Attack on U.S. Consulate General in JeddahJames C. Oberwetter, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Consul General Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
December 7, 2004
Ambassador Oberwetter: First let me express our condolences to the families of the five locally employed staff of the Consulate and one local guard employed by the United States, who all died in the line of duty. Our deepest sympathies to their families and to the ten injured locally employed staff. To the Saudis who also experienced injuries during the firefight at the gate and on the premises, our best wishes of full and speedy recovery. To the Saudi security forces who freed the compound from the five terrorists -- three of them were killed, two wounded -- our special thanks. I also thank our diplomatic security team and our regional security team at the Consulate who should receive great credit for saving many lives.
This morning I toured the facility with our Consul General. While our gates were breached, the Consulate stands and is in working order. It should reopen for business within a few days. The column of smoke that was noticed in all the press reports was from a single structure on the compound, a temporary marine house which caught fire. The building stands next to the Chancery that came under attack and the cause of the fire is unknown. No marines were in the house. Instead, the marines were performing heroically just as you would expect them to do, protecting the Chancery and the citizens who were inside. Most of the American staff was located inside the chancery building, which is the main building on the compound. The chancery building was not breached but it was attacked. There are many other stories of heroism about the events of yesterday. Heroism by our locally employed staff. Heroism by the marines, and by other American citizens, and heroism by the Saudis who were guarding our gates and took casualties in doing so. Our investigation is now under way. As President Bush said in comments yesterday, "The war on terrorism goes on. It will take time but the efforts are succeeding. It will take time." That concludes my opening statement.
Question: Are the Saudis doing a sufficient job in providing security for U.S. diplomats in Saudi Arabia?
Ambassador Oberwetter: I think that the Saudi government is doing all that it can. At a time like this when there are terrorists on the loose, you are always looking for additional security from any direction you can get it; whether it is from our security teams or Diplomatic Security teams, or from the local host country. But when we have asked for help we have received it. In my view the Saudis are doing a good job at protecting us in spite of the occurrence at the Consulate yesterday.
Question: After the recent attacks on U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia, I want to know if you are going to ask the Saudi government for more security for Americans? Are you planning to move the Consulate?
Ambassador Oberwetter: We have no plans to move the Consulate from its present location. This afternoon, Prince Mitab of the Saudi Arabian National Guard called on the Consul General and me at the Consulate, and in the Chancery building. At that time we thanked him for the work that was done, in terms of freeing the Consulate. We have also asked him for some additional security for a temporary period of time. I will not go into details of what that involves, but I am confident that he will provide that security. We will also be taking other steps to protect the Consulate and the compound and those steps are under way at this time. When we talk about security matters we do not go into details about what we are doing.
Question: A question to the Consul General, can you give us an account of what happened to you personally? And a question for both of you, how long were all the American diplomats held in the facility?
Consul General Abercrombie –Winstanley: For me it went very well in that the security defenses that we have in place were successful as they should have been. I heard gunfire outside my office. Our regional security officers did what they were supposed to do: went on alert. All American staff, myself included, were lead to what we consider a safe area within the Consulate, within the Chancery building. At that time we were in touch with our Embassy in Riyadh and others, as we helped make arrangements for getting control, and for getting the terrorists off the compound.
Question: How worried were you?
Consul General Abercrombie –Winstanley: How worried? Well, it is not good to hear gunfire outside your office. But I did have complete faith in the security of the building. The defenses that we have in place are very impressive indeed and did exactly what they were supposed to do. I was certainly worried – it’s not a good thing – but I did not ever doubt that it would be resolved in a manner that would guarantee the safety of most of the people in the Consulate. Of course we are devastated at the loss of our colleagues, completely devastated, but sometimes such things do happen.
Ambassador Oberwetter: And I’ll respond to that as well. Obviously the events of yesterday show a need for improvement. The U.S. Consulate here has undergone improvement over the past several months in terms of its security. We’ll be examining in the course of our investigation what additional steps need to be taken to secure the compound. The State Department has an ongoing program identifying Consulate buildings, Embassy buildings and other American facilities around the world that need additional security measures. I am sure we’ll be engaged with them to talk about additional needs here in the Kingdom. And finally, we have a very good relationship with the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, when it comes to matters such as security. We work with them constantly to improve that relationship. I believe that over the time that I have been here I have seen a great improvement in the ability of the Saudis with respect to security matters. But, as so many in the United States have said before, we have to be right all the time, 24 hours a day, without fail. It’s very difficult to do. But we are constantly upgrading our security at our facilities.
Question: Radical websites said on the Internet yesterday that some terrorist organizations had sent the United States a message and there is intention by these organizations to continue attacking U.S. interests in the Kingdom. Has the Embassy in the Kingdom received anything to corroborate these threats? Other websites also mentioned yesterday that this incident will have an effect on the Americans in the Kingdom and push them to leave. Is there any truth to this? And will Washington respond to these threats, that events similar to what happened at the American Consulate here may take place elsewhere?
