Safeguarding in the shadows

The IDF’s counter-terrorism school provides the ‘Post’ with a glimpse into its world.

Counterterror soldier 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Counterterror soldier 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
IN THE shadows, away from the public glare, several elite combat units operate to safeguard Israel’s security.
Some gather intelligence behind enemy lines, others are sent to secure a strategic site, form Israel’s first response to hostage situations, while still others rescue soldiers in trouble.
Some units receive classified missions that will never be known to the public.
But all of them have one thing in common – they train at the IDF’s counter-terrorism school at the Mitkan Adam base, near Modi’in.
Headed by Lt.-Col. Lior Kenan, the school is like an intersection, where highways from different areas in the military meet.
It trains both elite soldiers and ordinary infantry forces. Its staff members instruct others in combat, but also take part in counter-terrorism missions themselves on a regular basis.
“We can’t disconnect these two worlds [the training and the operational],” says Kenan, a Rehovot native.
“To be a good instructor, one has to be a good fighter. For an instructor to perceive himself as a professional, he has to sense the enemy. In the right doses, we have to maintain operational experience. This enhances the level of instruction.”
The counter-terrorism school was founded in 2012, and is divided into four sections: counter-terrorism, shooting, sniper training, and a fourth one dedicated to security, break-ins, and camouflaged combat.
On any given day, soldiers can be found simulating rope jumps from helicopters, breaking into buildings to open fire on targets, rappelling from rooftops and hurling grenades into windows, or storming complexes and “freeing hostages” at the school’s training facility.
“We train forces to go from a routine state to an emergency state instantly,” Kenan explains.
The school’s shooting section reaches the largest number of soldiers. The section focuses on the most basic infantry skill of them all; ensuring that every combat soldier knows how to operate his rifle, deal with stoppages and enter a combat situation confidently.
During Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, as tens of thousands of infantry troops gathered at a staging area waiting to enter Gaza, 100 instructors from the shooting section arrived to train and refresh soldiers in firearms use.
In the staging area, “we succeeded in getting reserves back into good shooting shape,” Kenan says. The ground forces didn’t end up entering Gaza, but had they been ordered to do so, “they’d have confidence and faith in their abilities,” he adds.
Kenan said the school’s ability to reach every combat soldier – those in regular service and in the reserves – is one of the big perks of his job.
“It’s very satisfying. Ultimately, this is different from being a battalion commander. I don’t take soldiers into battle. But my potential to influence soldiers is far wider. Thousands of soldiers are trained a year. This represents my ability to have an influence,” he says.
“To work here is to be with professionals,” he adds. “When I entered this position, I didn’t understand how big the challenge would be, and how much influence I would have.
As the school’s commander, I can help steer an entire army corps, and beyond.”
Maj. Gur Shalom, head of the shooting section, is tasked with making soldiers comfortable with the new Tavor rifle, which is replacing the M-16 as the army’s standard issue.
“The IDF’s assumption is that you don’t go into battle without a firearms refresher course. This is part of the lessons learned from Second Lebanon War,” Shalom says.
The school’s shooting section also sends out firearms instructors – 70 percent of whom are females – to infantry bases across the country.
Asked why most of the instructors are women, Shalom says, “They’re smarter. And soldiers accept them more readily, after weeks of being shouted at by [male] platoon commanders.”
Over at the school’s counter-terrorism section, instructors divide their time between training the cream of the crop and participating in real-world operations.
“Our instructors take part in counterterrorism raids, such as arrests of wanted suspects in the West Bank,” Kenan says.
The instructors typically go out on operations on weekends, to avoid disruptions to their weekday training courses.
During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January 2009, when ground forces were sent to the Strip, counter-terrorism instructors joined a battalion and entered Gaza with them.
These days, their merger with ground forces is more regulated, and a battalion has been preselected to receive the instructors in the event of a conflict.
The Jerusalem Post was shown a display by the counter-terrorism section, in which two masked men rappelled down from the rooftop of a structure.
Within two giant leaps, the soldiers were at window level. One hurled a grenade inside, setting off a massive explosion. The soldiers kept their guns aimed at the windows while dangling from the building. After scanning the building through its windows, they repelled to the ground in a smooth descent.
In a second display, a large hanger formed the setting for a hostage situation.
Masked gunmen gathered quietly outside a room, and one began countdown.
Suddenly, the special forces stormed the room, opening fire on pictures of terrorists, and sparing cardboard photos of civilians. “Clear!” they shouted. Within 10 seconds, the exercise was complete.
The head of the counter-terrorism section, who can only be identified as S., explains, “We drilled storming a building to rescue hostages. We have to take many threats into consideration, like explosives planted at the entrance. Around 1,000 soldiers take this training program a year.”
S. maintains that while global terrorism is continually advancing and becoming more complex, he and his team are keeping up.
“Things are only getting more complex. Terrorists are getting more efficient from day to day. We research all major incidents in Israel and abroad, including terror attacks in India and Russia. Most recently, we studied the attack on the Algerian gas plant… we are learning a lot.”
One incident closer to home which they have studied closely is the 2010 navy commando raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla, in which an intelligence failure caused the first wave of commandos to be unprepared for the violent, radical Islamist activists who were waiting for them on deck, armed with knives and metal poles.
Nevertheless, the navy commandos “acted heroically,” Kenan said. “This is an excellent unit.
“The IDF is always making strides. We’re assessing threats continually, to the North, in the West Bank, and in the South,” S. adds.
Maj. David Abo, deputy commander of the school, says their elite fighters require highly developed skills in firearms in order to keep up with ever-changing threats.
“He needs to be able to cope with high-pressure situations, and make decisions while under fire, facing the enemy,” he says.
Abo adds that elite units take advanced courses in Krav Maga, not only to improve their self-defense capabilities, but also to mentally fortify them.
“These are very intensive training sessions,” says Abo. “For the fighters, this is critical to the development of their units. It takes a month for special forces to complete their training here.”
The counter-terrorism school’s snipers section has been busy too.
All IDF snipers pass through the school, which is training them to use the American-made H-S Precision Heavy Tactical Rifles, a recently issued firearm.
The school is also teaching infantry battalions in the IDF to break into structures without the use of explosives.
In one display, a group of instructors stealthily approached a door to a building.
Two soldiers crouched down and pointed their guns at the door, while a third soldier acted as a lookout, facing away from the building. Two additional soldiers approached the door, and began to force it open with a jack.
As soon as the door cracked open, the soldiers stormed the building, opening fire.
The counter-terrorism school represents a positive change in operations for the IDF, says Kenan.
“Something good is happening in the IDF. Instructors are taking up a central role, and turning into a core component. This is the right line of thinking on the army’s part, and it will only grow.”