Counterterrorism – degrees, programs, and careers

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HomeCounterterrorism overview

Introduction to counterterrorism

In the aftermath of the devastating 9/11 attacks, homeland security and terrorist threats have evolved. Technology has made it easier for radical criminal organizations to orchestrate violent atrocities at home and around the globe.

Global terrorism

According to the U.S. Department of State’s latest available Country Reports on Terrorism, global terrorist incidents rose by 3% in 2019 compared to the previous year.

That’s a monthly average of 692 incidents worldwide.

Despite this increase, overall deaths, injuries, and kidnappings dropped by 24%, 12%, and 18%, respectively. The disparity between increased terrorist incidents and fewer casualties coincides with the U.S.’s concerted counterterrorism efforts during the same period.

Apart from successful military operations, effective sanctions, diplomatic engagements, and the institution of multinational counterterrorism forums and committees, the key counterterrorism efforts in the U.S. include:

  • Multinational information gathering and sharing
  • Enhanced border and aviation security
  • Countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment efforts
  • Countering unmanned aerial systems against civilian targets
  • Bolstered crisis response capabilities
  • Law enforcement involvement including arrests, prosecution, and the incarceration of terrorists

However, with the ever-changing terrorist landscape, ongoing counterterrorism efforts are crucial. Biological and chemical warfare, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), cybersecurity threats, and other risks are only part of what they’re up against. Strategies and initiatives are often adapted to combat developing terrorist activities.

Domestic terrorism

On the home front, extremist groups, lone wolves, and structured organizations with radical political, religious, or ideological motivations pose a daily threat to national security.

According to an October 2020 report by the non-profit, bipartisan think-tank organization, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, domestic terrorism has also seen a paradigm shift. Perpetrators adapt to their circumstances and find opportunities faster than in past years. The data suggests that incidents aren’t isolated to specific geographical locations.

Background checks for firearm purchases were at an all-time high in 2020. Meanwhile, digital platforms continue to serve as fertile ground for propaganda, misinformation, and incitements of violence. The multi-faceted nature of domestic terrorism makes it challenging to predict any future incidents.

Counterterrorism professionals need to have viable response plans in place. They must collect and collate intel quickly, and devise measures to protect civilians.

Counterterrorism

Terrorism encompasses a diverse range of individuals and organizations – all with their own ideologies, motives, and modus operandi. Moreover, terrorist acts require a large amount of funding and coordination, all of which requires communication.

As such, careers in counterterrorism often focus on specific aspects of terrorism to ensure that no stone is left unturned in facing these criminals.

There are a variety of involved private and public sector security organizations, as well as federal agencies such as:

  • Department of Homeland Security (DHA)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • National Security Agency (NSA)
  • National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)
  • Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

They are typically responsible for:

  • Gathering intelligence
  • Analyzing data, risks, and vulnerabilities
  • Identifying, investigating, and assessing threats
  • Developing strategies and planning a response
  • Surveilling known terrorists and terrorist organizations

As global and domestic terrorism becomes increasingly complex, these organizations need to adopt a stronger approach. As such, the following skills can be beneficial to counterterrorism professionals:

  • Strategic, creative, and critical thinking for effective, data-driven counterterrorism solutions
  • Strong oral and written communication for efficient information sharing and coordination efforts with other professionals
  • Problem-solving and decision-making capabilities to overcome strategic challenges under strenuous circumstances
  • Perceptiveness to better understand and predict terrorist behavior and adopt new strategies to fight against terrorism

Do you enjoy working in an exciting and ever-changing environment? Are you in possession of the necessary skills and have a passion for justice? Then a career in counterterrorism may be for you.

Counterterrorism degrees focus on a broad range of majors, including political science, international relations, criminal justice, national security, strategic intelligence, and foreign policy. There is an increase in academic writing about counterterrorism as well. Let’s explore the options for finding a suitable degree in this quickly-expanding field.

Career options

Counterterrorism careers fall under 2 primary categories: delineated by being within the public or private sectors. As such, career openings often stipulate different educational level requirements from high school diploma to doctoral degree – depending on the agency, the responsibilities of the position, and the preference for work experience over academic qualifications. .

