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After Benghazi, Corps Marks New Approach to Embassy Security in Africa

Close to the third anniversary of the infamous Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a small detachment of Marines descended on the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali, on the other side of the African continent.

The little-publicized 48-hour operation took about 200 Marines attached to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa from the unit's headquarters in Moron, Spain, to a barebones staging location in Senegal.

The Marines then went into Mali's capital to meet with State Department personnel -- including the embassy's regional security officer, local officials and the Marine security guard detachment in country -- assess security and discuss procedures in case of an embassy reinforcement or personnel withdrawal scenario.

It was the first time the task force had successfully executed a "full mission profile" rehearsal of this kind since it established the Senegal staging base and two others in Western Africa in 2014, said Lt. Col. Bradford Carr, operations officer for the unit.

In addition, the experience also marked a milestone in a radically new approach to embassy security that the Marines hope will keep a Benghazi-like scenario from ever playing out at another U.S. diplomatic post.

Carr, who spoke to Military.com at a Potomac Institute lecture following the conclusion of the Marine task force's 180-day deployment at the end of January, said being able to push troops into Africa and stage them near a "high-interest embassy" ahead of a potential crisis gave the Marines more options and shortened their response time.

It takes about a day to complete the 2,000-mile trip from Moron to Senegal, Carr said. From there, the distance from a staging point in Senegal to Bamako, Mali, is slightly more manageable: less than 1,000 miles.

A briefing slide used by Carr and reviewed by Military.com attempted to give context to the sheer size of the African continent and the distances that crisis response forces may contend with.

For example, the distance from Moron to the Gulf of Guinea on Africa's western coast is the same as the distance from Washington, D.C., to Moron, the slide showed. And the distance from Moron to the task force's other European staging location in Sigonella, Italy, is the same as the distance from New York City to New Orleans.

Because of this, Carr said, the Marines of the task force weren't merely focused on achieving a faster response time to a prospective crisis in Africa. They are also working to develop stronger relationships with State Department personnel at African embassies and with host nation partners.

In locations like Mali, where al-Qaeda-linked terrorists killed 20 hostages in a Bamako hotel last November, there's value in knowing who key counterparts are before disaster strikes.

"Being able to pick up the phone and call the office of security cooperation in the embassy, versus picking up the phone and saying, 'I don't know who you are, and you want me to do what?'" Carr said. "The pre-crisis prep is kind of the preferred way to go about it."

During the task force's six-month rotation, Marines conducted 17 different theater security cooperation missions with African counterparts in ten different countries, according to briefing materials. They also participated in 62 bilateral training exercises in four different European countries.

At this point, could the task force have reacted faster to the Benghazi attacks and kept Americans from being killed?

The answer remains a nuanced one.

"If that is reported in a timely way and accurate aspects are being captured, we have the capacity to position as directed by [U.S. Africa Command]," Carr said. "Indications and warnings are highly important to that. That's what I would say keeps me up at night."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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