Terrorism Course Lights Up Florida Classroom

The Air Force is running a special course about terrorism at a base in Florida. The course focuses on the threats of dirty bombs, kidnappings and car bombs. It's part of an effort to train personnel for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Here's the latest on a story we're tracking this morning in Baghdad. About 100 men were kidnapped from a government building in the city's center. Three of those men have now been freed; the rest have not. They were taken earlier today when several vehicles pulled up to the Ministry of Higher Education in broad daylight. Then gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms forced men and women into separate rooms, handcuffed the men, loaded them into vehicles and drove off. Ministry officials, employees and visitors were seized, both Sunnis and Shiites among them.

Now the insurgency in Iraq is one reason that U.S. troops are getting fresh training. The Air Force has been sending selected officers and senior airmen through a terrorism course. This has been going on for decades, but today the program focuses on car bombs and kidnappings.

NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren recently sat in on the course.

JOHN HENDREN: The dynamics of international terrorism is a kind of Terror 101 course. It's the most popular course at the Air Force's Joint Special Operations University at Hurlburt Field, Florida. It also serves local and federal government agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, if you're willing to put up with a little abuse.

Mr. CHRIS OSLO(ph)(Counterterrorism Official): Somebody know what TSA stands for? Thousands standing around. How about the take-your-shoe-off agency?

HENDREN: Chris Oslo brings in post 9/11 tales from his job as a police counterterrorism official. The job means dealing with a healthy dose of paranoia.

Mr. OSLO: A guy called us up and said, well, I think I got an anthrax letter. So my first question was, why do you think you're so important that al-Qaida is targeting you? I mean, that was my first question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSLO: My second question was, is there a return address on it? Yes, there is. Well, who's it from? My mother-in-law. Well, let's call her up and ask her.

HENDREN: But in recent years, the case studies he brings into the classroom have been increasingly relevant to his students, some of whom witnessed the attack on the Pentagon. Others, many others, bring in their own tales from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He predicts the next major terror attack is likely to be a so-called dirty bomb.

Mr. OSLO: What we will probably see first will be an RDD. A radiological dispersion device, an explosion with nuclear material attached to it. I can go down the street and make an RDD today and scare the living bejesus out of this base.

HENDREN: The students, many of them troops who faced the threat of kidnapping in Iraq, heard retired Army Major General James Dozier talk about the shock of being kidnapped by the Italian Red Brigades in 1981.

Major General JAMES DOZIER (U.S. Army, Retired): I was jumped from the rear, spun around, and I was looking down the barrels of two silenced pistols.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

HENDREN: After a few days of classroom overviews and terrorist case studies, students head out to the firing range for a demonstration of the weapons in a terrorist arsenal, like the Israeli Uzi.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Unidentified Man #1: Right now, making (unintelligible) dance. All right. Next, Colonel Reynolds(ph) on the Sterling Mark 5.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

HENDREN: Some of the attacks come as a surprise to the audience, as when four men in black rushed out and gunned down three dummies at mock café.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Unidentified Man: What we just did there is let you know that terrorism can happen at any time at any place.

HENDREN: There are sniper demonstrations.

Unidentified Man: At 100 meters, this is just a warm-up shot for a well-trained sniper.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Unidentified Man: Okay, I ruined his day right there.

HENDREN: There was a warning to the lone journalist in the crowd.

Unidentified Man: Let's just see what they do to us before they're down range.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

HENDREN: The sniper who's just killed my imaginary colleague is a pettite, 33-year-old soccer mom, Air Force Master Sergeant Tanya Breed, who's dwarfed by the 50-caliber rifle in her hands.

What do people tell you when they find out you're a sniper?

Master Sergeant TANYA BREED (U.S. Air Force): Well, I don't tell people. They just kind of figure it out, and they're shocked. They don't - a lot of people don't believe me, that I shoot this gun and do it well.

HENDREN: And there's a demonstration that shows why behind the engine block is the best place to hide when someone's shooting at your car.

Unidentified Man: First off, he's going to put a couple of rounds in the tail end of that vehicle

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Unidentified Man: A couple underneath it.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Unidentified Man: Oh, he killed that guy.

Hendren: Then there are demonstrations of what not to do with a bomb.

Unidentified Man: I can just pull the wick out, go like this.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man: Oh, geez. Sorry about that.

HENDREN: And the coup de grâce, a car bomb, is still loud even from 400 yards away.

Unidentified Man: We have the small pickup truck there. I'm going to show you what's 4 ounces worth of explosives will do. It's just smaller than a package of cigarettes.

(Soundbite of explosion)

HENDREN: Staff Sergeant Timothy McCartney, a reservist nurse who has spent two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, says he is still picking up new tips.

Staff Sergeant TIMOTHY MCCARTHY (U.S. Army): You know the day you know it all is the day it's time to hang up your hat and go home. Doesn't matter how many times you've been somewhere, there's always something new you're going to pick up, and especially in a scenario like this where you're not really worried about bullets flying over your head. You tend to pick up a lot more than you would when you're under fire. When I was in south Baghdad, the norm then is what these guys at the school consider old school now.

HENDREN: No tactic is new for long. Master Sergeant Justin Anderson is a lead bomb expert on the course.

Master Sergeant JUSTIN ANDERSON (Bomb Expert): Once they leave, they realize that this is going to be a cat and mouse game probably forever. The bad guy will always try and think up something new. We'll find something that will take care of a certain problem, and then they'll work - a work around. It'll never end. The only way it'll probably end is if you get someone that really just doesn't want to kill you.

HENDREN: Anderson says the students walk away with a more sober understanding of their jobs and their adversary. John Hendren, NPR News.

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