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Top Counterterrorism Careers & The Skills Needed

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

When the bombs exploded in the midst of the 2013 Boston Marathon, a Boston Police lieutenant stationed near the finish line recalled a security planning exercise in which all roads were to be kept open and unblocked to allow ambulances and authorities to enter and leave in the event of an incident

Little did that lieutenant know that enforcing that mandate in a moment of chaos would save countless lives, says Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice and faculty in Northeastern’s Master of Arts in Security and Intelligence Studies program. McDevitt performed analysis of the Boston Marathon bombings for the Boston Police Department.

“The [security] planning expressed that the high-risk moment was surrounding the time when the [race] winners would receive their medals because they, the news crews, the governor, and the crowd were all there,” he says. “When the bombs went off over an hour later, many people had already left. That lieutenant remembered his training, which is why everyone who was taken away in an ambulance survived.”

That’s what the growing field of counterterrorism is all about, McDevitt says—developing plans and reacting to emergencies to keep people safe.

What Do Counterterrorism Jobs Entail?

The roles of counterterrorism professionals are vast, McDevitt says. People in this field are responsible for processing and validating information about threats; analyzing different strands of information, including threats via the internet and intelligence-gathering agencies, such as the CIA; and planning for when an event occurs, he says. Other responsibilities include risk assessment analysis to identify which targets are high-risk in a certain jurisdiction, how to protect those targets, and evacuation plans, if necessary.

“It’s a really fascinating area because there are so many elements at play,” McDevitt says. “When it comes to evacuations, for example, you need to consider the best routes for drivers to take and how to get people out who don’t have cars. You also have to consider the people who can’t physically leave because they’re in the hospital or in nursing homes, so how do you support them? It’s about understanding threats to public safety and promoting action.”

Essential Skills and Education

 Jobs in counterterrorism require the mastery of a number of skills, including data analytics, McDevitt says. Professionals need the ability to understand and use data to validate threats and understand crime and demographics, for example.

Just as important is the mastery of data visualization—knowing how to convey sophisticated data sets so policymakers and others can quickly act on the data, for example. “If you have a 20-page memo to the governor, you need to know how to put it together in a way that makes it easy for he or she to digest in a short period of time,” McDevitt says.

Professionals in counterterrorism also need to be skilled communicators. One challenge everyone in the field faces is working together with multiple levels of agencies, such as the state police, local police, governor’s office, and the military, he says. Counterterrorism professionals must know how to communicate effectively across those agencies; historically, they don’t work well together, he adds.

In addition to data analytics, data visualization, and communication skills, counterterrorism professionals must have sharp critical thinking skills to propose effective planning solutions, excellent interpersonal skills, and the ability to think creatively.

The education requirements for careers in counterterrorism vary depending on the agency, McDevitt says. A counterterrorism analyst employed by the CIA, for example, will likely need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in international affairs, national security studies, homeland security, or a related field. Other positions may require a bachelor’s or master’s degree in criminal justice, or a degree in analytics, for example.

Upper-level careers, such as directors of counterterrorism, are typically hired from within an agency, such as the military or state police, McDevitt says. To advance your career in counterterrorism, however, many roles require a master’s degree or more.

Counterterrorism Career Landscape

Careers in counterterrorism are divided into public- and private-sector opportunities.

Public-sector Jobs

In the public sector, the Department of Homeland Security is the largest federal agency employer with 240,000 employees. In addition, each major city in every state has a fusion center, which employs counterterrorism professionals and operates as a focal point for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between federal, state, and private sector partners.

In the public sector, counterterrorism professionals may also work for the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, as well as border patrol, local and state law enforcement, and the Transportation Security Administration.

Private-sector Jobs

The private sector offers a number of careers for counterterrorism professionals. In fact, McDevitt says, the private sector employs three people for every person employed in the public sector.

“Big corporations have their own security analysts; they’re not going to wait for the police to tell them they have a threat or had intellectual property stolen or had international claims made on their corporation,” he says. “Any company that’s selling products internationally or producing products that are prohibited in certain countries has their own private security corporate security and/or anti-terrorism group.”

Common Careers in Counterterrorism

Given the growing demand for professionals skilled to work in counterterrorism, there’s no better time than now to jump into a career in the field. Both the public and private sectors are seeking to bring on counterterrorism professionals to aid in analyzing intelligence and plan for events.

Counterterrorism Analyst

Average Salary: $54,308-$80,505

A counterterrorism analyst may work for a government entity—the CIA, for example—to assess the leadership, motivation, capabilities, plans, and intentions of foreign terrorist groups and their state and non-state sponsors. These professionals are responsible for identifying specific threats and warnings of preemptive attacks, disrupting terrorist networks, and defeating terrorist organizations.

Emergency Management Director

Average Salary: $72,760

An emergency management director prepares plans and procedures for responding to natural disasters or other emergencies. They are responsible for assessing hazards and responding to events to minimize the risk to people and property; coordinating the sharing of resources and equipment within the community to assist in responding to an emergency; and reviewing local emergency operations and plans and revising them if necessary. They must often coordinate with public safety officials, elected officials, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.

Fusion Center Analyst

Average Salary: $91,015

A fusion center analyst is responsible for collecting, collating, and analyzing crime data to determine current and historical crime trends and patterns to prevent terrorist activity and strengthen domestic security in a particular city or state. These professionals may also work in intelligence, critical infrastructure, or cyber intelligence sectors.

Information Security Analyst

Average Salary: $70,680

These professionals provide security solutions for companies. They research, collect data, and develop strategies for security threats and other vulnerabilities. They document, prioritize, and analyze these threats, and review daily and periodic data to identify, report, and remedy vulnerabilities. They’re also responsible for the configuration and analysis of security tools and software.

Intelligence Analyst

Average Salary: $91,015

These professionals develop creative solutions to answer analytical questions and solve difficult problems. Intelligence analysts collect, analyze, and report intelligence that uncovers the intentions of foreign governments and non-state entities worldwide, often doing so under pressure. They are adept at identifying intelligence gaps, evaluating information from multiple sources, and monitoring trends and interpreting events related to particular countries or issues.

Transportation Security Administration Program Analyst

Average Salary: $71,482

TSA program analysts work to protect the nation’s transportation system, which includes aviation security, surface transportation security, and transportation security support. Aviation security programs include screening workforce hiring and training, screening equipment, aviation regulation and enforcement, and flight crew training. Surface transportation security programs encompass ports, hazardous materials transportation, and rail security. Security support functions include intelligence, administration, and IT support.

U.S. Department of Defense Analyst

Average Salary: $90,802

Defense analysts review and analyze information from intelligence on global and domestic security threats. Defense analysts write analytical reports that include data from military training, departmental spending, and financial trends. They will usually make recommendations based on the results of their analysis.

Is a Job in Counterterrorism Right For You?

The field of counterterrorism is about protecting people, McDevitt says, and people interested in these careers should share that same ethos. “The basic role of anyone in this field is to protect,” he says. “While each department or job has different ways of protecting people, ultimately it’s about developing plans to react and keep people and organizations safe.”