A Marine stands guard in February on the roof of a compound inside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Embassy guards will vary their patterns and potentially shift between facilities as a result of the State Department's recent decision to close more than 20 diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and Northern Africa. (Adem Altan/ AFP/Getty Images)
Marine security guards may be temporarily moved into facilities abroad that others are vacating following a worldwide terrorism alert that led to the closure of more than two dozen diplomatic embassies and consulates.
The U.S. government took extreme measures by shuttering 28 embassies and consulates starting Aug. 4. Some facilities were closed for a couple of days and others for an entire week. The decision followed what officials called disturbingly detailed intelligence believed to indicate an attack on American interests was dangerously close.
Top leaders of al-Qaida in Yemen — the same group behind the attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airline on Christmas Day in 2009 — are said to be at the center of the threat.
The Marine Corps declined to confirm how many of the embassies and consulates shuttered this week contain Marines guarding them. The mission remains the same regardless of threats, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. They support the State Department in protecting classified documents, personnel and property.
Still, when a threat level is elevated, there are likely some key changes for the Marines guarding the facilities, according to a Marine official familiar with the program. For example, if the Marine security guards do not currently live on the diplomatic compound, the ambassador might direct the entire detachment to sleep at the embassy, he said. Or, if their housing is already on-compound, the ambassador may direct that more than the normal number of Marines stand duty during certain periods of the day.
That way, he said, “if one Marine is normally standing Post One at a particular embassy, a second or third Marine will be added to be a ‘rover’ during high-level threat occasions.” Posts One are the main checkpoints Marines guard at embassies around the world.
Retired Master Sgt. Andrew Bufalo, who wrote a book about the Corps’ Embassy Security Group called “Ambassadors in Blue,” said he experienced several closures during his tours as a detachment commander, including in Africa. For the most part, when an embassy or consulate is shut down, it’s still business as usual for the Marines guarding the facilities, he said.
“If they do their job right they shouldn’t be doing too much differently,” he said.
If the threat levels are high, Bufalo said, Marines will start thinking about varying their schedules and taking other precautions that will throw anyone off who might be trying to track their routines.
“You might vary your times — sometimes when we had a heightened alert, we’d say that instead of having all eight-hour shifts, we’d have one Marine working seven hours, one working five hours, just to throw them off.”
And if they’re not instructed to move onto the compound, they take careful precautions when getting to and from the embassy or consulate. That might include driving in armored vehicles that Marines use in many countries and taking alternate routes, Bufalo said. Detachment commanders might also move in with their Marines so they can better manage them during high-threat situations, he added.
Most of that is up to the direction of State Department officials, he said. When Marines arrive at diplomatic posts, they are operationally responsible to a regional security officer, or RSO, a State Department employee who is a security professional.
The Corps responded to the call to better secure diplomatic posts around the world following last year’s deadly attack on the compound in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The service is in the process of standing up three new security detachments where the State Department has called for a Marine presence: Juba, South Sudan; Casablanca, Morocco; and Freetown, Sierra Leone. There are nearly 50 other locations identified by the State Department as places where they’d like to add Marine security guards.
In June, the Corps churned out its largest class of Marine security guards in recent years as it works to nearly double its size following a mandate from Congress to boost the number of guards by 1,000.
Also included in the plus-up is a new unit called the Marine Security Augmentation Unit, which will dispatch squad-size teams from its headquarters in Quantico, Va., to diplomatic facilities wherever and whenever a need for reinforcement arises. Flanagan said the new unit is already “operationally capable.”
“Members of the MSAU are preparing to deploy to identified locations that may experience an increased threat,” he said.
The Marine Corps also created a new special purpose Marine air-ground task force designated to handle crises like embassy security emergencies. The unit, comprising about 550 Marines, first deployed in April. It has headquarters at Morón Air Base in Spain, with elements staged at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, closer to volatile countries in northern Africa.
The Corps also still uses traditional measures it has relied upon for years. Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Teams are on standby in Europe and the Middle East, Flanagan said. Marine expeditionary units deployed aboard naval ships in the region also are likely floating nearby within range of a helicopter or MV-22B Osprey.
The Corps has likely pre-staged each of these elements to be as close to where threats have been identified, Bufalo said. All of that has the ability to change the way the Corps and the State Department approach embassy security, he said.
“The big difference today ... after Benghazi is that you have all of these regional reaction forces,” Bufalo said. “I think that’s really what’s going to change the tactics. Before, you were supposed to resist up to a certain point ... If you know there’s going to be to be cavalry coming... you’re more likely to go to the next level until they get there.”