The Worldwide Threat Assessment

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has continued the most excellent tradition of releasing an unclassified threat assessment. I can’t describe what a good initiative this is as it is a big step in providing transparency into the thinking of Intelligence Community. While something like this could certainly be manipulated, it is at least one check against the powers that be cherry picking intelligence. By publicly proclaiming their analysis (broadly) to the world, the Intelligence Community have their colors nailed to the mast and face the consequences (good or bad) of their work.

I’m particularly happy with this edition of the assessment for a couple of reasons.

First, the report starts off with a discussion of the cyber threat. I am by no means a tech geek and I agree that there are many serious vulnerabilities to our electronic data and networks but I’ve been concerned by the increasingly hysterically drum beat of talks about cyber ‘Peal Harbors’, 9/11s or Kratatoas. Coupled with the ominous ‘It’s not a matter of if but when…’ statements by very serious people, these predictions would seem like a slam dunk.

So, I was glad to see this:

We judge that there is a remote chance of a major cyber attack against the US critical infrastructure systems during the next two years that would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.

First take away: ‘Chill the fuck out.’

Those that can carry out those big attacks are going to be nation states and countries (even ones like Iran) are going to be reluctant to do so because a cyber attack today can lead to a physical retaliation tomorrow. Just because we now pay our bills online doesn’t mean the idea of retaliation has gone away.

But, what about those crazy terrorists? They’re already under the gun (so to speak) so threats of retaliation aren’t going to mean much to them, right? Well, true, but there are a couple of reasons why we might not have to worry too much about that. First, most ‘traditional’ terrorists are still thinking in terms of traditional fighting. Taking down a multinational corporation or a power station might be a significant win for these players and a step in their ultimate plans but just about all of them have goals of temporal power and for that you need to get our from behind the keyboard and pick up a gun. That’s the first part…the second is that it doesn’t look like any such groups have the capability to conduct such attacks.

Instead of the risk coming from well planned and executed attacks over the next two years, the assessment says that our vulnerability to less sophisticated attacks having an unexpected result because of particular ‘system configurations and mistakes’. In other words, our crappy system designs might go loopy. Just like the HAL9000 in 2001.

Al-Qaida continues their downward spiral with the various affiliates being either concerned more with local matters (AQIM, AQI, al-Shabaab, etc.) or just suffering from a long string of general ass-kickings (AQ Central). Not much to say there other than to say that my personal opinion is that history is passing them by. They still might be able to launch attacks over the coming years but both as a terrorist organization and a broader movement, they’re starting to look like they’re past their expiration date. The thing to look out for will be those who came to political maturity over the past decade. Just as AQ is really the function of the cohort that came out of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, how will the next generation of…who? Islamic radicals? The global ‘have-nots’? Others communities we aren’t even aware of yet? Anyway, how will these people internalize these events (and then externalize them!)?

My prediction: I suspect we’re in a terrorism ‘lull’ that probably began in 2009 or so and will go on for at least another year or two. Now, a ‘lull’ does NOT mean there won’t be any terrorism activity occurring around the world. I think, instead, that we’ll see a general retreat of international terrorist organizations from targeting the United States. Targeting U.S. interests (like the Benghazi attack which, contrary to Fox News, Sen. McCain, et. al. was NOT a sign of a resurgent al-Qaida) will probably continue but occur in places that lack adequate security (post-revolutionary Libya, Bulgaria, etc.). But attacks like 9/11, or even 7/7 , are going to continue to recede into the realm of hypotheticals dusted off to protect pet funding projects.

I suspect 9/11 will eventually be seen as al-Qaida’s battle of Cannae. A brilliant tactical success but with no real strategic benefits for them. Yes, 9/11 did cause the U.S. to make a number of really, really (really) bad decisions that didn’t do them any favors but they didn’t really translate into any sort of net gain for al-Qaida. Maybe bin Laden’s strategy of using a 50 or 100 year time scale will prove him right but I suspect not. Trying to game the global system decades in advance is virtually impossible (at least now). If we weren’t able to do it when we were the global hegemon how can al-Qaida expect to? Indeed, they had better have a deity on their side as that’s what I think it will take.

I was also pleased to see an acknowledgment of the negative influence of environmental crime around the world:

constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry annually, endangers the environment, and threatens to disrupt the rule of law in important countries around the world. These criminal activities are often part of larger illicit trade networks linking disparate actors-from government and military personnel to members of insurgent groups and translational organized crime organizations.

One reason such crimes are so lucrative is that the enforcement and penalty mechanisms are so lax.

The really frightening part of the assessment is the section titled ‘Natural Resources: Insecurity and Competition’. It presents a bleak picture of the state of food, water and natural resources now in which many stocks are at or near capacity with little margin for unexpected (or, in some cases, expected) shocks to the system. So, who cares if a bunch of peasants in central Africa can’t get wheat? Well, what would you do if all the supermarkets ran out of food? And what if the next town over had full supermarkets but either charged all outsiders a huge markup or just didn’t let outsiders in at all, deciding to save food for their citizens? Things could get ugly really fast. I believe it was Isaac Asimov who said something like ‘No civilization is more than three missed meals from anarchy.’

The other big problem with this issue is that it’s just not a national (or international) priority. In a country where we’re still debating whether global warming is an insidious crypto-Socialist-academic plot to deprive honest, hard-working citizens of the ‘American Dream’, who in the hell is going to get support to try to address the question of food security? You can almost hear the tin foil hat brigade talking about how the market will solve everyone’s problems. Make not mistake, these are big problems that are going to create all sorts of new, more traditional problems before everyone realizes just how bad things are. The fact that us humans just aren’t that good at dealing with threats like this doesn’t fill me with a great deal of optimism.

But in the short term (perhaps the next year or three) things don’t look too bad, relatively speaking. As the assessment runs down the various regions of the world we continue to see instability (Africa), slides towards authoritarianism (Central Asia), rampant crime (Central/South America) and emerging rivals (China) but none of these things seem ready to drive the international system into crisis. The more I read these things the more I find myself thinking of the later Roman Empire. Not as a direct correlation but rather the sense of the system gradually falling apart while those at the center seem unable to focus on anything except trivial matters. Shocks to the system are dealt with in a temporary and ad hoc manner. Hopefully that impression is just my age and cynicism catching up to me. I suppose we’ll see…

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