Each major city in every state has a fusion center that acts as a multi-disciplinary collaboration unit. Fusion centers receive, analyze, and share threat-related data between public and private organizations. These fusion centers report to law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, which is the largest employer in the public counterterrorism sector.

Within the public sector, counterterrorism professionals may also be employed by the following organizations:

  • Border patrol
  • Law enforcement
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • National Security Agency (NSA)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Transportation Security Administration

Within the private sector, counterterrorism employment opportunities can be found in businesses that hold contracts with state or federal governments. For example, a large corporation that manufactures or procures products in the global market may employ security and data analysts.

Terrorism encompasses a diverse range of individuals and organizations—all with their own ideologies, motives, and modus operandi. Moreover, terrorist acts require a large amount of funding and coordination, all of which requires communication.

CT analysts work in government entities to assess the motivations and intentions of terrorist groups. These analysts identify threats of attack from terrorist networks and organizations.

Average Annual Salary: $83,533

Emergency management specialists prepare procedures to react to emergencies. They assess hazards, coordinate, and respond to events to minimize the risk to property and people. Emergency management specialists often coordinate with elected officials, public safety officials, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

Average Annual Salary: $62,610

Fusion center analysts are responsible for collecting, analyzing, and collating crime data. They determine historical and current crime patterns and trends to strengthen domestic security and prevent terrorist activities.

Average Annual Salary: $76,410

Information security analysts offer security solutions to companies. They perform research, collect information, develop strategies against vulnerabilities and security threats, and rank, document, and analyze threats. It’s their duty to report, identify, and solve any vulnerabilities. The analysis and configuration of security software and tools also falls under their job responsibility.

Average Annual Salary: $72,737

A TSA program analyst protects the entire nation’s transportation system. This includes screening workforce and equipment, hiring and training staff, flight crew training, and aviation regulation enforcement. Surface transportation security oversees ports and rail security as far as moving hazardous materials is concerned. Support functions include IT, intelligence, and administration.

Average Annual Salary: $56,819

Generally employed by the U.S. Dept of Defense, a defense analyst reviews and interprets data from intelligence on both domestic and global security threats. They compile analytical reports, including data from departmental spending, financial trends, and military training. The Department of Defense makes recommendations to superiors based on results from their analysts’ reports.

Average Annual Salary: $90,802

What degrees do I need to work in counterterrorism?

Counterterrorism is an interdisciplinary field with numerous career pathways, but a 4-year bachelor’s degree is typically required for the majority of them. Therefore, programs and educational requirements vary.

This undergraduate program often starts with a 2-year associate degree in international relations, counterterrorism studies, homeland security, or another closely related major. However, higher learning institutions usually accept students with a GPA of 3.0 or other relevant academic achievements for direct admission into a bachelor’s degree program.

It’s possible to apply for this degree straight out of high school or community college for entrance into a wide range of higher learning institutions. Having completed the following high school subjects can support your application for admission:

  • Human geography
  • Foreign language
  • World history
  • U.S. history

Each institution has its own deadlines and response times. You can find this information on their relevant websites or by contacting their admissions departments.

Some counterterrorism students may have relevant on-the-job experience, such as with military or law enforcement. This should be helpful in getting admitted to a program, so be sure to add this to your personal statement, along with your application. Contact the admissions department to find out if credit can be applied.

Bachelor’s degree in counterterrorism studies

While precise admission requirements depend on the education institution or program, generally a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) the following prerequisites are commonplace:

High school diploma or GED test

Minimum GPA of 2.8

SAT or ACT scores

Official high school transcripts

Government-issued photo ID

Government-issued JST or CCAF transcript (military students)

Letters of recommendation

Personal statement

Additionally, due to the nature of counterterrorism and related fields, proof of a clear criminal record may also be required.

While they’re perceived equally, there are a few subtle differences between the B.A. and B.S degrees. A B.A. generally focuses on the humanities and often includes subjects like social sciences, foreign language study, philosophy, and literature. A B.S. is typically more math and science orientated.

