Shawna Wilson is Senior Rule of Law Advisor in the Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT), U.S. Department of State, where she provides technical advice on CT’s engagement in terrorism-related criminal justice efforts. Previously, she was Deputy Director of CT’s Office of Multilateral Affairs, where she coordinated with multilateral and regional partners on counterterrorism issues, with a focus on criminal justice. Before joining CT, she was Justice Team Leader in the Office of Criminal Justice Assistance and Partnership in the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, as well as a U.S. Supreme Court Fellow. She also served in various roles at USAID, focusing on rule of law and democracy issues in the Balkans, Central Asia, and other states of the former Soviet Union. She represented corporate clients on international trade and business matters as an attorney at Frost Brown Todd LLC, and prior to law school, she worked for the Eurasia Foundation, including as Southern Russia Regional Director in Saratov, Russia.

Motivated by a broad interest in both law and foreign policy, Ms. Wilson addressed criminal justice reform issues in different positions throughout her career. Her current work at CT gives her the opportunity to examine criminal justice issues and systems in a highly specialized, high-impact context. Specifically, she views the intersection between criminal justice and counterterrorism as comprising two primary components: prevention and response. With regard to prevention, she stresses the importance of a robust rule of law in eroding sources of disenfranchisement and resentment. In her words, “if you have rule of law, you have limited opportunities for disenfranchised individuals. You have checks and balances, and you have law enforcement that responds to citizens’ needs.” She also notes that effective criminal justice responses to terrorism must differentiate among different kinds of terrorist activity. “Within the terrorism discussion,” she says, “the impact is so great and the response so visceral that people tend to paint terrorists with one broad brush stroke. But you could have, for example, a 17-year-old who has no criminal record and he uses a computer to move money to send a friend to Syria. How you deal with that person should not necessarily be the same as the way you deal with someone who blows up a building.” Responding to terrorist offenses is just as important as prevention, she argues, as effective responses can avoid alienating or profiling one particular group. She adds that effective responses are also particularly important because the profiles of terrorists vary so dramatically.

Given the complex nature of terrorism, Ms. Wilson coordinates on a regular basis with interagency partners, such as the Department of Defense (in particular the regional Combatant Commands, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff), the Department of Justice (in particular OPDAT, the National Security Division, and the Office of Law and Policy), USAID, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. She notes that the sheer volume of activity and pace of change in the counterterrorism world can be a challenge to keep up, but that robust interagency coordination is crucial because it integrates complementary expertise to deal with complex challenges. Currently, for example, she is engaged in an initiative with interagency partners—particularly DOJ and DOD—to devise a framework for handling “battlefield evidence,” or information gathered during military operations, an issue that has become particularly relevant in prosecuting foreign terrorist fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. The initiative considers a range of issues that can help international partners increase the admissibility of this type of evidence. Ms. Wilson and her counterparts hope to develop best practices that they can share with foreign partners, who can then incorporate those principles into their own legal frameworks, policies, and programs.

She also coordinates with multilateral and regional partners, for example through the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), a multilateral forum with 29 country members and the European Union. She lauds the GCTF for being forward-thinking, particularly given that it has such a diverse mix of member states’ viewpoints to take into account. For example, she notes that in 2015 the GCTF released a set of recommendations regarding alternative measures for terrorist offenders in the pre-trial and post-convictions stages, an important tool for encouraging the rehabilitation of offenders, proportionality of punishment for different types of offenses, and prevention of radicalization during incarceration.

Ms. Wilson expresses appreciation for JUSTRAC’s training courses, in particular those that focus on comparative legal systems. JUSTRAC regularly hosts a training course on Islamic Law, and in April 2018 JUSTRAC held its inaugural training course on Civil Law systems, in which Ms. Wilson participated as a speaker. “In foreign assistance efforts,” she explains, “we have proceeded with baseline knowledge of how things work in the United States, but that doesn’t really help you in the international realm. Whenever people manage or develop programs, if they have a better sense of the differences [between legal systems], they can ask the right questions and improve the quality of assistance that we give, as well as improve actual deliverables.” JUSTRAC appreciates input from experts like Ms. Wilson to help the JUSTRAC training program contribute to the achievement of those goals.


NOTE:The views expressed in this Practitioner Profile are those of Shawna Wilson and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.

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