Terror-rehab scholar trains for Everest

Aiming high

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Laura Khor at the Summit in Kalispell on Monday, January 21. Khor is preparing for a trek up to the base camp of Everest. 

After completing her doctoral thesis on terrorist rehabilitation programs in Malaysia and Singapore, Laura Khor decided she needs to do “one big thing” before settling into a career.

That one big thing is climbing to the base camp of Mount Everest this summer to raise money for Childreach International, a charity that works in developing countries to advance children’s access to education and health care.

Kohr, 29, a 2001 Flathead High School graduate, was still in high school when she watched a National Geographic TV special about American mountaineer Conrad Anker’s role in locating the remains of legendary British climber George Mallory on Mount Everest.

Anker, who now lives in Bozeman, later was a guest speaker at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where Kohr was completing her undergraduate studies. His presentation solidified the idea that climbing the famed mountain was going to be on her “bucket list.”

She’s just fast-forwarding that bucket list.

As Kohr began researching charities to represent during her climb, she happened upon Childreach International and immediately was impressed.

Childreach has a “transformative impact” on children’s lives in countries such as Nepal, India, Cambodia, Pakistan, Tanzania and Bangladesh, she said. The organization works for legal rights, health and protection for young female students in rural areas, and tackles issues ranging from educating children about HIV/AIDS to human trafficking.

Kohr will be part of a 16-person team for Childreach and is working to raise $5,000 for the charity to participate in the climb. Donations can be made online at https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/laurakhor1.

From now until she leaves in late June, Khor is training relentlessly at The Summit in Kalispell to give her the physical stamina she will need to reach the base camp at 17,000 feet.

Climbing a good portion of the world’s highest mountain will be a challenge for Kohr, but it’s in her nature to set the bar high.

The daughter of Francis and Karlene Kohr of Kalispell, Kohr was a standout student at Flathead who was a commencement speaker when she graduated in 2001.

She had barely started her freshman year at Mount Holyoke College when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks gripped the East Coast and the entire country.

That day charted a new course for Kohr.

“I was in French class; it didn’t seem real,” she recalled. So many of the students on her dormitory floor were affected in various ways. One student’s father worked at the Pentagon; others had family in New York City.

“I hated that feeling,” she said.

Kohr had gone to Mount Holyoke intending to study history and maybe some day go to law school. But as she contemplated what compels people to choose terrorism, she came up with religion and politics as two key motivators. So she double-majored in those two subjects.

“I was trying to understand what motivates people to go to those extremes,” she said.

Kohr delved into a wide array of religious texts to understand what shapes a terrorist’s rationale for harming others. She took a class on Russian terrorism and the intrigue grew. By the time she completed her degree in politics and religion in 2005, Kohr knew she had to go deeper.

A professor suggested the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. After completing her master’s in international security studies at St. Andrews, Kohr began pursuing her doctorate and now is a Ph.D. candidate.

Gathering the research she needed for her thesis on the deradicalization of terrorists wasn’t easy.

“I love a challenge,” she said with a smile. “I wanted to look at countries with longstanding terrorism rehabilitation programs.”

Kohr determined Malaysia and Singapore have been more successful than most other countries, so that’s where she put her focus.

Getting clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs in those two countries was the first big task, and thanks to a letter of recommendation from an esteemed professor, Dr. Paul Wilkinson, who had mentored her at the University of St. Andrews and was well-respected in the international community, Kohr’s access was granted fairly quickly.

Kohr proved her mettle and soon gained the respect and trust of government officials who generously gave their time for interviews lasting one or two hours instead of the typical 10 minutes she had been told she would get. She interviewed not only government insiders but also religious scholars, special branch officers and even a man who later was placed on the Malaysian terror watch list.

For some of the interviews, she had to have her father accompany her because officials wouldn’t address a woman directly and would speak to her only through her father.

It often took dogged perseverance and patience — lots of patience — to get the information she needed.

“There were so many different channels,” she said. “And if you get one OK, it doesn’t mean you get the OK for everything ... Every single person I interviewed made calls for me. That opened a lot more doors.”

Often, Kohr had to make phone calls to Malaysia and Singapore in the middle of the night to accommodate those time zones. She was relentless in her research — “dare I call it academic stalking,” she said — and found having a good sense of humor created opportunities for her.

“I was probably the most well-known foreigner” in those countries, Khor said. “When you’re a foreigner and asking about national security information you have to be incredibly careful. Most people don’t understand how difficult it is to get [this kind] of information. There’s so little research that’s been done because [these] governments don’t want to share how they do national security.”

Throughout her research, the driving question for Kohr was how these countries handle terrorists who have been brought to justice and now are in prison. The rehabilitation can take years, but the information gleaned when a “hardcore” terrorist eventually agrees to share information can be priceless.

In Malaysia, a senior ranking officer told Kohr it took eight years to “break” one terrorist and persuade him to share valuable information.

Kohr’s study of the deradicalization of terrorists puts her in an elite group. She’s hoping her Ph.D. thesis, “Malaysia and Singapore’s Terrorist Rehabilitation Programs: Learning and Adapting to Terrorist Threats,” will be published as a book.

She’s waiting for the university to schedule her oral defense of her thesis. An examining committee then has three months to decide if it’s accepted.

Kohr has been offered a post-doctoral position as a university fellow in Singapore. She’s contemplating that position, but feels a pull toward government service rather than continuing in academia.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

Laura Khor at the Summit in Kalispell on Monday, January 21. Khor is preparing for a trek up to the base camp of Everest. 

 

Laura Khor is pictured with officers of the Royal Malaysian Police Force who are members of Malaysia's elite counter-terrorism unit. They were dressed as terrorists as part of a community outreach program to Malaysians. "The underlying logic of Community Days is for people to approach them for pictures and/or information," Khor said. The officers then can explain what they do to keep Malaysia safe and which terror group they represent.

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