August 7, 2017
Shop Talk

Nichols professor draws on ISIS experience to teach counterterrorism

Allison McDowell-Smith

VIEW: What movie has the most realistic depiction of terrorism?

Allison McDowell-Smith

Title: Assistant professor of criminal justice

Company: Nichols College

Age: 32

Town: Dudley

Residence: Hopkinton

Education: Bachelor of science in criminal justice, Rochester Institute of Technology; master of criminal justice administration, Niagara University; Ph.D. in business administration with concentration in homeland security, Northcentral University in Arizona

Nichols College launched the nation's first counterterrorism degree program with a focus on violent extremism in June, starting the master's degree initiative with 10 Nichols graduates with bachelor's degrees in criminal justice. The class is expected to grow this fall, as the program has the capacity for 45. McDowell-Smith, who has worked with research teams to interview former ISIS members, will teach courses on homegrown violent extremism.

What makes Nichols program stand out?

Right now, there is no program within the United States focusing exclusively on violent extremism. There are a lot focusing on counterterrorism, especially since the 9/11 attacks. It took about 10 years for those counterterrorism programs to get up and running, but now we need to focus on the violent extremism aspect of it.

Why focus on violent extremism?

It is something so pervasive in our society today we have to figure out how to deal with it. It is not something as simple as locating a certain individual and locking them up. That might solve part of the problem, but you still have these ideological beliefs – social, economic, religious – people will resort to violence to defend. We need to figure out how to change somebody's mind on what is right and wrong.

What careers can the degree lead to?

There is a wide range of areas they can go toward. The majority want to go to the federal level like FBI or CIA. The federal government is making it a priority to combat violent extremism, so there are a lot of job opportunities on the federal level.

There are jobs in the state and local sectors. If you think about the Boston Marathon bombings, you had city officials responsible for creating an evacuation plan, how to recognize individuals and participate in investigations.

Tell me about your ISIS experience.

This March, I had the opportunity to go over to Belgium and train with the local police, based on research I do in collaboration with Nichols College and the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.

What we do with that research is we interview former ISIS members who had gone over and joined ISIS, and then realized the real reason they joined ISIS wasn't the truth. So they basically retreated.

We are very lucky to interview these individuals. Right now, we have 60, including family members. We learn more about what is going on inside ISIS, rather than what we think is happening.

How does that help combat terrorism?

You have individuals who go to YouTube and can type "Want to join ISIS," and you can find videos about joining ISIS. Or at least how to believe what they believe in.

One interesting thing is to see what ISIS promotes as their propaganda, and if it is true or not. Obviously, what we are finding out is it is not true from the beginning.

So, we are trying to build an anti-radicalization process on social media. That is why we were invited to Belgium, to meet with national police, where we showed them the videos we made debunking ISIS propaganda.

What was the starkest story you heard?

The saddest story we hear – and we hear it a lot – women go over there to join because they want to find a husband: Someone promised them love and financial stability. Unfortunately, what happens when the women go over is they end up turning into sex slaves.

Those are the hardest stories to hear.

How does this research help Nichols teach?

It has been really exciting, because I love having actual research and taking it to the students. Students tend to have this idea that research is this old, boring topic no one ever wants to tackle. It is important to show them this research can be beneficial.

I had my students be part of a focus-group study for two of the videos we had created. Their research, even though it was anonymous, was published in the Journal for Deradicalization.

How will you grow the Nichols' program?

One reason our program is unique is we have a high-flex system, which a lot of other schools don't do. Students can come to campus here in Dudley, or they can remote logon. We will have a good amount of students that are overseas. Our program doesn't focus exclusively on what is happening in the United States. We are looking at the whole picture, how it impacts both the United States and the international arena.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by Brad Kane, WBJ editor.

CORRECTION: During the course of the interview, McDowell-Smith provided incorrect information, leading to a previous version of this article having inaccuracies. She did not interview ISIS members but was part of a research team utilizing ISIS interviews performed by another researcher. She did not train with the Belgium national police, instead it was the local police in Belgium.

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