Finding the Light in Dark Places

August 5 2016: Cassandra McClellan is profiled in WWP News about her experiences in the Middle East and work with Valens.


There are times when Cassandra McClellan is treated like a rock star. Doors are opened for her, lines shortened for her. The people she meets can’t seem to bend backward far enough to accommodate her.

She doesn’t particularly enjoy the fuss. Especially when she receives preferential treatment at the expense of people who are, say, waiting a long time at the border of two Middle Eastern countries, hoping to cross from one to the other.

But she is doted on nonetheless, and for one simple reason: She is an American. And many of the people she meets—in Jordan, in Oman, in Dubai—love Americans.

She knows that it may surprise people to hear that. And she wants them to know that it shouldn’t. Many of the perceptions Americans have about people in the Middle East, she says, are colored by the portrayal they receive from American media, which rarely gives the Arab world any attention beyond its coverage of extremist terrorism.

But there is so much more to life in the Middle East than that, as she has learned so well working as a counterterrorism and threat analyst who has even come to see Jordan as a second home.

McClellan, a resident of Princeton Junction, is a strategic development associate at Valens Global, a Washington-based consulting firm that analyzes threats posed by terrorist groups and violent extremist organizations across the world. She also researches and analyzes information on foreign fighters, Pakistani national security, jihadi social media and domestic radicalization.

For her work, McClellan has traveled among the people of the Middle East. She has developed a deep love for the region and its culture that may be best embodied by the necklace she wears. It reads, in Arabic, Insha’allah. God willing.

It’s a perspective, McClellan says, that is “pervasive in all things in the Middle East.” For example: “Is the bus coming today? God willing.” Or “I’ll see you tomorrow, God willing.”

“The necklace is a talisman reminding me of the Middle East, its way of life and the love I have for it,” she says. And at times, the necklace and its inscription helps her to remember that she doesn’t have the power to fix or change everything.

Fluent in Arabic, she concentrates on terrorism activities brewing in the Middle East, though she also pays a lot of attention to non-jihadist problems, like piracy. But in her role in the domain of national security, she like anyone else must work to separate her own emotions, thoughts and feelings from the realities and demands of the job.

Lending itself to this most indefinable concept is the complexity and interplay between Arab and American cultures; between what people think and what is.

“Arab” does not equate to Islam, nor to terrorism, any more than being American means someone is a rich industrialist who loves guns and football. In fact, more Muslims are the targets of purposeful terroristic acts, by Islamists or otherwise, than Westerners. Moreover, in her travels throughout the Middle East, McClellan has found that more Arabs and Muslims feel they are held hostage by extremists than are inclined to join a jihadi cause.

But McClellan and others in her field must do their jobs dispassionately to recognize patterns of speech or behavior that may betray sinister intent. At the same time, she works with countless Muslims who tirelessly try to convince people that Islam and terrorism are not synonymous. This, of course, is a tough road to pave.

McClellan doesn’t like to point fingers because it just leads to pointing back. But she wishes that American media outlets would offer a more well-rounded picture of Arab culture and people. She’d love people to not be surprised to learn that, say, Oman has great bars and clubs; that Dubai is almost Vegas-like in its opulence; that women in most Middle Eastern cities are educated leaders. There’s beauty and softness; city bustle and traffic; quiet countryside and boisterous nightlife.

In other words, people living their lives. That, she says, is what’s not being shown on American TV. It translates into few American tourists to the region, because Americans are afraid they’ll get kidnapped and beheaded by extremists.

That’s an oversimplification, but is essentially the truth. McClellan says lines at the borders of places like Oman or Jordan are often broken into lines by nationality or region: Jordanians here, European Union here, and so on. But they had to make a new line for her, because so few Americans visit. Americans who do visit, she said, might be surprised to find out how much they’re welcome.

That, at least, is her personal feeling. Her professional feeling as a counterterrorism expert acknowledges that, yes, the Middle East has its troubles. There are indeed pockets of extremists bent on destroying people at home and abroad, and there’s never a shortage of appalling acts of mass violence. July, in fact, saw terrorist acts almost daily—knife attacks in Japan and Germany; a truck attack in France; the killing of police officers in Dallas, to name a few.

