|From top: A morning prayer session; jihad students in a motorcycle assassination course. (Photo credit: Evan Wright)
He found out about Mirror Image on the Web. But since he doesn’t work in counterterrorism, the department refused to pay the $3,000 tuition. The TRC gave him a scholarship, but Dan would have paid for it out of his own pocket. When I ask why he was so eager, he says matter-of-factly, “We all know we’re going to get hit again by terrorists. We’re hungry to get more training. Besides, I thought it would be a good résumé-builder.”
While counterterrorism is often perceived as the exclusive domain of rarefied experts, linguists, and top-secret law-enforcement units, TRC’s Walter Purdy claims that street cops play a crucial role in gathering intelligence and thwarting attacks. “Where you have terrorists hiding out or operating in a community,” he says, “beat cops, given adequate levels of training and awareness, are often in the best position to find them.”
He points out that street cops, or their equivalents, have foiled some of the highest-profile terrorist attacks in America’s recent past, including the “millennial bomb plot” to blow up buildings at the Los Angeles airport in 2000. Ahmed Rassam was stopped because a border guard’s suspicions were aroused when she noticed he was sweating profusely.
It’s easy to understand how Mirror Image courses in improvised weapons manufacture, for example, may teach cops to look for new clues when they search a home or car. But what of our simulated kidnappings and assassinations? If the grim prognostications of our instructors hold true, the day will come when cops like Dan will be dealing with these tactics on the streets of American cities. “If Al Qaeda gets nearly as good as the IRA,” says one, “you will be fighting them for decades to come on your own soil and abroad.”
The prospect of mounting chaos seems, frankly, to excite some instructors. At times, Frank Willoughby, who teaches Mirror Image courses in ambush and proper use of improvised explosive devices, is unable to conceal how glad he is that the war on terrorism promises to be endless. “You know, my wife—who’s a typical American housewife—keeps asking, ‘When is this war going to be over?’ I have to tell her, ‘Honey, not ever in our lifetimes.’ ” Punching his fist into his hand, he adds, “Soon as they hit us 9/11, I told my wife, ‘The game is on!’ ”
The former Army Special Forces sergeant now runs his own security-consulting firm, hiring himself out to businesses and agencies that want to test their security by having a guy like him attempt to break into their facilities. “I’ve waltzed right into nuclear plants,” he says proudly.
Willoughby’s exuberance and hoarse voice bring to mind a high-school coach going over his favorite plays, as he tells us how we can use cell phones or rising bread dough to make timing devices for homemade bombs, what you want to pack them with to make them more deadly (ball bearings), and where you want to stand if you’re setting off your own suicide bomb (near a window or a gas tank). His course is lavishly illustrated with graphic before-and-after images of bombers, their victims, and indeterminate pieces of both following martyrdom operations.
“What do we gain out of ambushing the infidels?” he shouts in character as a mujaheddin.
One of the military guys offers a doctrinal answer: “Ambushes give us initiative in choosing the location of the attack.”
“True, but that’s not the answer,” Willoughby yells. “Ambushes give us the satisfaction of the look of surprise and panic on our enemies’ faces. We love to see Americans scared shitless.”
The only American I know for sure who’s scared shitless right now is me. We are about to mount our SUV ambush and kidnapping operation, in which we’ll be using “simmunition” weapons—Glocks and M-16 rifles retrofitted to fire plastic rounds filled with blue or pink dye. Unlike weekend-warrior paintball guns, these weapons use real gunpowder cartridges. The Washington, D.C., SWAT-team instructor brought in to train us warned that if we got hit on bare skin, it “might sting a little.” His credibility suffered a mortal blow when we saw what happened to a fellow student hit by a simmunition M-16: Though he’d been wearing two sweatshirts, his chest and arms were covered with torn skin and welts three inches in diameter. With this in mind, I’ve loaded up on every piece of safety gear offered—face mask, padded vest, groin protector. I even stuff my kaffiyeh down my pants for added protection.
Several of the people in our cell have little or no experience firing weapons, let alone trying to use them in a coordinated raid against the well-trained ex-military personnel who will be firing back at us. Luckily, our cell leader is an active-duty Army Special Forces officer whose nickname is “LDR,” which stands for “Leader.”
