Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Lehigh students get inside terrorist mind by plotting fictional attack on campus

Lehigh University professor Chaim Kaufmann wants his students to think like terrorists. Even more, he wants them to plan like terrorists, try to understand their motives, and reason through their challenges.

William Hoelke, a Lehigh student, talks about the assignment to plot an attack against the school in a class taught by Chaim Kaufmann. "It just completely blew my mind," Hoelke said. (CHARLES FOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
William Hoelke, a Lehigh student, talks about the assignment to plot an attack against the school in a class taught by Chaim Kaufmann. "It just completely blew my mind," Hoelke said. (CHARLES FOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

Lehigh University professor Chaim Kaufmann wants his students to think like terrorists.

Even more, he wants them to plan like terrorists, try to understand their motives, and reason through their challenges.

It's part of an unusual and engaging assignment in which freshmen in his class on political violence and terrorism are asked to weigh risk and feasibility by spending one class period mapping out a fictional attack - on their own university.

"We use Lehigh as the target because that's what students know," said Kaufmann, 52, an associate professor in international relations at Lehigh, in Bethlehem, Pa.

To learn best about why terrorism occurs, Kaufmann said, "you've got to do the thing that is uncomfortable for most of us to do most of the time . . . put aside our interests and socializations as Americans . . . and get inside the heads of the attackers and try to figure out what they are thinking."

"It's not as simple as 'they hate us because we let women drive.' "

Over the 75-minute class period, students debated the location, time, weapon of choice, getaway plan, difficulty of getting a terrorist team into the country, and behavioral patterns of the target, among other challenges posed by their professor and each other.

Their plan ended up being anything but intricate and sophisticated. They first settled on hitting the student-center dining room at lunchtime with a truck bomb. One student pointed out that another delivery truck could be blocking the narrow entrance. They then decided to use a suicide explosive vest.

"So we do get them thinking hard about how difficult it is to guarantee that something will actually come off," said Kaufmann, who has taught at Lehigh for 20 years. "So what I hope they'll get out of that particular exercise is an appreciation of why it is so little has happened. It's not as easy as all the apocalyptic scenarios talk about."

Kaufmann, whose research focuses on international security, ethnic conflict, nuclear weapons proliferation, and U.S. foreign policy, began teaching the course after 9/11 when interest peaked. He has offered it several times over the last decade. The course in the past has drawn more than 100 students, but this semester, for the first time, it is being taught as a freshman seminar, meaning its size is kept small. It draws students from a variety of majors, this semester political science, Spanish, graphic design, business, premed, and international relations.

The course covers topics from the reasons behind terrorism to its history over the last two centuries. It also explores issues such as the use of torture. Students are required to do a semester-long research project on a case study of political violence.

"It just completely blew my mind," said William Hoelke, 18, of Sebastian, Fla. "It totally opened me up to a whole other side of the world and what really makes terrorists tick, the methods they use, and how they are truly passionate about the means they are trying to achieve."

McKenzie Otus, 18, of San Francisco, said it was difficult to put herself in the place of a terrorist.

"We learned about women as suicide terrorists," she said. "He asked all the girls, what would you do? Would you kill other people for your movement? It's a tough question, because we're, like, 18-year-old kids. It's very thought-provoking and interesting."

For the discussion on planning an attack, Kaufmann tells students to assume they have no network in the country, which was the case for the 9/11 attackers. They first plot as if it's a suicide mission and then not, adding the dimension of having to cover tracks and escape.

The class discusses the goal of the attack and types of weapons.

"They often quickly come to the solution that the ideal weapon in terms of how much mess you can make in relation to difficulty of doing it is a truck bomb," he said.

Kaufmann acknowledged that the exercise "may sound weird" but is nonetheless effective.

"You can show them practically everything that ever happened, but black-and-white doesn't impress people. But then you make them try to solve it themselves. Now they get it."

He emphasized that he isn't passing on sensitive information to students.

"It's the students' common knowledge about Lehigh, and none of the modes of attack are things that haven't gotten ferocious amounts of attention" in the news, he said.

He avoids questions such as what it takes to evade licensing requirements for blasting caps, he said. "I tell them, 'We're just going to skip that,' " he said.

Kaufmann also provides students with a tip sheet he developed on surviving terrorist attacks, from the use of a biological weapon to a kidnapping.

He noted that some scenarios, such as a nuclear attack, are highly unlikely.

"Bioterror is not so likely now, but will become a lot more likely because of advances in gene sequencing and gene assembly," he said.

Kaufmann wrote the tip list post-9/11 after questions from students, relatives, and friends.

He knows firsthand how important instructions can be in an emergency. Kaufmann recalled tips he received before going on a canoe trip. When his canoe capsized, "I flashed on exactly those instructions and followed them . . . . So the reason I give this to the students is, god forbid any of these things should ever happen, I hope that they'll have the right memory flash."

Students said they were glad for the tips.

"With the guidelines, I feel that I'll be able to escape and survive now," Hoelke said.

Prof. Kaufmann's Safety Tips

Kidnapping/hijacking: The standard advice is not to resist.

Conventional explosive/gunfire: Get away from the immediate area of attack as fast as you can. . . . Especially if there is a risk of fire or building collapse, move immediately; do not search for possessions or people whom you cannot see instantly.

Biological: If official or medical advice conflicts with this sheet, follow that.

If you think that you may already have been exposed, do not go home if anyone is there. Seek medical help. If already home, stay there. . . . If the threat lasts a considerable time, designate one member of the household to interact with the outside world. . . . That person should not reenter the house at all or, if weather makes that impractical, should stay in one room never visited by anyone else. Everything they bring home should be in sealed containers and should have bleach poured over it before anyone else touches it.

Chemical: If you think that airborne chemical weapons have been released in the immediate area, don't breathe. . . . Get away from the area as fast as you can. If the attack occurs indoors, get outdoors. Given a choice, go up rather than down, as all chemical weapons are heavier than air. Go into the wind rather than with it. . . . If you can avoid breathing for the first few tens of seconds and can move a short distance, by the time that you absolutely must take a breath, the risk will have declined enormously if not disappeared.

Radiological: Respond much as you would to a conventional explosive, except that - before entering whatever dwelling or safe place you reach first - leave all your clothing and carried possessions outside and don't touch them again. . . . Then wash yourself thoroughly with cold water. Keep the water running for a while to reduce contamination of the tub or shower.

Nuclear: Get out of the area as best you can. Cover your nose and mouth with a wet cloth as protection against both smoke and airborne fallout. . . . If the detonation was 300 to 400 miles away or more, you are probably safest if you stay where you are. . . . If you move, head across the wind. If the detonation was to the south or southwest, go northwest or north-northwest. Southeast would also be across the wind, but don't go that way; New Jersey is small.