In the interview below, a graduate of the Class of 2013 who wishes her name to remain anonymous shares her experiences of growing up in the chaotic Middle East, writing papers on terrorism at IWP, doing consulting in the Middle East/North Africa, and receiving commendations from the U.S. Secretary of State and the White House.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your background.
My personality and character are largely shaped by my childhood experience in which I was raised overseas. Known as a “third-culture kid,” I spent a great deal of my childhood in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region where my family was working in the oil and gas industry. I gained a great deal of interest in culture and international affairs which carried into adulthood: I began working as a government contractor and security advisor covering the Middle East region.
How did you become interested in international affairs/national security?
My first experience with international affairs and national security was during the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I felt the repercussions directly, and it was the first time I had experienced a conflict that shaped the way I looked at the world. As U.S. citizens, my family faced a mandatory evacuation from Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield which was incredibly stressful. I wanted to understand why we were required to leave our homes (ironically, we returned to Saudi Arabia shortly before Desert Storm began, and so I experienced the war in its entirety). This was a defining time in my life because it was the first time I recall experiencing a sense of patriotism following an influx of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for our protection.
Several other events grabbed my attention to national security and international affairs while growing up, including the Khobar Tower bombings, the civil war in Lebanon, the Palestinian Intifada, the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and bombing of the USS Cole. By 9/11, the name Osama bin Laden was already all too familiar to me, and eventually my understanding of the region, language and security/political environment were noticed by the U.S. Government. I began working as a government contractor in the region, and my roles quickly expanded to support several U.S. embassies.
When did you become fluent in Arabic?
I have always spoken Arabic and living in the region I learned several colloquial dialects along with modern standard Arabic. My native dialect is Levantine, but living in Saudi Arabia and conversing with many of my friends in the GCC, I also became fluent in the Gulf dialect. I later taught myself North African after expanding my work into Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
What attracted you to IWP?
I came across IWP through online research. I knew what type of graduate program I was interested in joining; however, I had not yet come across the Institute. When I did, I was drawn in by the Institute’s raison d’être, its focus on strategy, the unique course curriculum, the professors, and student body. Perhaps what attracted me most are the scholar practitioners, rarely found in other programs. I learned so much from their personal experiences, and I highly value their insight.
What area of study did you focus on at IWP?
Strategic intelligence. I was interested in the other programs at IWP but being that my work has primarily been focused on strategy, it was the best professional choice for me.
What have been the most interesting things you have learned at IWP? Have you written any papers or taken any classes that you particularly enjoyed?
Every course I took at IWP has had a great deal of influence on my outlook and analysis of events. Courses in intelligence helped me understand policy, technology, the intelligence cycle, importance of communication flows and improved my analytical capabilities. Case studies, such as one I presented following the attack on Forward Operating Base Chapman, shed important light on lessons learned in intelligence operations and warning indicators which we must learn from. Similarly, in identifying armed groups and individuals who were fighting in the Libyan Revolution, I received a great deal of interest on a briefing I put together entitled “Transnational Terrorists in the Libyan Revolution.” Additionally, a well-received briefing on “Women’s Roles in Terrorism” shed important light on women’s involvement in al-Qaeda. In Professor Gene Poteat’s Technology, Intelligence, Security and Statecraft class, I addressed nuclear energy programs and policies in the Middle East, as well as provided recommendations for maintaining a “Nuclear Gold Standard.”
The Enemy Threat Doctrine class was one that helped me understand the foundation of political Islam and carried into my ability to analyze regional events from a new perspective. Professor J. Michael Waller’s class in Political Warfare was especially interesting, as I had been exposed to so much propaganda and information operations growing up that the class helped explain many of the goals and intended impact behind their efforts.
The platform for which I was able to share my opinions and information to students is one that brought me a great deal of satisfaction because helping any fellow classmate make sense of a complex situation and environment was one more person who could look at events in the region from a new lens.
Just as I enjoyed sharing my personal experiences with professors, friends, and colleagues, I too enjoyed the presentations and papers of my fellow classmates and IWP colleagues and professors. The IWP network is one I value, trust, and know I can always count on.
