On Sept. 11, 2001, as Americans watched the Twin Towers crumble and a plane crash into the side of the Pentagon, the word terrorism suddenly implanted itself into the consciousness of people nationwide.
The events of that day and the desire to better understand the group that orchestrated it led to the creation of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy. Since its founding in 2003, researchers at the CTC have worked to define terrorism and study the groups associated with acts of terrorism.
“The term terrorism has been hotly debated over the years. Each person is going to come at you with a slightly different variation of the definition, but some of the core things you would look for if an act is to be labeled as an act of terrorism is it's got to have a violent component,” said Brian Dodwell, the director of the Combating Terrorism Center. “The other primary definitional point is it's got to be political in nature. An act of violence that does not have a political objective would not be considered an act of terrorism.”
The violent acts they consider to be terrorism, Dodwell said, are typically those carried out against non-combatants, whether it is civilians or military personnel who are serving in non-combat roles. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by Jihadist terrorists based in the Middle East, but the CTC studies all forms of terrorism, including both domestic and international terrorist organizations. This includes left- and right-wing extremist groups, ethno-nationalist and more.
“Terrorism has been around for thousands of years,” Dodwell said. “Every type of ideology, every race, creed, ethnicity and religion has used terrorism in some capacity and it’s important that (cadets) understand that, and that you know in any given moment you might see sort of ebbs and flows from the different typologies.”
In the 17 years since its founding at West Point, the CTC has worked to fill two roles simultaneously. The first is to teach cadets at the academy about terrorism. The primary way this is accomplished is through the terrorism studies minor. The minor requires cadets to take five classes, three of which are taught by CTC faculty.
The first of those core classes is terrorism, which works to define the term and how groups operate.
The second course, combating terrorism, teaches cadets the different strategies for counterterrorism, including military and non-military options. The third class is homeland security and focuses on how terrorism is fought domestically.
Cadets enrolled in the minor also have the chance to take part in Academic Individual Advanced Development trips during the summer, which serve as mini internships. These include opportunities to embed with the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency or the National Security Council for an in-person experience.
The CTC also typically takes cadets on a fall trip to the 9/11 memorial in New York City followed by a visit to the Joint Terrorism Task Force or the United Nations. During the spring semester, they take a trip to Washington D.C. to meet with high-level practitioners in the field. Past trips have included visits with the CIA director, the FBI director and the National Security Council.
“These topics are stuff that they're going to face in their careers,” Richard Yon, the CTC’s director of terrorism studies, said. “Terrorism is not going away. So, this is something that they’re going to face at some point during their careers. It gives them the tools to understand what these issues are so when they’re officers and they’re out there and they’re engaging with this, they can hopefully draw back on what they’ve learned in the classroom.”
The second major focus of the CTC is research. The center has the unique benefit of being able to do academically rigorous research from inside the government because of its position at West Point, Dodwell said. Because the center is located within the Army, the CTC researchers have access to data and material that outside researchers don’t. The goal is to bridge the gap between civilian researchers and military intelligence to paint a fuller picture of terrorism worldwide, he added.
That goal is accomplished by taking their completed research and posting it in a public forum via the CTC website, their monthly publication the CTC Sentinel and other media.
“(We are) kind of a nexus point,” Daniel Milton, the director of research for the CTC, said. “(We are) able to speak to both communities as well as take the great lessons learned that both communities produce, and, hopefully, create products that are insightful and relevant and useful to those who are seeking to understand terrorism as a problem but also to those who are fighting against it on the frontlines.”
When conducting research, they typically rely on two types of material, Milton said. The first is open source information, which includes reporting done by journalists and material published by the groups themselves. For a recent project studying Iranian backed militias in Iraq and Syria, CTC researcher Nakissa Jahanbani pulled data in part from social media posts by the group.
The other main sources of information are documents obtained by military forces on the ground that have been declassified. These sources enable the researchers to learn about the groups’ innerworkings in a more unvarnished way, Milton said.
“If you want to learn a lot about anybody, I’d say one of the best ways to do it is to look at what they do. Their actions that they take. The words that they say,” Milton said. “These documents provide that unique insight. In many cases, these documents were written for an internal audience. They weren’t written for the public to see. So, we get the picture of the group from a very candid perspective as opposed to something that we might see if we look at their propaganda.”
When deciding what to study, researchers at the center look to answer questions being asked by practitioners in the field on combating terrorism, Milton said. This can include gathering data on how terrorist organizations work, how they’re funded, the make-up of the groups and their strategies. To determine new areas of research, they frequently ask people in the field, “What keeps you up at night,” Dodwell said.
When they asked that question of now retired Gen. Joseph Votel during his tenure commanding United States Special Operations Command, his answer was “hostages.” Following that conversation, CTC researchers began working to compile a public database of all Western hostages captured by non-state actors. The report was originally sent to Votel’s staff, Dodwell said, but its value quickly led to researchers from the CTC speaking at a hostage summit hosted by SOCOM and briefing a new White House task force on hostages.
“That immediate feedback of an expression of value was really great to see and then we’re able to take what was initially a private report for his command, and then turn it into a public piece of scholarship that we’ve published on our website in a more polished and finalized format that is now a resource for the entire research community,” Dodwell said.
The center has also recently conducted research on the Islamic State’s actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan and they are looking at how the U.S. government classifies organizations as terrorist groups.
“We always hope that the work is timely, but our main goal is to look out there and see where there are gaps in our understanding that we can hopefully plug with some good quality research,” Milton said. “The CTC is not an opinion shop. We’re not a place that’s trying to spout off a particular perspective. We go where the data takes us.”