Visit, board, search, and seize training for Yemen Coast Guard to interdict illicit weapons trafficking. Photo courtesy of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Global Maritime Crime Programme
By Dr. Heba Diab and Sarah Welsh
In March 2020, a cruise ship bound for Florida was rejected by several ports in Central America due to passengers who were ill with coronavirus. As the Panama Canal Authority guided the ship through the narrow canal, a team of experts in the Panamanian hazardous-materials unit oversaw a decontamination process to ensure that the ship could safely reach its final destination.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation’s (ISN’s) Export Control and Border Security (EXBS) Program has trained hundreds of border security and point-of-entry (POE) officials, including those in Panama, on mitigating transmission of coronavirus and other biological threats. Such training helps to ensure continuity of international security operations at air, land, and maritime crossings.
ISN’s Office of Export Control Cooperation (ECC) administers the EXBS Program, which builds the capacity of foreign partners to manage threats from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery vehicles, and conventional weapons through enhancements to strategic trade controls (STCs), customs enforcement, and border security. EXBS is a nonproliferation program, but the cooperative relationships that it fosters with customs, port, and border authorities build a foundation for addressing a wide range of transnational threats. As ISN contends with evolving security challenges, including chemical, biological, and technological innovations, EXBS partners—who regulate trade across borders—will continue to play a critical role in keeping America and its allies safe.
Unexpected and rapidly changing security dynamics—such as the explosion of stored chemicals at the Port of Beirut, cross-border incursions by state and non-state actors, and biological disease outbreaks—help shape EXBS assistance priorities. But the bulk of EXBS programming supports foreign partners in building sustainable, long-term institutional capacity, and this can take many years to produce results.
One pillar of EXBS’s mission is to work with partner countries to develop export control laws, regulations, and industry-outreach programs that provide a legal and institutional framework for frontline enforcement. Recent successes include Morocco, which last year passed only the second comprehensive STC law in Africa; Vietnam, which is developing a chemical law in line with international standards; and Malaysia, which after a decade of EXBS support for policymakers and prosecutors, saw its first conviction this year of individuals attempting to illegally transship U.S-controlled items.
Critical to EXBS relationships are the program’s American advisors and locally employed staff embedded in 37 embassies and covering more than 60 countries. EXBS leverages the diverse perspectives and expertise of these in-country teams, working with embassy counterparts and experienced program managers in ECC, to design programming, respond to evolving partner needs, and build critical capacities to implement sanctions, secure strategic supply chains, protect key points of entry/transit, and disrupt illicit activities in the financial, cyber, and maritime shipping domains that support proliferation. In addition, ECC possesses in-house technical expertise to develop novel strategies and training curricula specifically tailored to EXBS priorities, including an aviation security strategy being piloted in Southeast Asia, the global deployment of a course to counter low-technology threats impacting public transportation, and a cross-border infectious disease course for front-line POE security agents. To ensure success, ECC also relies on its strategy and policy team to coordinate the office’s nonproliferation objectives, the systems and resources team to ensure all Washington-based and forward-deployed personnel are safe and supported, and its financial team to ensure fiscal efficiency and responsible use of taxpayer dollars.
Like all national security programs, EXBS faces challenges in providing support to government partners in conflict zones, where sophisticated trafficking networks can exploit border-security gaps to move strategic goods and perpetuate further instability. For years, EXBS has worked to rebuild the Yemen Coast Guard and negotiate terms with local governments to address state-sponsored illicit trafficking of weapons. Similarly, when the Iraq-Jordan border reopened, and with ISIS still active in the region, EXBS began training Jordanian and Iraqi frontline border officials to deter illicit trafficking and increase the interoperability of the two countries’ forces. EXBS uses remote learning platforms to train Libyan customs officials to effectively target and screen cargo and passengers at POEs, which builds upon efforts to create a Libyan Customs Academy. More recently, EXBS adapted its assistance plans to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, including training and equipment support for Maritime Border Guard Rapid Response Units. In addition, as part of an “outside-in” strategy for Afghanistan, EXBS is bolstering ongoing work with customs and border guards in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to monitor and interdict illicit trade along their Afghan borders.
During its over 20-year history, EXBS has supported regional and global cooperation mechanisms to promote leadership by partner countries. The EXBS-funded Cyprus Center for Land, Open-seas, and Port Security, which will open for operations in 2022 in Nicosia, will provide hands-on training courses inside a mock land-border crossing, mock passenger screening area, and a mobile cyber security laboratory, enabling partners from across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to learn best practices for securing critical infrastructure and investigating proliferation-related cybercrime. In Kazakhstan, EXBS funded construction of a Border Guard Service Academy which includes an aircraft simulator, train car, truck-inspection garage, and a remote-learning studio. Renovations to a regional training center in Tajikistan added secure storage facilities for radioactive materials, a mock border crossing, and an illuminated area for night operations. EXBS is also working with Kenyan experts to integrate STC enforcement practices into Customs Academy trainings and build a cadre of instructors to deliver practical nonproliferation trainings across Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.
U.S. and international security priorities are continuously evolving, and EXBS now confronts threats ranging from malign and authoritarian states diverting dual-use items toward military applications; sanctioned entities operating outside the international financial system to facilitate underground purchase or sale of regulated commodities; and non-state actors seeking to acquire munitions, chemicals, or biological and explosive components, technology and expertise through cross-border trade. Close collaboration with expert implementers within the interagency, non-governmental sector, universities, and international organizations allows EXBS to anticipate and confront new challenges by creatively diversifying capabilities that maximize existing expertise, tools, and platforms. While the threats have changed, EXBS goals have largely remained the same: to provide sustainable mentorship and technical assistance to partner countries to ensure effective adoption of nonproliferation and counterproliferation practices consistent with international standards, while building enduring relationships with host country partners. By doing so, EXBS makes the world a safer place for all.
Dr. Heba Diab is the team leader, and Sarah Welsh is a program manager in the Office of Export Control Cooperation.