by Margaux Fontaine
A strong interest in asymmetric warfare—conflict between two actors with a large gap in capabilities—is what drew Hannah Byrne (SSP ’18) to the Security Studies Program (SSP) in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.
“SSP is the best place to study asymmetric conflict—specifically counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency,” Byrne says. “It is hard to find this type of specialization or expertise anywhere else.”
Byrne grew up in Natick, Mass., and studied political science at Johns Hopkins University for her bachelor’s degree, focusing on military science. She first became fascinated by asymmetric warfare after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, noting the “strategic difficulties” faced by the United States
“I wanted to learn everything I could about terrorism and non-state actors, and how to effectively combat them,” Byrne says.
Her interests also span beyond anti-terrorism strategy, to feminist international relations theory.
“I believe that examining conflict through a feminist IR lens, which assesses how the gendered hierarchy of the international order affects war and peace, accounts for a lot of empirical gaps left by the more mainstream theories,” Byrne says.
Byrne’s initial focus was the Taliban insurgency, and she worked at the Institute for the Study of War as a research analyst on the Afghanistan team. Later, she began to develop a strong interest in narcoterrorism—“the nexus between violent political movements and for-profit criminal gangs,” she explains. Following this passion, she traveled to Colombia last summer with the help of a research grant to study the recent peace process between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.
“This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” Byrne says. “I was able to hike up a mountain where FARC rebel fighters are currently undergoing a process of demobilization and rehabilitation. Many of them had been at war with the Colombian government for their entire lives. They invited me into their tents and offered me food and coffee. They talked about why they felt the need to fight, the issues they had with the government, and their hopes for the future.”
Byrne also had the opportunity to meet with representatives from the United Nations, the Colombian government, military personnel and civilians, seeing first-hand the challenges of post-conflict peace.
“This experience inspired me to continue my research on narcoterrorist insurgencies and how to combat them, which is the topic of the thesis I am currently writing,” Byrne says.
Besides her experience in Colombia, the SSP has provided Byrne with numerous other opportunities to gain first-hand exposure to international conflict. Byrne spent a semester studying studying political violence at St. Andrews in Scotland, looking in particular at the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British counter-terrorism strategy. She also went to Israel and Palestine to learn more about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“I appreciate all the opportunities Georgetown has given me to travel and conduct independent research, which has been invaluable to my understanding of transnational threats,” Byrne says.
Another aspect of the SSP that Byrne really values is the professors.
“Not only are they wholeheartedly invested in your academic and professional growth, but they are also quite fun to chat narcoterrorism and feminism over beer with,” she says
Byrne’s favorite class is one she is currently taking called “Fiction and National Security,” taught by Professor Tammy Schultz. “The reading is a lot of fun, and allows for creative thinking about national security themes,” she says.
She also noted that nearly all SSP professors have experience in the field on the military or civilian side, fostering exceptional academic growth as well as career opportunities. She particularly cited Elizabeth Arsenault, James Dubik, and Bruce Hoffman as professors who have had the greatest impact on her.
“Dr. Arsenault sacrifices nearly all of her free time for her students, and has helped me with just about everything throughout my time here,” Byrne says. “[General Dubik] not only inspired my initial interest in Afghanistan and military science while in undergrad, but also has been a constant source of advice and support. Dr. Hoffman has gone above and beyond to help me try to achieve my career goals, from setting up meetings with professionals in the field, to emailing people on my behalf. I am more than grateful for all of their support.”
After completing her studies at SSP, Byrne hopes to gain a critical language scholarship to learn Urdu in northern India, an essential asset to further her regional interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I know that I want to conduct field work, where language skills are crucial,” she explains.
Besides language skills, Byrne also stressed the importance of networking and building connections for getting ahead in the field.
“These include things from career development workshops, to asking professors to coffee, to going to happy hour with your classmates,” Byrne says. “Make sure to stay in touch with people.”
She urges other students to take full advantage of every opportunity presented, whether it be to travel, learn a new language, or pursue an internship.
“Don’t settle for what’s comfortable,” Byrne says. “Apply to a bunch of internships, jobs, and fellowships, even if you think they are out of your reach. D.C. has so much to offer, but you have to take the initiative to go get it.”