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How the US Prepares Its Embassies for Potential Attacks


Meanwhile, security officers at embassies in other high-threat countries will be watching closely, and likely implementing changes of their own to bolster security in the wake of this week’s events. Given that the embassy in Baghdad is among the largest and most expensive in the world, utilizing state-of-the-art protection technologies, the success of Tuesday’s attack is worrying. The State Department hasn’t indicated whether any of its security protocols failed, though it appears that Iraqi security forces charged with protecting the compound were ineffective against the Shiite forces attempting to storm it. Images from the embassy show significant structural and fire damage to the facility’s primary entryway.

That said, the damage was contained to the front-line reception area, which sits across a compound at a distance from the embassy building itself. That building wasn’t breached, and the protesters were eventually dispersed with tear gas. Diplomats inside the embassy stayed in safe rooms, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a subsequent interview with CBS that the embassy never considered evacuating personnel.

Security presences vary from embassy to embassy. They’re guarded by Marine Security Guard contingents; the size of the force varies by country, and is not publicly disclosed. Overall security is overseen by the regional security officers, who advise ambassadors and senior officials and help execute the training exercises, such as the one I observed in Dakar.

There, role-playing actors performing as protestors set fire to tires—simulated with colored smoke grenades—in front of the main guard station while chanting anti-US slogans and waving banners. Others scaled the high fence and made it into the compound. Security personnel tracked, pursued, and captured the infiltrators before they could breach the embassy building itself. Inside that structure, the Marine guards alerted embassy staff to head for predetermined safe rooms, while armed Marines took positions on the rooftop for additional support.

During such events, security teams decide whether to call for backup. This might come in the shape of DSS special operations units called Mobile Security Deployments, similarly capable Marine Security Augmentation Units, or so-called SPEAR teams, for Special Program for Embassy Augmentation Response. These consist of local law enforcement teams that are given additional training for responding to emergencies at US diplomatic facilities, the State Department says. On Friday, the department couldn’t confirm which, if any, these supplemental forces were called into action during the attack Tuesday, nor would it say if any augmentation forces have been deployed to other embassies in the wake of the week’s events.

After the training simulation I observed in Dakar in 2018, team leaders gathered to analyze the results and consider improvements. The results of the analysis were not released. After events like the Baghdad assault, scrutiny is intensified and the State Department begins the cycle of improvements its tactics and training, now taking place at the center in Virginia.

There, DSS officials instruct agents and other personnel about managing everything from convoys to terrorist attacks, particularly in a simulated city. The full-scale town, complete with its own embassy compound, stands in for urban centers of all kinds globally. This week, it likely looks an awful lot like Baghdad.


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