One September morning in 2001, University of Oklahoma graduate student Gina Scott was getting ready for the day and watching the news. She felt her stomach drop when she saw now-iconic video of an airplane plowing into New York’s World Trade Center. She quickly phoned her then-boyfriend Derek Ligon, who was training to be a military pilot.
“What just happened?” she asked him, wondering instantly if he would have to go fight. He would.
“It changed our lives,” now Dr. Gina Ligon said.
In the first years of their marriage, 2nd Lt. Ligon would join troops during the plus-up in Iraq. The year their son was born, he was away a total of 192 days. For Dr. Ligon, the absences weren’t unexpected.
“Every significant male in my life has been in the military,” she explained.
Even before the 9/11 attacks, Dr. Ligon had been no stranger to the tangible need to prevent terrorism. At the tender age of 16, she had visited the bombing site at Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
In graduate school, she worked with her mentor and professor, Mike Mumford, on a study of leadership for innovation, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) project. The researchers were finding ways to predict which medical labs were likely to be the most innovative.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) asked the team to apply their knowledge to terrorists. “How do people lead for malevolent innovation?” they wanted to know.
For graduate researcher Ligon, the opportunity to work with the DOD was life changing.
“I suddenly realized I could apply my work to national security, looking at terrorists as people who manage organizations — and how to break them,” she said.
This new context added a deeper level of motivation and focus to her graduate work. She went on to complete her doctoral degree in Oklahoma, then signed on as a professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
In 2012, the same year the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska was created to assist U.S. Strategic Command and the DOD, Dr. Ligon’s husband was assigned to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha and the family moved to Nebraska. Dr. Ligon found a position with the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), where she had her first exposure to NSRI.
“I saw the importance of what NSRI was doing,” Dr. Ligon remembers. “NSRI allows us behind the curtain to understand what really matters in a way we really couldn’t do without them. Without the access points they provide, such as the connection with USSTRATCOM, I don’t know how anyone could do this applied research — you are otherwise working in the ivory tower.”
In 2019, NSRI was instrumental in helping Dr. Ligon and colleagues win a 10-year, $36 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to create the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE) at UNO. NCITE, a DHS Center of Excellence (CoE) and a point of pride for the state and university, aims to understand, prevent and counteract terrorist violence.
The team already has provided valuable responses to media and government agencies and launched 16 projects that will provide clarity on terrorism and counterterrorism, as well as establishing an international network of experts.
A major goal of NCITE is workforce development. UNO School of Criminology and Criminal Justice doctoral student Clara Braun works closely with Dr. Ligon.
“I think the most important capability of NCITE is identifying and educating the next generation of counterterrorism experts,” Braun said.
Dr. Ligon emphasizes that a future workforce must have varied expertise.
“A big part of this national security work has to be to collaborate across computer science, STEM fields, systems engineering, nuclear policy, ethics, homeland security, counter terrorism — we can’t really have a siloed training anymore,” Dr. Ligon explained.
China and Russia are expanding into a multifaceted approach as well, she noted, which makes it a national security priority for the U.S.
Terrorism itself is more multifaceted that it used to be, Dr. Ligon pointed out. It has been complicated by technology, data, cybersecurity and other advancements. In addition, terror groups are being used as proxies for Great Power adversaries. Dr. Ligon and NCITE teams help determine which groups are most likely to work with them.
“As a collaboration expert, I try to figure out where those groups might go south, so we can anticipate it or foment some of those cleavages between people,” she said. “We do the same thing domestically with extremist groups — to help make them less powerful.”
From her perspective as a student, Braun assures that Dr. Ligon is up to the challenge.
“She is tenacious, ethical and believes wholly in the mission of the center,” she said.
Dr. Ligon said she is often asked how she sleeps at night knowing what she knows about terrorism and the violence terrorists engage in.
“Knowledge is power,” she explained. “When I talk about the business model of terrorists, it’s an ‘aha’ moment people can understand. Terror organizations are just like any other organization. And thinking of them that way makes them a lot easier to assess and fight.”