Teaching Terror: Former CIA analyst turns CCU lecturerby Derrick Bracey
Cynthia Storer is an ex-CIA analyst and currently a lecturer in the new intelligence and national security program at Coastal Carolina University. For 20 years of her life, she was one of a cadre of dedicated public servants who “wakes up every morning with the intent of saving lives,” she says.
A brief timeline of her adult life looks like this:
1986 – Graduated from the College of William and Mary
1992 – Received a master's degree in International Relations from Catholic University
1986 - 2007 – Served as a CIA Analyst
2005 - 2007 – Taught at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.
2007 – Left the CIA
2007 - Present – Consulted as a senior analyst with Pherson Associates
2008 – Moved to the Grand Strand to be closer to her retired parents
2008 – Started teaching at CCU
2013 – Featured in the HBO documentary film, “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden”
But there is something missing in this timeline. It offers a surface understanding of who Cynthia Storer is, but it doesn't tell the real story.
For instance, during her time with the CIA, Storer became a member of “The Sisterhood” or “Sisters in Arms,” an unofficial term for a group of mostly women analysts who worked to identify al-Qaida and the threats it posed? This meant watching the rise of Osama bin Laden and the rise in radicalization of the militant organization.
This timeline also doesn’t include the fact that she was awarded the Intelligence Commendation Medal in 1998 for her expertise on terrorist groups. It doesn’t mention that she created the “Ziggurat of Zealotry,” a model the CIA used for identifying the levels of radicalization among terrorist groups. It doesn’t mention how the relationships and events she experienced along the way have contributed to her strengths as a teacher today.
A Day in the Life
Storer’s description of a typical day as a CIA analyst: “You come in early in the morning,” she says. “Usually have a meeting with your branch chief. Get to your computer and turn it on. Puzzle pieces fall from the sky. You scan for importance, begin to fit the information into a story you already have, matrixes, social network diagrams. You work it like a jigsaw puzzle. Eventually, you have a eureka moment. You write something up. It goes through many layers of editing before the policymakers get it. But your report has to be 'a good story' for the policymakers to do anything with it.”
There’s the key: finding the right elements of persuasion. Facts are only the beginning, according to Storer. “To grab the attention of a busy policymaker, the content of your story often has to include some dramatic appeal. And it helps in the presentation to choose the right graphics. Getting the right picture, too; a picture really does say a thousand words. But if you need to alert them about an attack or something imminent, you pick up the phone.”
The term “The Bay” was coined by Michael Scheuer, a controversial operations’ chief in counterterrorism and special adviser in the search for bin Laden. It referred to the bay of cubicles filled with female agents assigned to al-Qaida. The meticulous work and the ability to tell a larger story distinguished the ladies of “The Bay” and other analysts, like Storer, who worked with them. These women and their counterparts in other offices came to think of themselves “The Sisterhood” or “Sisters in Arms.” Storer says Scheuer “put together a team of analysts that was originally all women. There were exceptions, men came and went. But the majority were women. We had a close bond.”
Why do women particularly excel at this type of analysis? Storer says, “I guess women are better at seeing the forests and the trees. It may have something to do with a woman’s survival instinct, the need to gather, multi-task, organize it all and figure out how to use it.”
In the 1990s, The Sisterhood's job was to identify and locate potential terrorist threats. Its members were often mocked for their passion and fervor. “We, including my male predecessors, started warning in 1993 about bin Laden. You had the attacks in Yemen in ’92. By 1995, we found connections to him and other attacks. In 1996, we figured out the organization and he declared war on the US. We saw al-Qaida had operations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. By 1997, we could see he was out to get us. We were all writing to the policymakers about attacks. We put bin Laden into strategic documents. We wrote ‘What if?’ scenarios. And in 1998, the African embassies were attacked. Then…”
And it’s here the story becomes especially tragic. The Sisterhood struggled to convince the policymakers about the threat of al-Qaida, to constantly alert and warn and send up red flags, only to wake up one September morning and see all those briefs and reports come crashing down.
After 9/11, The Sisterhood analysts, with heavy hearts and frustrated minds, continued gathering info, tracking, ranking and running operations. Their passion and fervor were respected, and their work continued tirelessly.“
The 9/11 Commission said, ‘We failed to imagine what Osama bin Laden was capable of.’ And, ‘We failed to connect the dots,’ but we were presenting the reports. Congress was accused of the same thing. But it rolls downhill.”
Storer's Ziggurat of Zealotry, a model for connecting and ranking levels of radicalization in various political/militant groups, “is based on an ancient Mesopotamian structure, like a pyramid with different levels or steps,” she says.
