2018 Summer Intern Fellow:
Rebecca DiLuzio | Valens Global
End of Summer Reflection
This summer, I interned as a research analyst at Valens Global, a national security consulting firm founded in 2014 that focuses on the threats posed by violent non-state actors (VNSAs). Valens serves a range of clients from governments to corporations that are all impacted by the evolving nature of VNSAs. Unlike the other interns, I had the unique opportunity of working directly under the CEO of the company, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an esteemed terrorism expert.
Much like Valens, my career at the beginning of this summer was in its startup phase. Though I had worked many jobs since I was 13 (babysitter, waitress, actress, you name it), I had never held a position that was directly career-oriented. As someone who specializes in foreign policy at Duke, this was finally an opportunity for me to put my skills to the test in a real-world setting.
Every day on the job followed a similar structure but was materially different. First thing in the morning, I would receive a briefing from Daveed about my task(s) for the day and get to work. Oftentimes I would speak to him at later points in the day during which he would check in on my progress or ask me to shift to a new project entirely. These abrupt shifts could occur any time my help was needed in another area, at which point I would drop what I was doing and start on a new line of effort. As such, I became adept at context-switching, a critical skill for anyone involved in the ever-changing spheres of national security and foreign policy.
During this internship, I gained an understanding of the inner workings of VNSAs-- their ideologies, strategies, and operations. In a counterterrorism field often mired by faulty assumptions that have lasting consequences (eg. ‘the Arab Spring will decimate terrorist networks!’ or ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq is dead!’), Valens’ meticulous analysis underscores the need to truly ‘know thy enemy’ before taking action. Such depth of knowledge on VNSAs allowed me to better understand their role on the world stage. Oftentimes, we examine state actors in an effort to understand geopolitics, but it is important to remember the significant ways in which non-state actors inform the landscape as well.
Since an expert like Daveed always has multiple lines of effort, my range of assignments over the summer was incredibly diverse. From drafting a speech on Middle Eastern policy for a top U.S. cabinet member (who unfortunately must remain confidential); to creating a presentation on the current state of ISIL for the military; to collaborating on reports for clients ranging from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) to the Office of Naval Research (ONR), I gained exposure to distinct facets of the field. Needless to say, I was consistently stretched outside of my comfort zone, especially given the time pressure of impending deadlines. It was not uncommon for me to become overwhelmed with self-doubt the moment I received a project.
However, a key component of the Valens methodology that I deeply admire is junior empowerment. Interestingly enough, the firm consists largely of young females, which turns the stereotypical national security demographic of older men on its head, and gives Valens a strong competitive edge. Daveed deliberately gave me advanced projects that most adults would dismiss as out-of-my-league because he believed in my ability to rise to the occasion. And, surprising myself more than anyone, I did every time. As a young woman who has struggled to find my voice, this internship helped me to develop a stronger belief in my own abilities. I am excited to channel this newfound confidence toward the high-level opportunities provided by AGS.
I cannot express how grateful I am to have had this summer internship. Along with the specialized knowledge I acquired, I found lifelong mentors in Daveed and my colleagues and possess greater clarity in my career ambitions. Thank you to AGS for making this all possible by offsetting the cost of living and equipping me with the skills I needed to excel this summer!
Get on Board
Hello forgiving readers,
Long time, no write... this post is long overdue.
Buckle up, because it’s time to talk about the dark side of aviation.
Most of my time over the last two weeks was spent doing research for a chapter within Daveed’s book. The chapter is a case study on one of the most dramatic targets of jihadist external operations in the past two decades: the aviation industry. This subject matter hits close to home for Americans after the devastating events of 9/11 which caused us to rethink aviation forever. And ever since 9/11, terrorists have remained a threat despite increasingly advanced and high-tech airport security. Much like other counterterrorism efforts, aviation security has become a cat-and-mouse game in which terrorists exploit loopholes, the aviation industry adjusts security to close those loopholes, and the terrorists initiate the cycle again. Jihadist plots have ranged anywhere from Richard Reid’s infamous shoe bomb to liquid explosives disguised in sports drinks to underwear bombs. This is why airport security today consists of so many steps that everyone loves to complain about: removal of shoes, liquid restrictions in carry-on bags, and full-body scanners that project an image of one’s body underneath clothing. There are a bunch of follow-up remarks I could make about that last one-- which is abhorred by civil liberties groups-- that would regrettably shift this blog from PG-13 to Rated R.
But not all aviation threats center around our beloved TSA. I also conducted separate research on drone terrorism which, as it turns out, is not the stuff of a science fiction novel. Hezbollah was the first terrorist group to deploy military-grade drones when it launched a surveillance drone into Israeli airspace in 2004. This initiated a long period where VNSAs were using drones primarily for that very purpose. Now flash forward to the modern day where terrorists have devised all sorts of creative uses for drones. For example, the Islamic State frequently uses drones as a propaganda tool. It seems that American teenagers and IS soldiers are not all that different: they both love showing off aerial footage on social media to convince people that they are cool.
Unfortunately, drones are also being used for more lethal ends. While the U.S. has frequently used drones in the war on terror, it was only a matter of time before terrorists would use them to fight back. Since 2016, there has been documented use of IS drones dropping mortar, grenades, and even IEDs on counterinsurgent forces. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has used quadcopters armed with munitions, Houthi drones can allegedly carry a 65-pound warhead, and even Boko Haram has reportedly launched drone attacks. Now are you wishing that this was the stuff of a science fiction novel?
Fly high this week,
Let's get virtual
Hello trusty readers,
Congratulations on making it to post #2!
I want to preface my posts from here on out by saying that I am restricted to a certain degree in what I can and cannot say for the purposes of confidentiality. So if I am vague at times, I promise it’s not because my middle school teachers didn’t properly educate me on descriptive language. Now, onto the real stuff.
The first two weeks at my internship have been a whirlwind. Before I even started my first day, my boss Daveed had already sent me my first assignment: a background check for a client. As much as I would like to think that I was an FBI agent combing through top secret data, it was just a social media background check. Which is not to say that it wasn’t still tedious work. I had to carefully examine the application of the woman under review and search for any inconsistencies or red flags in her online pages. It was the perfect starting assignment because what female millennial has not mastered the art of online stalking?
You may be wondering how background checks fit into Valens’ work. And even if you’re not wondering that at all, I’m going to tell you anyway. As I’ve said, Valens is frequently responsible for analyzing the threat posed by violent non-state actors (VNSAs) but also other closely associated challenges such as insider threats, international and corporate espionage, etc. Ultimately, all of these threats-- which are often intertwined-- can deeply impact Valens’ clients and Valens must safeguard their interests by competently assessing them. Therefore, background checks are crucial in the detection of such potential threats.
For the next few days, I embarked on the beginnings of a larger project: Daveed’s forthcoming book. He has to submit a book proposal to a publishing company so I worked on that after many hours of research on the available book material so far. His book is about the evolution of jihadist external operations from the perspective of organizational learning processes. From Bin Laden’s pivot toward destroying the ‘far enemy’ in the West to ISIS’s string of brutal attacks around the globe, the book demonstrates how these groups adapted and modified their external operations over time. And, more importantly, how the underlying networks behind these operations have been frequently underestimated by counterterrorism authorities. For example, when authorities labeled a succession of attackers in Europe before the November 2015 Paris attacks as “lone wolves,” they failed to see the broader network to which these individuals belonged. In doing so, they missed their chance to potentially foil the Paris operation which killed 130 people.
For the beginning of my second week, Valens sent me out to D.C. for a few days in order to complete intern onboarding. I got to see the Valens office and become acquainted with the rest of the team, including the other interns. We were briefed deeply on the mission of Valens, its work standards, and the firm’s ongoing projects. I absolutely loved everyone (with the exception of the UNC graduate)! It was a short but undeniably sweet trip.
After that I got started on my last project for the week which was a research package. The research package was on terrorist virtual planners because Daveed was giving expert testimony on the subject. As operatives that digitally guide terror attacks from overseas, virtual planners are taking long-distance relationships to the next level. A boom in messaging applications with end-to-end encryption (#thanksSnowden) has allowed terrorists to message recruits in different regional destinations about recommended plots-- offering instructions, advice and even encouragement up until the minute that action is taken. Yes, you know what that means. External operations no longer require a territorial base for coordination; someone can rock the world with nothing more than a cellphone.
As the virtual planners love to say….
Content Warning: If you don’t share the author’s obsession with parentheses, this likely isn’t the blog for you.
Hello unsuspecting readers,
Welcome to the wild ride that is Becca DiLuzio’s summer internship blog. If you stop reading right now, I will never know and you can still comment vague praises on my Facebook posts like “totally loved your blog!”, “10π/10 blog” or “Where is the Pulitzer Prize? #deepstate.” But if you keep reading, you might be somewhat entertained, or learn a little something, or just boost my fragile self-esteem.
This summer I am interning with Valens Global, a strategic consulting firm that analyzes the threats posed by violent non-state actors (VNSA’s) such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Founded in 2014, Valens is self-consciously a startup company that parallels its character with that of the non-state actors it explores (minus the violence… unless you count D.C. traffic): adaptive (to emerging developments), innovative (in its frameworks, methods, and prescriptions) and nonconformist (to traditional dogma). Valens provides services such as threat assessments and strategic action plans to clients that range from the U.S. government to NGOs to corporations.
I was fortunate enough to receive a unique opportunity for my internship in which I will be working directly with the CEO of Valens, Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. Since his credentials would surpass the length of this blog entry itself, I will simply say that he is one of the foremost experts on extremism and jihadist terrorism. Daveed is also a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Fellow with Google’s think tank Jigsaw, an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program (trust me, I don’t know how I was chosen either).
Although Valens is headquartered in D.C., I will be based in North Carolina for the internship since Daveed’s family lives here and our work requires an anachronistic practice called Real Human Interaction, or RHI for short. As his research assistant, I will be completing a range of tasks, most of which will arise as the time comes and probably be contingent upon the degree of my past mistakes. Some expected assignments will include work on Daveed’s forthcoming book, article compilations, and research, research, research. Subject matter hint: what is (clad in) black* and (dislikes imperialist) white(s)** and (bleeds) red*** all over?
All jokes aside, I am genuinely excited and grateful for this opportunity that will surely lead to much intellectual growth. I cannot wait to engage with such relevant, interesting, and challenging material throughout the summer. Thank you to American Grand Strategy for selecting me to be a summer fellow and giving me a public platform for my thoughts even though you may regret it after you read this first post.
Until next time,