By Lorraine U. Martinelle
Special to The Citizen Chronicle

BOSTON — Nichols College counterterrorism graduate program faculty testified May 9, before the Massachusetts Legislature’s House Committee on Technology and Intergovernmental Affairs and the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. The public hearing, which focused on cyber security, was held amid allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and high-profile data breaches.

State lawmakers are seeking to collaborate with higher education programs on cyber security, counterterrorism, and violent extremism-related matters. In addition to Nichols College faculty, Bay Path University officials also provided testimony.

“[The] hearing illustrates the steps we are taking here in Massachusetts to counter cyber threats that threaten our government, businesses, both small and large, and individuals like you or me,” said state Rep. Harold P. Naughton Jr., D-Clinton, chair of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. “The programs that higher education institutions like Nichols College and Bay Path University are offering are innovative programs that address the various ongoing and emerging threats we face.”

Nichols Graduate & Professional Studies Executive Director Kerry Calnan and Adjunct Instructor and Brigadier Gen. (ret.) Paul Greg Smith testified on behalf of Nichols faculty, who were conducting research overseas and could not attend the hearing.

Calnan read statements by Nichols College Professor Allison McDowell-Smith, Ph.D., director of the counterterrorism program, who is in the Netherlands with 18 criminal justice students from Nichols; and Nichols College Adjunct Professor Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., director of research and senior research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), who is conducting fieldwork this month in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

“[The Nichols College] Master of Science in Counterterrorism program came to existence in June 2017 as a result of my research experience with the [ICSVE],” McDowell-Smith’s statement read. “There are numerous think-tanks within the United States and Europe that are focusing on cutting-edge research to assist in combatting violent extremism within our current-day society. Unfortunately, there [were] no higher education institutions in the United States exclusively focused on combatting violent extremism. Thus, Nichols College elected to become the first institution [in the United States] to create a 30-credit Master of Science program that focuses exclusively on violent extremism.”

The Nichols program features a capstone course in which students create a comprehensive strategy to combat violent extremism (CVE).

“Since the United States does not have an inclusive CVE, we have our students analyze and reflect on all information they have learned and gathered throughout [the master’s program] and create an ultimate U.S. CVE Strategy,” McDowell-Smith said in her statement. “We would be willing to share these CVE strategies with your committees to assist in a collaborative effort to secure our Commonwealth [of Massachusetts].”

As part of ICSVE research on “Breaking the ISIS Brand,” Shajkovci has been stationed in Iraq, closely working with Iraqi Ministry of Interior, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, and General Directorate of Intelligence and Counterterrorism Operations (Falcon Intelligence Cell); interviewing ISIS defectors from Iraq; and creating a social media counter-narrative campaign.

“ISCVE researchers have interviewed 78 so far, and we are optimistic that we have access to women who have served in ISIS as well, including foreign fighters,” Shajkovci said in his statement. “I have had the opportunity to bring first-hand research on violent extremism and terrorism to my fellow colleagues and our students [at Nichols College]. I greatly look forward to any future collaboration between [Nichols] and the Commonwealth.”

He shared that ICSVE staff visited Qatar, at the request of its government, to meet with the ministers of defense and foreign affairs and the governor of Qatar’s Central Bank. Researchers also visited the U.S., Al Udeid (CENTCOM) Air Base in Doha. The trip served to gain a better understanding of the impact of the blockade against Qatar posed by other major Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. The goal was to understand how the blockade and the fight in the Gulf States impacts coalition efforts to fight Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

General Smith read a statement by Nichols Adjunct Professor Stephen Morreale, D.B.A., who served in law enforcement for 30 years, having retired as assistant special agent in charge for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Investigations, Office of Inspector General. He is also professor and chair of criminal justice at Worcester State University.

“The threat of cyber-crime, cyber-fraud, and cyber-terrorism is real and should be a serious concern for all citizens,” Morreale said in his statement. “A concerted effort must be made by government to identify paths to protect citizens from the threats. I applaud the work of your committees and their interest for exploring solutions. These call for opportunities to partner with institutions of higher education, private sector organizations, state agencies, and law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels.

Most small- and mid-sized law enforcement agencies are under-prepared to deal with the number of complaints of cyber-related crime, including fraud, stalking, identity theft, and cyber-ransom, according to Morreale.

“These agencies have limited jurisdiction in events that are generally initiated well outside the boundaries of their authority and capabilities,” he said. “The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center has received nearly four million complaints since its inception in 2000. It is estimated that these crimes have resulted in losses of nearly $5 billion.”

Offering his assistance, Morreale urged the legislators to consider establishing strong partnerships and relationships through collaboration, coordination, and cooperation.

“This approach can help to address the continued and rising threats of cybercrime and cyberterrorism,” he said. “This should include training, for both the public and private sectors.”

In his own testimony, General Smith discussed his experience as the Joint Task Force commander of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing response as well as the need for outreach and a preventative approach to ensure public safety; and for a holistic approach to include a task force with Nichols College and its faculty experts.

“We face a threat that is constantly shifting, constantly evolving, and constantly adapting its tactics,” said General Smith. “We desperately need programs like the Master of Science in Counterterrorism at Nichols College to keep pace with the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures that can detect, prevent, mitigate, and respond to violent extremist threats.”

The Nichols community’s intent is to eventually develop its counterterrorism program into a clearinghouse of counter-violent extremism best practices that will be shared with law enforcement, military, and academic professionals to better safeguard the United States.

“The study of counter violent extremism is too important to the safety of our citizens for any institution or stakeholder to assume proprietary ownership,” General Smith testified. “We must all work together to share research, proven practices, and effective tactics so that our Commonwealth is never again shaken by terrorist bombs, never again wracked by the tears of tragedy, and never again threatened by the ugly face of violent extremism.”

STATE, FEDERAL OFFICIALS VISIT NICHOLS CAMPUS

It was a busy spring semester for the Nichols counterterrorism graduate program. The College hosted in January members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee of Public Safety and Homeland Security to brief them about the program. In April, former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ronald L. Burgess Jr. spoke on campus about cybersecurity threats to the United States. He addressed the roles government, private and public companies, and academia can play in combatting cyber threats to U.S. national security in an interconnected world. And on May 5, the first cohort of students in the counterterrorism master’s program graduated at Commencement.

In 2017, Nichols College Graduate & Professional Studies launched the leadership-focused Master of Science in Counterterrorism developed for those pursuing careers in the fields of intelligence, public policy, and security. Through an innovative in-class and online experience, students learn from counterterrorism experts the factors contributing to the radicalization process of violent extremism, and explore strategies to counter both terrorism and violent extremism. Nichols faculty saw a need to create this program for students once the Department of Homeland Security stressed the importance of countering violent extremism as a top priority for the United States.

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