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U.S. Marine Corps Col. (Ret.) James Howcroft, course director on the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies, presents the “Role of Intelligence in Countering Terrorism” July 28 in the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. (Marshall Center photo by Karl-Heinz Wedhorn)

By Christine June
GCMC Public Affairs

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany (Aug. 4, 2016) – Lebanese army Maj. Rabih Fakih had an attentive crowd listening when he talked about the fragile balance between refugees and keeping communities safe in his nation.  It’s a struggle he deals with hour by hour, every day in his role as vice head of the National Security Branch in Lebanon.

Fakih was speaking to an international group of counter terrorism professionals from 47 countries who were attending the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies (PTSS) at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

“PTSS is one of the best things to happen to me in my life. I met security professionals from all over the world.  If there is an issue in my country, I just call someone from the Marshall Center alumni network. I can’t tell you how many times I have done that in the past five months,” said Fakih, an 11-year case officer who attended PTSS earlier in the spring.  He was asked to come back by the PTSS course directors to share his day-to-day perspectives on the human crisis that are refugee camps and migrants.

“About 1,300,000 Syrian refugees are currently present in Lebanon,” said Fakih, during his presentation on July 19.  “With the growing numbers of refugees, the Lebanese society is witnessing various problems which are getting worse every day, such as social, economic and especially, security problems.”

U.S. Marine Corps Col. (Ret.) James Howcroft, the PTSS course director, said that alumni speakers are so important to the course.  He and his team use Marshall Center alumni speaker panels and look for experts in the alumni network who are working security issues on a day-to-day basis that is either important in fighting terrorism or other related emerging security threats. 

“When Fakih attended PTSS five months ago, he was very vocal on the issue of refugees and how the rest of the world needed to get involved and learn from his country’s problems and lessons learned,” said Howcroft.  “We pride ourselves as a course for practitioners, so what better idea than to have these practitioners talk to each other on what they are doing around the world,” Howcroft said. “This isn’t a theoretical course. It’s a course of no-kidding, what real people are doing to deal with real problems in 2016.”

The seriousness of the participants work during this month-long resident program that began July 7 and ended Aug. 4 was underscored by a rash of headline terrorist attacks in France, Turkey and in nearby Munich.  The Munich attacks that occurred July 22 triggered a 100 percent accountability check by course directors to make sure everyone was safe.  The attack left many wondering about the foreign fighter threat.

Tunisian army Maj. Dhaoui Sadok, who serves in the Tunisian Intelligence and Security Agency for Defense is familiar with the foreign fighter threat because of his work in his nation.  The PTSS alumnus who attended two years ago wanted to tell the newest group of counter strategists how his experiences here reshaped his perspectives.

“I had some misunderstandings about terrorism before I came to PTSS,” said Sadok. “I did not understand the problem in Turkey, central Europe or Ukraine with Russia. I now have broader understanding about Turkey and its neighbors, and why Russia is a threat to Ukraine and Europe.”

Like other participants, Sadok travelled a far distance from northern Africa to attend PTSS.  Held twice a year, this second course of 2016 was not unlike the previous 24 courses where the first session convened in 2004.  PTSS brings together a diverse group of professionals from all corners of the globe.  With diversity, come initial misunderstandings that are quickly bridged during the four week course.  

“I want to share my experiences because when I attended PTSS, I discovered that many people, especially in western countries, do not have a clear understanding about Islam or extremism,” said Sadok. “They can’t understand why people from all over the world are joining ISIS, becoming foreign fighters. Many think all Muslims are terrorists, and I want to correct this misunderstanding, especially those who are from civilian agencies or ministries.”

Fakih, too, found a different perspective on foreign fighters while attending PTSS that he took home to Lebanon.  It’s a role that everyone had a part in.  And that part was changing the daily conversation, or narrative, about how extremism is not representative of religious faith in the Muslim neighborhoods where he patrolled.

“When I came back from PTSS, I told my boss about using countering narratives and going to the families first to stop their youth from joining ISIS and becoming foreign fighters,” Fakih said. “And, we should also ask communities to help us to influence young people from joining ISIS.”

With another PTSS class concluding, a new wave of professionals will return to their nations with a greater understanding of the threat, new found trust and avenues for collaborating, and several dozen connections in a diverse, global network of military and civilian leaders.

Current PTSS participant, Tunisian army Col. Sami Teber, from the Ministry of Defense in Tunisia, said he now understands the difference between global and tactical strategies.

“I learned about how to take a problem and use smart strategies in different ways to solve it,” he said. “I will take this knowledge back with me to my country, and maybe, I will come up with great ideas to use smart strategies and solve problems more effectively.”

For Coast Guard Cmdr. Jason Kelshall who will be returning to the Caribbean islands of Trinidad-Tobago, the opportunity to meet others is immeasurable.

“The Marshall Center experience to me means broadening your perspectives seeing things from the inside out. You can look at TV and you can look at a map of countries but there is and no way you’re going to understand them unless you’re here.  Meeting people and hearing the issues from the inside out makes a difference, said Kelshall. “PTSS will help me in the future because people who attend this course are from different levels of their government. I now know people who are in decision-making positions and I have people who will be there in the future so it's pretty much a lifelong network that can assist now and in the future. Many of us have become very good friends.”

Course director Howcroft says this is the reason why a course like PTSS is so important to the countries who send students to the Marshall Center.

“What I want the participants to do is to take a fresh look at their countries’ existing strategies by considering all the tools they learned in this course to determine if priorities and focused efforts are still valid.  We will never eliminate the threat of terrorism, but we can reduce the number of incidents, and we have been successful with combat-type missions, and investigating and prosecuting terrorists,” Howcroft said. “There’s greater international cooperation for this transnational threat so we have a whole range of tools now that we can successfully use to go after terrorists.”