Inside Nebraska’s counterterrorism center

We take a close look at what's happening in Omaha that could have national and international implications.

OMAHA, Neb. (KLKN) – The University of Nebraska-Omaha’s National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE) is part of an elite group that is conducting research for the  U.S. Department of Homeland Security. While that sounds very impressive, what do they actually do at NCITE?

Director Gina Ligon puts it simply: “We are studying all aspects across the ideological spectrum. We study domestic terrorism and we study international terrorism. Any terrorism that is aimed at hurting people in the United States is part of our mandate.”

Ligon pulled together a crack team to fulfill that mandate, with members coming from such diverse places as Washington, D.C., Penn State University, and here at home in Nebraska. In addition to diverse places of origin, this team has a great diversity of skills.

Matt Allen, who recently made the move from our nation’s capital to Omaha to join the team, specializes in management and has years of research experience under his belt. He says, “It feels like a very experienced group, but it also feels like a startup, too, like we’re really getting together and this is the start of something big and something special.”

Others come from backgrounds in criminology, political science, IT, and more. For instance, there is Joel Elson, who is an assistant professor of IT innovation. His skills are being used in concert with Erin Kearns, an assistant professor of criminology. Together they’re working on using a chatbot to improve identification and reporting of suspicious activity.

Elson says, “We’re all sitting down at the same table, discussing research problems and bringing our own skills and abilities to the table.”

Kearns agrees, speaking of “the strength of a team that is tackling these really big and really important problems from such different perspectives that just builds strength in the way that we think about issues.”

Those issues of violence and terror are constantly evolving, which is why this group of experts believes they’re only able to accomplish their goals together.

That’s part of why Sam Hunter left behind a dream job as a tenured professor at Penn State. “The chance to work with folks from such different backgrounds and tackle a problem that really requires all those different forms of expertise was a huge selling point”, he explains. “I think the only way we can solve the problems that we’re facing is by working together across disciplines.”

Their current location is yet another aspect of why NCITE can make a big impact. There just haven’t been many terrorism centers in this part of the country. For example, Ligon says Nebraska presents a unique target for terrorists, given the influence of agriculture. “How can we develop research to keep our agriculture safe as a critical infrastructure from attacks both in the supply chain and the actual physical spaces in Nebraska”, she asks.

The work isn’t limited to Nebraska, of course. National and international partners play a role as NCITE grows. They’re very quickly gaining momentum, that they should carry into the future.

“One of my expectations for the Center as we move forward is that we’ll continue to collaborate and leverage that interdisciplinary nature of our research team”, says political science assistant professor Austin Doctor. “I think that’s a differentiator that we bring to the table.”

Of course, in a post 9/11 world, many of us have an idea of who terrorists are. In recent years, we’ve seen that’s not necessarily accurate. NCITE has done a great deal of research to figure out how anyone can become part of a terrorist organization.

“There’s probably a lot of commonalities in how people join terrorist groups”, says Ligon. “We’ve really kind of shown the pathway of how someone can get in, but the kind of individual that’s going to be attracted, there are lots of different types of people that can become a terrorist.”

That means it’s less about who to look for, and more about what to look for, which is something we can all potentially have a role in. It is Ligon’s belief that schools ought to have some sort of required national security course to learn “how their particular assets and skills and interests can be applied in keeping us safe.”

She goes on to explain that nearly every skill can be a part of national security, and the work NCITE does shows that. How else would such varied disciplines work in such harmony? In fact, those different viewpoints are often what makes everything so successful.

As Professor Hunter puts it, “We try to help DHS be more creative and innovative”. That innovation is a critical part of the mission, and it’s fostered by the collaboration of people with wildly different backgrounds. Erin Kearns specializes in criminology. Joel Elson knows tech. Together, they’ve combined their expertise into one big new project.

“We’re talking about the same ideas”, says Kearns. “About trust and suspicious activity reporting. But the way that we approach it is so different. It syncs together so well.”

Elson expands on their work, saying, “People are not trusting some of these traditional authority figures. Here, we’re using IT innovation to develop an intelligent chatbot, much like you’ve already used to do a return on Amazon.”

The resulting product, an inquisitive and expressive little fellow with a screen for a face, seems like something out of science fiction, but it may not be all that far-fetched to see similar tech used around the nation someday.

While a great deal of the research is designed to stop terror, that’s not the entire scope of NCITE’s work. Actually, some of it deals with the aftermath of terror and focuses on groups you may not expect.

Austin Doctor’s research involves an international team looking at the families of terrorists who are left in a sort of long-term detention. He says, “The question now is not, ‘should we bring these persons back’, the question is ‘how can we best do that?’ What are the best practices for rehabilitating and reintegrating the spouses and children of foreign terrorist fighters?”

To answer that question, Doctor is engaging in two years of research, including fieldwork in the Netherlands and Iraq.

Ultimately, all the research and the projects, the questions and answers are all a part of the bigger job of keeping us all safe. In a constantly changing world, it’s good to know the good guys are changing as well. It’s also impressive to see it happening so close to home.

If you’d like to see what NCITE is up to in even more detail, have a look at their website.

Categories: Nebraska News, News, US & World