Survivor of 1979 consulate attack: Libya an eerie echo

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Story highlights

  • Jeffrey Lunstead says he was in U.S. consulate in Lahore in 1979 when it was attacked
  • He says a rumor that U.S. and Israel had attacked mosque drew angry mob to U.S. mission
  • Islamabad embassy torched; Pakistani police fought mob intent on burning consulate
  • Lunstead: Diplomats need host country for security, mission inherently risky

In the early afternoon of November 22, 1979, communications between the United States consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, and the American Embassy in Islamabad suddenly went dead.

We in the consulate did not yet know why.

We did not know that earlier in the day, as Muslims were celebrating the beginning of the 14th Century in the Islamic calendar, a dangerous rumor had been started. It was that a group that had attacked the Great Mosque in Mecca several days earlier had been identified as Israeli and American paratroopers. Pakistanis in Lahore ran up to the celebrations at nearby universities and asked the students if they were just going to sit there.

A mob of perhaps 5,000 marched to the American Center, burned it and then marched to the consulate and attacked us. Battled by 300 Pakistani policemen, they burned our cars and tried, unsuccessfully, to burn down the consulate itself -- with us inside. There were enough police to keep the crowd at bay, but not enough to disperse them quickly. After several hours, the crowd left and the police took us out in an armed convoy.

Jeffrey Lunstead

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It was only then that we learned that the situation in Islamabad was far worse. Our communications had died because a mob had burned the embassy and killed two American and two Pakistani employees. The Pakistan army in Islamabad did not respond for several hours. Most of us believed that the government of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq had acquiesced in the riot, having been unwilling to confront the mob and risk becoming a target of its anger, too. Much to our surprise, President Jimmy Carter phoned the general to thank him for his assistance.

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There are eerie resemblances between that day in Pakistan and this week's attacks in Libya and Egypt -- rumors of anti-Islamic acts and groups that exploited those rumors to stir up crowds. This is the normal pattern for riots. They are not usually "spontaneous." Instead they are instigated by opportunists. In both Pakistan and Libya, individuals tried to defend the U.S. diplomats, but the governments reacted slowly and with insufficient force. In Pakistan in 1979, the local governments in Karachi and Peshawar clamped down quickly on protesters, and they never reached the U.S. consulates there.

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    The inescapable fact is that American diplomats are almost entirely dependent on host governments to protect them. The small contingent of Marine security guards in most Embassies provide internal security. They can slow down intruders, but are not prepared to fight a pitched battle against heavily armed attackers. Locally recruited guards check visitors, but are also not a defensive force, and are quickly swept away by large crowds. There will almost certainly be more attempts like those in Libya and Egypt.

    U.S. diplomats must, and will, stay in these dangerous positions. They cannot huddle inside fortress-like embassies, but must move out among local society. The relationships they build not only serve American interests, but can help them later, just as Pakistani friends came to our houses during the 1979 attacks to take our families to safe havens.

    These individual acts cannot always protect them, however. Good intelligence can help to prevent another tragedy, but in the end the host government has to be able and willing to intervene speedily and with adequate force.

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