An anti-terrorism course for diplomats blows holes in their sense of security so that a light bulb will go off before a bomb does.

THE PLOTS THICKEN

July 15, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SUMMIT POINT, W.Va. - After ramming into a parked car, doing screeching 180-degree turns under attack and getting stuck in a place called "the kill zone" for more time than really seemed necessary, I was finally ready for my ultimate act of anti-terrorism.

It was time to blow up a Chevy.

"It's great for tension release," screams my bomb instructor, a man who speaks at almost the same decibel level as the explosions he rigs and never lets his name get out for fear his own car will be trip-wired some day. "Huge blast - you're gonna love it."

My classmates look on in disbelief. So far, we have learned how not to get decapitated when handling a letter bomb, how to evade spies in a suburban shopping mall and how to drive with all the testosterone of thugs in a Bruce Willis movie. All this just to learn some everyday skills - everyday at least according to an anti-terrorism course that teaches foreign service workers how to escape danger overseas.

Today's lesson: Avoiding the car bomb.

To prove how deadly such bombs are, our instructor wants to explode one in the Chevy using a switch located roughly 100 feet from the car. Get the reporter to do it, the class of hardened FBI agents and diplomats agrees. Making a slow march to the detonator, the reporter obeys.

Pieces of the Chevy go hurtling high above - fragments of glass, half a dashboard and stuffing from the ratty upholstery. The air clears and the instructor inspects the wreckage. "If you were in this car," he says, impressed, "you'd be dead now."

For overseas workers, the message is simple: Buy a remote-control car starter, learn stealth tactics, do anything - but by all means, do not be an innocent. Think like a terrorist.

"You have to be smarter than them," says Hal Orbits, who teaches anti-terrorism classes after 20 years of protecting diplomats here and abroad. "Strive to survive. That's the name of the game. If you're not off the X in five or 10 seconds, it's probably all over for you."

'X' marks the spot, indeed

Orbits and his cohorts talk a lot about the "X" - the site of a terrorist's successful hit - also known as "the kill zone" or "condition black." Between 1976 and 1997, 30 U.S. diplomats were killed by terrorists overseas, according to the federal Diplomatic Security Service, which runs the anti-terrorism course. Service agents are skilled in teaching how to stay out of "the valley of shock," their term for the paralysis that grips victims of terrorism.

The service was created in 1986, after a spate of violence against U.S. foreign service workers in Beirut, Lebanon, and Kuwait. The course began shortly after that, and is now strongly recommended, though not mandatory, for any government worker or spouse heading to a dangerous post. About 75 people a year go through the course.

The course is a splashy sideshow for the Diplomatic Security Service, a low-profile bureau of the State Department often misidentified as the Secret Service or the CIA. The service sends its own team of 245 special agents overseas to protect diplomats and track down people spying on the embassy. It cultivates a cloak-and-dagger image: A recruitment brochure features a man peering through a peephole, checking for bad guys.

The two-day class is like summer camp for maniacs. It begins at Summit Point Raceway, a private track in West Virginia that the agency contracts for what could only be called offensive-driving lessons (students learn when to drive on the sidewalk, for example).

On a recent summer day, private instructor Matt Croke, a former Green Beret from Queens, prepares the group for the "crash and bang" session, breaking the ice by telling them about an unnamed celebrated military figure who took the course and "upchucked all over everything." Then he hands out Dramamine and assigns students to Chevrolet Caprices for training in the finer points of braking, swerving and doing scary things in reverse.

Student reactions vary: One gets nauseated and puts her head between her knees; another screams "Yahoo!" and flashes his government ID like a badge.

Medics are standing by

Paramedics stand on the sidelines, moving cones for the drills while they wait to see if anyone starts bleeding. The service has reported no serious injuries yet, even among pupils with dubious driving skills.

By the afternoon, the students have learned reverse 180s - racing backward, then jerking the wheel into a 180-degree spin and speeding in the other direction. Students also don helmets and practice busting through barricades by ramming a junked Pinto.

"Aaah! The smell of training," Orbits says, sniffing the choking burnt-rubber air on the blacktop on a recent stifling hot afternoon as cars screech around the track. "Love it!"

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