• Daniele Pettorelli

The spies' bodyguards

The world of espionage is an ever-changing environment. During the long years of the Cold War, the priority for intelligence officers was to stay unnoticed and anonymous, and in order to do so they needed to act solo, most often without any kind of protection from the agencies they were working for. Today, thanks to the use of facial recognition systems and the kind of permanent public coverage that top-tier officials get, it is much easier to identify intelligence officers, especially those with a higher rank, during their trips overseas. In order to grant the protection these individuals and all intelligence assets overseas need, agencies around the world have created specific paramilitary units tasked with this very job.

These teams operate maintaining the highest level of secrecy, given the nature of their duty, but there have been a few cases when their actions have become public.


Spetsnaz operators of the FSB in training operations, sofrep.com

The Unit that does not exist. At least officially. Named with the Russian term for “barrier”, this 300-member team was formed in 1997, according to a Swedish Defence source. Its main duties are the armed protection of Russian diplomatic missions in hostile environments, the retrievement of sensitive documents and equipment from embassies and bases during emergencies and the protection of high ranking national and foreign officials.

Zaslon’s existence has been denied in multiple interviews by high ranking intelligence representatives, particularly in 2002 and 2006, but it was confirmed by the then Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation in a tweet rapidly removed. Since speculations of their existence first started to circulate, operatives thought to belong to this unit have been identified in various cases, like the 2003 protection of russian embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan before the US-led invasion, or the ongoing operation in Syria, where they’ve been present from as early as 2013 tasked with the protection of Russian diplomats and Syrian officials and with the maintaining security of Moscow’s assets in the region.

Global Response Staff


The GRS was created by the Central Intelligence Agency in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and, since then, its role in intelligence field operations has been continuously increasing. Their task, like their russian counterparts, is to protect the life of high-ranking intelligence officers and officials whenever they need to operate in dangerous theaters, and to grant the security of all the Agency’s assets, especially those located in crysis areas. Unlike the Zaslon, which is thought to be formed by active-service members of other Spetsnaz units, the GRS mostly recruits retired Special Forces, special operation forces, and civilian SWAT teams members. These contractors aren’t trained as intelligence officers and often operate under a limited number of orders, and there have been situations, some of them become public, where their ability, or the necessity, to improvise got them in serious trouble. A GRS operator was incarcerated in Pakistan for the killing of two street thugs in a busy street of Lahore that had attempted a robbery on him. His arrest escalated in a diplomatic crisis between the US and Pakistan that saw resolution only after the CIA committed to pay compensations for the two killed men. The unit was also involved in the 2012 Benghazi attack on US buildings. Two of the GRS members that responded to the attack were killed by mortar strikes on the roof of a CIA site where they had taken shelter after the rescue of US diplomats from a State Department compound on fire.

CIA-trained Afghan forces, sofrep.com


The SAS hero was out shopping at the time of the attack, AFP/Getty Images

This unit works under the MI6 wing and can be roughly compared to the other intelligence teams we have analyzed, since it fulfils a broader spectrum of roles. Members of UK special forces members from the SAS, SBS and Special Reconnaissance Regiment form the ranks of the unit, also known as “The Increment”, that operates to escort, organized in close-protection details, MI6 top officials in their trips overseas, to protect their missions from enemy interferements and to conduct special operations under both MI6 or UK Special Forces command. Even if they try to work under extreme secrecy, their actions have sometimes been brought to public attention. The existence of the E-Squadron was first discovered after a 2012 BBC report about the UK Special Forces deployment in Libya during the NATO operations in the country, when MI6 officers and their E-Squadron minders” where seen inserting in a deserted area from a British helicopter and, after being misidentified as Libyan forces by the locals, were detained as prisoners. It seems that the team was in the area to establish working relationships with the rebels, equipping them with special communications systems that would have allowed the militias to keep in contact with British Forces, but were captured by the locals, who were unaware of their mission, and decided not to take action against them to avoid a clash. The team’s release was eventually obtained by British diplomats. The Increment recruits its members with a focus on cultural diversity, particularly considering people with Pakistani, Indian, Yemeni, Syrian and Nigerian background as strategic assets. Every candidate has to engage in further training in order to gain confidence in intelligence operations. If they get to join the Squadron, it is said that they simply disappear. Most of the time, not even their close family members know where they are, or what they do.