A special program bolsters security at embassies and consulates in challenging environments. DSS special agents explain SPEAR and how it works in Mali.
BY KYLE ANDREASEN
Mali lies on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, a crossroads of ancient transit routes as well as modern-day extremist groups. The region has long been divided by clashing factions, but violence over the past decade has escalated. Since 2019, the West African country has experienced social unrest, a military coup, a reconsolidation of military power, and ongoing terrorist threats—making Bamako among the most dangerous posts in the State Department. The size of the U.S. diplomatic presence has varied in recent years given the nation’s pervasive instability.
When Ambassador Dennis B. Hankins first took his post in Mali in January 2019, he began attending international gatherings with U.S. Embassy Bamako’s sizable security entourage. Some diplomats from other nations, he noted in an interview, would roll their eyes and say something along the lines of, “Here comes the ugly American with all his security.”
But, by early 2022, half a dozen diplomats of other countries had assured Ambassador Hankins that it would not be safe to attend international gatherings without the professional, reassuring presence of his U.S. embassy security teams. This security presence relies on the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Special Program for Embassy Augmentation and Response (SPEAR), which establishes dedicated 24/7 forces of host nation law enforcement officers to help prevent and counter attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities.
In 2014 DSS created the SPEAR program as a response to the 2012 attacks on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya. The program is managed by the DSS Office of Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA), which also implements a range of programs to provide ongoing training and equipment for foreign law enforcement personnel. (See below for more detail.)
The SPEAR program’s goal is to identify and train specialized law enforcement units in partner nations to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel, often serving as a quick-reaction force. These units augment U.S. Marine Security Guards and other embassy security personnel. During an emergency, each team has its own respective charges; SPEAR’s role is to respond from outside the embassy or consulate walls. Accordingly, SPEAR teams participate in relevant drills and exercises to develop a high degree of interoperability with other security elements. Regional Security Office (RSO) SPEAR mentors handpick the specially trained local host country law enforcement officers who make them up.
Ambassador Hankins has seen firsthand the benefits of the SPEAR program. “There are parts of our mission that couldn’t function without SPEAR,” he observed as he prepared to attend a quiet gathering in May 2022 to honor two SPEAR officers who had been killed in host nation combat operations two months earlier. (The two fallen officers were not on embassy protection duties at the time of their deaths but instead had been activated by their parent National Guard unit to serve a combat rotation.)
Bamako is among three State Department posts that experience the highest risk levels for crime, political violence, and terrorist threats. The other posts are Baghdad and Mogadishu, both of which have a notably higher Department of Defense presence and more robust security resources than does Bamako, as noted by Regional Security Officer David Howell.
Created in 2015, the SPEAR team in Bamako has been one of the program’s most important successes. The team’s 62 officers are drawn from Mali’s National Guard, but also have law enforcement authority and serve as professional role models within the Malian community. Mali’s SPEAR team conducts regular security drills and frequent walk-throughs of potential target locations, actions that let the Malian community see SPEAR’s professionalism firsthand. Local police have noted that crime rates are reduced in areas regularly patrolled by SPEAR.
The Mali SPEAR team underwent a baptism by fire shortly after its creation. In November 2015, terrorists attacked the Radisson Blu hotel, a major focal point for Bamako’s international community. An American development worker was killed in the initial assault. The SPEAR team and DSS special agents with the U.S. Embassy Regional Security Office, along with Department of Defense personnel, worked side by side to rescue more than a dozen Americans, including embassy staff, trapped in their rooms by terrorists.
The team continued to be tested. In June and July 2020, growing numbers of protestors began demonstrating against the Malian government over myriad security and economic issues. Political violence led to several civilians being killed by security forces in one Bamako neighborhood. In August 2020, a group of military officers overthrew the Malian government. In October 2020, that group ceded power to a transition government, after which another former officer consolidated power in 2021. Hopes for speedy elections to return to civilian governance were dashed, but in June 2022, the transition authorities announced plans to hold elections no later than March 2024.
Within 24 hours of the 2020 coup, the U.S. Embassy Regional Security Office was in contact with SPEAR members who confirmed their dedication to continuing their embassy protection mission. The embassy soon was in direct contact with coup leaders, who assured that SPEAR members would remain impartial and focused on their mission to protect the U.S. diplomatic community. Significantly, when SPEAR unit members remained loyal to their mission of protecting Americans, their actions helped avoid the need for an ordered departure and allowed diplomats to continue their work.
