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
"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
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."