U.S. Embassy in Pakistan Attacked

views updated

U.S. Embassy in Pakistan Attacked

"Pakistani Troops Took Five Hours to Aid Embattled Embassy"

News article

By: Barry Shlachter

Date: November 22, 1979

Source: The Associated Press

About the Author: In November 1979, Barry Shlachter was a writer for the Associated Press. As of 2005, Shlachter is a columnist for the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, Texas.


The United States and Pakistan first established official diplomatic relations in 1947. At that time, the United States agreed to provide the country with military and economic assistance. However, beginning in 1965, the United States removed military aid to Pakistan and neighboring India at the beginning of the Indo-Pakistan war.

The United States later resumed military aid but stopped economic programs (except for food aid) as a result of anxiety over Pakistan' growing nuclear arms program. Thus, over the years, relations between the governments of the United States and Pakistan have been tense and has including several violent incidents against U.S. officials and employees in Pakistan.

One such incident occurred on November 21, 1979, when thousands of radical students and angry Pakistanis attacked the thirty-two acre U.S. embassy compound in Islamabad, Pakistan. The attack was instigated when an inaccurate report by Iran's ruling Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini went out over Pakistani airwaves stating that American and Israeli troops had attacked the holy city of Mecca and taken control of the Grand Mosque. (On that night, religious extremists from Saudi Arabia had forcibly subdued the Grand Mosque at Mecca.)

At this same time, other U.S.-controlled locations in Pakistan were also attacked, including the American Cultural Center in Lahore that was destroyed by fire.

As Pakistani protestors descended upon the embassy, Marine guards held back the crowds. Nearly 140 people retreated inside the embassy. U.S. diplomats, Pakistani staff members, and visiting Time magazine reporter Marcia Gauger were among the people who locked themselves into a steel-encased communications room within a secure top-floor area known as The Vault. In the end, two Americans and two Pakistani employees were killed. Those hiding in the Vault eventually escaped the burning building through an opening on the embassy's roof.

One of the many media reports broadcast around the world that day was from the CBS Evening News, which stated: "The invaders ran shooting through the corridors, took over the roof and set fires, reportedly with Molotov cocktails . . . " [CBS News web citation] Because of the rumor that the United States had attacked Mecca, the embassy building was set on fire, and eventually burned down, and four people were killed (Army Warrant Officer Bryan Ellis, Corporal Steven J. Crowley, and two Pakistani staff members). The alleged lack of immediate response on the part of the Pakistani government also contributed to the extent of the destruction.


Witnesses said today it took about five hours for Pakistani troops to move against a violent mob that burned down the U.S. Embassy here, leaving two Americans and an estimated five Pakistanis dead.

A West European diplomat said the students who initiated Wednesday's riot were joined by thousands of "workers and layabouts" who arrived in state-owned Punjab Transport Corp. buses, which he claimed were provided without charge.

In Washington, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance ordered non-essential U.S. government personnel and about 300 dependents of government employees to leave Pakistan following the attacks on the Islamabad embassy and other U.S. facilities in the Moslem nation.

More than 2,000 angry Moslems, shouting "kill the American dogs," stormed the embassy with guns blazing about noon Wednesday and set it afire, witnesses said. They apparently were spurred by false reports of American involvement in Tuesday's takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

"There is some concern about the inaction of the Pakistan army," U.S. Navy Cmdr. Chuck Monaghan said today. Monaghan, 43, is attached to the embassy's military assistance group.

"The only time they did something was when the (U.S.) Marines went on the roof"—about five hours after the disturbance began, said Monaghan, of Clinton, Iowa.

Cpl. Steven Crowley, 20, of Port Jefferson, N.Y., was killed when he was caught in a crossfire between Marines and Pakistani police on one side and the invading Moslems on the other, the Defense Department said.

The U.S. Defense Department today identified a body found in a charred apartment in the gutted embassy compound as that of 29-year-old Bryan Ellis, an Army chief warrant officer. Ellis' wife, Brenda, was away from their apartment at the time and was uninjured. The Pentagon said the dead man's mother and stepfather are Mr. and Mrs. Erwin B. Ellis of Mobile, Ala., and his father, Edmond Polinski of Spring Lake, N.C.