Has studying at IWP changed your thoughts about international affairs? If so, how?
Without a doubt. I have learned that there are so many layers to international affairs. Some of the most interesting classes I took have helped me apply and understand fundamental principles, specifically, the courses on Intelligence and Policy, Counterintelligence in a Democratic Society, Political Warfare, Cultural Intelligence for Strategy and Analysis, Technology, Intelligence, Security and Statecraft and International Relations, Statecraft and Integrated Strategy.
Have your studies at IWP impacted how you approach your profession?
Absolutely. The courses offered at IWP are very unique, and the insight IWP professors and guest lecturers provided is extremely rare. From learning how to give a good “elevator-pitch” to learning how to analyze complex layers of conflicting information, there have been many aspects of my studies at IWP that were incomplete from solely my experience in the field.
IWP’s unique academic curriculum has made me a well-rounded individual, not just in my own eyes but in the eyes of many with whom I work. My studies coupled with my experiences have given me the confidence to lead in discussions and initiatives and not just trail as a bystander.
Please tell us a little about your consulting work in the Middle East/North Africa.
My area of focus has been to provide clients with security and geopolitical consulting to help support them in meeting their organizational goals. A great deal of this work involves security reporting/briefings, monitoring trends, logistical support, crisis management, business integration and continuity, local coordination and due diligence.
I believe you had mentioned that your work has been praised by several high level government officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, General James Jones and President George W. Bush. Can you tell us a little about this work?
While working in the Middle East, I established a number of initiatives that received a great deal of praise and recognition from U.S. Government officials.
One of my most prized initiatives was one in which I established communication between two councils: one in Israel and one in the West Bank. Considering the political barriers and volatility in the region, this was also the most complex and multifaceted initiative I had ever taken on because it was an attempt to bring together two groups to address difficulties facing them in the region. The ground-breaking meeting eventually led to coordination, cooperation and communication between the two councils and earned recognition from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who praised my ground-breaking initiative.
Another area I covered professionally while in the region was acting as a security advisor to the U.S. Government and supporting in the implementation of security training programs as one of our foreign policy initiatives. After a coup in the Gaza Strip dramatically changed the political and security environment, I began providing real-time information, periodic security briefings and assessments to U.S. Government officials, during which I was especially flattered when my information was commended by newly appointed U.S. Envoy to the Middle East at the time, General James Jones and members of his team.
I was later involved in another undertaking, in which I was selected to participate in a capacity building training program to enhance local responses and capabilities as part of a U.S. assistance package. For my role in training support, I was again recognized for my unique contributions in delivering this foreign policy initiative. The opportunity was remarkable and gave me an unforgettable experience, in which I was directly involved in the frontline of policies and diplomacy formed at the highest levels of government.
Little did I think I could have been involved in anything more challenging or fulfilling, until I received a request prior to the arrival of President George W. Bush to Israel and the West Bank. I had established a strong reputation and was contracted to assist with language services, cultural and security briefings of various groups in which I similarly gained recognition for my supportive role and was awarded for my contributions across several government agencies, including White House Staff, White House Communications, and U.S. Secret Service.
How did you decide to found your consulting firm? What does your firm focus on?
It was a very difficult decision for me to leave the Middle East because I was involved in so many initiatives and recognized in many areas for my contributions. However, I knew I wanted to pursue my Master’s degree at IWP.
With an extensive network and knowledge of the region, I found that after I left the Middle East, requests for my help were still pouring in. I found that the best way forward for me would be to consolidate my skills and establish a consulting firm to provide ongoing services. The majority of my focus remains the Middle East and Africa and provides security and geopolitical reporting, training and Arabic language services to both the U.S. Government and private sector.
What are your plans for the future?
My plans are to help the U.S. Government and businesses understand the complex and rapidly changing environment in the Middle East. With major changes and a security vacuum having swept across the region and more are likely to come, it is necessary moving forward that we establish a robust strategy that will aid in the implementation of our foreign policy goals.