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.”
Terror InterruptedWhy haven’t we been hit again? A review of the most compelling theories.Theories 1-5
Reasons They Haven’t Hit Us Again
Every New Yorker knows how easily a terrorist could strike the city. So why hasn’t it happened since 9/11? Theories 6 & 7
Anatomy Of a Foiled Plot
How the NYPD infiltrated a ring of homegrown terrorists and prevented a subway bombing.Theory 8
To stop a terrorist, you can start by learning how to dress like one, shoot like one, and think like one.
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.
THEORIES 1-5: Reasons They Haven’t Hit Us Again
Answering the Big Question.
THEORIES 6 & 7: Anatomy Of a Foiled Plot
Two would-be bombers of the Herald Square subway station find that three is a crowd.