LDR has an astonishingly buff physique, a walk that’s both swaggering and graceful, and a personality that remains charming even as he spouts the most frightful right-wing opinions. He’s also a nicotine fiend, using all the power of his enormous chest to suck down cigarette after cigarette while we wait to execute our ambushes. LDR has let us know that he disagrees with the “liberal bullshit” Garfield has been teaching us. “Maybe it’s old-fashioned,” he says, “but I still believe a good way to defeat terrorists is to kill them.” And just before we move to our positions, he shouts some last-minute advice: “Don’t forget the essential ingredient of a successful assault: the violence of action. Don’t stop moving once we start shooting.”
My role is to crawl about 50 yards along a ridge and signal the approach of the infidel vehicles. By the time I reach a good lookout spot, I’m breathing so heavily from panic that I’ve fogged up my mask. I’m forced to lift it off my face to see anything. The thought occurs to me that I could be blinded by a simmunition round, but by now my fear of bodily injury has been trumped by fear of failure. I don’t want to let my fellow terrorists down.
When I spot the approaching SUVs, I frantically signal LDR. Gunshots start to crackle. A Marine in our cell charges the lead SUV, screaming, “Allah akbar!”
I race down the berm, scrambling to get in on the shooting. Our cell overwhelms the SUVs’ security teams. Drivers hang out of the front seats, “dead”—we’re supposed to go down if we get shots to the head or chest. LDR grabs a bodyguard and swings him around by his collar, while shouting to us, “Get the chick!” We march her away at gunpoint as Purdy sounds the end of the exercise with a whistle.
Oblivious to the hot-pink dye splattered on his face mask and chest, LDR is triumphant: “We got the chick!” Someone points out that he should have gone down as dead. “Not with my training,” he says. “I can fight for at least five more minutes with wounds like these.”
But by the time Andrew Garfield assembles us for a debriefing, LDR’s mood has soured. “That was terrible,” he says. “I had three people hit.”
“No, no, no!” Garfield says. “You’re thinking like an American. Your mission is a success even if you’re all killed. What counts is staging the assault. Even failed attacks are reported in America. The populace questions the war. They lose confidence in their leaders and ask, ‘Why are we there when the people keep attacking us against all odds?’ ”
This is one of the reasons why Mirror Image includes such exercises in its program: to demonstrate how easy it is for an untrained, ragtag group to come together and conduct insurgent missions. “Americans have this habit of looking at their enemies, whether it’s the hijackers from the 9/11 attacks or the guys they’re fighting in Iraq, and saying, ‘They’re dirty. They don’t wear uniforms. They don’t know how to fire their weapons. They can’t be that serious a threat,’ ” Garfield tells me. “At the very least, this course is showing people it doesn’t take much to be a successful insurgent or terrorist.”
On our final evening, at a farewell barbecue on the deck of Blackwater’s main bunkhouse, several mujaheddin gather around a keg, most of us still wearing our kaffiyehs. An Army intelligence analyst strikes up a conversation about an Internet video making the rounds at his base. “You see that one of an F-16 dropping a thousand-pound bomb on a crowd of hajjis”—the popular military vernacular for Arabs—“in Fallujah? Bam. Now you see them, now you don’t.”
In the darkness, someone wonders aloud, “Do you think there’s guys sitting around some secret terrorist training camp in the Middle East laughing about those videos of Americans jumping off the Twin Towers?”
The group grows quiet, and the only woman present, a former Army captain who now works for the Department of Homeland Security, speaks up. “Doesn’t it seem like both sides just completely dehumanize each other?”
Dan nods and says, “I came into this thinking these terrorists are animals, savages. Now I’m starting to think they have reasons for what they’re fighting for.” He laughs. “But I’m not sure every cop I know would want to sit through all these classes learning Muslim.”
When I ask what he’ll take back with him to the force, he says, “The worst thing in law enforcement is to say ‘That will never happen.’ What I take from this is, we’ve never got to stop thinking of all the different ways bad things can happen to us.”
It’s a disappointing answer, given that I had hoped this course might reveal some radical new insight for combating terrorism. But there’s reason to be heartened by it, too. If there’s a common theme unifying America’s blunders in the war on terrorism—from missing the warning signs before 9/11 to misreading the strength of the insurgency in Iraq—it’s a lack of imagination. We have consistently failed to conceive of an enemy who is as resourceful and clever as we consider ourselves to be. If cops like Dan, and his fellow students, can understand this and change their way of thinking, maybe it’s not too late for those leading the war.