Opportunities for international engagement at the Bush School expanded this summer with the addition of a new immersive course. In May 2022, Associate Professor Michael W. Howell, former FBI agent and Counterterrorism Agent, taught 34 Bush School students and travelers a new class entitled “Understanding Terrorism at the Source.” The course included five days of class in College Station followed by a trip to Israel, providing students an up-close understanding of the terrorist attack sites they had previously only discussed. Howell explained that he selected Israel because he determined it to be a safe country for students to visit that has also uniquely experienced a large number of historical terror events, and the counterterrorism strategies of the Israeli government mimic the counterterrorism efforts of Western Countries. In this regard, the trip enriched the students’ worldview and professional understanding of international security.
“My goal was to get the students to actually go to the sites they’ve previously just read about in books,” said Howell.
Classes in College Station featured guest speakers, author Eric Cline and Dr. Peter Tarlow, formerly a Rabbi in residence at Texas A&M. The guest speakers and Professor Howell emphasized the background of culture and religion as fuel for conflict, adding context to better grasp the terror phenomenon in Israel. In preparation for the trip, Howell assigned the students texts documenting a history of religious conflict, cultural dissonance, specific battles in the region, and the modern history of terrorism in Israel.
The course included visits to over 20 sites of past terror attacks around the country. “The rationale behind visiting them is that, when you see a site, being there makes it come alive, so you’re not just reading about it in two dimensions,” Howell said. “You can see how the subject arrived at the site, what the site looked like, and what the carnage was probably like. Studying past terror events and the context surrounding them allows students to develop mindsets to help prevent future attacks.”
Several sites made a powerful impression on the students. One such site was the Park Hotel, also known as the Passover Massacre site. At the height of the second intifada, terrorists launched a suicide attack at a Passover meal hosted at the Park. “Just going there and seeing the site after reading about it really made it come alive, and you could understand it a little bit better and empathize with the victims more,” Howell said of the site.
The group experienced Israeli hospitality over dinner at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, the site of a terror attack nineteen years ago. A female suicide bomber, wearing an explosive disguised as her pregnant belly, killed 21 people in the middle of the restaurant’s dining room. The restaurant’s owner gave the students a first-hand account of his recollections from the bombing that took the life of members of his family. He believes terrorists targeted his restaurant because of its joint Christian and Muslim ownership. The restaurant stood as a preeminent symbol in the community of working together despite religious differences.
“We heard a moving and encouraging call for resilience and optimism from the Maxim restaurant owner,” Tal Carson, class of 2023 Master of Public Service and Administration candidate said. “Seeing the willingness of the owner to continue running the family business and pursuing peace across religious and ethnic divides after what happened was powerful and will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
A memorable experience for many students was visiting a tunnel built by a terrorist organization. The tunnel was intended to facilitate terror attacks and kidnapping operations in civilian areas inside Israel’s sovereign borders. The IDF (Israel Defense Force) halted its completion in 2018 only after allowing the terrorists to expend vast energy and resources on the project. The tunnel included electrical wiring, communication devices, handrails, fuse boxes, and lighting fixtures.
As one student stated, “For me, this tunnel was surprisingly highly advanced and intricate for a terrorist organization…the tunnel displays the group’s willingness to do whatever it takes to complete their mission.”
The tunnel visit was an experience exclusive to Bush School Students. “This is likely the only group of students in the country which have ever – will ever – get to do this,” Professor Howell said.
Another feature of the trip that students enjoyed was visiting historical and geographic sites such as Roman ruins in Caesarea National Park, Beth-She’An, and the Dead Sea. The experience is one Katyln Register, a current class of 2023 Master of International Affairs student, hopes future Bush School students get to experience.
“One of my favorite things about our trip to Israel was going to the ruins of ancient civilizations. Just trying to visualize how much things have changed over time, how it might have looked back then, and really realizing just how advanced their cultures were such a long time ago,” Register said. “The trip encompasses so many different aspects. No matter what your interest is, it’s going to be met. If you like history, like me, everywhere you look is history. If you like food, they have great food. Religion, hiking, sports, shopping, you name it, we experienced it all.”
The students remarked that they observed the disputes and many opposing views that exist within the region firsthand. Over the course of the trip, they encountered six flags: the Israeli, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Palestinian flags, and the flag of Hezbollah. These flags are reflective of the many perspectives the students engaged with, as well as the players that vie for control or crave peace in the region.
The seventh flag of the trip was the Texas A&M flag, which the students carried with them on all their trips, bringing the Aggie Spirit to each corner of the country.
By Alexis Hixson