US Beirut embassy shooting highlights regional security issues for American diplomats

Wednesday’s possible ISIS shooting brings memories of previous attacks on US sites in Lebanon

Lebanese troops stand guard on a road that leads to the US embassy in Aoukar, a northern suburb of Beirut. EPA
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The US embassy in Lebanon was closed on Wednesday after a possible ISIS shooting outside its heavily fortified entrance, an attack that highlighted America's troubled diplomatic presence in Beirut and underscored security risks to US personnel in the region.

At least one gunman opened fire near the compound, injuring a local security guard. The Lebanese Armed Forces managed to stop the attacker, who they said was originally from Syria.

The gunman was captured at the scene and an investigation is under way, the State Department said. His motives are currently unknown but he may have had ISIS connections.

“We are aware that the individual who was arrested was wearing what appeared to be an ISIS insignia, but we’re conducting a full investigation with Lebanese authorities into the actual motivations,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

The US Marines, which provide security for the embassy in Beirut and at other American diplomatic compounds around the world, said no Marine Corps security guards had fired a weapon during the attack, an official told The National.

The US embassy in Beirut issued a security alert after the incident, advising American citizens that it was closed for the day and to exercise caution.

According to the State Department, Lebanon is classed as a Level 3 country, and US citizens are advised to reconsider travelling there, particularly to certain areas.

“US citizens should avoid travel to the Lebanon-Israel border area, the Lebanon-Syria border area and refugee settlements,” the embassy said in its alert.

“In all parts of Lebanon, you should avoid demonstrations and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings or protests.”

In the months after the onset of the Israel-Gaza war, the State Department has issued numerous alerts and warnings about the volatility of the Middle East.

In December, the US embassy in Baghdad came under mortar fire amid wider attacks on American forces in Iraq.

Two months before, popular Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr had called for the closure of the embassy due to US ties to Israel.

Iraq is classed as a Level 4 – Do Not Travel country by the State Department due to “terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest and Mission Iraq’s limited capacity to provide support to US citizens”.

Thousands protested outside the US embassy in Amman in December against Washington's continued support for Israel and its campaign in Gaza.

While the State Department has not updated its travel advisory to Jordan since the onset of the war, US citizens travelling to the country are advised to exercise “increased caution”, and urged not to visit areas near the border with Syria and Iraq because of “terrorism”.

Previous attacks on Beirut embassy

Wednesday’s shooting outside the embassy in Beirut brought back memories of previous attacks on US sites in the Mediterranean country.

Last year, shots were fired near the embassy and in October, scores of protesters gathered outside the building in the early days of the Israel-Gaza war.

In 1983, two devastating attacks forever altered how American diplomats operated in Lebanon and the wider region.

On April 18 of that year, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb from inside the old embassy compound in central Beirut, killing 63.

Six months later, two more bombs exploded outside barracks housing US Marines and French service members, killing more than 300.

After the attacks, the US moved its embassy north of Beirut to what was supposed to be a temporary base.

In 1984, a truck bomb detonated near the new location, killing 23.

The US is still operating out of the same “new” compound, in the hillside suburb of Aoukar. Construction is under way on a new embassy near the current one.

Over the past four decades, the US has bought or rented nearly the entire neighbourhood, creating a highly secured zone with several checkpoints.

“The temporary Beirut embassy in Aoukar over the years since 1984 has been expanded and strengthened with Sallyport gates, with the type of blastproof external walls so that the lessons learnt from the 1983 embassy and marine barracks bombings and the 1984 or subsequent attack in Aoukar have been incorporated,” Jeffrey Feltman, US ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008, told The National.

Mr Feltman described the current compound as “ad hoc” but “extremely heavily fortified”. Security measures extend beyond simple brick and mortar, to where and how diplomats travel.

All US staff, for example, must live in the compound.

Washington's troubled history in Lebanon has dictated “how US diplomats operate from that temporary facility, what they need in order to be able to travel to meetings off campus and how they conduct their private lives”, Mr Feltman said.

Lebanon’s complex political make-up and history of sectarian violence is a constant concern for US officials in the region.

“It's an extremely complex security environment that one has to take into account all the time,” Mr Feltman said.

Wednesday's incident comes as tension along the Lebanese-Israel border, where Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in near constant retaliatory attacks since October 7, appears to be increasing.

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a visit to the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, warned that Israel was prepared to launch an “extremely powerful” response to Hezbollah attacks if it deemed it necessary.

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Updated: June 05, 2024, 9:30 PM