Inside the Inferno: Counterterrorism Professionals Reflect on Their Work

Ursula Wilder, a clinical psychologist working within the Intelligence Community, explores the impact of counterterrorism (CT) work on the professionals who operate in high intensity and high stress environments, often for many years. For some, the work involves actual combat or engagement with terrorists and their violent acts. For others, the work involves making decisions that affect the lives of many and, as a consequence, bearing the weight of making life and death decisions. And for yet another group, counterterrorism assignments involve piercing through massive amounts of intelligence data and reports, while coping with the great uncertainty in locating terrorists and, in turn, warning others of potential terrorist acts before bad outcomes happen.

Writing in the Central Intelligence Agency’s journal Studies in Intelligence, Wilder covers new territory for the 60-year-old publication – the examination of the effects of violence and high stress on counterterrorism practitioners and the impacts caused by the weight of making many difficult decisions on a routine basis. While some researchers have explored the impact of war on the human psyche – most notably recent work on post-traumatic stress disorder – less research has been done on the psychology of individuals who work in high-stress world of counterterrorism.

The attached article is based on interviews with people who work across the range of counterterrorism (CT) vocations. Some purposefully pursued work in CT, deliberately dedicating themselves to this work for a short period or for an entire career. Other professionals found themselves thrown unexpectedly into CT work because an act of terrorism occurred in close proximity to a recent assignment, requiring the urgent deployment of their knowledge and skills. Local medical and emergency personnel, police, reporters, mental health practitioners, and morticians are examples of professionals who have increasingly been required since 9/11 to react to violence of this sort.

Whether CT professionals have been engaged in the work of counterterrorism by choice or by circumstances beyond their control, those who have stepped up to perform these jobs have been—and will continue to be—affected by their professional experiences, in ways subtle and profound and positive and negative. Often their loved ones have been affected, secondarily, but no less profoundly.

Wilder’s article draws from interviews with 57 professionals from the main domains in the CT field. The interviews were conducted in 2012 while the author was an Intelligence Community Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution. While those interviewed represent only a small portion of the CT profession in which many thousands work and have worked, their personal reflections and insights nevertheless provide a window into the psychological trends that likely exist among their colleagues in the entire CT community.

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Ursula M. Wilder is an Intelligence Community psychologist with field experience in counterintelligence and counterterrorism, who is currently posted at CIA’s Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis. She was a 2011-2012 Federal Executive Fellow at Brookings.

Editor’s Note: This work is part of unclassified extracts from Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Extracts, December 2014), a publication of the Center for the Study of Intelligence, a division of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Studies in Intelligence explores many aspects of the intelligence community and its people. Most often it has addressed the field’s history, its methods, and future development. Less often have the journal’s authors examined the personal and psychological impact on intelligence professionals as Wilder undertakes in this piece.