Due to the increasingly challenging threat environment in Bamako, marked by an attack directly outside the city on July 22, 2022, traveling outside the capital requires extensive preparation and almost always includes a SPEAR team escort. According to a DSS special agent on the RSO staff, “They [SPEAR] enable us to conduct diplomacy in a pretty grim environment.”
The SPEAR program has several advantages over deploying U.S. personnel to high-risk locations. First, under international law, host nations have the primary responsibility for protecting foreign diplomats. Second, local law enforcement officers have a deep cultural and legal understanding of their domestic communities. These officers can reduce local tensions and threats, whereas the temporary deployment of outside security forces can heighten them.
The reputation of SPEAR also generates confidence back in Washington, D.C., because it alleviates concerns about evacuating mission members during frequent changes in the threat level.
SPEAR exists to serve the security interests of U.S. diplomatic missions in higher risk environments, where host nations benefit from increased support to respond to crisis events. Implementing and maintaining the programs requires strong cooperation between the respective embassy or consulate and host nation authorities. Terms of the partnership are agreed to in a nonbinding memorandum of understanding executed between the two governments.
SPEAR programs are cost and labor intensive. They are not appropriate for every post; but for the posts that require them, SPEAR provides an unparalleled resource to augment embassy security programs.
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BY LEE GITSCHIER
The Special Program for Embassy Augmentation and Response (SPEAR), managed by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Diplomatic Security Service, Office of Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA), was established following the 2012 attacks against U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The program creates dedicated 24/7 quick reaction forces of host nation law enforcement officers to prevent and counter attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel in high-risk environments. These local quick-response forces can react within minutes to emergencies and threats to U.S. consulates and embassies and provide additional security support for these facilities.
Today, SPEAR is a critical security element at more than a dozen U.S. embassies and growing, providing regional security officers a force multiplier capable of rapid emergency response, day-to-day protection of personnel, and an essential conduit between the embassy and host nation law enforcement.
ATA trains, equips, and mentors the host nation officers who make up the SPEAR team. Prior to starting a SPEAR program, ATA conducts a thorough assessment of host nation capacity, unique embassy security needs, and the broader threat environment. SPEAR team members are handpicked from elite host nation law enforcement units. Selected officers undergo extensive training in advanced techniques to enable them to respond to wide-ranging crises, from terrorist attacks to basic medical emergencies. Their training provides the tactical and soft skills to resolve incidents while respecting human rights and employing the appropriate use of force to preserve life. Because of this, SPEAR members often are viewed by their fellow citizens as being among the most capable, most respected security professionals in their home countries.
All SPEAR units have an embedded ATA mentor, an American citizen with extensive tactical experience who provides day-to-day training, subject matter expertise, and oversight. These mentors live and train alongside SPEAR units in a strictly advisory capacity to deepen bilateral ties and increase interoperability. ATA equips SPEAR units with a wide range of specialized equipment from individual and team tactical gear to vehicles and special facilities where teams stage and coordinate crisis response.
To ensure maximum readiness and interoperability, SPEAR units train regularly with embassy security forces and other host nation first responders. At most embassies, SPEAR teams conduct regular day-to-day patrols and provide a visible security presence for U.S. diplomatic activities. SPEAR teams also participate in large-scale exercises based on real-world scenarios, to further hone skills under pressure and promote interoperability with key counterparts. Joint readiness exercises, for example, practice attack responses alongside embassy security and other host nation first responders.
Throughout and after their tours of duty with SPEAR, officers regularly share their newly acquired knowledge and skills with their host nation units. Within each team, select members are trained as instructors to administer training to host nation police agencies. Cycling SPEAR team members through the program and back into their home units strengthens the host nation’s capability to respond to crises and deepens its relationship and interoperability with the United States.
SPEAR’s approach of pairing knowledge, training, equipment, and mentorship with integration into host nation law enforcement provides a powerful platform to enhance embassy security and strengthen host nation capability to respond to crises. Since its inception, SPEAR has trained more than 700 police officers in participating countries. This number continues to grow as new partner countries are identified to participate in the program.
SPEAR teams support U.S. diplomatic missions in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Benin.
SPEAR teams have successfully responded to terrorist attacks, stopped crimes in progress near diplomatic residences, and helped save lives in numerous countries. Beyond keeping U.S. diplomatic facilities open during civil and political unrest, SPEAR teams routinely accompany U.S. diplomatic convoys to unstable regions, provide security during election monitoring, and enhance security for major diplomatic events.
Working together, the United States and its host nation partners are committed to countering the threat of terrorism, advancing U.S. objectives, and protecting civilians.