Law students prepare to handle a terrorist attack


A bomb explodes in a crowded marketplace packed with shoppers. An armed gunman storms into a nightclub, killing unsuspecting victims on the dance floor.  A plane is hijacked, then flown into the ground, killing hundreds of people on board.

All are scenarios from the headlines, but all are also possible scenes that may play out April 7 in a counter-terrorism simulation at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. Students enrolled in a course taught by professor Amos Guiora will be given a scenario and role play the positions of high-powered decision makers to get a feel for what they might do in the future if standing in the shoes of executives who make the calls during some of the world’s darkest days.

This year’s simulation is particularly relevant because of new policy changes introduced by President Donald Trump’s administration. Students will consider such policies in responding to terrorist threats and must analyze them under a legal, moral, and operational paradigm. Students will then have to explain these decisions in an extended congressional hearing where each decision will be reviewed and critiqued.  As a result, this year’s simulation offers the public a unique view of how the Trump administration’s new policies function in combatting terrorism.

There will be four simulations running at staggered times throughout the day on April 7:  8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.; 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The counterterrorism simulation will be streamed live on YouTube &

Guiora brought the idea of a counter terrorism simulation with him when transitioning into American academia 11 years 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 it was important to introduce students to the simulation paradigm and for them to understand the dilemma of the decision makers who are thrown into these situations. The best way to understand those dilemmas is to create very realistic scenarios for students whereby they play vital national security roles,” 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.”

Students are required to make difficult decisions, including who can be the target of a drone attack, what interrogation methods should be used, and when does a threat become imminent. Students make these decisions by analyzing vital pieces of intelligence that are delivered through a variety of sources. They examine the complex intricacies of how domestic terrorism and international terrorism intertwine.

The University of Utah is unique among U.S. universities in carrying out the exercise 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” gives students a chance to go through four mini simulations during the course.  The second course, Simulation Design, is a year-long class taught in which students who’ve previously participated in the simulation design the scenarios for the next year’s event.

“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. They are evaluated on their performance in the simulation based on how well they perform in areas of advocacy and articulation, information management and analysis, decision-making, and teamwork.

“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.