Webster’s dictionary defines the word judicious as “having, showing, or done with good judgment or sense.” That is exactly what the Judicious Activation 2019 (JACT-19) joint exercise achieved. My colleagues and I in the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Cotonou, Benin, spent seven months and hundreds of hours planning this embassy-wide crisis response exercise. Our extensive preparation, collaboration, and leadership resulted in a final exercise that proved a small post could mobilize massive assets and respond quickly and effectively to security threats regardless of their magnitude.
The Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS) mission is to protect State Department facilities, people, and information at home and abroad. At U.S. embassies and consulates, DSS special agents serve as the senior U.S. law enforcement officer and manage the mission’s regional security office. Although Benin may not immediately come to mind as a location to conduct a large-scale contingency management exercise, Cotonou Regional Security Officer (RSO) Ryan Pack and I assessed that increasing regional security threats, including increased instability in the Sahel, made Benin an excellent candidate to test the logistical limits and crisis response capabilities of our post.
We began planning JACT-19 in late 2018. Wanting to create as realistic a scenario as possible, we invited our partners who would assist us in case of a major threat or emergency that would affect post personnel or operations. By the spring of 2019, U.S Africa Command, the U.S. Marine Corps, Health and Human Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and our colleagues at State Department headquarters had signed on to participate.
In addition to outside partners, nearly every office at Embassy Cotonou was supporting or participating directly in the exercise, including vital members of our embassy security team – Marine Security Guards (MSGs), local contract guard force members, and the host nation police embassy support unit (ESU).
We designed the JACT-19 final exercise and launched it in early May 2019. Given Benin’s history, the RSO and I decided the most real-life threat to Embassy Cotonou was a major natural disaster that could lead to protests over the inability of humanitarian aid to reach those in need. With input and support from the government of Benin, we developed a notional storyline reflecting Benin’s focus on countering violent extremism. Interestingly, as art often imitates life, Benin faced very real internal and regional security concerns in the weeks leading up to the main event. Post-election protests that turned violent and Benin’s first terrorism-related hostage event threatened the entire training evolution just as we were fine-tuning the final product.
The evolving conditions on the ground in Benin made the successful execution of a training exercise even more important, so we pushed forward with planning. In the days leading up to the final exercise, three different military aircraft as well as commercial aviation flights delivered exercise participants and observers from the United States, Ghana, and Spain. Multiple security elements were ready to support JACT-19, including a DSS Mobile Security Deployments (MSD) team, a State Department-led Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), a Marine Corps Security Augmentation Unit (MSAU), and a Marine Corps Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team (FAST) platoon.
We made our final preparations for the crisis, reviewing our contingency operations and emergency action plans. Because no one outside the regional security office knew what the simulated crisis would be, the regional security office went through various threat scenarios, working out the final details and moving parts.
Over the course of two weeks, Cotonou MSGs and elements from MSD, MSAU, FEST, and FAST each had the opportunity to showcase their skillsets and impart their knowledge to each other, the embassy staff, local guard force, and the ESU. Topics ranged from first aid response and self-defense to weapons systems and response procedures. DSS special agents assigned to MSD provided security and law enforcement training to the local guard force and MSGs, including proper handcuffing techniques, room-entry tactics, and use of force. DSS and FAST elements also provided riot and crowd control training to ESU, a request of the ambassador upon her arrival in Cotonou. Emergency medical, first responder, and mass casualty training was another critical focus during JACT-19.
Finally, on May 17, two weeks of training and preparation came to a head as the entire embassy went into response mode. The exercise scenario had been designed to address an evolving security situation on the ground and degradation of security over seven months, culminating in a drill in which U.S. Embassy Cotonou had to react to a swarm of protestors gaining unauthorized access to the compound. Response units reacted quickly and delegated responsibilities to match each unit’s task and purpose according to standing agreements between the Departments of Defense and State. MSGs assigned to U.S. Embassy Cotonou maintained security within the embassy building, the MSAU maintained rooftop positions, and FAST Marines dealt with the protestors. Once the protestors no longer posed a threat, the embassy’s medical response team quickly kicked into gear and began treating, triaging, and moving volunteers posing as patients to an on-compound medical treatment location. Simultaneously, the rest of the embassy remained at a pre-defined embassy safe haven where embassy floor wardens took accountability and reported to the ambassador.
JACT-19 was one of the most comprehensive embassy crisis management exercises DSS has ever conducted. In fact, Embassy Cotonou was the first post to line up the full continuum of embassy contingency response assets available to American diplomatic missions across the globe. JACT-19 was extremely valuable for everyone at the mission as it validated the embassy’s updated emergency action plan, while embassy employees, eligible family members, contractors, and host nation personnel received critical training. Mass casualty events can easily overwhelm a small embassy’s medical staff, and having numerous individuals trained in providing first aid-built competency and psychological resilience throughout the embassy community.
As is the case with every training exercise, we learned many lessons from JACT-19. We have begun to implement many of them, fortifying and preparing Embassy Cotonou for any threats that may arise in the future. For DSS specifically, JACT-19 proved that a two-man regional security office could plan and execute a major contingency response exercise and respond to similar real-world threats.