Skip to main content

Survivor of 1979 consulate attack: Libya an eerie echo

By Jeffrey Lunstead, Special to CNN
September 13, 2012 -- Updated 1733 GMT (0133 HKT)
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

Editor's note: Jeffrey J. Lunstead is the former ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives. He was a member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He has served overseas in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia. In Washington, he has served as South Asia Bureau Coordinator for Afghanistan and as Director for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. He is currently Diplomat-in-Residence at Middlebury College.

(CNN) -- 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.

Jeffrey Lunstead
Jeffrey Lunstead

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.

Avlon: Romney foreign policy attack disgraceful

Questions surround incendiary Islam film
Feinstein: I think this is premeditated
Christiane Amanpour discusses Libya

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.

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.

Opinion: Extremists don't speak for Libya

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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Lunstead.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT