STUTTGART, Germany — When it comes to preventing attacks on U.S. embassies in hotspots like Libya, harnessing information on social media such as Twitter could help predict potential threats to Americans in regions where the transition to democracy has ushered in security vacuums, some experts say.
“Social media can provide early indications of pending violence; we just need to harness the analytical tools to help us see it,” wrote William Young, a former CIA officer involved in past efforts to protect U.S. embassies.
Young, writing in a recent blog post for the RAND Corporation, also said embassies should utilize low-tech, nonlethal technology, such as powerful sound blasters.
“These systems can easily disperse crowds by projecting sound at a level that is roughly equivalent to standing next to a jet engine on takeoff,” Young said in the blog.
He also suggested linguists monitoring Twitter and personnel in roving patrols, gauging the public mood.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 consulate attacks in Benghazi that resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, questions have been raised about security shortcomings at diplomatic missions in North Africa and beyond. Soon after the attack in Libya, a team of Marines based in Rota, Spain, was dispatched to Tripoli to bolster security at the Embassy there. Meanwhile, U.S. law enforcement officials have reportedly been unable to gain access to the site of the terrorist attack in Benghazi because of security concerns.
At the heart of the security crisis is the incapacity of Libyan military and police forces to ensure the safety of embassy staff and crime scene investigators. While the measures suggested by Young could help in the short-term, the long-term hope is that Libyan security forces will develop into a reliable partner, capable of eliminating security vacuums that have allowed extremist groups to gain traction in parts of the country.
But the emergence of a professional Libyan security force is probably years away, according to analysts, who say international support will be key to those efforts.
“The Libyan dense bureaucracy is in such disarray that they don’t have the means to even set their priorities,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “From what I understand, the desire is there, but the means and channels to convey what’s needed is not.”
As for the extremist threat in Libya, where U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about the presence of al-Qaida affiliated groups, the U.S. should be cautious about getting involved, according to Wehrey.
“This really has to be a Libya show,” Wehrey said. “The worst thing would be to project U.S. power in a visible way. This would squander the goodwill there.”
Meanwhile, as the international community wrestles with the way forward in Libya, the U.S. should examine whether Marines at embassies need more flexibility in how they respond in the event of attacks on diplomatic compounds, according to Young.
“This latest attack points to the need to review both decisions about where to post Marine guards, and the protocol governing what they are allowed to do in the event of an attack,” Young wrote, noting that there were no Marine guards posted at the Benghazi consulate when it was attacked.
“Their purpose in an attack is to secure the embassy and its classified paper and electronic storage systems. The Marines do not have the mandate to engage with attackers and are limited to designated areas on the embassy or consulate grounds,” Young wrote.