By Richard BumgarderNovember 6, 2019
RIYAHD, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. Army Soldiers, headquartered at Redstone Arsenal but deployed to Saudi Arabia, have seen firsthand how complex the challenges of protecting millions of people and more than 350 critical infrastructure sites can be, especially during the Islamic religious holidays of Ramadan and Hajj.
In addition to the 30 million people already living in Saudi Arabia, every year millions of Muslim pilgrims arrive from countries all around the world to meet with friends and families and perform their rituals of prayer and discovery, as part of the five pillars of Islam.
In August officials in Saudi Arabia counted almost 2.5 million pilgrims that arrived by planes, trains, boats, cars, camels and buses to perform their Hajj pilgrimage to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, considered one of the world's largest movements of humans.
They depart a short five days later, another mass movement that stresses the transportation and security systems of the country.
"Keeping all these people safe, while also protecting transportation hubs like sea ports, train stations, airports, bus stations and critical infrastructures like bridges, water desalination, electric power plants, oil refineries and pipelines, that is a challenge that falls heavily onto our partners at the Saudi Ministry of Interior and their security forces," said Col. Matt Holbert, program manager at U.S. Army Security Assistance Command's Military Assistance Group in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Advising and training the Saudi Ministry of Interior's security forces on defending their country from domestic terrorist threats and protecting critical infrastructure is where Holbert, an Army Reservist from South Carolina, and his small team of around a hundred personnel, also Army Reservists, fit in.
A subordinate unit to Army Materiel Command and USASAC, they are known as the Ministry of Interior - Military Assistance Group, or MOI-MAG.
MOI-MAG personnel provide security assistance training to include marksmanship, patrolling perimeters, setting up security checkpoints, vehicle searches at entry control point, rules of engagement toward possible threats and personnel screening.
As qualified Army instructors these officers and enlisted personnel also train the Saudi security forces in courses similar to standard Army courses to include the Army Basic Instructors' Course, basic officers' course, airborne training, flight training and military police training.
MOI-MAG is unique as the only U.S. military organization that advises and trains another country's Ministry of Interior security forces. Several other countries have expressed interest in also developing this model of U.S. DOD and partner nation MOI cooperation.
The Saudis didn't always have this organic capability for internal defense. For years they relied on their military forces for that protection.
Things changed in early 2006 after Saudi security forces successfully thwarted a terrorist attack on the world's largest oil processing plant at Abqaiq, in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Even though it was a failed attempt, the attack became a catalyst that changed the way the Saudi government managed, resourced and trained its domestic security forces.
"That attack spurred the Saudis to come to the U.S. government and ask for some guidance setting up and training new security forces to protect their critical infrastructures," said Mark Sullivan, the former Huntsville field office program director for MOI-MAG at USASAC headquarters at Redstone.
"MOI-MAG came about as a result of a 2008 agreement between then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Saudi Arabia's Minister of Interior Nayif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud," Sullivan stated.
The limiting factor in this agreement was that the Saudi Ministry of Interior was not legally considered an armed force, a partner or an ally, so this new security apparatus fell outside the normal training jurisdiction of the DOD.
"We didn't have a legal framework for training Ministry of Interior forces since all of the DOD's existing agreements and relationships were with Ministries of Defense," Sullivan said. "We had to specifically create a TCA (technical cooperation agreement) between the two governments that allowed us to do security assistance training and foreign military sales with their MOI."
The TCA is supported by a Defense Security Cooperation Agency project specific agreement, which specifically addresses what kind of technology transfer, knowledge, training and advising that the cadre of MOI-MAG instructors can provide to the Ministry of Interior security forces.
"The State Department's TCA and DSCA's PSA specifically state that we must monitor how our training is used as these security forces are only allowed to operate defensively, to protect themselves and their sites from an attack, and not be used offensively," Holbert stated. "The project specific agreement protects the DOD as it allows us to cancel a training program if it is being used in a non-agreed upon manner."
In addition to security advising and training, MOI-MAG personnel also provide engineering advisory support, explosive ordnance advisory support, aviation procedures and participation in the International Military Education and Training program.
"On a personal level, working at MOI-MAG has been extremely rewarding and I think quite beneficial to our Army," Holbert said. "Our group has almost daily interaction with our Saudi partners which really strengthen cultural understanding and helps build deeper relationships with one of our closest allies in the Middle East."
As MOI-MAG personnel are all volunteers selected through the Army's Tour of Duty system, Holbert encourages any interested Reserve Component officer or enlisted personnel to apply.
"A tour here is unlike any Army tour you can volunteer for. It's a broadening experience that will increase your skills at the planning, operational and tactical level, something that you can take back to your organization to enhance your preparations for future multinational missions," Holbert said.