While people around the world were getting ready for New Year’s Eve celebrations, on Dec. 31, 2019, the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) special agents securing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were hours in to protecting the compound from Iraqi attackers who were determined to overtake the embassy. As six DSS special agents noted in an with Time.com, the situation began around mid-morning of the 31st, when thousands began marching toward the embassy.
The embassy was already on alert as it had endured several rocket attacks during the previous few weeks. DSS personnel, whose mission is to protect the U.S. State Department’s people, facilities, and information, assumed the gathering crowd was there for a peaceful demonstration. That notion changed quickly as protestors began breaking the embassy’s security cameras and throwing Molotov cocktails into the compound.
Fortunately, these are the types of scenarios that DSS is trained to handle.
“It always goes through your mind, what happens if the bad guys get in?” recalls DSS Special Agent Kelly Gentry, an assistant regional security officer (RSO) at U.S. Embassy Baghdad. “But right away you start going through your training in your head; you start remembering what they taught us at ATLaS.”
ATLaS – or Advanced Tactics, Leadership, and Skills course – is specialized training that prepares participants to operate in high-threat environments. All DSS special agents are required to complete the nearly 12 weeks of training.
Gentry, whose regular assignment was serving as a special assistant to the senior RSO, was positioned in the chancery lobby during the attack. For about 12 hours, she and a newly hired locally employed staff member of the regional security office’s close protection unit stayed alert in case the protestors broke through the outer defenses.
“It is hard to hear on the radio that your colleagues are getting pounded by rocks and Molotov cocktails. You want to run over and support. But, everybody plays a role, and if you’ve been assigned something, then you need to do your assignment because if you step away and something bad happens—that’s on you,” said Gentry.
DSS Special Agent Brianna McNally, who was also in the chancery, had a completely different assignment. Her portfolio at the embassy was emergency planning and compound defense—the exact skills needed during the attack. Senior RSO Bryan Bachmann sent McNally to the front office to work communications and logistics.
“There was a lot of information going around, and Baghdad is such a large embassy,” said McNally. “Everyone was reaching out to any contacts they had to get more information. It was almost to the point where there was too much information. So, I had to sort through all of it quickly and figure out what does the senior RSO need to know at this moment to make a decision.”
McNally juggled phone calls, emails, text messages, and radio communications throughout the attack. In addition to providing and filtering information to her DSS colleagues and security counterparts, McNally supported the embassy’s executive staff and chargé d’affaires, who was having high-level conversations with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior Iraqi officials.
Like Gentry, McNally arrived at U.S. Embassy Baghdad in the summer of 2019. Unlike Gentry, who has been with DSS for more than a decade, Baghdad was McNally’s first overseas assignment. Since part of McNally’s regular assignment was compound defense, when the attack occurred, conceptually she knew what needed to be done. However, when the attack began, she felt a little anxious.
“I didn’t know what role would be the most useful or how I was going to contribute,” said McNally. “But, then when I was given my assignment, it’s almost like I became hyper-focused. I knew how I was going to contribute to help keep everybody safe.”
McNally said her training kicked in. “It seemed like everything that happened that day is exactly what we train for during ATLaS and during our drills at post. The training paid off—the fact that everybody stayed safe speaks to that.”
U.S. Embassy Baghdad was also Special Agent Aileen Hart’s first overseas tour. Due to frequent training at post, Hart knew where to go when the attack began. “During any kind of event like that, I knew exactly where I needed to be: Annex 1.”
As soon as the warning alarm sounded, Hart and two other agents headed toward the annex. The location was busy with at least 100 embassy personnel gathered. Upon arriving, Hart got to work helping the medical team with setting up a casualty point with cots, and emergency and medical equipment.
At first, most did not realize it was a real emergency; they thought it was likely another drill. Hart and the other agents began calmly reminding people to move away from the windows and put their gear on. That’s what got people buzzing.
“People started checking Twitter and realized what was going on outside the gates,” said Hart. “That’s when reality hit and the panic started to set in.”
Hart kept the group calm while also regularly checking the annex’s security posture. When reinforcements came in the way of U.S. Marines, she worked with them to reinforce physical security around the annex.
Hart noted that the foreign service officers, contractors, and local nationals who were huddled in the annex kept in good spirits throughout the attack.
Like Gentry and McNally, Hart said her training prepared her for that moment. “Our final ATLaS exercise was the exact scenario that played out in Baghdad.”
Hart said the skills she learned at ATLaS were reinforced frequently through McNally’s regular compound defense briefings and RSO-specific training. And, since there were a few threat incidents prior to the attack, the DSS team subconsciously had been preparing.
“I think everyone’s mindset had already shifted to the possibility that there might be an attack, so when it happened, it was more like ‘okay, game time,’” said Hart.
For more than 24 hours, DSS special agents, security contractors, and the embassy’s local guard force protected U.S. Embassy Baghdad from attackers. Fortunately, there has not been another attempt to breach the embassy. If there is, however, DSS personnel are ready to defend.
“The ATLaS trainers, the people out at the DSS training center did a fabulous job preparing us to respond to this attack,” said Gentry. “I can’t tell you how many times I spent that day thinking, ‘wow, this is exactly what they said at ATLaS; this is exactly how it’s happening.”