Sunday, March 06, 2005

Inside a U.S. Counterterrorism Research Center

Inside a U.S. Counterterrorism Research Center

The man contemplating martyrdom is actually a New York City cop, who, for the purposes of this article, we’ll call Dan. The approaching SUVs will be rumbling down a dirt road in North Carolina, not the Middle East. And this is not a terrorist camp but a counterterrorist camp, a weeklong course in which U.S. military and law-enforcement personnel study the mentality of the enemy by role-playing terrorists. It’s called “Mirror Image” training.

Developed in 2002 by the Virginia-based consulting group Terrorism Research Center (TRC), the Mirror Image program is the first of its kind in the war on terror. It’s also one of the few counterterrorism courses designed for street cops, soldiers, and federal agents alike. “In this conflict, there’s a blurring of front lines,” explains Walter Purdy, a former Marine and vice-president of TRC. “Beat cops in American cities and U.S. soldiers in Fallujah could easily be up against people who share the same ideology, habits, culture, and tactics. Our goal is to immerse our students in the mind-set of that enemy.”

To that end, the students are awakened every day an hour before sunrise for the 5:45 call to prayer. We cover our faces with kaffiyehs and spend our mornings studying the Koran, urban warfare, cell logistics, and bomb-making. In the afternoons, we conduct live-fire exercises with AK-47s and light machine guns favored by terrorists, such as Uzis and MP5s, and practice suicide bombings (with flash-bang grenades instead of explosives), motorcycle assassinations, and now abductions. It’s cultural-sensitivity training, with weapons.

Whether a week spent wearing Arab head garb and shooting AK-47s will actually help cops and soldiers plumb the complexities of our enemies’ hearts and minds is an open question. Sun Tzu certainly wouldn’t disagree with the notion of going to any lengths to “know thine enemy.” But when I first witness my fellow students donning their scarves, some of them shouting, for comic effect, “Praise Allah!” in their best Ali G accents, I momentarily feel as if I’ve entered a weird, terrorist-camp version of a suburban Renaissance Faire.

TRC’s mirror image training takes place in Moyock, North Carolina, at the facilities of Blackwater USA, the private security firm best known for providing L. Paul Bremer with bodyguards in Baghdad. Blackwater’s 6,000 acres of heavily guarded scrubland contain a vast assault-training course with mock-ups of city streets, office towers, ship superstructures, and civilian aircraft. There’s also a fleet of SUVs and miles of road for conducting high-speed evasion and ambush maneuvers. In addition to the 40 students on hand for Mirror Image, the place is crawling with a couple hundred former U.S. military personnel training to be private soldiers. In a strange way, this stateless paramilitary training center is itself a mirror image of an Al Qaeda training camp.

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