Tue, Mar 24, 2009 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE : Private investor founds center to combat terror


Military cadets and Pentagon policy makers alike are drawing on the experiences of a unique West Point academy research center to seek a better understanding of the enemy post-Sept. 11.

The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), set up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, aims to prepare cadets at the nation’s premier military academy to confront the shifting geo-political realities of the 21st century.

Inspired by the precept of the ancient Chinese warlord, Sun Tzu (孫子), “to know your enemy,” the center has become a leading hub of research into the al-Qaeda network, which carried out the 2001 attacks, and radical Islam in general.

Its reports have been studied around the world by governments, policy-makers and senior diplomats as well as local and federal police forces.

Studying the jihadist movement, or Islamic militants called to “holy war,” already figured highly on academic courses here before the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, in New York, and the Pentagon.

But it was following the collapse of the Twin Towers, that businessman and West Point graduate Vincent Viola decided to finance a center dedicated purely to researching al-Qaeda and Islamic militants.

Viola was then the chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange which had offices in the center and lost several people in the attacks.

“But it was one of the first organizations to be up and running after the attacks, and Vinnie credited his time in the academy and in the army for his ability to deal with the crisis,” said the CTC’s research director Brian Fishman.

“So he wanted to do something for the academy to prepare cadets to deal with this new threat: Why did these people knock down the buildings? Understand the current threat. So he gave some money to start the center,” he said.

The aim from the start was to help cadets during their four-year training “to understand at a strategic level the threat they are going to have to deal with in a tactical level,” Fishman said. “They need to understand what and who they are going to deal with.”

Twelve of the center’s 14 researchers are under civilian contracts, and another 25 staff are also employed there. They include Arabic speakers as well as experts in central Asian languages entrusted with scouring jihadist Internet sites.

Over 20 two-hour sessions the cadets study from the manual Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Understanding the New Security Environment and attend lectures by international experts.

Although it is housed at West Point, the center acts as a think tank and is 80 percent-financed by private donations. Its total budget has not been divulged, but it remains separate from the military academy.

If the Pentagon or the State Department need answers to a specific question, they then must pay for an ad hoc study.

Executive director Reid Sawyer, one of the founding members, says such a financial structure ensures the center retains its independence from the government and the military.

“We have independence to write what we want. And if somebody disagrees with what we write, there’s little that they can do,” he said.

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