UNO professor leads national effort confronting terrorism


Grant Rohan

Gina Ligon, Ph.D., will oversee the future of counterterrorism research at UNO. Photo courtesy of UNO Communications

On Feb. 24, UNO named Gina Ligon, Ph.D., to lead the National Center of Excellence for counterterrorism research after receiving a $36 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The only current female director of a U.S. DHS site, she became a leader through developing expertise in her discipline: studying how terrorists organize.

“I wanted to know everything I could about this area and be the most knowledgeable I personally could, and by developing that expertise in this area, I had this niche that other people didn’t have,” Ligon said.

Ligon and her students have been at the forefront of identifying threats and the rise of terrorist organizations. In November of 2013, her team identified a group in Iraq slowly organizing into what would later be known as ISIS by June 2014 and alerted the government of their observations.

“We called our program manager at the Pentagon and said there’s a group in Iraq right now with X, Y and Z that makes us think that they’re getting more capable,” Ligon said. “It was crazy, within a month, all of a sudden we were getting requests to come up and brief everywhere in D.C. about them.”

As one of the first academic groups to have data on the members in ISIS’ top management team, Ligon said it was exciting for her students to be part of an influential project. She brought 10 of her students to the Pentagon to present their findings and see the impact of their work.

“I’m a professor first, so them being able to learn about that and see in real time what they’re doing matters has been really rewarding here,” Ligon said.

She also gave advice for young women and said it’s great to look for women role models. She said it’s been beneficial to look for advice even from her fellow administrators in the College of Business Administration.

“Being here in the College of Business, I have really strong female leader role models. We have our first female dean here with Michelle Trawick and Dr. Lynn Harland, our associate dean,” Ligon said.  “I think it’s important for faculty to develop students and their personal self-efficacy to show how different they are.”

She also said that her role as a woman in a position of leadership has changed her outlook on the future of her discipline.

“I think a lot of times women who have been in these roles need to think about how they can help pull along other women,” Ligon said. “I never really felt that responsibility until recently—I’m now in a position where I should be encouraging other women to step up for the next role.”