A B.A. also tends to have a broader focus on a major, while a B.S. goes into more explicit detail, especially concerning the scientific aspects of a major. It’s worth considering the career you want to pursue before choosing your bachelor’s degree in counterterrorism.

Here are some examples of B.A. degree programs in the field:

  • Homeland security and emergency management
  • Administration of justice
  • Law and national security
  • International relations
  • Counterterrorism studies
  • Strategic intelligence studies

Examples of B.S. degree programs in counterterrorism include:

  • Political science
  • Terrorism and counterterrorism studies
  • National security studies
  • Intelligence analysis
  • Homeland security and terrorism
  • Criminal justice

Concentrations for either a B.A. or B.S. program could include the following:

  • African politics
  • Diplomacy
  • Global environmental issues
  • Global human rights issues
  • International law
  • International organizations
  • International political economy
  • International relations theory
  • Latin American politics
  • Middle Eastern politics
  • U.S. foreign policy
  • Weapons of mass destruction preparedness
  • Homeland security and defense
  • Strategic intelligence
  • Global terrorism
  • Domestic terrorism

Fieldwork, practice placement/s, and internship/s

There is no required fieldwork in this degree program. Despite this, practice placements and internships are available and may be advantageous to your career prospects.

Bachelor degree costs

$7,394 annual average at a median, in-state public institution

$37,550 yearly average at a median, private institution out of state

Master’s degree in counterterrorism

Upper-level counterterrorism careers, including managers and directors, are typically hired or promoted internally. Most executive roles require a minimum of a master’s degree in a specified field such as national security, intelligence studies, middle eastern studies, public policy, or political science.

Earning a master’s degree in the counterterrorism sector puts you in a position to specialize in your field, enter the workforce at a higher level, and increase your earning potential. Such a graduate program can equip students with advanced skills and knowledge to:

  • Produce actionable outcomes based on information analysis
  • Apply acquired knowledge in law, criminology, social sciences, and public policy to analyze homeland security issues
  • Identify and analyze counterterrorism challenges with an empirical and data-driven approach

Similar to a B.A., a Master of Arts (M.A.) is generally centered around the humanities, with a more liberal approach to the way it’s taught. The curriculum usually combines research, practical exercises, essay writing, and class discussions. A Master of Science (M.S.) degree is typically more science-based and focuses on theory and research. As such, students working toward their doctoral degrees usually opt for an M.S.

With numerous specializations in the counterterrorism sector, graduate degree programs also vary, and some may require a dissertation to complete.

Here are a few examples of M.A. degrees in this field:

  • International security
  • Security and terrorism
  • Defense and strategic studies
  • Homeland security
  • Technology intelligence
  • International relations and global security
  • Peace and conflict studies
  • Political science

M.S. degrees in the counterterrorism field include:

  • Organizational leadership in homeland security
  • Security management
  • Criminal justice and public safety management
  • Counterterrorism and homeland security
  • Security and risk management
  • Security and strategic intelligence
  • National cybersecurity studies
  • Information assurance and security

While core coursework topics depend on the graduate degree program you choose, your choice of concentrations may include:

  • Global political economy
  • Political violence theory
  • Counterterrorism research
  • National security policies
  • Intelligence analysis
  • Cyber threats and security
  • Information assurance principles and policies
  • Decision-making analysis
  • Threat assessment
  • Counterterrorism law and ethics
  • Religious extremism
  • Strategic leadership
  • Advanced counterterrorism operations
  • Conflict analysis and resolution

Prerequisites

Obtaining an accredited bachelor’s degree in international relations, homeland security, or another related field typically meets the general requirements to enter a master’s degree program. Other prerequisites may include:

Minimum GPA score of 3.0

Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test scores

Letters of recommendation

Purpose statement

Resume

Official transcripts of undergraduate studies

TOEFL or IELTS scores, if applicable

Felony disclosure form

Fieldwork, practice placements, and internships

Many graduate schools offer internships that equip students with hands-on experience and training relevant to their coursework. In the counterterrorism field, such a practice placement could enhance your career opportunities. You can inquire about internships at your educational institution, public or private organizations.

