Representatives from the Combating Terror Center at West Point gave a talk to a small but intellectually stimulated cadre of students and professors in Martha van Rensselaer Hall yesterday. William Braniff and Alex Gallo, both West Point graduates and former service men in the United States Military, hoped to codify and illuminate the nature of a Middle Eastern terrorist threat that, according to their organization, remains obfuscated to the general public.
“[Our goal] is to help you get through the contextual layers in order to understand what Al-Qaeda is,” Braniff said. “The threat derives its legitimacy … from much more than a little bit of 18-year-old angst.”
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After shaking hands and personally introducing themselves to audience members, Braniff and Gallo began the presentation with a short music video made by Sheikh Terra featuring the Soul Salah Crew, entitled “Dirty Kuffar.” The song, toasted in rapid-fire staccato to the tune of Rihanna’s 2006 hit, “Pon de Replay,” replaced the pop star’s sensual calls for dance with peremptory cries for war. Littered with labeled photos of American military leaders as “infidels,” and slogans such as “Send ‘em home in body bags,” the propaganda piece gave ample impetus for young Muslims to take up arms against American invaders. According to Braniff and Gallo, the video was not made by members of Al-Qaeda, or even citizens of the Middle East. Rather, it was a grim portrait of the effects Al-Qaeda extremism can have on youth, whom Braniff referred to as “empty vessels.”
“Al-Qaeda conducts its campaign of violence based on the interpretation of its theology,” Braniff said.
To further explain how Al-Qaeda gleans its radical message from a relatively peaceful canon of Muslim doctrine, Braniff spent the remainder of the talk discussing Islamic history, taking time to field questions from audience members. Braniff explained that Al-Qaeda members are recruited from the Salafi-Jihad sect of Islam, who believe that the Muslim people have not ascended to heaven because the state has fallen away from God. Though other factions of Islam believe forms of this theory, the Salafi-Jihad is among the few that encourage concerted efforts to bring about the ideal merge of church and state.
“It’s this thought-legacy that motivates the Al-Qaeda community,” Braniff said.
Despite the modest turnout for the presentation, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point is perhaps one of the few counter-terrorism groups that continues to hold major clout after a dying down of terrorism fervor, specifically in the wake of the economic recession.
“I thought it was something more people should hear,” Jonathan Panter ’12 said. Panter, who said he has family in Israel and is especially intrigued by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, emphasized that people should not be tapering their caution just because a new administration is in effect.
“One of the most dangerous ideas we’re facing today, especially with the Obama administration, is that there really is not as big a terrorist threat as people thought,” Panter said. “I think the U.S. faces an existential threat. We’ve seen an increase in terrorism since 9/11, and that means an increase in vigilance.”
The Combating Terrorism Center seeks to “bring together practitioners and academics,” according to Gallo. By educating American leaders and students on the aggregate culture and beliefs of radical terrorists, the center hopes to help the nation more effectively fight violent extremism in all its forms. Spurred by the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Center was formed in 2003 and has been putting out research publications steadily ever since. Publications passed around to audience members yesterday included “Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting Al-Qaeda’s Organizational Vulnerabilities” and “Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in Al-Qaeda 1989-2006.”