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A SPEAR team member keeps watch over the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali, August 2016. (U.S. Department of State photo)

Host-nation Teams Bolster Security Overseas

The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) seeks to provide a safe environment for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. To enhance security, DSS established the Special Program for Embassy Augmentation and Response (SPEAR) in 2014, a valuable asset for regional security officers (RSO) and host nations’ security.

The SPEAR program enhances the security of high-threat, high-risk posts by helping a host nation’s security elements better respond to emergencies at U.S. diplomatic facilities. SPEAR institutionalizes and refines a country’s capability to support U.S. diplomatic security through ongoing training. Its curriculum focuses on the hard and soft skills needed to respond to threats facing State Department personnel overseas.

“We work with the host nation to handpick members of a country’s security or military forces and train them to become a quick reaction force,” said Randy Smith, the assistant regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali. “SPEAR teams respond within minutes and are additional security support for the embassy.”

The DSS Office of Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) manages the program while RSOs implement it in host nations. ATA/SPEAR Unit Chief Mike Swanberry believes “the security value of a proficient host-nation police force that is dedicated to our diplomatic facilities cannot be overstated. The daily interaction between RSO personnel, the ATA mentors and the SPEAR teams has built trust, confidence and interoperability among all the embassy security elements if a crisis unfolds.”

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Sam Aronson, assistant regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Niamey, Niger, agrees. “SPEAR is a crucial part of our security apparatus,” he said. “With weekly training at the newly built ATA-funded firearms range and tactical shoothouse, our SPEAR officers are among the best and brightest Niger has to offer.”

Arsonson said his office regularly integrates the SPEAR team into drills, including a recent exercise that practiced recovering the ambassador during a simulated violent protest.

Currently, SPEAR teams support U.S. diplomatic missions in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Iraq, South Sudan, Tunisia, Nigeria and Kenya. ATA offers the SPEAR program based on several factors, such as the host-nation’s emergency response capability, its political will to protect U.S. facilities and the threats and vulnerabilities of U.S. interests and facilities in a region.

The ATA’s Swanberry said that, unlike foreign assistance training initiatives, the SPEAR program is DSS funded, and U.S. diplomatic missions must directly benefit from the program. “A good barometer for a partner nation’s level of commitment is when they sign a letter of agreement, which requires them to make numerous long-term obligations,” he observed. “A partner nation’s commitment is probably the most important factor for a successful program.”

Created in 2015, Bamako’s 48-man SPEAR team is the most mature. Since the rise of political unrest in 2012, Mali has faced increased terrorism. The team has responded to terrorist attacks and secured the embassy during times of civil unrest. “The Bamako SPEAR officers are leaders among their security force counterparts and have been recognized by countrymen and international partners as the model for success,” stated Bamako SPEAR mentor Jeremy Boulware.

In March, assailants with AK-47s and grenades attacked a European Union site just two blocks from the U.S. Embassy. Eight SPEAR team members from the host nation responded within 10 minutes to secure the location, assisted with the search for the terrorists, and provided medical attention to a shooting victim.

“When the team came across a wounded national guardsman, our SPEAR medic immediately applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding until the officer could be transported to the hospital,” said Bamako’s RSO, Jason Willis. “Given the standard level of emergency care in Mali and the time it takes to get patients to hospitals, it is highly likely that the SPEAR medic saved the man’s life.”

The SPEAR program provides training for a quick-reaction force, as well as movement security training, a master trainer program, and equipment loans. It also coordinates joint readiness exercises, which facilitate collaboration between the host-nation forces and the U.S- managed security at diplomatic facilities. Examples of the latter include the Marine Security Guards, embassy bodyguards, local guard forces and surveillance detection teams.

The Marine Security Guards assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali, regularly train with SPEAR members and embassy bodyguards, August 2016. (Marine Corps Embassy Security Group photo)

“SPEAR training focuses on a multi-pronged, coordinated response to any emergency incident that a U.S. diplomatic facility may face,” said Swanberry.

This year, the annual capstone security exercise at Embassy Bamako allowed the RSO, host nation forces and Department of Defense personnel to drill together, refine response plans and learn improved crisis coordination. Next year, the SPEAR team in Niger will be included in the U.S. Special Operations Command-Africa’s Flintlock Exercise, which includes more than 200 military and law enforcement personnel from nine African and Western nations who will train and exercise to improve the coordination and response to crises and threats in West Africa.

Since its founding, the program has evolved to offer an additional focus on motorcade and movement security, and to include development of a training component within established SPEAR teams. The Bamako team has led the way in some of these new initiatives by augmenting its traditional embassy security function to include previously challenging assignments. In April, the team provided security during the U.S. and Danish ambassadors’ participation in the annual event where thousands of locals gather together each year to plaster Djenné’s mud-constructed mosque, located in central Mali. The team travelled traveled nearly 600 kilometers from Bamako to provide security in this location, where local security services were practically nonexistent, and it offered security during the site visits and supported security for the ambassadors’ motorcade by.

A Bamako SPEAR officer (left) escorts Ambassador Paul Folmsbee (right, white t-shirt) through the crowd during the annual crepissage in Djenne, central Mali, April 2017. (U.S. Department of State photo)

“We see the program as having a wide array of opportunities in the future and hope to expand the program based on its achievements,” said Swanberry.

While the program is yielding positive results, challenges remain, including the need to retain SPEAR personnel, said Aronson. “Given that the government and other members of the diplomatic community know the capabilities of the SPEAR officers, on more than one occasion, the officers are pulled to support the president and prime minister of Niger,” he explained. “We are pleased that the president of Niger appreciates their skills, but it is always a shame to lose some of our dedicated SPEAR officers.”

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Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2017 edition of State Magazine.

U.S. Department of State

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