What does a master’s degree cost?

A master’s program is typically 2 years in duration. The combined cost of tuition and additional fees vary widely – between $16,037 and $34,556 – depending on whether it is an in-state or out-of-state program, private or public institution.

Counterterrorism is an interdisciplinary field with numerous career pathways, but a 4-year bachelor’s degree is typically required for the majority of them. Therefore, programs and educational requirements vary.

Doctoral degree in counterterrorism studies

A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree can take anywhere between 3 and 6 years to complete, sometimes longer, depending on the program. Other contributing factors include the curriculum structure, whether it’s earned online or on campus, and part or full-time.

Professionals in the counterterrorism sector who wish to reach the highest level in their careers may benefit from earning a Ph.D. A doctoral degree is ideal for graduates who want to become top-level decision makers, leaders, experts, executive administrators, or managers within their organizations.

Here are a few examples of doctoral degrees in counterterrorism and related specializations:

  • Homeland security policy and coordination
  • Criminology and terrorism
  • Counterterrorism and deradicalization
  • Strategic security
  • Criminal justice leadership
  • Public policy
  • National security

While Ph.D. programs differ in what they accomplish, they generally prepare students to:

  • Formulate and evaluate counterterrorism policies and develop conceptual frameworks to prevent threats
  • Advance the counterterrorism field on a multi-level scale via quantitative and qualitative research at multiple levels
  • Apply theoretical knowledge in practice and develop strategic leadership skills to promote effective national security outcomes

A counterterrorism Ph.D. usually includes core subjects such as:

  • Counterterrorism research methodologies
  • Vulnerability analysis and protection
  • Cybersecurity threat analysis
  • Weapons of mass destruction threat analysis
  • Intelligence regulation and reform
  • Protection and operations management
  • Strategic security analysis
  • Global counterterrorism
  • Radicalization

Ph.D. students are also usually required to present a dissertation to complete their doctoral degrees. They may also need to publish original research in a peer-reviewed journal.

Prerequisites

As mentioned, an M.S. degree lays an excellent foundation to pursue a doctoral degree. However, an M.A. is usually also accepted. In some instances, your educational institution may give you credit for your existing master’s, which could reduce your Ph.D. coursework. Other admission requirements typically include:

A GPA score of 3.0 or above

GRE test scores

IELTS or TOEFL test scores if applicable

Research statement or proposal

Letter of recommendation

Resume

Writing samples

Fieldwork, practice placements, and internships

At the doctoral level, internships aren’t usually required. Even so, fieldwork, training, or relevant work experience may impact the necessary coursework.

Doctoral degree costs

As with master’s programs the costs of a doctoral degree see a large variation, from $17,272 to over $40,000 per year. Many Ph.D. students secure part-time research or teaching jobs at the university they are studying at to help meet these expenses.

Online/hybrid vs. on campus

Most college degree programs can be earned entirely online. This may be an ideal option if you’re aiming to further your counterterrorism career, but have other responsibilities.

However, if you’ve just finished high school or if you’re studying full-time, an on-campus program may suit you better. Alternatively, you can opt for a hybrid program that combines online and on-campus study. Remember to check course descriptions before registering.

Alternative education pathways

Apart from the previously-mentioned degrees, there are other study routes that you can take.

Dual or joint degree programs

Many schools offer programs where students can earn 2 separate degrees at once. While this route naturally takes longer than a single degree program, it can help accelerate your academic advancement. Joint degree programs may combine the following:

B.A. and B.S. – earn 2 bachelor’s in separate fields simultaneously.

B.A. or B.S. and a master’s degree – earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in the same or related fields simultaneously

M.A. or M.S. and a Ph.D. degree – earn a graduate degree and a doctoral degree simultaneously

Generally speaking, the same admission requirements apply to dual degree applications and single degree programs. However, more credit hours are often required due to the increased coursework. As mentioned, earning a master’s degree could accelerate your doctoral studies, so a dual program can be a viable option if you’re considering a Ph.D.

