Photograph by Mohammed Huwais, AFP/Getty Images

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Police work at a checkpoint in Sanaa, Yemen, one of the places where the United States shut its embassies after issuing a worldwide warning that al Qaeda may attack.

Photograph by Mohammed Huwais, AFP/Getty Images

How Do You Close an Embassy? Ambassador Ryan Crocker Explains

Closures in the Mideast and North Africa may become more commonplace.

What does it mean to "close" an embassy? It's not simply a case of flicking off the lights and locking the door.

The United States temporarily closed nearly two-dozen embassies and consulates last week, mostly in North Africa and the Middle East, with 19 set to remain closed for the rest of the week. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama cited intelligence about potential terrorist attacks by al Qaeda in Yemen. On Tuesday, Washington stepped up security precautions in Yemen by ordering all non-emergency embassy personnel to leave the country and urging all U.S. citizens to depart immediately as well. Similar actions were taken by Great Britain.

To find out what closing an embassy actually means, we spoke with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who most recently served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, after previous stints as ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. Today, Crocker leads the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and is a career ambassador, the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service.

How remarkable are this week's embassy closings?

Well, it is not an unusual step. [This latest string of closings] has gotten more publicity and took place on a wider basis, but it happens fairly frequently—certainly so in my experience. The decision is based on the evaluation of threat information.

Apparently the U.S. administration had what it considered credible information of possible planning by al Qaeda for attacks, and did the prudent thing [by] temporarily closing a number of embassies.

What exactly is a "closed" embassy or consulate?

That can vary. It means first of all that the facility would not be open to the public. It might mean that some members of the embassy staff would be present and working; it depends on the particular circumstances and the criticality of the work. All the security personnel will be present, obviously.

But it does not necessarily mean that no one is at work, and certainly does not mean that no one is in the building. The security teams are on full alert in each one of those places.

Does the U.S. embassy staff conduct its business during the closure?

As I understand from the media, the threat is against the missions themselves—the embassies and consulates. So it may very well be the case that the diplomats are going about much of their business that would not involve going into the embassy.

For example, this would involve making calls on foreign officials and others. And I would imagine that this is continuing, since it doesn't involve the building itself. A great deal can be done to advance American interests that does not involve people physically coming to, or doing business in, the embassy.

Many embassies and consulates in the region have been "hardened" over the last decade—built or redesigned to deter and withstand terrorist attacks. How does it make sense for a hostile organization to even attempt an embassy attack?

To start with, terrorist organizations do not think like you and me. When I was the ambassador to Afghanistan, our embassy was attacked twice in the space of a year. Both attacks were ineffective, and both resulted in the deaths of all the attackers.

They never came close to breaching the embassy's perimeter—and I don't think they had believed they could. They simply wanted to demonstrate a capability to lob a few rocket-propelled grenades in our direction.

Attacks can have a lot of motivations, including when the perpetrators don't expect to succeed but do count on big, splashy headlines—"Embassy Attacked!"—even if it costs them all their lives.

Do you think diplomats are more likely to be targeted today by terrorist organizations than they were 20 years ago—including for these reasons?

Sadly, the problem of terrorism against diplomats is not a new one. I was in the embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, 30 years ago, when it got hit by a car bomb on April 18, 1983. We lost 17 Americans in that attack, among 63 people who were killed. To this day, this remains the worst single loss of embassy personnel in one attack.

So, again, the problem is not new. We face different adversaries now. And we've learned a great deal about how to protect an embassy. After Beirut, we started building to a much stricter standard for security, and I think it's saved a lot of lives.

What steps have since been taken to prevent similar attacks?

A high priority is on understanding one's environment: what individuals and groups are out there that might have the desire and the means to attack us. Beirut showed that we have real lethal enemies out there, and we have to take them seriously.

Al Qaeda did not exist at that time, and it certainly exists today. And although it has been weakened in its core area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, it is extensively franchised. In this particular case, we are looking at al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

There is also al Qaeda in Iraq, in Libya—where my friend and colleague Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed—and in Syria. So it comes down to knowing who they are and where they are, and tracking them very closely, as we did in this case.

So will we see more preemptive closures in the future?

It will be done on a case-by-case basis: evaluating the threat, determining how serious it is, and then taking the necessary precautionary steps. Once again, today's closures are hardly unprecedented. I've lost track of how many times embassies in which I served were closed for a day or so for security reasons. It's been happening for years.

The scale of these closings—and the fact that the U.S. administration this time decided to make them very public (which I think is wise)—have given them more attention. But it's not a new phenomenon.