What Is Counterterrorism?

A group of counterterrorism officials reviews information on a computer monitor.

Despite a decline in terrorist attacks across the globe over the last several years, terrorism is still a pervasive threat. More than 7,000 people worldwide died as a result of terrorist acts in 2021, according to a report from the Institute for Economics and Peace.

The FBI classifies international terrorism and domestic terrorism as two separate threats. International terrorism is violent, criminal acts committed by groups or individuals based outside the U.S. The 911 attacks are an example of international terrorism. Acts of domestic terrorism, on the other hand, are committed by individuals or groups inside the U.S., with the intention of furthering ideological goals that stem from domestic influences. The Oklahoma City bombing is considered an act of domestic terrorism.

To combat these threats to national security, the U.S. relies on the collective efforts of counterterrorism officials and agencies. What is counterterrorism? It comprises the military and political actions designed to thwart terrorist acts.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program equips individuals with the skills and knowledge that can serve as the foundation for a career in counterterrorism.

Counterterrorism and Homeland Security

In response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government merged 22 different federal departments and agencies into a unified whole to create the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Counterterrorism and homeland security have been synonymous ever since. The Cabinet-level department oversees and coordinates national strategies that safeguard the homeland against security threats and help prepare the country to respond to future attacks.

Complicating these efforts is the fact that criminals and terrorists are constantly adapting and escalating their methods. The internet — specifically, the dark web — has made it easier than ever for terrorists to communicate and organize. In light of this, counterterrorism organizations like DHS have had to evolve their tactics to keep terrorists in check.

DHS focuses on four main counterterrorism goals:

  1. Collecting, analyzing and sharing actionable intelligence: Intelligence is key in the world of counterterrorism. DHS officials work diligently to gather information on potential terrorist threats through surveillance, sharing this information with the appropriate parties in the public and private sectors.
  2. Detecting and disrupting terrorist threats: Terrorists are constantly searching for weaknesses in national security. They will scheme to spread misinformation to throw off counterterrorism units and use the internet to disseminate propaganda and recruit others to join their cause. DHS is constantly monitoring and investigating potential threats to detect any that are verifiable so it can prevent attacks.
  3. Protecting soft targets, public events and individuals in leadership positions: Historically, terrorists target government officials and people in positions of power, soft targets (unguarded people), and public events that would cause a spectacle if attacked (for example, the Boston Marathon). DHS is responsible for protecting these potential targets using intelligence and counterterrorism resources and by addressing security gaps before they can be exploited.
  4. Countering emerging threats and weapons of mass destruction: Among the biggest threats that DHS confronts are weapons of mass destruction and biological and chemical materials that can cause widespread harm. The goal is to keep terrorists from ever getting their hands on such weapons. If prevention fails and an attack occurs, DHS is also involved in coordinating a response.

Careers in Counterterrorism

Counterterrorism professionals are charged with protecting the country from terrorist threats, whether international or domestic. Because counterterrorism is what safeguards national security, counterterrorism units are typically well funded. President Joe Biden proposed $52.2 billion for DHS in a recent budget request, according to the department’s latest budget report. The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs reports that more than $1 trillion has been budgeted for DHS over the last 20 years.

Given the priority placed on national security — and the generous budgets associated with it — aspiring professionals have plenty of options for careers in counterterrorism. Some of the top opportunities include the following:

Emergency Management Director

Emergency management directors are responsible for preparing responses to natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies, such as terrorist attacks. They often work with nonprofit organizations, elected officials, public safety officials and government agencies to coordinate these efforts. Disasters come in many forms, so emergency management directors need to be prepared for a variety of scenarios.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), emergency management directors earned a median annual wage of $76,700 in 2021. The BLS projects the number of jobs for emergency management directors will grow by 6 percent by 2030.

Criminal Investigator and Special Agent

Criminal investigators and special agents are tasked with collecting information regarding terrorist plots and other criminal activity. They monitor suspects, conduct interviews, research records, and participate in raids and arrests. They’re employed by numerous government agencies including DHS, the FBI, the Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Detectives and criminal investigators earned a median annual wage of $83,600 in 2021, according to the BLS. They are mostly employed by local government agencies, the federal executive branch and state governments. While the BLS doesn’t provide growth projections for these specific roles, it estimates that employment in similar occupations — such as police officers and detectives, and private detectives and investigators — will grow by 7 percent and 13 percent, respectively, between 2020 and 2030.

Information Security Analyst

One of the most rampant forms of terrorism is cyberterrorism, which is why information security analysts are in demand at DHS and other government agencies. These professionals protect computer systems and networks by implementing security measures and monitor them for evidence of cyberattacks.

Information security analysts earned a median annual wage of $102,600 in 2021, the BLS reports. The BLS projects employment of information security analysts will grow by 33 percent by 2030.

Pursue a Career in Counterterrorism

Counterterrorism efforts are critical for keeping domestic and international threats in check. Counterterrorism is what ensures the nation’s preparedness, making DHS and other counterterrorism agencies vital to national security.

The right education and training can prepare individuals for a meaningful career in this field. Learn more about how the online Master of Arts program in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University can equip individuals with crucial decision-making, leadership and policymaking skills. 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 meaningful career in counterterrorism.