Some 37 other persons, including two unidentified Americans, were injured in the attack. The bodies of two fatally burned Pakistani employees of the embassy also were discovered, U.S. Ambassador Arthur W. Hummel Jr. said.

Pakistani news reports said three demonstrators died during the riot.

"I had not believed that there was any substantial anti-American feeling in this country," Hummel told reporters today at the U.S. Aid Office where the embassy staff has relocated.

"Whenever religion is concerned, and when Islam is concerned, this country has often shown violence," he said.

Hummel said police were dispatched quickly after being alerted by the embassy at about 1:30 p.m. local time (4:30 a.m. EST) but both this small contingent and later reinforcements were quickly overwhelmed by the mob.

He declined to say when army troops arrived, but reported the troops helped American and Pakistani staff members escape at about 6:45 p.m..

Hummel said the dependents and non-essential personnel would be evacuated to Washington on Friday on a chartered Pan American airways jetliner.

Thomas G. Putscher, 32, of Willingboro, N.J., told the Associated Press he suffered a concussion in a beating by rioters who called him an "imperialist pig."

Putscher, an auditor with the U.S. Aid Office in Karachi, said he was kidnapped by students from nearby Quaid-ia University, where he was held until "acquitted in a kangaroo court" five hours later.

"It was worse than Vietnam," said Monaghan, who was among 90 American and Pakistani staff members who locked themselves in a third floor, steel-encased communications area known as the "vault."

They were forced to leave the area, he said, after it filled with smoke and the floor began to buckle from the heat. Two marines climbed through a window and onto the roof to open an escape hatch. Only then, Monaghan said, did the Pakistan army move in to help them.

Feelings were running high in the diplomatic community over the failure of the Pakistani government to prevent the burning of the embassy.

One diplomat said darkness, not the presence of troops, sent rioters home.

"Obviously the feeling is that the military acted very slowly," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified.

"The situation could have been handled by 2 p.m., an hour or so after it began," he went on. "But the Pakistan military took no effective action until a quarter-to-seven when the Americans already had released themselves from the strong room."

In Washington, The State Department blamed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's militant Islamic regime in Iran for "creating the climate" for the attack. Khomeini issued a statement that it was "not far-fetched to assume that this act (against the mosque) has been carried out by criminal American imperialism. . . . and international Zionism."

Gen. Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's military dictator, spoke to President Carter by telephone and expressed "deep regret and apologies for the attack," White House spokesman Jody Powell said.

A leader of some 300 students who led the attack in Islamabad said the attackers believed rumors that American Jews were responsible for the mosque takeover. "We regret the lives lost and the destruction," the student said.

Hummel, who had gone home for lunch before the attack began, said all six buildings in the embassy compound—built at a cost of more than $20 million—were destroyed, as were 50 vehicles.


At the time of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani government and its citizens were angry at the United States for various reasons, including the U.S. government's decision to stop economic aid, false claims of U.S. military troops controlling the holy city of Mecca, human-rights' criticisms levied by U.S. officials against Pakistan dictator, General Mohammed Zia ul-'Haq, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and the removal by Shiite clerics of an Iranian dictator favored by the United States.

A false rumor was the catalyst for the 1979 fatal attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. The instantaneous, around-the-clock news coverage that is present today was then only in its infancy. Today, rumor, propaganda, and terrorist communications can, in a matter of seconds, be seen and heard around the world via satellite broadcasts and the Internet. These technologies also afford the opportunity to rapidly disseminate accurate information and to correct false information.


Web sites

60 Minutes, CBS News. "The Big Lie." <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/09/04/60II/main520768.shtml> (accessed June 5, 2005).

Embassy of the United States: Islamabad, Pakistan. "Homepage of the Embassy of the United States: Islamabad, Pakistan." <http://islamabad.usembassy.gov/pakistan/index.html> (accessed June 7, 2005).

Washington Post. Barr, Cameron W. "A Day of Terror Recalled: 1979 Embassy Siege in Islamabad Still Haunts Survivors." <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A15332–2004Nov26.html> (accessed June 5, 2005).

About this article

U.S. Embassy in Pakistan Attacked

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


U.S. Embassy in Pakistan Attacked