There were dozens of bombings and attacks around the world last month, most in Muslim countries, and all carried out by small, radical groups on populaces that, McClellan says, utterly abhor what these groups are doing.

It’s hard for McClellan to watch. Some days it gets overwhelming. There are days when she feels the weight of her job, studying the worst of humanity, threatening to crush her.

“I have a great appreciation and love for the Middle East, its people, culture, religion, et cetera,” she says. “And though I work in a field that makes that appreciation complex at times, it is very important to me to remember the separation of jihadist terrorism from Islam and Muslims.”

At the same time, McClellan loves her job and believes in it fully. She is part of an astoundingly successful national security infrastructure that has found, headed off, and disrupted terror plots and kept Americans a lot safer than they realize they are.

“I get asked every day if we’re safe,” she says. “I always answer, ‘Do you want the truth or do you want to be happy today?’”

The truth, McClellan says, is that we’re generally safe from groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. They don’t have the means for getting much going over here right now, even though Americans are generally afraid of ISIS. Americans should be more worried about domestic terrorism than that stemming from foreign jihadists, she says.

But even that is a hazy situation with no simple answers. One of McClellan’s specialties is assessing “violent, non-state actors,” the independent radicals not specifically sponsored by any nation, who are inspired by the ideals of a group they don’t specifically belong to. German police called the 17-year-old Afghani knife attacker a “lone wolf,” and such individuals are, McClellan admits, almost impossible to detect.

But though tragic, terror attacks, especially those sponsored by foreign entities, are rare here, and McClellan says Americans should understand how fortunate they are to live in a place where people do not wake up every day in utter fear for their safety; nor do Americans fear the clear blue sky the way many in war-torn Middle Eastern nations like Syria do. Because there, blue sky means attack drones are flying and death can literally drop from the sky with no warning.

So yes, it’s complex. Overall, McClellan has this to say: “Yeah, I feel safe. But it doesn’t mean I don’t worry.”

McClellan’s roots in counterterrorism began, as it did for many her age, with 9-11. “For me, that was just something I wanted to understand,” she says. She grew up in West Windsor with her parents, Rob and Linda, a development professional at the Pennington School and an employee at Terhune Orchards, respectively, and her brother, Garrett, now a sophomore at WWP-South.

Throughout high school at The Lawrenceville School, McClellan studied Spanish and was about to go to Mexico in 2009, when a swine flu outbreak there derailed the trip.

In her freshman year at Elon College in North Carolina, she decided to shift from Spanish to Arabic, which nicely complemented her double major in international studies and political science. In 2012, she traveled to the Middle East for the first time, seeing what she immediately saw as her spiritual home in Jordan. She also worked there at a university research job.

“I didn’t want to party for three months and take some BS 101 course,” she says. She calls her time working in Jordan “a very real experience,” one in which she got to live like anyone else in the area.

Her blonde hair and white skin got her the affectionate nickname of Cinderella from a shop owner she visited every day on the way to work, she says. “He’d always give me a mango juice box.”

Living among Jordanians in Amman, she found real people trying to live their lives, and she found them to be generous and accepting. “It’s the very little things,” she says.

During that first trip, McClellan also traveled to the Zaatari refugee camp (also in Jordan), where she met Syrian civil war refugees. Syria, she says, is a tragic case; a place rent by war that the world just turned away from and forgot about. She then visited Dubai in the UAE (which she’s not a big fan of, because it’s just too modern and boisterous for her tastes) and Oman.

She went back to Jordan in the spring of 2014 to conduct research and assist with the University of Jordan’s Business School. During that time she also traveled to Jerusalem to conduct field research.

McClellan graduated from Elon at the end of 2013, and by the following fall had taken a job at Valens Global, where she had also interned. There she delves daily into the world’s dark corners, while trying to remember the light she found in so many of the places she’s seen.

“I try to desperately keep my personal beliefs out of my work because I think the field is best approached in an emotional vacuum, and it gets to be a messy and draining experience otherwise,” she says.

“I care much more about people. It’s important to me to educate others about terrorism and the Middle East, and it’s important to me to try to bridge the gap between the Middle East, Muslims, Islam and national security/counterterrorism. It’s a really slippery slope sometimes, but it’s what interests me.”