The Correlation Between Terrorism and U.S. Embassy Security Funding

The State Department’s Annual Congressional Budget for Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance, 1998-2023. Data from the U.S. State Department’s Annual Congressional Budget Justification for its Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

The U.S. is not immune to the threat of acts of terrorism in retaliation for American actions abroad. The case for secure facilities from these types of attacks was made three years prior to September 11, when several bombs detonated simultaneously at the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. These explosions killed more than 200 people and injured 4,500 others. Both of these attacks in Kenya and Tanzania were linked to al-Qaeda, whose goal is to reduce the influence of the United States and its Western allies from the broader Muslim world, which it perceives as “the root cause of the Middle East’s problems.”

For current American diplomats and other noncombatant staff at U.S. Foreign Missions, the unpredictability of when future terrorist attacks can occur leave many feeling vulnerable since would-be attackers do not have to travel internationally to attack American soil. To protect the safety of American diplomats, these offices must be equipped to protect them from various threats. For this reason, the International Affairs Budget (IAB) of the U.S. federal budget allocates funds to the Embassy Security, Construction, Maintenance (ESCM) subsection that supports the Department of State’s diplomatic undertakings by providing “safe, secure, and functional” facilities to American diplomats ensuring their safety.  

In 1985, the IAB made up 2.5% of the entire federal budget. Every fiscal year after 1985, it continued to decrease in funding. By 1998, the IAB accounted for only 1% of the federal budget. After the embassy attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that same year, the FY 1999 IAB broke away from tradition and requested $1 billion more than the FY 1998 funding, for a total of $20.15 billion. Specifically, Congress authorized $900 million to be spent annually on ESCM for FY 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004, increasing from $397,943 in FY 1998 to $1.081 billion in FY 1999. 

Then, the ESCM portion of funds mostly stagnated until two attacks in Sana’a, Yemen, and Istanbul, Turkey, in 2008. In Sana’a, three mortar rounds attempted to hit the U.S. embassy. Instead, it hit a girls’ school nearby and killed a school guard. A few months later, the U.S. embassy was again targeted when two suicide car bombers detonated and killed sixteen Americans. Al-Qaeda was once again linked to an attack on American soil. In Istanbul, two men were not able to enter the U.S. consulate but managed to shoot and kill three Turkish police officers. It is unclear whether the two men had links to al-Qaeda or Kurdish separatist organizations.

The attacks in Sana’a and Istanbul led to another billion-dollar increase in funding to $2.669 billion for ESCM in the FY 2009 budget. After this original increase, the following three years of funding fell below $2 billion. In FY 2012, ESCM received roughly 62% of what it had received in FY 2009. 

On the night of September 11, 2012, a group of extremists broke into and set fire to the U.S. Special Mission and CIA Annex in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans died including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, two former U.S. Navy SEALs, and a foreign service officer. Following the Benghazi attack, ESCM received over a billion dollars in FY 2013, totaling $2.820 billion. After the attack, a Senate committee report found that because the facility in Benghazi was “designated as temporary, no security standards applied to it,” and that additional physical barriers were not in place due to “time and money constraints.” Both extremists and terrorists abroad and Americans domestically can easily access information about funds amounts allocated toward the IAB budget on the Department of State’s website. Whereas Americans are interested in seeing where their tax dollars are being used, terrorists want to know where would be the easiest to strike. While correlation does not necessarily mean causation, the case can be made that terrorists plan attacks when ESCM funds are low. If there had been more funds allocated for ESCM, would the terrorists have been emboldened to take advantage of the lack of security and act? 
There will always be a risk that acts of terrorism will continue to occur on U.S. missions when the ESCM portion of the IAB gets reduced. Despite this, some lawmakers in Congress have historically wanted to cut back on the IAB budget. The Accountability Review Board for Benghazi (ARB) report highlights this, stating that “the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work. […] Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives.” While this portion of the budget might not be the most exciting for American politicians to focus on, it is incredibly important to sustain and augment so as to support “the Department’s diplomatic activities by providing safe, secure, and functional facilities to carry out the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Just as the USGLC Report of Reports for the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress from over a decade ago, the need for America “to strengthen its civilian capacity as a critical part of our foreign policy and national security strategy” is still an ongoing concern that will not go away anytime soon.

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