The total number of terrorist attacks worldwide rose by 17 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the most recent Global Terrorism Index. While the scope and nature of these attacks are always changing, terrorism remains a global threat that governments are constantly working to monitor and neutralize.
The U.S. Department of Defense defines counterterrorism as “activities and operations taken to neutralize terrorists and their organizations and networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies to achieve their goals.” To achieve the aim of neutralizing these threats, counterterrorism efforts can take many forms, including military operations, political actions and technological interventions.
For those interested in a career in counterterrorism, it’s important to understand the vital role that intelligence plays in the field. Monitoring and analyzing large volumes of information is necessary to assess threats, track the operations of terrorist groups and prevent attacks. Explore how counterterrorism analysts find and use intelligence to protect populations.
International and Domestic Terrorism
Terrorism is marked by violence and the threat of violence for political or ideological purposes.
The FBI provides the following definitions of terrorism:
- Domestic terrorism: Criminal and violent acts committed by groups or individuals within the U.S. intended to further ideological goals (such as political, racial, social, religious or environmental aims)
- International terrorism: Criminal and violent acts committed by groups or individuals from designated foreign terrorist groups
According to 18 U.S. Code § 2331, terrorism is typically defined as an act that is “dangerous to human life” with the intention to:
- Intimidate or coerce civilians
- Intimidate or coerce politicians, and thereby influence policy, or
- Influence government conduct by “mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping”
As a matter of national security, the U.S. government does not publicly release comprehensive data on terrorist plots or those who perpetrate them. However, the Center for Strategic and International Studies is a nonprofit policy research organization that studies national security and provides insight into the defense industry.
The CSIS found that 2020 and 2021 saw the highest numbers of domestic terrorist attacks in recent history, with 71 terrorist attacks in 2021 alone. In 2021, the majority of domestic terrorism attacks came from white supremacists (38 out of 71 attacks). Many of these attacks also targeted governmental, police or military individuals or groups (29 out of 71 attacks).
These metrics speak to the need for competent analysts to monitor, assess and relay information to counter terrorist threats.
Counterterrorism Analyst Role and Responsibilities
Counterterrorism analysts use data to preempt attacks on American interests. Focusing on potential targets at home and abroad, as well as potential and known terrorist groups, counterterrorism analysts constantly monitor the changing landscape of domestic and global conflict and sound the alarm on national security threats.
Analysts in the U.S. Intelligence Community
Intelligence data is any information that suggests a possible threat to the nation, its citizens or its interests. The U.S. intelligence community (IC) is the collection of federal agencies and organizations that conduct surveillance on threats posed by state and nonstate actors. Beyond counterterrorism, the IC also focuses on:
- Cyber intelligence: collecting information related to cybersecurity threats
- Counterintelligence: preventing spying by foreign enemies
- Counterproliferation: curbing the proliferation of weapons in the hands of U.S. enemies
As members of the U.S. intelligence community, counterterrorism analysts collect and analyze information from numerous sources:
- Human intelligence (HUMINT): information collected through military attaches and espionage
- Signals intelligence (SIGINT): intercepted electronic signals
- Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT): information gathered from global surveillance instruments, such as satellite surveillance data
- Imagery intelligence (IMINT): visual information such as photography, radar sensor outputs or electro-optics
- Measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT): information collected via measurement estimates to locate, identify and characterize physical targets across long distances
- Open-Source intelligence (OSINT): public information such as foreign public radio, TV, videos and internet postings
Responsibilities of a Counterterrorism Analyst
The responsibilities of a counterterrorism analyst include:
- Parsing intelligence data
- Assessing terrorist plots and potential terrorist plots and operational structures
- Communicating findings through detailed oral and written reports
- Collaborating with law enforcement and intragovernmental intelligence teams as needed
Analyzing and interpreting intelligence data is key to combating domestic and international terrorism. Counterterrorism analysts use intelligence data to assess threats and devise response strategies with the best chances of success.
After the 9/11 terror attacks, counterterrorism threat assessment expanded widely. Today, addressing domestic and international terrorist threats requires an in-depth understanding of both historical patterns of violence and present trends in radicalization movements, terrorist tactics, and conflicts between state and nonstate actors.
Counterterrorism analysts today must develop expert knowledge of domestic and international extremist threats, especially as social media emboldens terrorists through what the FBI describes as “unprecedented, virtual access to people living in the United States in an effort to enable homeland attacks.”
Counterterrorism Analyst Salary
As one of many homeland security careers, the job of a counterterrorism analyst is crucial for safeguarding the nation. Counterterrorism analysts work for the federal government at the intelligence offices of the FBI, CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and other organizations within the intelligence community. They also may find work at policy analyst organizations, such as defense-focused nonprofits.
Given the vital nature of their work, analysts generally earn competitive salaries. Like many federal government positions, a counterterrorism analyst’s salary is level-based and dictated by several factors, including experience. For example, a team intelligence analyst position posted by the FBI lists multiple salary tiers with different ranges. GS-9 analysts can earn between $65,000 and $84,400, while those at the GS-14 level (the highest level for this role) can earn upward of $130,000.
Combat Terrorism with an Advanced Degree
Counterterrorism is critical for the safety and security of our nation. By monitoring and assessing domestic and international threats, counterterrorism analysts help keep dangerous actors from doing harm.
The right education and training can prepare individuals for a meaningful career in this field. The online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program at Virginia Commonwealth University can equip individuals with the necessary skills to support the intelligence community. Courses such as Cybersecurity Law and Policy, Emergency Management, Risk Assessment and Terrorism can help lay the foundation for a variety of careers in counterterrorism and national security.
Take the first step to pursuing a career in counterterrorism.