Students gain skills to fight terrorism in fast-paced simulation experience

By Abigail Brammer

A bomb explodes on a family’s front porch. A gunman open fires at a resort. A plane is hijacked, then flown into the ground, killing hundreds of people on board.

All are scenarios from the headlines and potential scenes that may play out April 6 in a counter-terrorism simulation at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. Twenty-six law students and graduate students from the U’s Master of International Affairs and Global Enterprise program (“MIAGE”) are enrolled in a course taught by professor Amos Guiora which focuses on terrorism and the counter measures different countries take to combat it and protect themselves. As a final project, the students have been sorted into groups tasked with facing and solving multiple issues concerning domestic and foreign terrorist activities. During the simulation, each group member is given an important role in which they must advocate for their positions, conduct press conferences, and make decisions that affect the outcome of the simulation. The simulation is designed to help the students get a feel for what it would be like to work in a high-pressure situation while cooperating in a group and making justified decisions.

Students participating in this year’s counter-terrorism simulation will be divided into groups of six and seven teams. They will be presented with scenario five different times of the day beginning at 8 a.m. on April 6.  The event will take place on the fifth and sixth floors of the law school, 383 South University Street. The simulation will be streamed live on the law school’s YouTube page, available here.

Guiora brought the idea of a counter terrorism simulation with him when transitioning into American academia more than a decade ago. Guiora underwent his own simulation 20 years ago when he was a candidate for promotion in the Israel Defense Forces. The grueling experience made Guiora realize two things: 1) He never personally wanted to undergo a simulation experience again and 2) He recognized that despite its relentless rigor, simulation is an effective pedagogical tool.

“I felt was important was to introduce students to the simulation paradigm and for them to understand the dilemma of the decision makers who are thrown into these situations,” said Guiora. “They are confronted with very complex counter terrorism simulations that force them to address questions of law and politics in a very time sensitive and time intensive environment. The exercise requires them to understand the law, articulate the law and understand policy ramifications.”

The University of Utah is unique among U.S. universities in carrying out the simulation and offering the courses that accompany it, Guiora said.  Two courses are associated with the counter-terrorism simulation; the first, titled “Basic Perspectives on Counter-Terrorism” teaches students integral skills in advocacy, articulation, decision-making, information gathering, and leadership that Guiora believes is important in effectively handling terrorist activities. Throughout the semester, the students participate in shorter simulations, also known as “mini-sims,” that help them to practice the skills that they’ve learned in the class and to learn how to effectively work in a group. A mini-sim, as well as the final simulation, can include scenarios ranging from deciding to detain a foreign suspect at an airport to approving a drone strike on limited information. While these scenarios may seem intense, each aspect has been designed to test material learned in class and to push students out of their comfort zone.

The second course, “Simulation Design”, is a year-long class in which students who’ve previously participated in the simulation design the scenarios for the next year’s event. The design team is composed of six students. The team designs, plans, writes, and coordinates the four mini-sims and the final simulation. The team is also responsible for staying current on current events and working closely with Guiora in designing a class that is both relevant and pedagogically-motivated.

“We are the only law school in the U.S. where students learn how to create simulations,” said Guiora. “An enormous amount of work goes in to how this is set up.”

Students come out of the experience better prepared for the workforce on a number of fronts, Guiora said. “In addition to gaining a sophisticated understanding of criminal law, constitutional law and international law, the students also have a much better understanding of policy questions, of geopolitical ramifications, understanding working in a team environment, understanding information management, and being forced to articulate their position,” he said.


About the author: Abigail Brammer is a third-year law student enrolled in Guiora’s simulation course.