Ambassador Oberwetter: I think that in answer to the last part of the question, President Bush has spoken very well on this matter: the relationship between the United Sates and the Kingdom is secure. We will be working together in our fight against terrorism. The war continues. We intend to remain here and continue to do our work with the government. We have many Americans who are in this country doing important work for this Kingdom in a variety of fields, whether it be the oil and gas ventures that are ongoing, or whether it be taking care of the airplanes that are flying the public. There are many ways and many Americans that are helping to keep this relationship very strong. It is worth noting that there are those who want to divide us from one another. They want to divide our two countries, and they’re working very hard to accomplish that, but we will not let them succeed.
Now, the Internet makes anybody capable of delivering threats. We monitor the Internet to see what kind of threats are there; the [Saudi] government does so, I’m sure, as well. And there are many threats that you find on the Internet. I don’t mean here, but anywhere around the world. So, we take notice of these things, we do our best to investigate to see whether or not these are serious threats. But the Internet is full of people threatening to do violence or harm to us or to our relationship and we mustn’t let them do that.
Question: There have been reports out of Manila that one of the maintenance men that was killed was a Filipino. There was no mention of this in your press statement. Does that agree with your understanding of events?
Consul General Abercrombie –Winstanley: Yes. One of our staff was Filipino, and he has passed away.
Question: What are the benefits that will be provided to the families of those killed in this attack?
Consul General Abercrombie –Winstanley: There are very specific benefits that are available to any employee of the U.S. Government. I am happy to say that I am not extremely familiar with all of them, because, I hope never to have this happen to anyone that works for me again. But the staff is working very hard right now to figure everything out. We’ve obviously done condolence calls to all the next of kin of all those who have passed, and we will be doing visits to those who are injured. So as I said, there’s a very specific set of benefits, but I cannot get into details right now.
Question: Ambassador, could you just clarify what the message is right now to the American community in Saudi Arabia. Does the embassy still strongly advise the American community to depart the Kingdom?
Ambassador Oberwetter: Yes, Americans do play a role. But it is worth noting that the State Department issued notice many months ago right now, urging Americans to leave the Kingdom. The warning remains in place. The events of the last day in effect reinforce the decision to issue that statement of warning. We look forward to a day when the situation in the Kingdom will allow us to pull down that notice and replace it. But this is clearly not the time.
Question: The Saudi press today reports that the personal driver of the Consul General was shot. Is that true? Is there any indication here that the attackers had previous knowledge of the identity of the personnel. And was the vehicle involved that used by the Consul General?
Consul General Abercrombie –Winstanley: I can start by answering the second question, and the answer is no. As for the first part of the question, we have no way of knowing that. I think the answer is no. I think it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As you know we lost five staff members from various sections of the Consulate, and others were wounded.
Question: During the heightened state of alert that the you’ve been on here because of the possibility of attack, how come Consulate security was able to be breached, and who is to blame?
Ambassador Oberwetter: Well, I think that using the word "blame" is the wrong way to go, and I think using the word "learn" is very appropriate here. Because it’s clear that some of these people have gone to school. By that I mean that they’re doing some work at looking at our procedures in terms of how cars enter that compound. There is a bit of news here that I think that people do not understand. They attempted to take a car into the compound. Our barrier gates worked. They exited the vehicle and were able to breach a gate that was closing behind the car that had preceded it. At least that is what it appears to us at this time. And so, we need to learn from that, and we need to take steps to correct any weaknesses in our fortifications.
Question: Can we just clarify the scenario. There was one consulate car pulling in, and they came up behind that?
Ambassador Oberwetter: Yes. That is correct. One car was pulling into the gate. Another car, a single car, in a far lane, slowly followed and quickly turned left to follow the car that had just entered the compound secure area. The terrorist car did not enter the compound. It was stopped by the barrier gate that had risen behind the vehicle that preceded it.
Ambassador Oberwetter: They exited the car. The terrorists exited the car and began to engage the local Saudi staff at the gate. They returned fire, and a great firefight broke out at the gate. Regrettably, the terrorists were not taken down there and were able to access the compound. Saudis took casualties there. In the firefight. And the terrorists proceeded into the compound. In the end, the terrorists, we believe, those that were killed, probably by our local guard staff, at least one, but it is unknown and subject to further investigation and the other two unknown, perhaps the Saudi forces were able to engage them and take them out. All of these are matters that will be investigated thoroughly so that we can find out exactly how that happened.
Question: But they were able to execute this through prior surveillance, that’s what you believe?
Ambassador Oberwetter: They clearly understood how our cars entered the compound and in my view had scoped it out.
Question: There were reports yesterday that two Americans, including one of the Vice Consuls at the Consulate, Monica Lemieux, were injured in this attack, and that she was seen on Palestine Street. Does your statement concur with this? And can you give us numbers about other American casualties.
Consul General Abercrombie –Winstanley: Well, I can confirm to the extent that two American staff were lightly injured, and one of them is Monica. She’s lightly injured, and she’s up and around today.
Question: Is that right, the reports that her car got shot at?
Consul General Abercrombie –Winstanley: She was in the car, and she was not hit by gunfire. But they did indeed shoot at the car, and other passengers were shot, some time between exiting the car and finding someplace safer to be.
Released on December 7, 2004