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US Military Academy Home to Top Undergraduate Program in Counterterrorism


Each year hundreds of cadets become officers when they graduate from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. Since 2003, many of the graduates have passed through the academy's Combating Terrorism Center. The Center represents a new way the U.S. military is trying to prepare its future combat leaders for a different kind of war. VOA's Kane Farabaugh has more from New York.

Sometime after breakfast and before dinner during a typical day of classes at West Point, in between all the pomp and circumstance and situated around the hallmarks of a higher education that includes math and grammar, you might find Cadet Tyler Quillico in a different kind of classroom.

"It's not like it's English class or physics or any of the required classes where it's just like 'learn this stuff', and maybe apply it to improve my thinking," he says. "This is actually relevant to the task at hand."

Tyler Quillico is a student at the Combating Terrorism Center, or CTC, in the Social Sciences Department of West Point. It could be said that here, the pen is truly mightier than the sword.

In one lesson, cadets take part in a discussion about the growing sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, a place many of them will serve less than a year after they graduate.

Lieutenant Colonel Joe Felter is the director of the privately funded CTC, which he readily admits is a direct product of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The counterterrorism center opened in 2003 to fill a void in the U.S. military's understanding of its new global enemy -- the stateless terrorist.

"I think most of them expect to be fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan in their first tour of duty, and they need to know who they are fighting," says Felter. "They need to have this nuanced, sophisticated understanding of the threat, and they need it now."

Qiollico says things are different for today's soldiers. "My generation has to learn to fight warfare different than previous generations," he says.

Fighting a different war means using different means to achieve victory on the battlefield. So the counterterrorism center brought in some of the best experts in the field, such as former CIA analyst Jarret Brachman.

Brachman prepares today's students for tomorrow's battles by using the enemy's playbook. "A colleague of mine and I wrote this article 'Stealing al-Qaida's Playbook,' in the sense that we found many of these top strategists put these thoughts online," says Brachman.

Online and in plain view for the world to see. But Brachman says prior to the war in Iraq, many military leaders were not looking. "Generally there had not been a recognition that the terrorist violence we've been seeing on 9/11 and beforehand and afterward had been motivated by a coherent and thoughtful body of ideas," says Brachman.

"And what we found through some in-depth study here and elsewhere around the world - other folks have come to this conclusion - is that al-Qaida and like-minded groups are motivated by a number of important scholars, who have written extensive books," continues Brachman. "Al-Qaida has a library of 3,000 books online. Anyone can access these books."

Brachman says that by using al-Qaida's online library, and by constantly staying on top of developments in both the real world and cyberspace, cadets get a modern and unbiased assessment of the world they will soon face. The lessons in the classroom explore the religious and political problems in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the customs and history.

No topic here is off limits, no ideology left unexplored, and according to both the civilian and military leaders who run the courses here, no political agenda served.

"They give us the information, and they give us a couple of different ideas. For instance in this last lecture: Are we winning? Are we losing? Is it a stalemate? And that type of thing," explains Quillico. "They leave it up to us to decide for ourselves what our own conclusions are, and that's the value in it. They don't push us in a direction."

...At least not in the classroom. But Quillico will most likely be pushed into combat soon after he graduates in 2008. Sent into an environment where one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Where enemies plant hidden bombs and shoot from protected locations. And where the number of dead and wounded continue to mount in a war that still does not have an end date.