Security agents train to stop the next Benghazi

2014-11-11 20:31
Smoke rises during clashes between the Libyan military and Islamic militias in Benghazi, Libya. (Mohammed El-Sheikhy, AP)

Smoke rises during clashes between the Libyan military and Islamic militias in Benghazi, Libya. (Mohammed El-Sheikhy, AP)

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Virginia - The US Diplomatic Security Service, responsible for protecting some 100 000 Americans around the world, has dramatically expanded training, two years after the deadly attack on a US facility in Benghazi, Libya.

The prep course for high-threat embassies and consulates once ran for five weeks. Now it is 10. And in the final week, recruits drill alongside Diplomatic Security's elite special agents, while trainers double as terrorists. Food and sleep are restricted. Explosions and paid actors playing the locals add to the experience.

After the loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, no one wants to take any chances.

A review ordered after Benghazi by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found security before the attack "grossly inadequate".

To demonstrate improvements, the State Department invited The Associated Press to spend a day-and-a-half at Erehwon, "nowhere" spelled backward, a $79m fantasy city at a US military base in rural Virginia.

Trip to the mosque

The situation in Erehwon is uneasy. Indirect fire nearby interrupted the dedication of a US-funded subway project. Agents have now taken out their rifles to escort the US consul general to the local mosque.

An advance team is waiting at the mosque, where the consul general meets an elderly mullah who laments high youth unemployment and shoos away a beggar with cries of "khalas" - Arabic for "enough".

Suddenly, screeching tires are heard in front of the consulate. Diplomatic security discovers a kidnapping has occurred.

From an operations centre inside, two agents monitor the scene from computers and coordinate strategy. But there is no cause for immediate action to protect the consulate.

"It's very easy to get drawn into all the sexy stuff - the violence, the guns, what you see on TV," says Lance Bailey, who served as a Diplomatic Security director in Afghanistan and is now chief of special operations planning for high-threat posts.

"But what we're really trying to develop, the core skill we're trying to build, is problem solving," he says.

Forest escape

Later, the agents are taking the consul general to dinner when they reach a barricade. Immediately an explosion occurs, leaving all three vehicles in the caravan inoperable.

The agents throw smoke canisters. Concealed, they retreat with the consul general to a building nearby.

Problems arise. One agent's gun jams. Others leave their radios in the vans. When the whistles of incoming mortars sound, only some crouch for cover.

The agents must trek through thick forest, using night-vision goggles to struggle past branches and ford streams - all while protecting the consul general and a wounded agent. Two armed militiamen in camouflage follow them, shooting at their rear flank.

Success: The team makes it to a helicopter pickup site in "record time", Davies says.

Consulate attack

The next morning resembles the Benghazi attack. Except this time, the US prevails.

Protesters converge, beating at consulate barricades. But the demonstration subsides when the mullah persuades people to go home.

Then a pickup truck stops near a rear gate. The driver leaves. The truck explodes.

Gunmen with assault rifles rush out from behind the bank, firing on the consulate. From the other side of the building, mortar fire can be heard.

Unlike Benghazi, however, the compound at Erehwon is well protected. Roof snipers return fire.

A second wave of attackers arrives and a suicide bomber blows a hole in the perimeter. But agents and Marines rush forward. The militants never make it inside the gates.

Read more on:    us  |  libya  |  north africa

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