“You don’t mark down every group as a threat. Sometimes we support people who oppose their government, or overthrow their government. But we draw the line at terrorism. Joe Blow doesn’t just wake up a member of al-Qaida. He makes decisions, creates relationships.” The model links these relationships in steps. It was a revolutionary idea and was featured in “The New York Times' Best Ideas of the Year” in December 2006.
The women of The Sisterhood have gone in various directions over the years. Storer’s sister-in-arms, Gina Bennett, went on to write a book, “National Security Mom,” comparing motherhood to securing a nation. Some are still with the CIA, some are retired and some are working in the private sector. But it was this group of women filmmakers that they used as a composite to create the female lead character in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Securing the Future
You can feel her sense of empowerment when Storer talks about instructing students in using critical thinking as a tool to analyze data, to link and recreate it as information with purpose, whether the purpose is identifying possible threats or constructing an army of up-and-coming analysts to help secure the future.
Evidence of her passion for teaching can be traced back to her time with the CIA, when she assisted in the development of the first terrorism analysis course. Her consulting for Pherson Associates also focuses on teaching on intelligence analysis and critical thinking skills. Storer was also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, where she helped design a new certificate program in terrorism.
Now, she teaches in the newly created intelligence and national security program at Coastal Carolina University. She has teamed with the director of the program, Jonathan Smith, an ex-naval intelligence analyst and commander, to create a curriculum aimed at developing students into critical thinking analysts. She says, “We have military and CIA instructors, next we need to bring in someone from Homeland Security.”
Storer’s goal for the program is “to train students to get jobs as analysts. But they can also use these skills in any job where you need critical thinking. We started with two instructors, we are proposing a third, and, hopefully, it will keep growing.”
As an instructor, Storer emphasizes the importance of “educating by entertaining” in writing reports. “We get a lot of students taking things like criminology, criminal justice, sociology, psychology. But I really suggest students also take theater and English. As I said, you get your point across by storytelling.”
Lights, Camera, Truth
Storer recently had to take a break from her 13-classes-a-week teaching schedule to promote the documentary in which she appears, “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden,” at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film deals with the CIA’s ongoing global chess match against al-Qaida.
“They billed ‘Manhunt’ as the real-life companion piece to ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ but it’s really more than that,” she says of the HBO documentary. “Our film deals with more than the search for bin Laden. It’s about al-Qaida and how the war doesn’t end with bin Laden. It’s about the moral choices of war and educating the American public with fact-based discussions.”
Storer has serious reservations about “Zero Dark Thirty,” which has been nominated for numerous Academy Awards. “That film ruined any chance of government cooperation with ‘Manhunt,’” she says. “You don’t go into a CIA director’s office and drop f-bombs. And the torture scenes go too far. Yes, there was water-boarding and slapping and maybe a collar was yanked up, but what they show [in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’] wouldn’t have been allowed. Besides, intelligence that comes out of interrogations is often unreliable and lacks multiple perspectives.”
She strongly disagrees with the film’s portrayal of Jennifer Matthews, who was killed in a suicide at the Afghan city of Khost. “Jennifer was anything but a giddy schoolgirl baking a cake,” she says. “I knew Jennifer. She would’ve never acted like that. And why is it the lead character has to be a gorgeous, tough woman, who is hard to deal with?”
In contrast, she says, “‘Manhunt’ has no spin. The objective is to tell things the way they actually happened.” The film will be released later this year on HBO. It has already garnered Storer plenty of attention in the form of media interviews about her career and her appearance in the film. But at Sundance, she learned that fame is relative. “We were on way to a press shoot, heading into a building, and a bunch of security guys pushed us behind the press barrier. Up the sidewalk came Nicole Kidman. We were trapped. That’s as close as we came to contact with celebrities.”
Hitting the Mark
Storer may be out of the CIA, but she is still doing analysis. After the incident in Benghazi, she devised an exercise with one of her CCU classes. “The students and I set up a network diagram using regular search engines, and it took us the length of one class period to connect the violent acts in Benghazi and elsewhere that day to al-Qaida,” she says. “There was the anniversary of 9/11, the video that was distributed, and the other violent outbreaks. The visible link of it being a predetermined plot by al-Qaida was right there.”
Storer applies her CIA training in every situation and she brings it to a more personal, local level. Regarding a recent story about Myrtle Beach being ranked 21st in the list of “Top-100 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S.” by www.neighborhoodscout.com, she says. “Our intelligence/security program at CCU could help to analyze the problems. A lot of cities could use a trained analyst in local law enforcement. Analysts see the larger picture and know how to concentrate on areas and isolate problems. When I was in the CIA, one tactic we used was similar to the carnival game, ‘whack a mole.’ Our intelligence and national security program has a lot to offer to this community and beyond.”