What I Learned at Counter-Terrorism School

Inspired by a legendary senior operator, our 58-year-old author signed up for an intense, three-and-a-half-week-long course with students half his age. Here’s what he experienced.

Story and Photos by Paul Pawela

Recently while doing research on paramilitary operators, I came across a book written by Annie Jacobsen titled Surprise, Kill, Vanish – The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins. I was delighted to discover that more than half the book was about the exploits of one of my long-time mentors, Sergeant Major Billy Waugh (retired).

Now 90, Waugh had 25 years in Special Forces as a leader of the elite Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) unit that would go deep into enemy territory and disrupt their agenda. He retired from Special Forces at the highest enlisted rank, after being wounded in combat and receiving eight Purple Hearts.

Not a man for sitting still, Waugh went to work for the CIA for another 25 years. In that amazing second part of his career, he was directly responsible for capturing the most wanted criminal/terrorist in the world at the time, Carlos the Jackal.
After 9/11, Waugh, now in his 70s, participated in Operation Enduring Freedom as a member of the CIA team that would help topple the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda at the Battle of Tora Bora.

I often pondered where individuals such as Waugh are able to receive specialized hands-on training to be able to do these brave acts. I found my answer after having a conversation with a good friend by the name of Jason Brooks. Jason arranged for me to meet with Doron Benbenisty, the owner of Crisis Response International Counter-Terrorism Training School, who has been doing this type of training for almost two decades in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Benbenisty, a man of seasoned combat experience who does not mince words, was direct and to the point: “Yes, Paul, I would be delighted for you to write an article on our program, with one caveat. You must go through it as a student.”
At 58 years old, I was not relishing the thought of going to an intense, three-and-a-half-week counter-terrorist training school with people half my age. Then again, Waugh was 71 years old working with the CIA and roaming the roaming the mountains looking for terrorists. So I enrolled in what would become one of my greatest experiences in nearly four decades of training.

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CRISIS RESPONSE INTERNATIONAL (CRI) is an Israeli-based counter-terrorism training school with its roots deeply embedded with the Mossad. The Mossad is the national intelligence agency for Israel and works with Aman (Military Intelligence) and Shin Bet (International Security). All together, they are responsible for intelligence collection, covert operations and counter-terrorism – basically the same mission as the CIA.

CRI offers comprehensive instruction to the military, law enforcement, dignitary protection and private security, and has been involved in training state and federal agencies, as well as other governments from around the world.

Right out of the gate, the first day of training is Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape, better known as SERE training. The first part of the class simulates being captured by terrorists, which includes having a hood put over your head and your feet and hands bound, while being waterboarded. You are asked a series of questions and if your answers do not match up to the pseudo-terrorists who are conducting the interviews, you are shocked with a taser.
I experienced being hogtied on the ground, tied up by being hung, put into a small box in isolation, and strapped in a chair, all while handcuffed, blindfolded, interrogated and shocked by a taser.
Why would anyone want to go through that? Many of my classmates were contractors going overseas to the Middle East and needed realistic training in case of abduction. We not only experienced being bound, gagged and tortured, but we also watched 10 different videos of actual beheadings and murderous executions.

Why would a civilian want to attend? Almost every one of you carry a firearm for home defense or personal protection, but have you ever thought of what would happen if you or someone in your family was taken hostage? Think being bound and tortured and brutally murdered does not happen in the United States? The CRI courses are designed for anyone who may find themselves in a hostile situation.

CRI ALSO OFFERS firearms training with handguns, rifles and shotguns. Since most shooting in these situations is very close-quarters, instructors taught instinctive fire techniques, rather than aimed fire, and the results were amazing! Firearms training included: shooting on the move in all directions, shooting from moving vehicles, shooting in and around vehicles, shooting through windows of vehicles from all positions inside the vehicle, dismounting from vehicles and covering your team while shooting and moving, shooting while moving and holding onto a hostage, shooting one-handed, and shooting on the ground with both handgun and rifle.

Students also learned Israeli hand-to-hand Krav Haganah combat techniques, including long gun, handgun and knife disarms and takeaways, ground fighting tactics for both offense and defense, surviving counterattacks from the rear, knife defense, and knife throwing skills as a last-ditch option.
Another course covered offensive and defensive vehicle tactical driving and pit ramming maneuvers. The course also included how to take over the driver’s position if he has been shot and is seriously wounded or killed, which in 35 years of LEO training was the first time I ever witnessed these techniques.

A variety of other subjects were taught, including in-depth classes on tactical first aid, personal protection teams and formations, covert intelligence gathering and much more. All trainings were drilled to perfection by CRI instructors and capped off with physical and demanding “stress tests.”

The one I liked most was the driving test. The instructor would play loud music, yell and scream, pour water over the face of the student/driver, and use a shock knife on the driver, all while the driver was having to complete the vehicle obstacle course, which simulated driving while being shot at. This was similar to all the tests performed.

STUDENTS WHO ENTER the CRI Counter-Terrorism Training School are generally seasoned combat veterans, many of whom are seeking to go back overseas as a contract security specialist, where the pay is higher but the risk and danger are higher as well.

For jobs like these, one must have physical endurance and great marksmanship skills in all weapons, including those of the enemy, and they must undergo memory training and psychological tests, medical examinations, driving tests and lots of verbal interviews.
Hysteria and aggression have no place in a job like this; one must do everything calmly, deliberately and tactically. Strategy, tactics, endurance, techniques and close-combat fighting are honed until it becomes second nature.

Those who can resist stress and strain are well on their way into working in this type of field; in calmness lies strength, flexibility and endurance. At the end of the day, the objective for the individual is to fit in and be a part of a well-refined team to accomplish the mission. While this is a high-speed personal protection course, could civilians benefit from all of the blocks of instruction taught by CRI? The answer unequivocally is absolutely yes!
For more information on the CRI Counter-Terrorism Training School, go to critraining.com.