ordered additional security measures at U.S. diplomatic missions for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks on the United States in 2001 and on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi last year.
"We do not discuss the specifics of our security posture or procedures," said the State Department official, who spoke on background.
In August, the Obama administration briefly shut down about two dozen U.S. diplomatic facilities in Asia, the Middle East and Africa following concern about a terrorist strike.
A year ago, an Egyptian mob angry about a film produced in the United States that insulted Islam's Prophet Muhammad scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, tore down the U.S. flag and replaced it with a black banner used by al Qaeda.
That same day, terrorists attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi and killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
The State Department has taken a number of steps in response to recommendations by the independent Benghazi Accountability Review Board. These steps include establishing a "High Threat Board" to review U.S. presence at high-threat and high-risk posts, creating the post of a deputy assistant secretary for high-threat posts in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and offering an intensive Arabic language course specifically for security personnel.
Some analysts fault the Obama administration for failing to develop a strategy to remove the terrorist threat.
"The real question is much less about specific safeguards, and more about whether we have an overall strategy to defeat al Qaeda and its associated movements. And the answer to that is, decisively, no," said Ms. Pletka. "Instead we have a pinprick strategy, which deals with problems after they crop up."
"If we're all about building a stronger wall or higher fences, we're never going to manage this problem. We need an overall comprehensive strategy to deal with al Qaeda and all of its associated and affiliated movements.
"That's not a drone strategy, and it's not a war strategy. It's a complex and sophisticated effort, and it's going to have many dimensions."
Mr. Chivvis acknowledged a heightened level of concern about threats to U.S. diplomatic facilities since the Benghazi attack.
"It is certainly clear that concern about threats to our embassies has been much higher and has often been politicized in ways that are not helpful since the Benghazi attacks," he said.
"This is a challenge that is shared by Congress and the White House," he added. "It requires not only adequate bureaucratic and administrative attention but also adequate funding."
The House Foreign Affairs Committee last month approved a bill that authorizes $4.83 billion for embassy security.
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