up next Gina Ligon
How a UNO Professor Is Leading A National Center Focused on Counterterrorism
By Jackie Ostrowicki
Gina Ligon remembers when her school van pulled up to the site of a terrorist attack that killed 168 people, 19 of them children. The Oklahoma native was a high school sophomore. And the hollowed-out Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City stood before her in 1995 as a stark and shocking reality of how deadly extreme ideologies can be.
It also helped set her course.
Ligon went on to become an organizational psychologist who specializes in how violent extremists form, organize, and act. She has long been involved in counterterrorism studies and the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE) is the culmination of a dream.
NCITE is America’s latest terrorism and targeted violence-fighting tool—a federally funded academic consortium based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It was created in 2020 when UNO received its largest federal grant ever—$36.5 million over 10 years for counterterrorism studies—from the Department of Homeland Security.
UNO was chosen to house NCITE following a highly competitive selection process that involved a site visit to Omaha by a team of DHS officials. UNO’s selection among some 75 universities submitting letters of interest was a reflection of a long record of leadership across the university in national security and defense.
Ligon said that what it means for UNO is “that we are the trusted agent, the academic partner of the Department of Homeland Security for all counterterrorism research.”
A Research Hub for Counterterrorism
Led by Ligon as the center’s director, more than 50 academics from 19 universities work in counterterrorism research—innovating, educating, and creating new prevention strategies. “NCITE provides a vehicle for us to use our professional training and personal experiences to help fight violent groups who have already formed—and help prevent individuals from ever joining one in the first place,” Ligon said.
Ligon’s vision is to build a robust, relevant academic research hub that offers insight to help the national security workers in the field prevent terrorist attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing. In fact, she wants NCITE to be the premier U.S. academic provider of counterterrorism research, technology, and workforce development.
“NCITE provides a vehicle for us to use our professional training and personal experiences to help fight violent groups who have already formed—and help prevent individuals from ever joining one in the first place.”
This task will keep her and the center busy. Terrorism and its threat environment looks very different than it did 20 years ago, before 9/11. Today’s threats are dynamic, complex, and rapidly evolving—and how they are approached must keep up with how quickly they are changing.
The use of online platforms to spread toxic narratives intending to incite violence is an example of the evolving threat. Understanding how the platforms are used, what narratives are being shared, and how likely they are to incite violence are all key elements the Department of Homeland Security needs to evaluate threats. This provides an opportunity for academic institutions like UNO to come in.
“Terrorism is a complex problem that calls for many different talents, energies, and resources,” Ligon said. “NCITE allows for focused collaboration across disciplines and institutions, leading to a comprehensive approach.”
Supporting Nebraska and the Nation
NCITE's first two years were busy ones. The center stood up a federally designated research consortium for counterterrorism and targeted violence studies. It launched 16 research and education projects across its consortium of academic partners, grew its staff, and added eight new UNO-based researchers. It also responded to government and media requests for sense-making around the tumultuous events of 2020 and 2021.
It also responded to government and media requests around the tumultuous events of 2020 and 2021, attracting national and international media attention with reporter visits to Omaha and prominent profile stories appearing in The Washington Post and U.K.’s The Independent.
“Terrorism is a complex problem that calls for many different talents, energies, and resources. NCITE allows for focused collaboration across disciplines and institutions, leading to a comprehensive approach.”
NCITE has become an important resource for the government, contributing to a first-ever White House domestic terrorism strategy and policy. “This is the very first strategy that any presidential administration has had on domestic terrorism,” Ligon said. The center has also weighed in on topics like the 9/11 anniversary, pullout from Afghanistan, and homeland threats from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
NCITE is conducting threat assessment research, examining how best to repatriate U.S. persons detained overseas who are connected to ISIS foreign fighters, and building a chatbot feature that can help prevent school shootings and other violence. Ligon also recognizes the need to help Nebraska shore up vulnerabilities against threats to ag operations.
Along with supporting national security, UNO’s status as NCITE headquarters will help create a pipeline of workers in homeland security-related fields that will grow Nebraska’s economy.
"I see a potential for us to be able to change the economic ecosystem of Omaha—national security business startups, people being able to build organizations here in Omaha to serve this mission," Ligon says. "I’m very excited about how we’re going to transition this research into businesses here for Nebraska."
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