Counterterrorist complete career guide

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What is a counterterrorist

The definition of counterterrorist (CT) is “of, relating to, or being measures taken to combat or prevent terrorism.” But what exactly is a counter-terrorist?  Many people might think of an elite special forces group—  like the Navy SEALs or Delta Force— who carry out daring raids against terrorists and other enemies of the state, but it is much more than that. 

CTs include a wide spectrum of individuals typically working in the government sector to contribute to the common objective of thwarting terrorist groups. Outside of the (para)military operatives, the CT world is made up of analysts from various subjects that study terrorist activity to produce reports including:

Special agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who utilize their unique skills to conduct investigations, train security partners at home and abroad, gather and disseminate intelligence, and thwart threats as they arise

How to become a counterterrorist

Many government agencies require some level of education, typically a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, to be considered for a position.  There is no defined path to become a counter-terrorist, but a degree in counterterrorism is a great way to learn about the field.  Terrorists utilize a diverse set of weapons and resources to carry out their activities. Thus, government agencies need individuals who can apply their specific expertise in a subject matter to counter a terrorist group’s operations. For example, an intelligence analyst with a background in finance may use their understanding of the subject to monitor the bank accounts of suspicious organizations that act as a front for terrorist organizations. This would enable the government to learn how these threats are being financed.

High school and associate degrees

Typically a 2-year program, or 60 credits, associate degrees are available as on-campus, online or hybrid programs that can be completed on a full-time or part-time schedule. Applicants are generally expected to have military experience. Employment opportunities with this degree level include:

  • Protective agents (PA) with the CIA  minimum qualification of extensive law enforcement or military experience. PAs deploy across the globe to perform protective operations or any other critical missions as needed. Starting salary ranges from $80,027 to $95,920. 
  • CIA police officer is not expected to have such extensive experience, so this position can be a better starting point for those interested in physical security. Police officers provide security for agency personnel, facilities, and information, along with responding to emergencies as they arise. Starting salary ranges from $63,515 to $86,085

Although both of these positions have the basic requirement of a high school degree, a relevant associate degree would be in law enforcement, criminal justice, sociology, or political science.

Bachelor’s degree

As stated above, a bachelor’s degree can be the most basic requirement when applying to any job in the field of counter-terrorism. A bachelor’s degree generally takes 4 years to complete as a full-time student, or possibly 5-6 years as a part-time student. Degree programs can be administered in-person, online, or in a hybrid format. A 4-year degree is typically demanded to be a special agent at the FBI or in paramilitary or clandestine operations at the CIA. Employment opportunities with this degree level include:

  • Intelligence Analysts at the National Counter-terrorism Center with the FBI maintain an awareness of active terrorist threats and supply actionable intelligence to consumers so they can develop effective CT policy. No specific degree is required for this position, but the most relevant would include political science, history, or a relevant language like  Arabic, Turkish, German, etc. Starting pay depends on the applicant’s standing in the General Schedule (GS) payscale. Entry level positions earn an average salary of $72,841 with this salary possibly doubling with experience and reaching level GS-14. 
  • Paramilitary operations officers utilize their military and education background to conduct covert operations and collect foreign intelligence on behalf of the CIA. Similar to the aforementioned intelligence analyst position, there is no preferred major. Applications are open to anyone with a bachelor’s or higher degree, as long as they have a GPA higher than 3.0 and have served in the military. Pay can range between $68,424 and $113,362.

Graduate degrees

Advanced degrees —master’s, Juris Doctorate, and Ph.Ds— while not typically required for the most relevant jobs in counter-terrorism, are beneficial in securing a job at a higher tier of the General Schedule (GS) system. A master’s degree typically takes a year of 2 to complete; 3 years for a J.D.; and 6 to 8 years for a Ph.D. These can be completed either full-time or part-time, and more institutions are offering online formats for those unable to commit to an in-person or hybrid program. Employment opportunities with these degrees include:

  • Cartographers produce thematic and reference maps on mobile devices, the web, and print for use by the CIA in the agency’s operations. The most relevant advanced degrees would be an M.S. in cartography, geography, or geospatial information systems (GIS). Pay varies from $58,070 to $159,286.
  • Attorneys working at the CIA’s Office of General Counsel dispense legal and policy counsel to officials in the agency surrounding numerous issues, including intelligence and national security law. Applicants will need a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) from an ABA accredited law school. Salary varies from $80,027 to $172,500.
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Do I need a license to work as a counterterrorist?

Counter-terrorists do not need a specific job-related license, but they will need to obtain top secret clearance (TS/SCI) to work in any department that handles potentially classified material. This process is a natural part of the application process so applicants do not need to go out of their way to obtain one. The path to obtaining a TS/SCI typically involves an intensive background check and a series of interviews with both the applicant and the people they know. Many of these jobs will also require applicants to pass rigorous physical and aptitude examinations to demonstrate that they are capable of performing their expected duties, whatever that may be.

Why pursue a career in counter-terrorism?  

Counter-terrorism requires strong, capable individuals. It demands dedication, flexibility, adaptability, the ability to process complex information to produce results, and most importantly, a willingness to put your own life on the line to protect your nation if need be. Applicants should have a burning passion for their craft and a desire to protect and defend innocent civilians from numerous threats. Counter-terrorists, like many who serve in the country’s national security apparatus, will have to sacrifice time and, as is well documented, possibly their relationships. 

Other key attributes may vary depending on the type of job. For example, a CIA clandestine officer or FBI special agent who is active in the field will need to be in excellent physical condition compared to an analyst who spends most of their work day at a desk. This is why national security agencies typically recruit ex-military or law enforcement for these positions. Furthermore, a security officer will be expected to travel frequently and have an excellent driving record so a driver’s license is a basic requirement. These positions also require a person who is great at making connections as agents or officers may have to manage a network of informants who can supply them with actionable intelligence on a particular terrorist group. Because of this, being fluent in a foreign language is invaluable for a counter-terrorist as it allows them the ability to better interact with the society they are studying.

A career as a counter-terrorist is not for everyone. Working in national security demands a great deal of sacrifice, hence single or new parents may want to reconsider applying for such jobs unless they feel confident that they can properly handle it. In addition, working part-time is likely out of the question due to the job’s unpredictable schedule.

That said, some alternatives may include: