Mark Freedman '08
On the Cutting Edge of Counterterrorism
Since December 2014, Mark has been a Staff Assistant in the front office of the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, where he provides direct support to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism and her principal deputy. Previously, Marc was the strategic planning advisor on an interagency task force that focused on preventing terrorist acquisition of advanced conventional weapons.
Counterterrorism is a pretty interesting career choice—especially for someone we remember as the star of Urinetown, among many other Calhoun theatrical productions!
What influenced you to take this career path?
I knew in Upper School that I wanted to pursue a career in international affairs. I took a foreign-policy class with [former US history teacher] Michal Hershkovitz as a junior, and then did an independent study with her on international relations theory in my senior year. Michal introduced me to the concepts of realism, liberalism and constructivism long before I re-learned them at George Washington University and then again at Georgetown. She also guided me through a research paper that would be my first (and to this day, my proudest) on al-Qa’ida. And I can’t forget about being head delegate of the Model UN club, or writing a regular opinion column for The Issue [the Upper School student newspaper].
At GW, I majored in international affairs with a concentration in conflict and security; I minored in history. Then I went on to Georgetown, where I completed a master’s in security studies with a concentration in terrorism and substate violence. That said, there were some projects that had a profound impact on my views: in particular, my graduate school research on al-Qa’ida’s strategy and target selection. Also, I grew up in Battery Park, across the street from the World Trade Center; that had at least a subliminal impact on my eventual career choice. I chose D.C. because it’s the premier destination to pursue international affairs, both academically and professionally.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Most of my day is spent liaising between the bureau’s leadership and the 150-plus civil servants and foreign-service officers who comprise its work force. I cover whatever issues are currently of most interest to, or require the most attention from, the bureau’s leadership—from the counter-ISIL coalition effort, to disrupting terrorist travel, to countering al-Qa’ida’s narrative.
What are our country’s biggest challenges and where do you think we’ve made the most progress?
Things were very different in 2008. Osama bin Laden was still alive and at large, and the Middle East was relatively calm, with turbulent years of revolt and civil war still over the horizon. Since then, we have made some progress: Bin Laden is dead and we’ve significantly degraded al-Qa’ida’s core, largely by eliminating key leadership. The flip side of this is that we now face a more decentralized threat. Weak or failed governance provides an enabling environment for the emergence of violent extremism, as we’re seeing in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and Iraq. Adapting to this evolving terrorist threat and working with our partners to address it is our greatest challenge. ISIL, for example, has exploited a weak security environment in Iraq and the conflict in Syria to seize contiguous territory for a self-declared Islamic caliphate. To address this, the United States has created the Coalition to Counter ISIL, composed of more than 60 partners from around the world. We can already see some signs of our success. There is no question that overall ISIL has been driven back in Iraq. Meanwhile, the coalition is also working to counter ISIL’s recruitment, financing and messaging.
It can be emotionally difficult work. First, the subject matter can be depressing (daily accounts of civilians being killed, often brutally). Second, and especially in my particular position, much of the work is about responding to crises rather than initiating large, proactive projects. That said, I can imagine few fields that would instill you with as much of a sense of purpose. And I’ve personally always been extremely interested in the work. I often feel as though I am experiencing history as it is written.
Do you have any advice for students who want to pursue careers in international affairs?
As much as I (a native and staunch New Yorker) always wanted to deny it, I would encourage students to consider going to college in Washington, D.C., where the three main universities all have top undergraduate programs for international affairs and provide internships in government offices and all the other key foreign- policy institutions, which students can take advantage of while they’re still getting a degree. It gives you a real leg up over the candidates who move to D.C. after graduation.