The State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program (ATA) is the United States’ premier counterterrorism training and equipment provider for specialized police units in foreign nations. Created by Congress in 1983, ATA has evolved into a key pillar of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The program helps partner nations bolster their law enforcement capacity to handle terrorism challenges in their home countries.
As detailed in an article this month in Police Chief Magazine by Diplomatic Security Service Office of Antiterrorism Assistance Director Paul Davies, the ATA program has more than 50 courses and hundreds of customized consultations to enhance the capabilities of partner nations’ police units, from cybersecurity to SWAT training to protecting critical infrastructure. The ATA program has trained more than 100,000 partners in 154 countries. All assistance is delivered in a rule-of-law framework that promotes respect for human rights and fosters self-sustaining capabilities.
The training programs are aimed at helping partner nations prepare for and alleviate risks, whether they are military, political or economic in nature.
“For example, preventing the destabilization of friendly regimes in South Central Asia, protecting U.S.-bound international flights from foreign ports-of-departure in the Middle East or aiding in the detection of terrorists or their weapons attempting to transit across the often open, ungoverned borders of African states,” Davies wrote.
Requests for ATA support in a country often originate from a U.S. embassy’s regional security office. The embassy must explain how the host government’s law enforcement would benefit from the training program, as well as define why it will be successful in that country. Program managers at Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) headquarters who track the latest threats can also make an ATA request. DSS works with the regional security officer (RSO) in the country to choose which law enforcement units will receive the assistance. As mandated by U.S. law, the embassy vets participants to ensure none have committed human rights violations, are involved in drug trafficking or are known to have engaged in other bad conduct.
ATA is an adaptable program that adjusts to the ever-changing threats to U.S. and global security. One example is the establishment of the Afghan President Protection Service (PPS) to protect then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was under continual threat of assassination. To preserve the fragile Afghan government and its tenuous relationship with the U.S., the ATA program was implemented to help Afghan law enforcement officers protect Karzai. The ATA program used $20 million to build a comprehensive training camp, develop a process for recruiting and screening potential bodyguards and hire 10 resident instructors who were embedded with their Afghan partners. The grant provided funding for everything the PPS would need, including weapons and protective gear, as it faced multiple threats.
“The results of the ATA program in Afghanistan were exceptional. Over the next several years of continuous training, equipment grants, leadership development, and organizational support, the PSS became a well-respected, top tier security agency,” Davies said.
After the PPS’ success, the Afghan government requested DSS develop a similar program for their law enforcement unit responsible for critical infrastructure security, protecting visiting dignitaries and Afghan cabinet members below the presidential level. That program is now underway and seeing success.
The ATA program builds on its past with an eye toward the future, namely sustainability for the entities that receive the training. Last year, ATA embedded DSS mentors in partner units to reinforce curriculum concepts and provide knowledge to their mentees. The mentors developed specialized training to reinforce a unit’s strengths. The initiative has seen immediate results. In Jordan, mentors embedded within the Jordanian Public Security Directorate’s (PSD) K-9 Unit regularly see operational success. The PSD canine teams have located bombs in vehicles attempting to cross from Syria into Jordan, as well as hidden weapons and ammunition.
The ATA program promotes sustainability with state-of-the-art regional training centers (RTCs) in key overseas locations. These training centers increase training capacity and serve as regional training hubs for foreign partners.
After a successful RTC pilot program within the Jordan International Police Training Center in Amman, a second ATA regional training center opened in Jordan in March 2018, and three more are under construction or design in Senegal, Kenya and the Philippines.
Finally, the ATA program increasingly is integrating the response to trans-border terrorist threats into whole-of-government approaches, particularly in Africa.
“ATA training is now a key component of the Department of Defense-led annual Flintlock exercise – the largest multinational military exercise on the African continent,” Davies noted.
In April 2018, the Flintlock exercise fully integrated law enforcement and military operations. African military and law enforcement entities work together in the Joint Military Headquarters to share intelligence and coordinate joint responses to the events of the exercise scenario. This coordination promotes effective, unified trans-border approaches to insurgent and terrorist threats in Africa.
The ATA program has its own annual training in Kenya. The East Africa Joint Operations (EAJO) exercise works to increase law enforcement interoperability amongst East African states. In March 2018, the EAJO simulated a tactical crisis response to a rural border incident, a situation law enforcement officers were well prepared for after the intense, in-depth training delivered by ATA.
Counterterrorism remains a top focus for the U.S. as threats continue to evolve, and the ATA program will remain in high demand.
“The program, which today provides targeted training, equipment and support to partner nations, will evolve as threats do,” Davies wrote. “Mitigating risks where they originate stifles the spread of extremism and violence – while increasing security for the homeland – which is why the ATA program will remain a key tool in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.”