Living next to militant Islam gives US expats the jitters

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The Independent Online
IN THE British Club in Islamabad, they traditionally discuss servants; in the American Club the subject, according to the conventional wisdom, is security.

The broad tree-lined avenues of the Pakistani capital's diplomatic enclave are remarkable only for their air of calm. Here, in a country full of noise and bustle, are the embassies, high commissions, consulates, compounds, and clubs of the expatriate community. Most blend into the background, but with its razor wire, arc lights, moat and endless visa queue, the American embassy is about as inconspicuous as the Statue of Liberty.

This weekend, following the double bombing in East Africa nine days ago, many of the 1,000 US nationals living in Pakistan were still facing up to the realisation that it could very easily have been them. Nineteen years ago it almost was - in November 1979, a mob marched through Islamabad, incensed by a rumour, possibly spread by the Soviets, that American soldiers had desecrated the holy Muslim sites of Mecca and Medina. Armed police had forced them away from the American cultural centre, but the embassy's defences were not strong enough to repel them. It was burned to the ground and four people, two of them Americans, were killed.

"People talk about it all the time," said Stacey Gilbert, an American who works for the United Nations Development Programme and lives in Islamabad. "When people say we are all paranoid about security, you can't help but say, 'Well, your embassy hasn't been torched'."

"You hear of killing elsewhere, like last week, or in Saudi Arabia a couple of years back, and you think, there but for the grace of God go I. It's always in the back of your mind," said an embassy worker.

The State Department has issued "advisories" to Americans in several Islamic countries to be on their guard, yet security measures in Pakistan have not been stepped up significantly following the attacks in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. The embassy has merely warned all American nationals in the country to be extra vigilant, but some take their own, possibly rather extreme, measures.

"There are people who never leave the embassy compound. They never eat anywhere other than the restaurant there, and buy all their food from the commissary. They even spend all their spare time at the American Club," said Mr Gilbert, who has been in Pakistan for three months.

While senior diplomats refer to a "complex" relationship between Pakistan and the US, others talk about a powerful undercurrent of anti-Americanism in the strongly Islamic country. "Let's face it," said one American businessman last week, "no other nation walks around with a target painted on its back."

Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire suspected of involvement in the East African bomb attacks, lives in neighbouring Afghanistan, and, with a multitude of Islamic groups of varying militancy training in the mountains that straddle the border between the two countries, there are many directions from which an attack might come.

In March, rumours that an Islamic fundamentalist group was planning an attack forced increased security measures. According to one Pakistani intelligence officer, the group then switched its attention elsewhere, possibly to Africa. Two weeks ago, a middle-aged American was shot dead, and his wife injured, while on a trekking trip in the Pakistani Himalayas.

At first, the attack was dismissed as a robbery that went wrong, but it is now being described by police as politically motivated. And last year, four Americans and their Pakistani driver were shot dead in the violent city of Karachi. That attack was linked to the conviction in the US of Aimal Khansi, a Pakistani national who murdered two CIA employees.

Ironically, the most conspicuous of all the Americans in Pakistan are the Marines, sent to guard the community. Their shaven heads, gym- built torsos and ever-present radios are often seen at expat parties. Their opinion of the Islamic world is harsh. "Man, this whole region is a shithole. They're all out to get us and we're pretty much out to get them," said one young Marine who did not want to be named.

But Richard Hogland, press spokesman for the embassy, said that he lived away from the compound and enjoyed it. "Diplomats live protected lives," he said. "There's no point making the cocoon even tighter. Of course we are concerned about security, but you have to get on with your life."