Shining a Light on Terrorism: Five Minutes with Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins

This week, Georgetown student Eirene Busa talks terrorism with Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins, Executive Director of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, New York. Created after September 11 2001, the CTC, which resides at the United States Military Academy, educates, informs and advises America’s present and future leaders—from West Point cadets to the top level of the US government and military—on terrorism and violent extremism. Collins discusses the quality of terrorism education today, the impact of Osama bin Laden’s death, and why he likes NPR. [GJIA]: The CTC is one of the largest providers of counterterrorism education to the US government. The CTC also administers a terrorism minor at the United States Military Academy, where you also teach in the Department of Social Sciences. In your opinion, what are the biggest shortcomings in America's understanding of terrorism?  Have you found a significant generational gap? [LC]: The biggest shortcoming has to do with the fact that few people inside or outside of government had any experience dealing with or studying terrorism prior to 2001. Now there is definitely more emphasis in academe and in the practitioner and policymaking community to understand terrorism, but the quality of the education that is provided can vary widely. I don’t know if there is a generational gap as all generations are trying to gain more expertise in terrorism, but I suspect that the knowledge will increase at all levels as more universities offer terrorism courses and as the law enforcement and intelligence communities put a greater emphasis on including terrorism studies in their professional education.

[GJIA]: What has been the impact on America of the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaqi? Last month Leon Panetta told reporters that the al-Qaida network continues to be a “real threat to the United States.”  Could you expand on that?

[LC]: Without a doubt, the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaqi are significant, but the al-Qaida network remains a “real threat to the United States.”  Despite the fact that al-Qaida’s narrative has been rejected by an overwhelming majority of Muslims, there are many underlying grievances that al-Qaida and other groups will continue to exploit. If this grievance narrative resonates among an extremely small minority of people who are willing to act on it, the threat remains significant, even if it’s diminished.

[GJIA]: Which terrorist groups pose the greatest threat to the United States today?

[LC]: Despite the significant setback to AQ Central, the terrorist groups that pose the greatest threat to the United States today remain those that are part of the al-Qaida “network.” While there is debate about how close the affiliation is between AQ Central and members of this extended network, they seek the name and affiliation to "al-Qaida" even if they don’t completely adhere to its ideology. This extended network includes groups such as AQAP (AQ in the Arabian Peninsula), AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq), AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) and others. Some groups pose more of a threat than others, but collectively, they remain the greatest terrorist threat to the United States.

[GJIA]: What are your thoughts on US media coverage of terrorism?  Do you think some media networks "get it right" more than others?  Which regions or issues do you wish the media would cover more?  

[LC]: One thing to remember is that most media outlets are driven by the ability to generate a profit; this is not a criticism but a reality. Thus, as a producer of information in the free market, they are driven to give consumers what they want and are likely to "over"-cover some events and “under”-cover others. It’s probably not a great analogy, but this is why a failed plot is likely to get significant coverage despite its failure to cause any damage to people or property while most traffic accidents that result in deaths are not covered even though statistics show that over the past decade, over 100 people die on average each day from traffic fatalities. Thus, most, if not all, terrorist events (plots and attacks) are likely to be over-covered. Unfortunately, the result is that even “unsuccessful” plots can be viewed as a partial win for the terrorists because of the headlines that they draw.

I do not wish to comment on the quality of specific media outlets, but I would say that NPR, because of its unique funding stream relative to other media outlets, is a good place to turn, due to its ability to cover the issues differently. Despite the fact that I am in the ‘business’ of terrorism, being the Executive Director of the Combating Terrorism Center, I wish the media would spend less time on terrorist attacks or plots, but I am realistic enough to realize that this is unlikely.

[GJIA]: How big of a threat is terrorist activity from Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus?

[LC]: Jihadis have been active in these parts of the world; some of them were even trained by al-Qa`ida in the 1990s. It is difficult to predict whether they wish to focus their attacks locally or take their battle globally.

[GJIA]: Last month, General Ray Odierno presented you with the "Army Coach of the Year" award at the Association of the US Army Winter Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Do you have any leadership advice for Georgetown University's budding diplomats and global leaders?

[LC]: My advice would probably be to take advantage of the amazing opportunities that you have at a top tier institution like Georgetown. Take courses that will help prepare you to understand the world you are about to enter and take advantage of the amazing guest speakers who are brought into the school every day. You should always realize that great leaders are those who lead by empowering skilled people around them; they become leaders because they were studious learners; and they are a resource of wisdom because they are attentive listeners. More to your point about my award, I took the decision that when I was no longer in a position to beat them, I would train them!

This interview was conducted by Eirene Busa, a masters student in the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) and editorial assistant for the Georgetown Journal’s online content.

Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins is a career special forces officer who has served in a variety of special operations assignments and has conducted multiple combat operations to both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as operational deployments to Bosnia, Africa and South America. He has graduated from numerous military courses including Ranger School, and he has earned numerous military awards and decorations including two valorous awards for his actions in combat. He is currently completing his doctoral dissertation at Princeton University with a focus on military innovation during times of war.