By Vincent Deery, Sales and Marketing Director at 3DX-Ray Ltd

Diplomatic missions around the world are incredibly vulnerable. By their very nature, they are the territory of a foreign power within the very heart of another sovereign state.

But diplomatic missions do not just consist of the Embassies themselves. Often countries maintain one or more consulates and embassy offices in major cities around the host country.

For instance, New York has 116 foreign missions in the city, primarily because it is the home of the UN headquarters and a global financial centre. But Los Angeles, which is not the site for any international intergovernmental organisations is still home to sixty- six foreign consular missions.

Another example is UK, which in addition to its Embassies in the host nation’s capital, has four consulates in Nigeria, seven consulates in India, and no less than thirteen in the US. In total, the UK maintains eighty-five Embassy satellite offices and consulates in non-capital cities around the world.

This pattern is mirrored by many of the richer nations.

All these embassies and missions are vulnerable to some degree or another. That risk varies greatly but nowhere can be considered risk free. After all, New Zealand which has always been considered one of the safest countries on earth, was the scene of a mass shooting in 2019 which killed 51 people. In that case the perpetrator was a white supremacist, and the target was Moslems in local Mosques. What that incident shows is that nowhere can be considered completely safe from radical extremism, whether it is politically, religiously, and racially motivated.

Circumstances can also change very rapidly and diplomatic missions from countries that would not normally consider themselves high priority targets for radicals, can very quickly find themselves as isolated islands in a sea of potentially dangerous political or religious unrest. As was the case back in 2005 when Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published twelve editorial cartoons that caused offence to some Muslims. In early 2006 protests around the world escalated into violence, resulting in attacks on Danish and other European diplomatic missions.

One of the reasons they are so vulnerable is that diplomatic missions are only responsible for their own security up to their own perimeter. Outside of that, they are totally dependent on local security forces to ensure their safety. And sometimes those local authorities might not be up to the job, are sympathetic to the cause of would-be aggressors or in the worst-case scenario are complicit with them.

Globally, attacks on diplomatic missions are by no means unusual.

2020 and 2021 were both unusually peaceful, there were only three attacks over both years: no prizes for guessing why. But not a year goes by without some sort of attack on a mission somewhere in the world and most are not against what you would regard as the usual suspects of USA, UK, France.

Of the sixty-nine attacks on missions in the last ten years, only eight were against the US, four against French and one against UK missions.

2015 was a recent high point with seventeen separate attacks around the world on the diplomatic missions of fourteen different countries, resulting in twenty-one deaths and twenty-seven injured. 2016 saw the single, bloodiest incident of recent years, with the attack on the German consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, when a Taliban truck bomb killed three and injured one hundred and twenty.

It is fair to say, that most Embassies, but not all, take their perimeter security as seriously as the local risk assessment dictates. The same cannot be said for many consulates and embassy offices, which are often in shared commercial premises and so rely on the building security for theirs. Most seem to rely on their relative obscurity, for their security.

But one area of real concern for all diplomatic missions is the postal system.

For terrorists and other bad actors wishing to do harm, postal and courier services represent a low risk, covert delivery system bypassing perimeter security, right into the heart of the mission. Most diplomatic missions will receive hundreds, if not thousands of letters and parcels each month.

Delivered threats can include letters and parcels potentially containing explosive or incendiary devices. Other threats include chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear materials. These may come in the form of so-called “White powders” but may also be crystalline, oily, or waxy residues, or liquid substances.

Therefore, it is key to ensure that all letters and packages, whether they are mailed or arrive by courier, go through the mailroom and that the mailroom is a fundamental part of the security system. Mailroom staff need to be properly trained and equipped, and follow appropriate processes and procedures, such as those laid down in the UK CPNI’s PAS 97:2021 mail screening and security specification.

Given the potential risks faced, X-Ray mail screening technology is a must for diplomatic missions. Many of the bigger high threat embassies will no doubt have conveyor x-ray line scanners of the sort that you see at airports. But not all diplomatic missions will have the threat level, space, or budget for systems of this type.

There are plenty of cabinet style X-ray mail scanners on the market, but not all available cabinet systems provide adequate capability.

Back in 2019 UK company 3DX-Ray, launched the AXISTM-CXi, a cabinet-based x-ray screening system that utilises the same colour differentiating image technology used in airport baggage screening and meets the requirements of the UK Mail Screening Test Piece (MSTP), part of the CPNI’s PAS 97.

3DX-Ray has recently sold two systems to the Diplomatic Protection Service of a Pacific rim nation.

The AXISTM-CXi is a huge step forward in mail room scanning, as colour differentiated images enable operators to determine not just the shape, but the nature of the materials being scanned. Orange shows organics, such as explosives, chemicals, and drugs, as well as more innocent items such as foodstuffs. Blue shows metals, such as guns, knives, and potential IED components. Green shows inorganic materials like those used in some homemade explosives. Grey scale is used for recognition of shapes and the form of objects. This allows the operator, with very little training, to analyse items more accurately, quickly, and easily.

Cabinet-based x-ray screening system AXISTM-Cxi.

This is a step change from many existing cabinet mail screening manufacturers who have relied on pseudo colourisation of images and powder detection algorithms to indicate to operators the potential of a threat – these tools do not have any independent standard accreditation or assessment, unlike the materials discrimination 3DX-Ray has introduced which is assessed according to the transport and aviation sector standards and specifically test 5 of the Mail Screening Test Piece.

A further major innovation is in the design itself. The AXISTM-CXi has an extra-large inspection chamber, whilst maintaining a small footprint. So, not only can it scan mail and parcels, but it can also scan bags up to and including aircraft cabin bags.

The system is mobile and aesthetically sympathetic, meaning that it can be used in entrances and lobbies in times of raised threat levels.

The system has user-friendly touch screen controls, high image resolution and highly capable image processing software.

What is certain is that the threat to diplomatic missions is ever present and is not going away. It only takes a seemingly harmless decision or comment by the home government, a corporation, media, or citizen, to offend the sensibilities of a foreign religious, political, ethnic or national group, to make diplomatic missions an “easy to get at target” for angry violent protests or terrorism.

Whilst obviously you can only control what is within your control, one control you can have, is making sure that your diplomatic staff have the best possible protection from dangers that arrive in the post. ■


Vincent Deery
is Sales and Marketing Director at 3DX-Ray Ltd.

Download the article as a PDF: DIPLOMATIC MISSIONS – CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER? – By Vincent Deery – 3DX-RAY