2019 marks the 40th anniversary of 1979 – which, aside from being just another anniversary, was a landmark year for American foreign and national security policy regarding the Greater Middle East. In fact, 1979 may be said to mark the year when multiple developments fundamentally changed our approach to security policy across the Islamic world.
That year, particularly the months of November and December, saw the occurrence of several tectonic events: the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the start of the Iran hostage crisis, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Alarming and frustrating at the time – these events represented a sea change that we’re still grappling with today.
But another notable incident also occurred exactly 40 years ago – one that was somewhat overshadowed by other events at the time, and that has, unfortunately, been somewhat lost to history since.
That event was the assault and burning of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.
On November 21st, 1979, what initially started as a contained, non-violent protest outside the embassy walls quickly spiraled into a mass demonstration with agitated protestors becoming increasingly enraged and threatening to overrun the compound. Events unfolded at a lightning pace, leaving U.S. diplomats, staff and the security element little time to react. Swarms of protestors flocked to the area – some of them armed – and stormed the embassy perimeter, using ropes to scale the barrier fence before eventually crashing the gates.
Pakistani police had arrived on scene – but were ineffective in controlling the crowds and were swiftly pushed aside as the mob descended upon the campus. At one point early in the conflagration, Corporal Steven Crowley from Long Island New York, serving on the Marine Security Guard detail and posted on the embassy roof, was mortally wounded.
Embassy personnel initiated procedures for information and personnel security and moved to a secure vault on the second floor. Roughly 100 people – U.S. citizens and Pakistani employees – tensely waited out the siege, suffocating from smoke as the building burned below, while armed protestors fired rounds down ventilation shafts from the roof above.