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Fantasy city built to train security forces

| Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014, 8:54 p.m.

AT A MILITARY BASE IN VIRGINIA — In long tunics and Bedouin scarves, men kick a soccer ball in front of the U.S. consulate. Women sit and eat. Arabic music rings from the market. A bicyclist waves as he rides toward a stone church and a mosque with a green minaret in the distance.

All appears placid in the imaginary world of Erehwon, “nowhere” spelled backward, a $79 million fantasy city at a U.S. military base in Virginia. But it won't be quiet for long. This is where the State Department trains agents for its most dangerous diplomatic posts.

The new recruits know the worst could come at any moment. They peer through the metallic sheen of the consulate windows as snipers stand guard on the roof. The agents scan a landscape complete with the convincing exteriors of a train station, governor's office, bank, apartment building and hospital. Danger could lurk behind any of them.

Two years after the deadly attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, the Diplomatic Security Service — responsible for protecting about 100,000 Americans around the world — has dramatically expanded training.

The prep course for high-threat embassies and consulates once ran for five weeks. Now it's 10. And in the final week, recruits drill alongside elite special agents and a Marine detachment, while trainers double as terrorists. Food and sleep are restricted. Explosions and paid actors playing the locals add to the experience.

After the loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, no one wants to take chances.

A review ordered by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton found security before the attack “grossly inadequate.” It said U.S. security personnel “performed with courage,” but faulted the agency for not having enough protection and for depending on unreliable Libyan partners.

Has the situation changed? “It has improved,” declares Paul Davies, who heads Diplomatic Security's high-threat training.

Just a year ago, Davies was still in the field, leading agents and Marines in fending off an attack involving a truck bomb, terrorists with suicide vests and rocket fire targeting the U.S. consulate in Herat, Afghanistan. The assailants were killed, along with eight Afghan security guards. No Americans died. All diplomats were unharmed. The consulate is up and running again.

To demonstrate improvements, the State Department invited The Associated Press to spend a day and a half watching preparations for the worst of scenarios. The AP agreed not to disclose the location of the training.

After the drill, Davies congratulates his new high-threat-post recruits, then leads a review of their performance.

Embassy security is now well funded and getting the right materials and personnel, he said. Coordination with military and intelligence is deepening. And, critically, agents are being trained to do more than drive limousines or guard flanks in a motorcade.

“We're preparing leaders,” Davies says.

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