National Counterterrorism Expert Joins Rutgers School of Criminal Justice

National Counterterrorism Expert Joins Rutgers School of Criminal Justice

John Cohen will teach and advise Rutgers’ new Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security

A decade before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, John Cohen, then a graduate student and southern California cop fighting street crime, stunned an audience when he proclaimed that the country was ill-prepared to face the growing threats of global terrorist groups strengthening after the Cold War.

In years following, his insight and strategic expertise began catching the attention of many federal and state government officials, including former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, who hired him in 2009 to serve within the Department of Homeland Security.

Image of John Cohen, national counterterrorism expert.
John Cohen, whose roles for the Department of Homeland Security included counterterrorism coordinator and principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, has a broad range of responsibilities across Rutgers.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin
Now, after serving as one of the government’s leading counterterrorism experts, Cohen is making another transition, recently joining Rutgers University as a professor in its School of Criminal Justice and a senior adviser to the university’s new Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security.

In addition to Criminal Justice, Cohen will lecture to undergraduates and graduates at other schools across the university and help develop a graduate fellowship program in homeland security at Rutgers University-Newark.  He will also work with John J. Farmer Jr., formerly Rutgers general counsel and now a university professor in the Rutgers School of Law - Newark, to assess violence against religious and minority communities and study how to combat threats associated with extremist violence and ultranationalist activities in Europe, South America and the United States.

“We are very fortunate that John chose Rutgers,” said Farmer, who will include Cohen as an instructor in his national security law course. “John is unique not only because he operated at the top level of the federal government, having meetings at the White House, but also because at Homeland Security he had the most direct contact with state and local law enforcement.  His reach is extraordinary as a subject matter expert on so many issues that cut across many different departments of a major university.”

The 53-year-old Cohen, who is frequently quoted by the media, describes his career as an “eclectic journey.”  He says he was intrigued by the issues of terrorism from an early age. “I wanted to be the guy to capture (international terrorist) Carlos the Jackal.” Cohen says.

After graduating from Connecticut College with a degree in history, Cohen took a position with the Department of Defense’s Naval Investigative Service in Long Beach, California, which led him to work with local police battling crime, including narcotics.  He soon joined their ranks as an officer.

While a cop, Cohen enrolled in graduate school at USC.  When an adviser asked him to present at an academic conference a research paper on the impact of global crime and terrorism, Cohen didn’t anticipate the response he would receive from the audience.

“I was met with stares, as if to say, ‘How dare you suggest that international terrorism and crime would be considered a top-tier national security issue worthy of academic study,’” recalls Cohen.

His graduate studies in international affairs, combined with his prior police and investigatory work, strongly positioned Cohen for the next phase of his career.  Cohen headed to Washington.  He led investigations for the U.S. House of Representatives’ judiciary committee and later worked with presidential cabinet members on law enforcement and national security issues focusing on cybersecurity, transnational crime and international drug trafficking.   

Following the 9/11 attacks, Cohen focused on helping state and local governments incorporate counterterrorism and homeland security into their day-to-day operations. Subsequently, Cohen worked for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, drafting key components of the 2007 National Strategy for Information Sharing, a presidential policy document that defined how the federal government would better incorporate state, local and tribal entities into national homeland security and counterterrorism efforts, then joined Napolitano at Homeland Security. Cohen transitioned from her senior adviser to become the department's counterterrorism coordinator, overseeing activities focused on the detection, prevention, response and recovery from acts of terrorism and active shooter situations in the United States. In 2013, he was appointed Homeland Security’s principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis.

At Rutgers, Cohen is looking forward to student discussions focused around the impact of current global terrorist threats on the nation’s health care, environmental, security and transportation infrastructures and sharing experiences about briefing President Obama and cabinet-level officials on terrorist group activities.   

Cohen said his early police experience has been crucial to his understanding how to enhance the safety of our communities. “Our efforts to deal with groups like ISIS that may be committed to carrying out an attack here depend on strong police-community partnerships that focus on preventing violence – whether it be terrorism-related or not,” Cohen says. 

He added that he plans to offer students practical real-world knowledge “combined with what I've learned through my relationships with global leaders. I hope they will walk away with a different understanding as we help develop the next cadre of leaders to deal with our global problems." 

For more information, please contact Jeff Tolvin of Rutgers Media Relations at, 973-972-4501 or 908-229-3475.