Diplomatic Security's Nerve Center
Centralized command operations, 24 hours a day, seven days a week
One of the first video feeds from the attack on U.S. Consulate Herat: The attacker's truck approaches. (U.S. Department of State photo)
“Herat has come under attack,” reported the Regional Security Officer in Kabul, “and we don’t know if more attackers are onthe way.” The senior watch officer at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Command Center answered the call shortly after 9 p.m. in Rosslyn, Virginia.
It was 5:32 a.m. on September 13, 2013 at U.S. Consulate Herat in Afghanistan. Haqqani insurgents had just attacked the consulate using truck- and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. A large truck had pulled up to the perimeter barriers, and unable to breach the gate, detonated explosives there. Four minutes later, the second wave of the attack began. Seven armed attackers also unsuccessfully tried to gain entrance to the compound and exploded their minivan in the process. U.S. and Afghan security personnel immediately responded in a sustained firefight to repel the attackers.
The incoming call from Afghanistan to the Command Center set into motion a series of fast-paced actions. On an uneventful day, the Command Center is a relatively quiet room, except for the hum of high-tech equipment. Much of the room’s lighting comes from the wall-size screens that fill up one side of the room and the glow of multiple computer screens.
The Command Center never closes, and watch officers monitor pertinent world events and protective security details twenty-four hours a day. Located in the midst of Rosslyn, the Command Center seems like a world unto itself, but at their fingertips is the capacity to zoom in on potential hot spots throughout the world.
But September 13, 2013, was no ordinary day. “When we got the call from Embassy Kabul concerning the Herat Consulate,” said Command Center Director and Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent Todd Ziccarelli, “we jumped into action.” As with any attack or major event, it started with gathering as much information as possible, directly engaging Herat to collect real-time information, and notifying senior leadership at Diplomatic Security and the Department’s Operations Center.
“The first visual reports from post showed lingering smoke and a fire still burning from the initial explosions,” said Ziccarelli. “The biggest unknown at the time was whether or not additional attackers were waiting in the wings.”
Director Todd Ziccarelli (right) confers with Senior Watch Officer Francis Carroll. (U.S. Department of State photo)
Because Herat is a high-threat post, all personnel both work and live on the compound. It was barely daybreak when the insurgents attempted to crash through the perimeter gate, so all consulate personnel were still on the compound and many still in their quarters. In spite of the setback from the gate where the bomb went off, the explosions still rocked the rest of the compound.
Herat was a very secure compound with multiple barriers that attackers would have had to overcome. If the insurgents had successfully gotten through the gate, there were still more barriers they would have had to overcome to travel beyond the entrance point.
Command Center Deputy Director Nathan Al-Khazraji noted that the Center has its own protocols for ensuring readiness. “We have official procedures we go through in any type of event, starting with notifications, and setting into motion the critical incident process and checklist,” Al-Khazraji said. “We document the event by keeping a log with minute-by-minute timelines,” he said, “so that when senior leadership arrives, they can review the log and see who was notified when, what actions were taken, and generally report anything of significance.”
Once the Command Center contacted Herat, they began collecting footage from post of the incoming insurgents, and prepared an initial short video clip for senior leadership.
Whether it is two in the afternoon or the middle of night, these protocols are standard practice at the Command Center during a security crisis. “The Center serves as the Bureau’s command-and-control hub simply because we have the most comprehensive and redundant communication capacities,” Ziccarelli said, “and because we can communicate with multiple parties simultaneously.”
One of the more challenging aspects for Command Center staff, especially when handling an attack the magnitude of Herat, is the need to be prepared to respond to another event at the same time. “Managing resources becomes imperative,” said Ziccarelli, “because we can’t use 100 percent of our resources to devote to a single event.”
“We’ve had instances where we handled multiple security events simultaneously,” noted Ziccarelli. “Fortunately, the staffs’ knowledge, dedication, and attention to detail allow us to maintain operations at a high level, regardless of workload.”
Deputy Director Nathan Al-Khazraji (left) talks with Senior Watch Officer Terrie Buell Lora. (U.S. Department of State photo)
After notifications went out regarding the attack, Diplomatic Security leadership quickly mobilized at the Command Center. In addition to Command Center staff, about 15 additional personnel came in, including the Assistant Secretary, Deputy Assistant Secretaries, and desk officers that manage the Afghanistan portfolio. State Operations was also immediately patched in.
“Our communication assets at the Command Center let us stay in constant and continual communications with leadership and decision makers,” said Ziccarelli. “As information became available,” he said, “we could update everyone simultaneously.”
Within 30 minutes after the attack was launched, the Regional Security Office staff and local guards had successfully defended the compound perimeter and all of the insurgents were stopped. The driver of the explosive-laden truck was killed as he rammed into the perimeter gate and the truck he was driving blew up. The second wave was taken out as they attempted to charge onto the compound.
After the complex attack was over, the Command Center’s Technical Operations Group compiled a six-minute video that incorporated images collected from the attack, from the truck entering the compound, through the remainder of the attack, and the aftermath.
While the secure structure of the perimeter withstood the insurgents’ attack, although it was greatly damaged, no chief-of-mission staff were killed. Tragically, eight heroic local guards lost their lives in defense of U.S. Consulate Herat.
About the Command Center
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security Command Center is the eyes and ears of the organization, a 24/7 watch office that provides real-time information to decision makers as events unfold. The Command Center also has watch officers embedded in the State Department’s Operations Center, the White House Situation Room, and the Department of Homeland Security’s National Operations Center.
The Center, for example, provided valuable, timely information to DS and Department leadership during personnel reductions at U.S. embassies in Sana’a, Yemen, Juba, South Sudan, and evacuations, most recently, from U.S. Embassy Tripoli.
The advanced technical capabilities of the Command Center permit staff to keep an eye on such disparate missions as the protective details at the UN General Assembly, embassies around the world, U.S. motorcades in potentially hostile locations overseas, and even movement of materials by diplomatic couriers in remote areas abroad. Ziccarelli commented, “We’re always looking to incorporate new technologies with an eye towards further streamlining operations and enhancing the Center’s capabilities to provide first-class customer service to our leadership and colleagues around the world.”
The Command Center’s increased outreach with other watch centers, including various U.S. Military Combatant Commands, has forged valuable contacts and initiated new areas of collaboration and information sharing.
Watch officers monitoring incoming information at the Diplomatic Security Command Center. (U.S. Department
of State photo)