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One of Our Own: The Death of a U.S. Embassy Guard

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The line was long outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey; it always was. Every day, with the exception of American and Turkish holidays, those with visa requests, consular issues, and other appointments stood patiently in line to await the security check near the consular gate on Paris Street, behind the main chancery facing Atatürk Boulevard inside Ankara's diplomatic enclave. The line began to form early in the morning -- very early -- and long before the gates opened at 08:30 each new day. The security checks involved a slow and comprehensively meticulous process to ensure that anyone posing a threat to the embassy would not make it through that first armored layer. Turkish police patrolled the streets, but the men and women of a local guard force manned guard booths and other locations outside the embassy where visitors could enter. The uniformed guard force was the embassy's first line of defense, and they took the job very seriously; they were armed with Glock semiautomatic pistols, and carried radios and handcuffs. Mustafa Akarsu was one of the uniformed guards on duty on February 1, 2013 -- it was his twenty-second year on the job.

At 13:13 a young man approached Gate 2, a side entry-point that accepted mail and other packages, where Akarsu was posted. The man was in his thirties, wearing a baseball cap, a scarf, a winter jacket, and dark trousers; it was quite cold outside. Smartly dressed, the man could have been one of the many visa applicants who inadvertently turn into Gate 2 mistaking it for the consular section. He could have been a job applicant, as the embassy had recently posted numerous positions available. He looked all the more routine because he was carrying a manila envelope under his arm. He could have been anyone, in fact, but he was Ecevit Şanlı, a terrorist from Turkey's extreme-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, the DHKP-C; they were an obscure, yet lethal, Marxist-Leninist group. The DHKP-C targeted Turkish politicians and policemen.Taking a page from the al Qaeda playbook, the DHKP-C embraced attacks by suicide bombers: a terrorist, armed with pistols and grenades, would try and kill as many as people as possible before ultimately blowing himself up. Many DHKP-C terrorists were women.

Ecevit Şanlı, who had spent three years in prison for attacking a military guest house in Istanbul with a flamethrower, was no stranger to politically-motivated violence in Turkey. And, on this cold February afternoon, it was his turn to kill and to die.

Gate 2 did not have a tray to pass packages through. Instead, the guard at the gate was supposed to move to the front of the building just inside the door to accept the package but block entry to fortified doors and entry point known in the jargon as the CAC, or Compound Access Control. The CAC doors and windows were FE/BR -- Forced Entry and Blast Resistant: layers of steel and transparent armor, embedded in the architecture, to keep threats out -- whether it was an explosive parcel or a mob of protesters armed with sledgehammers. Mustafa Akarsu was a solid rock of a man -- much taller than the Şanlı and nearly twice as wide. When he confronted Şanlı from his fortified guard booth, his daunting presence must have convinced Şanlı that he was never going to make it inside the embassy grounds. Şanlı detonated himself right then and there, killing himself and Akarsu in a powerful blast. Mustafa Akarsu was 47 years old.

Şanlı's device had blown an outer security door from its wall -- frame, and all. The blast caused a reinforced concrete outer wall to crack and bow; an x-ray machine, inside the guard booth, was crumpled like a tinfoil accordion. Police found a pistol and a grenade belonging to Şanlı in the debris. Had he been able to gain entrance into the embassy, it was certain he would have been able kill many before ultimately being stopped. Mustafa Akarsu prevented large-scale carnage that chilly winter's afternoon.

Security at U.S. diplomatic facilities has received a great deal of media attention in the wake of the deadly September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and two former SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, working as contractors for the Central Intelligence Agency. The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the federal law enforcement arm of the Department of State, is responsible for security at all U.S. embassies and consulates around the world; domestically, they protect the Secretary of State, as well as foreign non-heads of state dignitaries visiting the United States. They also conduct criminal and counterterrorist investigations related to passport and visa fraud. Overseas, the special agent in charge of security at an embassy, known in the vernacular as an RSO (Regional Security Officer), and one or two deputy agents, can be responsible for as many as 100 different programs and tasks, ranging from counterintelligence to supervising the Marine Security Guards who protected the classified material inside the embassy; immediately following the blast in Ankara, the Marine guards reacted from whatever they were doing and were photographed atop the embassy's roof in full battle rattle, carrying their assault rifles, prepared to respond to any sign of a secondary attack.

The RSO is also responsible for supervising the hiring, performance, and training of the local guard force -- the foreign nationals employed by the embassy who stand guard at the outermost edge of an embassy's defenses. Men like Mustafa Akarsu, who are at work at any given hour of the day at over 250 embassies and consulates around the world, are much more than faceless figures in uniform standing inside guard booths. Their dedicated efforts enable American diplomats to operate freely and unencumbered by threat. They know that at any time they can bear the brunt of a terrorist strike against the embassy. The fact that the only people killed that fateful afternoon in Ankara was the bomber and Mustafa Akarsu was a testament to the training and courage that these guards display on a daily basis. Akarsu made the ultimate sacrifice so that the men and women he swore to protect would be safe from harm.

Mustafa Akarsu had grown to love the country whose distant outpost he protected. He felt a unique sense of pride working for the United States of America, and playing a role in its defense overseas. And, this always-smiling member of the local guard force at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara wanted his children to live the American dream. Before his death he had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa; the SIV is reserved only for those who have dedicated many years of service for the U.S. government. Akarsu's hope was to become an American citizen and he dreamed of sending his children to university in the United States. Because he was killed before his SIV could be issued, the status of that request -- the fulfillment of his dream -- is now up to the State Department and special political consideration.

U.S. Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., in speaking of Akarsu's courage and dedication said, "We said goodbye to one of our own. In the daily routine of his service, he turned out to be a hero." Perhaps the most symbolic testament to Akarsu's courage was the fact that, thanks to him, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara was open for normal services the next business day after the destructive attack.

A fund has been established to help the Akarsu family in their time of need. Please visit Indiegogo or the Diplomatic Security Foundation to pledge assistance.