When the words “West Point” are mentioned, the names and exploits of famous generals such as Grant, Eisenhower, and Patton come to mind along with visions of crisp fall days, duty, honor, country, as well as an institution, the U.S. Military Academy (USMA), that is as much of America’s fabric as the Liberty Bell.  All of these paint a vivid image, particularly of the Academy itself. But in recent years, West Point also has developed one of the most comprehensive academic “Centers of Gravity” for the study of terrorism – through the school’s Combating Terrorism Center, or CTC.

The horrific attacks of 9/11, two of them just down the Hudson River from West Point in New York City, reinforced the need for colleges and universities nationwide to impose greater academic rigor on the study of terrorism. Because West Point and a handful of other schools had been studying terrorism and asymmetric threats before 9/11, the school very quickly, according to the Center’s promotional material, “recognized a critical need to improve the knowledge, analysis, and decision-making of leaders as they face new threats” in a post 9-11 world. The CTC was established specifically to meet that need.

Establishment of the Center was inspired by Vincent Viola, a 1977 USMA graduate and, in 2002, head of the New York Mercantile Exchange; it opened formally in February 2003 and accepted the important mission of “arming current and future leaders with the intellectual tools needed to defeat and deter terrorist threats to our nation.”  The Center has an extraordinary staff and also can call on some of the true “founding fathers” of homeland security in the United States. The most prominent example, probably, is General Wayne A. Downing (USA, Ret.) – a 1962 USMA graduate, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, and advisor to the President for Counterterrorism in the period immediately following the 9/11 attacks – who holds the Distinguished Chair of the Center.  In addition, the center uses USMA cadets and faculty on specific projects.

A Broad and Varied Academic Spectrum

Fortunately, the Center has been able to bridge one of the key elements needed in the study of terrorism and homeland security – namely, linking academia with key leaders from the Department of Defense and other federal agencies involved in countering terrorism and enhancing homeland security.  The Center has reinforced its vital role – engaging at the strategic and intellectual levels – in a wide variety of venues and by issuing publications which are of benefit well beyond the Corps of Cadets.

The Center also offers another advantage by, as noted in its literature, attracting “many top Islamic scholars and academics who would otherwise have nothing to do with the government … [but] are happy to work with leading-edge academics at West Point.” The Center’s contributions to the Military Academy itself in support of USMA’s student population have been considerable.  According to the Center, “every cadet receives a five-lesson block on terrorism as part of the core international relations course.” This block normally includes Downing or another CTC senior fellow as the keynote speaker.  In addition, the Center offers courses in homeland security, information warfare, intelligence, and terrorism as well as advanced terrorism studies.

Although primary core programs such as engineering are still where Cadets place their academic emphasis, they can now also minor in terrorism studies.

A further outgrowth of the Center has been the creation and approval of West Point’s first-ever “minor.” Although primary core programs such as engineering are still where Cadets place their academic emphasis, they can now also minor in terrorism studies.  President Bush noted this contribution during the 2006 USMA commencement ceremonies when he stated that the Academy “has established a new Combating Terrorism Center, a new minor in Terrorism Studies, with new courses in counter-insurgency operations, intelligence, and homeland security, and winning the peace.

“By changing to meet the new threats,” he told the graduating , “West Point has given you the skills you will need in Afghanistan and Iraq – and for the long war with Islamic radicalism that will be the focus of much of your military careers.”

Fire Departments, Federal Responses, and the FBI

Outside of the academy, the Center has developed a series of seminars for the New York City Fire Department that uses a combination of academics and outside experts to provide “an interdisciplinary approach” to the seminars. The combination of “conceptual terrorism studies with a technical approach to weapons of mass destruction,” CTC says, “creates a course that will provide the relevant context to strategically think about these key issues.”  The program with the Fire Department was such a success that the Bush administration said – in a White House report, “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned” – that federal departments and agencies “should strengthen their existing homeland security educational and training programs,” and specifically suggested that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “should pursue opportunities to replicate innovative educational programs, such as the joint New York City Fire Department-U.S. Military Academy’s Counterterrorism Leadership Program.” That is not only a significant endorsement but also a good measure of the program’s success.

In April 2006, Deputy Assistant Director Thomas Harrington of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counter Terrorism Division approached the Center in an effort to expand counterterrorism training and research capacity. Initially, during the period from June to December 2006, the collaboration established a 2-1/2 day seminar for FBI special agents and analysts working within Joint Terrorism Task Forces in such cities as Boston, Honolulu, and San Francisco. The course provided the FBI attendees a much better understanding of the roots of terrorism, how groups operate, and how they use the internet.

West Point’s Center for Combating Terrorism is clearly a leading national contributor already to the study of terrorism, and of the ways to counter it. As the Center’s own literature phrases it, “The CTC is a linchpin as the nation forges the important intellectual alliances between academics and government that are critical to success in the long war.”

Christopher Doane

Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Joseph DiRenzo III

Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer. He's visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Translate »