Graduate certificates and bridging programs

A graduate certificate, also known as a postgraduate certificate (PgCert), usually focuses on one specific field of study. It’s typically ideal for professionals that already have a master’s degree but wish to enhance their knowledge in a particular specialization.

For example, if you hold a master’s degree in international security, but wish to specialize in cybersecurity counterterrorism, then you could complete a PgCert in that field of study. It may also be a viable avenue for undergrad and graduate students who need specific subjects as part of their master’s or doctoral degree admission requirements.

Similarly, bridge programs are designed to equip students with the qualifications required to pursue a different career or academic path. For example, most schools require a 4-year bachelor’s for admission into a master’s degree program. Undergraduate students with a 2 or 3-year B.A. can pursue a bridge program to fulfill these requirements.

These programs can take 1 to 3 years or less. The precise length, costs, and requirements depend on the program type and school.

Counterterrorism is an interdisciplinary field with numerous career pathways, but a 4-year bachelor’s degree is typically required for the majority of them. Therefore, programs and educational requirements vary.

Licensing and certification

Aside from your degree, you do not need any other licenses to join the general workforce in counterterrorism. Although, career progression may require further studies.

Accreditation

Not all companies, countries, or higher learning institutions will recognize your degree if the program you completed was not accredited.

Benefits of an accredited university

Better global recognition

More opportunities

Better ratings for institutions

Continued quality improvements

Improved student performance

Doubled faculty contribution

Better quality assurance

How to know if your university is accredited The secretary of education publishes a database for accredited institutions. Professional schools or graduate schools often have separate accreditation organizations. Institutions should have their accreditations prominently displayed on their websites.

Financial Aid

Financial aid may be available for eligible students to help pay for college or a career school in the following forms. The first place to visit is the Federal Student Aid website, which has copious information about all types of student aid available to eligible students. This website is where you can complete the FAFSA application form, to check your eligibility for financial aid.

Other types of aid worth investigating are:

Grants

Grants are normally awarded based on merit. These involve a contract where learning is funded provided that you meet the stipulations therein. You do not repay grants unless you fail to complete your obligations.

Scholarships

These are funds based on merit, areas of study, or talent by private and nonprofit organizations. Scholarships are not loans, and you do not pay them back. They’re awarded to a limited number of high-performing students to entice them to attend a particular university or college.

Work-study jobs

Work part-time while paying for classes through the Federal Work-Study Program. The agency pays for your studies from the earnings you make.

Loans

Loans are borrowed funds to attend a career school or college. Repayments include the original loan amount plus accumulated interest. It is critical that you understand the loan’s terms and conditions before accepting it.

Aid from your college or career school

Most schools have the ability to provide financial aid, grants, or scholarship funds. It is a good idea to both ask at the school’s financial aid office, and the individual faculty offices for scholarships related to your major.

Aid for military families

Special aid programs provide assistance to those serving in the U.S. military and to veterans, as well as their immediate families. One example is the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which helps pay for school and job training for those who have served in active duty since September 10, 2001.

The Bureau of Counterterrorism

This bureau promotes national security in the U.S. They develop strategies to defeat terrorism and secure counterterrorism cooperation with international partners.

National Counterterrorism Center

This center integrates and leads efforts using domestic and foreign information. They provide terrorism analysis and drive government action to secure national counterterrorism objectives.

Global Society of Homeland Security Professionals (GSHSP)

The GSHSP is a group of homeland security experts in the private and public sectors who share data on security, safety, and resourcefulness in the face of terrorism. This group also provides webinars and training sessions.

National Homeland Security Association (NHSA)

The NHSA sponsors an annual conference for professionals in the industry. The association also offers opportunities for students to learn about cybersecurity, grants management, counterterrorism, intelligence, and information sharing.

International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals (IACSP)

This association is a member organization for professionals in counterterrorism. Members have the opportunity to attend training seminars and conferences.