Internationally Acclaimed Cybersecurity Expert Discovered Building a Safer World Began with Taking Things Apart
Ibrahim “Abe” Baggili, the University of New Haven’s Elder Family Endowed Chair of Computer Science and Cybersecurity, was named a fellow of the European Alliance for Innovation, a designation earned by a fraction of the organization’s 150,000 members.
August 13, 2019
By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer
Growing up, Ibrahim “Abe” Baggili, Ph.D., says his father would often come from work to find him taking apart the family’s television – or another appliance – studying its inner workings. When the younger Baggili couldn’t figure something out, he’d just keep trying.
He was five years old.
Dr. Baggili, says his father was never upset, no matter what he was disassembling. He says he loved that his son wanted to learn and that he was tenacious about it.
“My father – who came from nothing – always told me ‘you can be anything you want if you work very hard and put your mind to it.’”
"My father – who came from nothing – always told me ‘you can be anything you want if you work very hard and put your mind to it."Abe Baggili, Ph.D.
‘Being Tenacious… Is How You Become Successful’
Born in Jordan, Dr. Baggili grew up in the United Arab Emirates and was a teen “when the internet was censored in the Middle East.” So, he decided to take that apart, too, finding a way to hack into the system to have access to the political news online he wanted to read.
When it was time for college, his parents agreed to send him 7,200 miles away to Purdue University to be the first in their immediate family to attain a college degree.
His father had one rule. “He told me he’d support me, but if I failed one class, I would have to come home.”
He did not fail a class.
At Purdue, Dr. Baggili earned his B.S., M.S. (with an emphasis on programming mobile devices), and Ph.D. (with an emphasis on cybersecurity and networks and cyber forensics) in computer information technology. He learned from pioneers in the field, such as Eugene H. Spafford, Ph.D., who is credited with analyzing one of the earliest computer worms, and Marcus Rogers, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading digital forensic scientists.
And Dr. Baggili learned, too, from his college friends, agile, creative computer whizzes who could hack into all kinds of systems, teaching him the good and the bad that come from hacking. The whole world of cybersecurity and digital forensics opened up to him.
He didn’t want to become a police officer exactly, but he wanted to become a kind of digital cop. “It’s very exciting to catch a criminal,” he says. He also knew he wanted to teach others about the endless possibilities in this growing field.
At Purdue, he met and later married his wife Meghan and, after completing his Ph.D. they moved back to the United Arab Emirates. At Zayed University, he established the first cyber forensics research lab in the Arab world and quickly gained international notice for groundbreaking research. From the start, his trademark was a relentlessly stubborn grit.
“Being tenacious and not giving up is 90 percent of how you become successful,” he says. “The other 10 percent is luck and having the right people help you along the way
"It’s very exciting to catch a criminal."Abe Baggili, Ph.D.
‘I Like to Build Things’
When he decided to return to the U.S., he was recruited by a number of universities, and he chose the University of New Haven. “I had the opportunity to build the program from the ground up, and I like to build things,” he says.
He’s one of the most prolific researchers in his field, having published more than 70 peer reviewed articles – most of those with students as co-authors. He and his team also attained a $4 million National Science Foundation grant, one of the largest federal grants in the University’s history, to establish Connecticut’s first CyberCorps® Scholarship for Service program.
All of these accomplishments led to the University being named an Academic Center of Excellence in Cyber Operations by the National Security Agency, making it one of just 23 in the United States to earn this distinction.
For each success, from his childhood on, Dr. Baggili says he’s had incredible supporters, as well those who doubted he’d ever achieve what he was reaching for.
He says he’s always had an unshakable belief that if he worked hard enough at whatever the goal, he’d achieve it. “I’m might not be the smartest person in my field, but I will work until I find an answer,” he says.
"I had the opportunity to build the program from the ground up, and I like to build things."Abe Baggili, Ph.D.
‘A Mindset of Success’
He says his wife has always urged him on and helped shape the way he wants to impact the field, making him see how important it is to encourage underrepresented minorities and young women to pursue careers in the field of cybersecurity to build a more diverse workforce.
He’s proud that his students leave the program having performed top-level research, been published in top journals, interned at major cyber security firms, and participated in outreach work to encourage high school and middle school students to explore the field.
“I’m driven by a passion to make the world safer – for my wife, my two daughters, and for people all over the world,” he says.
Dr. Baggili recently became a U.S. citizen, and he aspires to protect the state and the nation through his work. “I am proud to have become an American citizen,” he says. “Through cybersecurity, we can protect our rights and liberties as Americans. The world we live in today is completely digital. We have to follow the vision of the founding fathers as it starts crossing into the cyber domain.”
He’s driven, too, to make certain his students are prepared to dive right into the rigor and complexities of the cybersecurity field and that they find purposeful work with a salary that allows them to live a good life.
With cybersecurity a key part of the next phase of the University’s Charger Challenge centennial campaign, Dr. Baggili is hopeful donors will be galvanized to support a program that “is helping make the state of Connecticut and the United States safer and working to transform the society we live in.
“The University of New Haven is on a path to become the best cybersecurity and cyber forensics university in the country – and that’s what we are going to do,” he says. “It’s a mindset of success.”
"I’m driven by a passion to make the world safer – for my wife, my two daughters, and for people all over the world."Abe Baggili, Ph.D.