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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - US Embassy a 'sitting duck' for terrorists

US Embassy a 'sitting duck' for terrorists

While the entire world is on alert after shocking terrorist attacks in the United

states, security experts in Cambodia express strong doubts about the US Embassy in

Phnom Penh, which they say is the most attractive target for any potential terrorists

in the country.

After the Sept 11 attacks in New York and Washington, American embassies around the

world went on high alert as President George W Bush declared a "war on terrorism."

"All US military and civilians are on a high state of alert," confirmed

Kent Wiedemann, the US Ambassador to Cambodia. "We need to heighten our global

vigilance against terrorism." While the ambassador said that his embassy's highest

priority at present is protection of US citizens from terrorist threats, he noted

that the embassy itself continues to function normally.

"Nothing we are doing now is especially new - we are on a heightened state of

alert," said Wiedemann, who declined to specify what counter-terrorist measures

were being taken. "This current heightened status goes back to 1998 and the

bombing of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya."

US embassies in those countries were devastated by car bombs in August of that year

which killed hundreds and injured thousands more.

But security professionals in Phnom Penh say that the Embassy where Wiedemann works

is a prime target for just such an attack, despite the increased security precautions

being taken.

"The US Embassy is a sitting duck" said Chris Burger, country manager of

MPA International, a private security firm headquartered in Bangkok. "It's not

really even an embassy, it's a collection of houses."

Another foreign security consultant who requested anonimity was more critical. "It's

a joke," he warned, "an accident waiting to happen. They've been very lucky

so far."

The US Embassy occupies several blocks of converted housing in a residential area

of central Phnom Penh. "It's not a secure location. All four sides are open

to foot traffic and they're not stopped until they're right up next to the embassy,"

the consultant explained. "Out of four sides two sides are blocked off but two

sides have access - there's traffic flowing on either side. With the street open

right there anyone could set off a car bomb. You may not kill any Americans but you

might injure some. You'd certainly kill some locals."

Following the 1998 bombings in East Africa, rumors spread that Saudi dissident Osama

bin Ladin had set up training camps for Islamic terrorists on the Thai-Cambodian

border. While both Wiedemann and the security experts discount the possibility of

terrorist cells using Cambodian territory for training, they agree that porous borders

and lax law enforcement make the Kingdom a likely location for activities which support

militants and criminals.

"Cambodia has always been a good shopping market for these kinds of groups,"

the consultant warned, "All it takes is a chunk of money; you can get anything

you want here." He said he'd seen enough evidence to convince him that several

armed groups had established a presence here. "Terrorists are making use of

services" in Cambodia, he said. "They have people here on the ground to

procure items, to move items, or close business deals."

Chris Burger said that there was little the US government could do to beef up security

for the embassy considering its vulnerable location, apart from adding more guards.

"All I can see is they can close the roads, but the Cambodian government wouldn't

allow that, those are main thoroughfares they need to have open; all they can really

do is add more security equipment like cameras, and monitors, and just bolster their

own physical security as well as electronic security, and keep the visa crowd down

to a minimum," Burger said.

The second consultant concurred, saying that even if roadlocks were allowed "the

fallout would be really negative - it would screw up the whole neighborhood. The

intersections of streets 51 and 53, both of those should be blocked off a block away

from the embassy, but you'd block access to the SOS Clinic, you'd block off WHO,

and you're screwing up the neighborhood."

Wiedemann admits that the embassy's present location, which was established in early

1992, is unsuitable, and that the US Government has desired a change of location

as the threat of terrorist attacks worsened in the 1990s. "Our security requirements

have evolved along with events, and we couldn't find a site which met all our standards

- but this one does not meet any of them."

He said that the US embassy will relocate to the site of the former International

Youth Club close to Wat Phnom, but that construction will take years before completion.

"This new place is even worse," the consultant asserted, both in terms

of security and image. "Wat Phnom, its a cultural, a historical and religious

monument... To make it safe you'd have to block it off on all sides. You'd block

access to Wat Phnom, to the Sunway hotel.... Look at the new Thai embassy, or what

the Japanese are putting up. [The Americans] should have put it out in the countryside

- that way they could build it to spec, just the way they wanted it. And that way

you you're not going to have people coming out to the embassy just because it's convenient,

but because they really need to."

Both experts also said that the US embassy relies far too heavily on Cambodian police

for protection. "The French Embassy has French security - Frenchmen," Burger

commented. "The Cambodian police [who provide US embassy security personnel]

are under the administration of the Ministry of Interior, and in this country it's

also their version of the CIA. To have the government's own people within your embassy

as security, that's like having the KGB guarding the Pentagon."

Both experts suggested that the traditional US Marine Corps embassy guard, a victim

of budget cutbacks, should be revived. "Money has to be spent," Burger

said. "You want Americans to secure an American government building. Cambodian

security should only be used only for the outside of the building. That's the way

it's going to have to be from now on if the US government wants to be serious about

bolstering their security worldwide."

"All these factors come together," the private consultant added: "Here

you have this embassy stuck in the middle of a residential neighborhood, surrounded

by buildings taller than it, with the police lackadaisical to say the least, in a

country wide open to terrorists - it's an accident waiting to happen."

Considering the embassy will remain in its present vulnerable location for several

years to come, Wiedemann said that readiness is a top concern for his staff. "The

greatest fault any of us can make in the face of this truly capable terrorist threat

is complacency," he said. "There's got to be vigilance in everything we

do. We are at war, there's no doubt about it. This is a different world than it was

on September 10th."

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