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Protecting Americans Overseas

What Happens When
An American is Harmed Overseas

06/03/08

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In this age of globalization, more Americans are traveling and working abroad, happily and safely. But Americans overseas are sometimes victimized by terrorism and other deadly crimes. When that happens, how much support can victims and their families expect from their government back home?

Plenty, as it turns out. When Americans are seriously harmed overseas, the appropriate U.S. government agencies quickly pull together a coordinated response to the incident. And the FBI often plays a critical role in that response, whether there’s one victim...or hundreds.

The FBI’s jurisdiction in crimes or attacks against Americans abroad dates back to the mid-1980s, when Congress passed laws authorizing us to investigate hostage-taking and kidnappings of Americans and terrorist acts against U.S. nationals or interests overseas. Of course, we don’t go uninvited into another country—we get permission from the host government and always work with that nation’s law enforcement and security personnel, in concert with the U.S. Embassy and the Ambassador.

Our jurisdiction doesn’t extend to non-terrorism related homicides, robberies, rapes, and muggings of Americans—these are usually handled by local authorities. But we can—and sometimes do—offer investigative or forensics assistance in these cases if asked.

How it works. Let’s say the worst has occurred—a terrorist attack or kidnapping. What happens then? In general:

  • The victim or family (if able) contacts the U.S. Embassy closest to where the incident occurred.
  • The U.S. Ambassador there offers American assistance to the host government (in some cases that government asks for our nation’s help first).
  • Our Legal Attaché agent assigned to that country or region serves as a diplomatic liaison (we have more than 60 such agents around the world today) and works with the Ambassador and the entire embassy team to determine what resources are needed.
  • With the permission of the host government and in conjunction with the State Department, the FBI deploys its resources, supporting the investigative efforts of the foreign government. The size of our overseas deployments depends on the scope of the incident and what the host government requests.

What “resources” are available? Pretty much our full gamut: the FBI Fly Team, the first responders who get our investigative efforts off the ground…rapid deployment teams that handle logistics…investigators and analysts…hostage negotiators…crisis managers…evidence response teams…and fingerprint personnel.

The FBI also serves on the State Department-led Foreign Emergency Support Team, an interagency on-call group of terrorism experts poised to respond to terrorist incidents overseas.

Since the 1980s, we have deployed hundreds of times all over the world, supporting the efforts of our global partners and helping to identify and bring terrorists and criminals to justice. In the past few years alone, we’ve found ourselves in:

  • Athens, after a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into the U.S. Embassy (2007);
  • Gaza, negotiating for the release of an American reporter and his cameraman (2006);
  • London, working with our British partners after a coordinated terrorist attack on the London subway that also wounded numerous U.S. citizens (2005);
  • Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after explosions at several compounds that housed Americans (2003).

We also offer a variety of services to victims and their families after an incident that falls within our jurisdiction. Stay tuned for an upcoming article focusing on the services our victim assistance experts provide.

Resources:
FBI overseas offices

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