A Dispatch From the Counterterrorism Olympics

Is there value in a six-day warrior-fest in the middle of the Jordanian desert?

A Jordanian team storms a door as part of an obstacle course at the Warrior Competition in Amman, Jordan. (James Noronha)

AMMAN, Jordan—General He of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) squints under the Jordanian sun. Shoulders squared and chest thrust out in a green Chinese military uniform, he barks at the PLA soldier scrambling over an eight-foot wall before him: “Focus! Accuracy! Conserve energy!”

The soldier, a 23-year-old member of the PLA’s Tian Ying (Eagle) special-operations force in Xinjiang (the northwestern region of China known for extreme ethnic separatism), sprints across the desert. He loads his gun and shoots in rounds of six at three steel target banks—one directly, another around a door frame, the third through a pair of apertures in a low wall—then runs back to the starting point and tags another soldier, panting.

General He nods, arms crossed. Hao de. “Good.”

He and his men are at Jordan’s sixth-annual Warrior Competition, a six-day special-operations contest between 38 law-enforcement and military units from 19 countries. Participants take part in what the organizers call “the Olympics of counterterrorism,” breaking down doors, storming buildings, and clearing airplanes in a series of tasks with names like “Carbine Candy,” “3-Gun Gauntlet,” “Molan Labe,” and “Shock-n-Awe.”

While event organizers herald the Warrior Competition, which concluded last week, as a celebration of valor and heroism, critics question its motives. “Terrorism” is a loaded term in the region, wielded by regimes targeting activists, Western powers justifying invasions, revolutionaries overthrowing their rulers, and politicized media attacking opponents. Making a game out of it seems insensitive, if not outright offensive—especially in Jordan, a country grappling with grave challenges like national debt, water scarcity, and millions of incoming refugees from the nearby Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi conflicts.

But nuance is not a priority at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC), a facility run by the Jordanian Armed Forces that hosts and funds the Warrior Competition. “We are celebrating the warrior spirit, the camaraderie that grows within those who suffer together to protect their homelands and their people,” KASOTC General Director and Brigadier General Aref al-Zaben boasts at the opening ceremony. Everyone is here to help one another “fight the bad guys,” he adds, quoting from the Jordanian king. “The bad guys always work together, have always been coordinating, and have always been international. The good guys have never been.”

KASOTC is a real-life Counter-Strike set, with sweat-soaked special forces racing through obstacle courses, shooting live ammunition, and chugging 12-packs of bottled water. Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Dari, and Urdu mix in the air, with some English words interspersed (“training,” “interesting,” “very nice”). Improvised sign language accounts for the rest of the dialogue.

This is General He’s second time at the Warrior Competition. Last year, his Xue Bao (Snow Leopards) unit took first place overall and won nine out of 14 individual events. Now he’s back with the same Snow Leopards, the Xinjiang Eagles, and the Sichuan-based Shu Jian (Swords) squad. They watch, murmuring disapproval, as an Iraqi soldier struggles to clamber over a wall.

General He Li of the Chinese Snow Leopards unit watches one of his soldiers compete in the Warrior Competition. (Alice Su)

“If you perform like that, you can just run home. No plane for you,” He says to the PLA soldier beside him. Ren zhen zhuan xin. “Be serious and focus. We came to win.”

No one at the Warrior Competition wants to talk about politics or money. “I love my country, family, and job,” says Gulchak Filipp, who came from Moscow. “Russia team is best team. Russia man is best man!” Filipp is ebullient, but stops short when asked about foreign policy. “No politics, only jobs. We are officers. Politics is outside.”

KASOTC business-development director Ayman al-Masri, who coordinated this year’s Warrior Competition, makes a similar point: “We don’t get involved in policies of state or leadership.” Russia and the U.S. may be in conflict over Ukraine right now, al-Masri points out, but the American SWAT team and Russian police unit at this competition are getting along fine. “Politicians have their conflicts and soldiers do their own thing.” Aren’t soldiers following orders based on political decisions, especially in the realm of counterterrorism? Yes, al-Masri says, but in the Warrior Competition, that doesn’t matter.

On the field, Yusuf Amarneh of the Palestinian Presidential Guard Intervention Group claps a Chinese “Snow Leopard” on the back as he finishes the relay. The two are housed on the same floor in KASOTC accommodations and have bonded over conversations in broken English, mostly about military training.

“Were you shooting?” the Chinese soldier asks. “No! Sleeping!” Amarneh responds, laughing. “China number one. Palestine number one!” The two throw thumbs-up signs at one another. “He’s like my brother,” the Chinese soldier says in Mandarin.

These bonds are being formed in the most unlikely of settings—a 6,000-acre counterterrorism training grounds built in 2009 with U.S. government funding, and nestled in a limestone canyon half an hour’s drive from Amman. The competition coincides with SOFEX, a biennial special-operations and homeland-security exposition that brings more than 370 defense and arms marketers to Jordan to showcase their goods.

Most Warrior Competition sponsors—companies that pay for part of the competition, in exchange for the right to advertise their goods throughout the weekalso attend SOFEX. The Australian company Marathon Targets, for example, is marketing targets that resemble mannequins on Segways, and weave across a field as players take test shots with their rifles. The robots cost about $1 million for a basic squad, a representative says, but the price can double or triple depending on the level of customization. The Warrior Competition charges no fee for participants, which means KASOTC and its defense-industry sponsors foot the entire bill. The organizers won’t say how much the contest costs, but a typical week of training at KASOTC can cost up to $250,000 per unit.

Warrior Competition players from Kazakhstan test guns on display from event sponsor SIG Sauer. (Alice Su)

The competitors, for their part, tend not to parrot the good guy-bad guy rhetoric of the Warrior Competition’s organizers. They’ve come mostly to indulge their curiosity or size up the competition.

“It’s nice to see where you rank with regard to other countries,” says Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Bonannaf, chief of two Lebanese teams, adding that his country finished tenth out of 36 teams last year. “You won’t find a Chinese team to compete with in Lebanon.”

The Afghan team is actually a group of muay thai and kickboxing professionals, says their leader, Khoshal Sarwari (his business card reads “Chief and Founder of Professional Boxing in Afghanistan”). “My team is like this—bang, bang!” he pantomimes shooting with his eyes closed. “No English. We’re like blind men, without instructions.”

More pragmatic teams like General He’s, which came to Jordan a month before the contest to get a feel for the climate, use the Warrior Competition as a training opportunity. Every Snow Leopard has Chinese characters written on his hand: Focus. Agility. Accuracy. They serve as reminders, one soldier says. “It’s very serious. But we are Chinese,” he grins. “Do we do anything casually?”

Outside the facility, war and conflict are raging just a few hours away in every direction. But those fights are complex and controversial, with no labels clearly distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys. And therein lies the irony of the Warrior Competition. It rewards heroic performance in a controlled setting where no actual person is in distress. It lauds warriors out of context, overlooking the real world in which they operate. One group is noticeably absent from the contest: the public, whom these special forces are supposedly protecting. Few Jordanians have any idea that the event exists, and there is no evidence that the last six years of Warrior Competitions have reduced terrorism, extremism, or violent conflict in the region. No teams have gone on to become counterterrorism partners, as far as al-Masri knows, or done much in the way of follow-up besides booking paid sessions at KASOTC.

Still, when China wins first and second place overall in this year’s competition, taking home golden trophies shaped like Spartan helmets, General He beams, satisfied. “This is about tactics and training,” he says. “Nothing more, nothing less.”