Skip to main content

Survivor of 1979 consulate attack: Libya an eerie echo

By Jeffrey Lunstead, Special to CNN
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Thu September 13, 2012
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
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT