NAIROBI, Kenya: In October 2021, the U.S. Embassy’s Regional Security Office in Nairobi, Kenya, conducted its sixth Joint Readiness Exercise since 2017, with the goal of helping Kenyan and U.S. response teams better coordinate during an emergency.
The day-long exercise involved more than 300 people and included simulated attacks, emergency response vehicles, and dozens of role players portraying hostages and injured personnel. The scenario involved two simultaneous security incidents, based on numerous real-world terrorist attacks, including several in and around Nairobi.
Maintaining security in Kenya is a persistent, significant challenge. The country has experienced multiple terrorist attacks that often targeted foreigners in the past quarter century. Nairobi hosts the largest U.S. diplomatic presence in sub-Saharan Africa, with the U.S. Embassy sitting adjacent to a regional United Nations headquarters compound. The city furthermore has a large international diplomatic community.
More than 120 Kenyan law enforcement officers took part in the exercise, with the majority trained and mentored by the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) and the Antiterrorism Assistance program (ATA). The ATA program is a strategic partnership between DSS, which provides training and equipment, and the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, which provides funding and policy oversight.
The main law enforcement participants in the exercise were members of the U.S. Embassy’s Special Program for Embassy Augmentation and Response (SPEAR) team. The SPEAR team is comprised of specially trained hand-picked host-nation officers assigned to defend U.S. diplomats. The SPEAR program was created by DSS in the aftermath of the 2012 attacks against U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The Kenya SPEAR team was created in 2017 and SPEAR members along with other ATA-trained crisis responders were tested under fire when they responded to the January 2019 terrorist attack at the DusitD2 Hotel in Nairobi.
The 2021 Joint Readiness Exercise simulated an armed attack at an international school during an event attended by senior diplomats. The school attack was closely followed by a second attack on the grounds of the nearby U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
“We thought, obviously, Al-Shabaab is watching,” said Nicholas Teta, a DSS mentor for the Kenya SPEAR team, referring to the Somalia-based militant group. “That they would hit a target and then simultaneously hit another target as everyone else responded,” Teta said. Therefore, he explained, the “crux of the exercise was a complex attack at two multiple sites to stretch not only the SPEAR team but also the [other] Kenya responders.”
The State Department ATA program has been partnering with Kenya since 1987. In August 1998, al-Qaeda terrorists conducted near-simultaneous bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people in Kenya, including 12 Americans. The attacks had a significant impact on how the State Department manages security at overseas posts and resulted in a global expansion of both DSS and the ATA program.
Alongside Teta and the DSS-funded SPEAR team, ATA manages several ongoing mentorships with Kenyan law enforcement, including with Kenya’s Bomb Disposal Unit, the Border Police Unit, the Antiterrorism Police Unit’s Emergency Response Team, and the General Services Unit’s Crisis Response Team.
“As you know, readiness is absolutely critical to Kenya, to the United States,” Chargé d’Affaires Eric Kneedler told Kenyan media following the October 30 exercise. “In many ways our counterterrorism partnership, our security relationship, is the bedrock of this relationship.”
The exercise was observed by U.S. and international diplomats, as well as representatives of Kenya’s government. Participants included, along with Kenyan law enforcement, U.S. Embassy Marine Security Guards and DSS special agents from the Regional Security Office, personnel and role-players from the U.S. Embassy staff, educators from one of several international schools in Nairobi, representatives of the British High Commission, and Kenya medical first responders, to include 15 ambulances and staff from two Nairobi hospitals.
Eight DSS-contracted instructors served as observers and safety monitors.
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