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Camp Jihad

A ragtag army of cops, soldiers, and G.I. Joe wannabes play terrorist for a week in a counterintuitive counterterrorism program.


Student cell members practice raiding an infidel command post. (Photo credit: Evan Wright)

8. We’re Trying to Think Like They Think.

Our cell is plotting the abduction of a female infidel. Toting assault rifles and handguns, our faces covered by kaffiyehs, the ten of us gather beneath a tree to study a map scratched into the dirt. It shows an intersection where we will intercept two infidel SUVs. Our plan is to hide in the ditch that runs alongside the road, and leap out, weapons blazing, as the SUVs turn the corner. We’ll concentrate on killing the drivers first, then the bodyguards, before grabbing the woman.

Those of us who are not martyred in the operation will make our escape in two pickup trucks. If we accidentally kill the hostage in the process, that’s okay. It’s also okay if we all die in the assault and the infidels get away. Our strength lies in the fact that we are willing to die. When our mangled corpses appear in the infidel’s media, they will testify to the power of our belief and inspire countless others to follow us. We win in victory; we win in defeat.

We will be moving into position in less than half an hour. One of my jihadist brothers, a stocky fellow armed with a Glock handgun, leans against the tree, testing the action on his weapon and waxing philosophical about the possibility of becoming a martyr in the operation. “So you get the 72 virgins,” he says. “Then you gotta have 72 different houses for each one. They’re all gonna be wanting nicer things, better homes. You know how women are. Seventy-two of them would drive you crazy.”

If this seems like a suspiciously American view of jihadist paradise, it is. 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.

Our course began on a crisp autumn afternoon as we assembled in a windowless building, which for our purposes had been dubbed “the mosque.” We sat awkwardly on small Muslim prayer rugs, while Navid, a stern Pakistani dressed in a dishdasha, initiated us into the ideology of militant Islam.

“Americans have a film called Red Dawn,” Navid began. “ ‘Great movie,’ they say. About Americans defending their homeland from invaders. We live Red Dawn every day in the Middle East, only it’s the Americans we’re fighting, and their agents, the Jews. When you kill them, don’t ever let them call you ‘Muslim terrorists.’ That’s Christian propaganda. You are freedom fighters.” Navid then added in confidential tones, “Did you know all American women work as whores? It’s true. Their fathers and brothers put them on the buses to the whorehouses when they turn 18. I have seen this with my own eyes.”

This baptism into militant Islam proved tough for some. A young Army officer seated next to me, who’d recently returned from Iraq, developed a severe twitch in his jaw muscles as Navid went on to claim that Christians are backward polytheists who may legitimately be killed under Koranic law. As we rose for break, the officer swore, “These people are all so two-faced. They talk about religion, but show me an Iraqi who doesn’t chain-smoke and drink.”

“It almost makes me sick listening to their bullshit,” agreed a Secret Service agent.

Only Dan, the New York cop, seemed to take it in stride. “In my job, I’m exposed to different cultures and views,” he said, shrugging. “As a cop in New York, you learn things about people. Like understanding that if a person is yelling, it might not mean he’s angry. For Haitians, it’s a cultural thing. They yell.”

Owing to his cosmopolitanism, Dan was able to help some members of our cell overcome our next great hurdle: a Middle Eastern meal. When the first evening’s dinner was laid out, several of the students were dismayed to learn that role-playing the enemy also involved eating their “crappy food.”

“What the hell?” a soldier said, poking a stuffed grape leaf with a plastic fork.

“Those are stuffed with rice,” explained Dan. “Just eat them like they’re normal food.”

Our Jihad is succeeding beyond our wildest expectations,” announces retired British intelligence analyst Andrew Garfield. “Look at how the Americans are blundering around in Iraq, filling our ranks with new recruits.” As mujaheddin-in-training, we should be heartened by this news, but it’s hard to stay in character. Especially since Garfield can’t help but occasionally chastise the Americans hidden behind the kaffiyehs.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing in Iraq when you drop a bloody bomb on someone’s house in the middle of a city? You might kill a legitimate insurgent, but when you also kill his wife, or his children, and you do it in front of his neighbors, you’re making ten times as many recruits. And you’re offending and pissing off a billion and a half Muslims watching around the world.”

Killing terrorists or insurgents will not kill the movement. It’s a lesson Garfield, who now works with the International Policy Institute at King’s College in London, learned on the front lines of Britain’s decades-long battle with the IRA. “Terrorist groups don’t go away,” he says, “until their ideology ceases to be attractive.”

By failing to understand that ideology, failing to see our enemies as they see themselves, he argues, America has made a grave error. “You trivialize our motives,” Garfield says. “We are not just sacrificing our lives for the 72 virgins in heaven. We see ourselves as a military organization, just as the U.S. Army does.”

I notice Dan paying close attention and wonder if any of this applies to his job back home. The cop doesn’t even work in the NYPD Counter-Terrorism Division. He comes from Narcotics and looks the part. He speaks in a shy, almost furtive mumble. Beneath his kaffiyeh, his face is lightly bearded, and his head partially shaved, so that he is evenly covered in a layer of black stubble. He is 28 years old, five foot ten, and powerfully built—“I weigh a buck eighty,” he tells me, “but I can bench-press 325.”

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