In Narberth, where the train stops, the shops beckon and the ball fields stretch to the horizon, townsfolk treasure the charm and safety of their environs. That hasn’t changed since Courtney Banks was growing up here in the 1970s and ’80s.
Unfortunately, the world beyond has.
A leading voice in homeland security and an entrepreneur with a penchant for people, the 34-year-old Banks seeks to shield the Narberths and the rest of our land from the threat of global terrorism. She’s been trained to do so and knows firsthand what failure looks like—her office at the Pentagon was destroyed on 9/11. Now that she’s in business for herself, she’s no less worried about a large-scale attack.
“We’re most vulnerable during formal election cycles and transition periods,” says Banks, whose Nat’l Security Associates WorldWide (NSAWW) helps companies develop their business in the national security space. “Aviation is still highly at risk. When we have success in containing [terrorism], no one ever knows.”
The words pour out of Banks, who’s intense without giving you a headache. “Security is like a Rubik’s Cube,” she says. “It’s constantly changing colors.”
Terrorists are chameleon-like as well. Al-Qaida and less formal groups are looking to raise the bar. Will they use IEDs (improvised explosive devices)? WMDs (weapons of mass destruction)? What’s more, they have money and Internet access. “Does it matter if you’re in a cave or the Ritz-Carlton?” she asks.
Psychologically, Banks entered the fray early on. She was only 9 when the 1983 TV miniseries The Winds of War captured her imagination. While most kids were watching Alvin and the Chipmunks, she was immersed in the genesis of World War II. “We’d discuss it at dinner,” says her mother, Bala Cynwyd’s Elayne Weisberg.
Says Banks: “I knew I wanted to work in national security.”
First, there were other stops to make. At Episcopal Academy, Banks became the first female head of the debating society. After earning a degree in military history at the University of Pennsylvania, she worked for then-White House Counsel Jack Quinn, the U.S. Justice Department, and defense contractor BDM International (later acquired by TRW), which assigned her to the Gulf War Illness Task Force at the Department of Defense. While on the job, she completed her master’s in national security studies at Georgetown University. From there, it was back to Defense, with a focus on global terrorism. The winds, it seems, had blown her directly on course.
“That [master’s degree] was something we’d never heard of,” says Weisberg. “She was a very determined young lady.”
Determination is an important part of the leadership profile Banks brings to a male-dominated industry. Other qualities, though, may be even more telling.
“Her competence has a humanity,” says Peter Probst, a senior partner at NSAWW. “She’s a most remarkable person.”
Serving 20 years with the CIA before joining Defense, Probst first observed Banks in action from a neighboring cubicle at the Pentagon. When she later returned to the private sector, she was responsible for homeland-security business development strategies at Lockheed Martin and, subsequently, became vice president of homeland security for defense giant Raytheon. The division doubled its revenues in her first year.
“I evolved into a businesswoman,” says Banks, who logged some 170,000 miles of worldwide travel with Raytheon. “People were saying, ‘Why don’t you start your own business?’”
She listened well, launching her own firm and stocking it with experts in business development and national security. Not yet two years old, NSAWW helps established companies grow—and startups gain a foothold—in the expanding market of global homeland security. Headquartered in Alexandria, Va., with a local office in Conshohocken, the company is equal parts strategist and matchmaker. “We say, ‘This is what the [government] agency really needs, and this is the role you can play,’” says Probst.
NSAWW clients are U.S.-based companies—some of which have international involvement. Several are expanding their businesses in the Middle East, a place that welcomes the expertise. “There’s a difference between how people perceive Americans and the [American] government,” says Banks.
The security community’s perception of Banks and NSAWW is more uniform. “We contracted with Courtney to help with introductions to government and larger integrated operators,” says Jim Barton, a vice president at ENSCO, a Virginia-based company that offers high-tech products and services geared for safe air and rail travel.
Banks isn’t the type who signs the contracts and disappears. “She meets with ENSCO folks on a weekly basis,” says Barton, who met his consultant five years ago when they both served on the global terrorism council at ASIS International (American Society for Industrial Security), a 36,000-member association of top security officers.
Apparently, Banks made an impression. “She was adept at building new relationships,” he says, “and not afraid to speak her mind.”
NSAWW’s chief operating officer, Kate Pickworth, echoes that sentiment. “She makes you know where you stand,” says Pickworth, who grew up in West Chester and followed Banks to NSAWW from Raytheon. “People work hard for her because it’s easy to do. She’s extremely loyal—and fun to watch in action.”
Banks labels herself a “good boss,” and points to a high employee retention rate as evidence. She has bolstered NSAWW’s expert roster with raw recruits who catch on quickly under her tutelage. “Interns come and don’t want to leave,” says Pickworth.
Banks may be a nurturing exec, but the language on her company’s website has a martial ring—“strategic and tactical” methodology, acquisition “targets,” opportunities for “pursuit and capture.” In the business of defense, those are “everyday terms,” according to Banks.
And there’s nothing boastful about the company CEO. “You don’t take a job to show it off in a bar,” says Banks, who counts among her pet peeves the ultimate show-off line. “Nothing drives me up the wall more than someone saying, ‘I can’t tell you what I do,’” she says.
In the classroom and on the job, Banks has mustered her share of education. Yet despite being in a business that’s reliant on planning and probabilities, she hasn’t given much thought to the future trajectory of her career.
“I don’t have an actual career plan,” she says. “I haven’t set my sights on anything specific. I try to do what I do in the moment well, and then come home.”
Home now is Virginia, but when she says, “I like coming home,” she is speaking of her frequent visits to the Philadelphia area. It’s a place, among others, that she’s helping to make a little bit safer.
Why Courtney Banks and other security experts are wary of new terrorist attacks.
The big strikes have coincided with periods of political change. The Madrid train bombings of 2004 occurred three days before Spain’s general election, the World Trade Center bombing during Bill Clinton’s first month in office, and 9/11 within George W. Bush’s first year.
While waiting for President Barack Obama’s January swearing-in, U.S. terrorism analysts were taking deep breaths. Of course, we may not know of foiled plots until years from now, but the question arises: What are they waiting for?
“Either they can’t [launch a major attack] or they’re looking to surpass 9/11,” says Courtney Banks.
Banks’ colleague, Peter Probst, worries about the New York vicinity being a target once again due to its density and economic symbolism. Probst joined the CIA in 1962 in the teeth of the Cold War and worked there for 20 years before moving to the Department of Defense. He co-authored the 1994 study “Terror 2000: The Future Face of Terror,” which anticipated coordinated, large-scale terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists. The study predicted a devastating assault on the World Trade Center, and the deliberate crash of an airplane into the Pentagon.
That’s rather chilling.
The bigger picture of defusing the terrorist threat is one U.S. leaders still don’t see clearly, according to Probst. “We don’t have a comprehensive, counter-terrorism strategy,” he says. “It won’t be solved by military means—it’s political warfare. We need a counter-narrative that resonates on the Internet. Too often, our opponents are playing chess while we’re playing checkers.”