Antiterrorism Assistance Program
The U.S. Department of State‘s Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) program provides U.S. government antiterrorism training and equipment to law enforcement agencies of partner nations throughout the world. According to ATA, the program has delivered counterterrorism training to more than 150,000 law enforcement officials and first responders from more than 150 countries. ATA’s stated goals are to help partner nations build counterterrorism skills through training courses, consultations, mentorships, seminars, and equipment. The ATA program aims to assist partners deal with security challenges within their borders, defend against threats to national and regional stability, and deter terrorist operations across borders and regions. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DSS) administers the program and delivers the training and equipment, while the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism funds the program, makes ATA-related policy, and provides strategic guidance and oversight.
Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) is a U.S. Department of State program, authorized by the U.S. Congress, to provide U.S. government antiterrorism training and equipment to law enforcement agencies and security forces in developing nations throughout the world.
Budgeted for more than $190 million in 2022, the program has reportedly trained more than 150,000 police and security officers since being authorized by U.S. Congress in 1983 amid an increase of international terrorist attacks, including deadly bombings in Beirut, Lebanon.
More recently, in the aftermath of the 2012 Benghazi attack, the ATA program began training and equipping local tactical police to quickly respond to threats against U.S. Embassies and diplomatic missions, an initiative known as SPEAR.
The Department of State says ATA’s goals are to help partner nations build counterterrorism skills through a suite of training courses, consultations, mentorships, seminars, and equipment. Topics can include, bomb detection, crime scene investigation, airport and building security, maritime protection, and VIP protection.
When launched in the 1980s the program was not without controversy, including protests near U.S. training sites linked to suspicions that the United States was training “death squads” akin to the Pentagon’s former “School of America’s”.
Partly addressing these concerns, the U.S. Public Law that created ATA [Public Law 98-151] specifically instructs ATA “to increase respect for human rights by sharing with foreign civil authorities modern, humane, and effective antiterrorism techniques.” In more recent decades, the program’s visibility has waxed and waned with the level of emphasis different U.S. presidential administrations place on counterterrorism.
History of Antiterrorism Assistance Program
The ATA program was created in 1983 under an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act (Pub. L. 87–195, 75 Stat. 424-2, enacted September 4, 1961, 22 U.S.C. § 2151 et seq.). The legislation followed a growing trend of deadly attacks, including the 1979 killing of a U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan during a hostage standoff, and the 1983 attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
Every year the United States Congress allocates funds from the congressional budget to ATA for counterterrorism training as part of the annual foreign assistance budget. Congress agreed to $192 million for the 2023-2024 budget. The State Department’s DSS also provides separate funding for the SPEAR program, which trains foreign tactical police officers to help protect U.S. diplomats. In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense provides funds for some ATA programs to build the capacity of nonmilitary foreign national security forces. Other countries provide funding to ATA programs independently in exchange for training and assistance.
Courses and Programs
In 2019, ATA held 526 courses and provided training in 44 countries. ATA provides courses in the investigation, institutionalization, cyber, medical, and law enforcement management, critical infrastructure security and resilience, border security, crisis response, bomb disposal, and protection of national leadership. They also hold programmatic-specific courses as detailed below.
Crisis Response Teams (CRT)
The CRT course trains tactical police using a physically demanding five-week training program designed for tactical officers to respond to terrorist-related incidents. ATA-trained CRT officers work in nations around the world and have been particularly active in Bangladesh, Kenya, and the Philippines.
ATA Explosives Detection Canine Program
The DSS Global Canine Center (GCC) in Winchester, Virginia, procures and trains explosives detection dogs. ATA works closely with the GCC and the Department of State’s CT Bureau to provide partner nations with explosives detection dogs and the necessary training required to properly deploy the animals in support of counterterrorism missions. There is a four-to-six-week ATA program that trains each handler and dog as a team. DSS trainers return with participants to their countries for another two weeks of onsite training, intending to make them self-sufficient.
Current ATA partner nations with CT-funded dogs include Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Nepal, Oman, Thailand, and the Dominican Republic.
In 2020 and 2021, ATA and the GCC expanded medical oversight, mentor coverage, and staffing to ensure the dogs are well cared for in partner nations after an OIG investigation found that the animals were being mistreated. Since the report, a travel team of two mentors and one veterinarian, visit each nation with an active ATA dog program to monitor the dogs’ progress, status, and health.
The Office of Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) under the DSS manages and funds the Special Program for Embassy Augmentation and Response (SPEAR). Established in 2014 as a response to the 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, SPEAR enhances the security of U.S. diplomatic posts in high-threat, high-risk environments by training law enforcement and security personnel in host nations to better respond to emergencies at U.S. diplomatic facilities. SPEAR teams are local, quick-response forces that can respond to an emergency or threat to U.S. consulates and embassies. They provide additional security support to keep U.S. diplomatic facilities open during civil and political unrest. SPEAR teams routinely accompany U.S. diplomatic convoys to unstable regions, provide security during election monitoring, and enhance security for major diplomatic events. SPEAR has trained more than 400 police officers in high-threat countries. SPEAR teams also participate in multinational joint readiness and training exercises with U.S. Marine Security Guards, embassy bodyguards, and embassy local guard forces. They currently support U.S. diplomatic missions in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Tunisia.
U.S. Military and “333” Programs
These programs are an ATA-DoD partnership enacted in December 2017 under Title 10 Section 333 (Pub L. 117-263, enacted in 2017, 10 U.S.C. § 333) of the United States Code. They allow the DoD to train and equip nonmilitary foreign national security forces to conduct counterterrorism, maritime and border security operations, and other national security activities.
ATA Canine Program
In 2019, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) performed an evaluation of the ATA Explosive Detection Canine Program after an anonymous complaint was filed against the Department. The OIG found that many of the dogs were mistreated shortly after arrival and kept in unsafe living conditions. OIG provided five recommendations to address the problems: develop and implement a strategic plan that addresses the health and welfare of canines; conduct follow-up health and welfare checks more frequently; develop and implement a plan to address canine retirement and adoption; design and written agreements relating to the canine program with partner nations; and establish policies and procedures for all aspects of the canine program regarding health and welfare.
In October 2022, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a follow-up report on the canine program and found that all three State Department programs have established standards to help ensure that foreign partners are maintaining the health and welfare of these dogs.
ATA Trainees and Illegal Immigration
In 2017, the GAO released a report which found the ATA program lacked oversight when members from partner nations traveled to the U.S. for training purposes. Since the report, the GAO has found that “[the] State [Department] and the contractors who implement ATA training have taken steps to ensure that facilities used for domestic training align with applicable security requirements.” When ATA was first created in the 1980s, Congress initially mandated that all training take place in the United States to ensure human rights requirements were being observed. The political environment has shifted over the decades, and nearly all ATA training now takes place in partner countries or at regional training sites such as Jordan.