Leroy Terrelonge III, Director of Middle East and Africa Research
Leroy’s passion for international business risk consulting has driven him to specialize in cyber risks at Flashpoint, where he heads intelligence collection for Iran, Francophone countries, Spain, and Latin America. Prior to Flashpoint, Leroy worked as an international investment risk consultant for a New York-based firm and served just under a decade in the US Intelligence Community. He holds a Master’s of International Business from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a Bachelor’s in Middle East Studies from Harvard University. Leroy is fluent in Russian, Spanish, Persian, French, and Jamaican Patois. He also speaks limited Arabic and Kazakh.
Q: How were you able to learn so many languages?
A: Well, time has definitely been a factor! People put a lot of energy into things that they’re interested in. Like with any skill, it’s all about time, diligence, perseverance…. and a willingness to make mistakes!
My interest in foreign languages started back when I was a kid, and I used to make up secret languages and codes with my little brother. From a young age, I was always very inquisitive about the outside world and far-off places, and so it’s natural that I became drawn to other languages. I grew up in Florida, so Spanish was the first foreign language I was exposed to. I was fascinated by people speaking Spanish, but I hated always feeling like I was missing out on what they were saying!
When I started middle school, I was so excited for my first Spanish class. But then I learned that the class was already full, so they wouldn’t let me attend! I was devastated. Then my mom — God bless her — she marched down to the school and demanded that I be placed in that Spanish class. And they let me in! My mom is a such a testament to how important it is for parents to have a role in their kids’ education. It can make a huge difference.
Because it was an early goal of mine to work for the United Nations someday, I set myself the goal of learning all of the official UN languages (French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, and English). I have studied them all, but not all of them have stuck equally well — I’ve forgotten almost all the Chinese I learned, for instance, and my Arabic is high beginner at best. I also learned Persian to support my role as an Iran Analyst for the US Government and learned Kazakh during an exchange program in Kazakhstan under the auspices of the Princeton-in-Asia program.
Q: Why Flashpoint?
A: Something I’ve realized with Flashpoint is that it’s all about the people. It’s really cool to work in a place where everyone is so impressed with one another! My colleagues are so fascinating. They’re all true experts in their individual fields. I’m always like, “wow, that person is doing really cool things”. I definitely say that a few times everyday. I love being in a place where that type of reaction has become the norm. There’s no place else like it.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: My professional background is very patchwork, and I love that it’s an asset to my job as an analyst and consultant at Flashpoint. My linguistic skills, for example, have helped me work on problems involving threat actors who communicate in foreign languages. My previous work with the US Government taught me all about the intelligence cycle and how to analyze complex problems. During my time as a consultant, I learned how to understand customers and their needs and find creative ways to approach the challenges they face. I really enjoy hearing from clients that my research brought value to their company — it’s the best part of my job.
In many career paths, people are not sure what to make of my “unique” background, and they may not see it as narrow or focused enough. I’m glad Flashpoint understands the value of an interdisciplinary approach to analysis and sees my varied work experience as an asset.
I also enjoy that on a daily basis I get to use all of the foreign languages I have studied. In the course of my work, I monitor French-speaking cyber-fraudsters, the Iranian hacking ecosystem, and cybercriminals from Latin America and the former Soviet Union. I have also provided language support to our jihadist team when needed. Though it can be challenging to switch between five or six languages in a day, there are few jobs that would allow me the flexibility to use so many different languages in my everyday work.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: There has been so much interest surrounding the recent SWIFT attacks, so I’ve focused a lot of my research on the security of banks’ payment transfer systems. Since SWIFT is a massive global network, banks around the world rely heavily on it. There are, however, other domestic and regional payment transfer systems that are vulnerable to attacks, and so I’ve also been looking into these potential threats as well.
SWIFT and the numerous other systems all contribute to a vast amount of vulnerable real estate, which has clearly piqued the interest of criminals. Analyzing these different payment transfer systems and relevant threats to them has been really fascinating for me.
Q: What’s your greatest professional achievement?
A: I get so much enjoyment and satisfaction whenever I receive positive feedback from clients. It’s the best feeling when someone with a real challenge says something like, “this really helped me; this was valuable”. Due to the nature of my work, some of the questions clients pose can be so broad and difficult to address. We have to be consultants and really try our hardest to think creatively in order to get to the best answer for the client. So when we do something that really helps, it feels great.
Q: What are your interests outside of work?
A: I was never really into sports growing up. Part of it was that just I felt much more comfortable playing in the orchestra or competing in math league, and sports didn’t feel like a natural fit. But when I graduated from college, I moved to Washington D.C. and was looking for something to do to keep myself active and social, and I found this rugby team called the Washington Renegades. At my very first practice, I was so nervous… until I got tackled to the ground for the first time! Sure, it hurt, but it was awesome! I fell in love with rugby immediately. Rugby really helped improve my teamwork and communication skills, and made me much less shy. I didn’t think I would learn so much from playing sports, but it has had a very positive influence on my life.
Aside from rugby, I strive to be involved in social justice. As a queer person of color, I’m very cognizant of the fact that security isn’t known for being the most diverse field. In terms of my career, I’m in such a privileged position to be a part of this field, so I strive to ensure that it’s inclusive and attainable for everyone. The small part that I can do is to be a mentor, to be visible, and to make sure other people know that the security field is a place that’s good for them as well. I want people to know that my company and my industry are open and attainable.
Q: What is something about yourself that not many people know?
A: So this is sort of random, but I once played on the Kazakhstani national rugby team. I was the worst player by far! Kazakhstan is a country built on hospitality and nationalism, and it definitely felt like that with this rugby team! Allow me to explain. I was in Kazakhstan working as an English teacher, and after I’d been in there for barely a week, I found out about the rugby team. In very broken Russian, I called up the coach and asked if I could come out for a practice, and to my surprise he said yes! I showed up and it was this very professional-looking field, which felt intimidating. But everyone was very nice — I couldn’t get over how welcoming they were. They allowed me to practice with them and even play in a few matches. They were such a great group of hospitable guys! They even helped me improve my Russian and Kazakh, which was an awesome side benefit. It was definitely one of the coolest experiences I’ve had.