By R.A. Norton

A recent article published by Washington’s Top News probably was missed by most food defense managers. Although the headline is a bit sensationalized, the article, entitled “US official: ISIS has ‘people in place’ to conduct ‘steady’ attacks,” actually does bear some scrutiny because of what it reveals. An unnamed “U.S. defense official” is quoted as saying, “We think that transnational terrorist attacks, in the near term, will probably remain steady. The group has been able to build a robust and redundant apparatus for conducting transnational terrorist attacks.”

Additionally, the official is quoted as saying, “They have a lot of people in place already that are sympathizers around the world…We think they will be able to continue to be able to produce at least a constant level of propaganda, which underpins a lot of the ideology in Europe and elsewhere…”

In my line of work, I transcend several domains within the larger national context. I also see a lot of data from many sources inside and outside the government. Given that, I would conclude that the opinions quoted in the WTOP article are accurate as to facts. Terrorist groups are being hard pressed by police and militaries around the world. Progress is being made, although it is premature to state that anything approaching the end of terrorist problems in the world is near. Terrorism is the long fight that will never truly go away, just perhaps be better controlled. We need to adjust to that reality.

As we try to discern the possibilities for the future, good or bad, two important two caveats must be considered. First, trained jihadists are returning home from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq, and their support structure remains largely intact. Secondly, nation states are starting to come dramatically back into play. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have been problems for the U.S. in the past. They will become even more so in the future.

Trained fighters returning home                                                                                                                 

The massive tide of fighters into the contested areas of Syria, Iraq and perhaps even Yemen has abated somewhat with the new realities of the battle being faced by ISIS, which is causing former fighters to return to their countries of origin. Some evidence indicates some of the returning fighters are disheartened, having decided the group didn’t deliver on its apocalyptic promises. Another fraction of former fighters is actually disenfranchised from ISIS.

The purported disenfranchisement is likely to be in part the result of purges instigated by ISIS leadership in the wake of battlefield losses, or perhaps more obscurely following events where top leadership has been targeted. Such events include a poisoning incident that reportedly occurred during Ramadan in 2015, when 45 ISIS members were killed, and the more recent rumored poisoning of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October of 2016.

ISIS purges also have occurred in an attempt to root out “spies” after top commanders have been killed in incidents such as the successful U.S.-led drone strike that killed Abu Hayjaa al-Tunsi in March of 2016, as well as “Minister of War” Omar al-Shishani, Iraqi leader Shaker Wuhayeb (aka Abu Whaib) and top ISIS finance official Abu Ali Al-Anbari. These purges also reportedly have caused a significant number of fighters, including some near to top ISIS leadership, to flee out of fear they would be the next targeted by ISIS purists.

There appear to be multiple categories of ISIS members, the most familiar being those considered to be hardcore, who have passed to the “dark side.” The hardcore ISIS members probably will remain beyond the pale, although recent defections indicate that even some of them are subject to persuasion when the subject is self-preservation.

There are also less strident members who can perhaps be more easily dissuaded from continuing to support the group. Those on the fringe, who remain at the edges of jihadist violence, are far less likely to cross over and become violent. Often living far away from the actual bloody battlefield, these more amateur, unaffiliated sympathizers—sometimes described as “jihobbyists” or “eHadis”—nevertheless help “crowd source” jihad.

There is, however, a third category of sympathizer, the ones who participate in crowd-sourcing propaganda activities but who are also on their way to the battlefield. And, as recent history has proven, the battlefield can be anywhere, whether the streets of Western Europe or even the U.S. This is perhaps the most dangerous of all of the categories of ISIS sympathizer, because it is they who—like the San Bernardino killers Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik—might be embedded in our society, in our critical infrastructures and schools, waiting for the right time to act to cause maximum damage.

Nation States

The recent assassination of the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un should serve as a wakeup call to remind us that adversarial nation states are still a reality. The trend over the last decade has been for the press to ignore many of the indicators of threats that adversarial nation states pose to the peace and prosperity of U.S. and the world. The successful attack on Kim Jong Nam in the Kuala Lumpur airport, although relatively simple in its execution, shows a level of sophistication and pre-planning usually suggestive of activity by a nation state.

Although government reports from the Malaysian Health Ministry implicated the chemical nerve agent VX,  the way in which the assassination was accomplished and the fact that others in the airport did not fall prey to the chemical provide indirect evidence that the chemical agent, whether actual VX or some analog, was likely stabilized with some carrier that prevented volatilization. This alone speaks volumes in supporting the argument that a nation state was involved.

The larger issue with the assassination—and why food company executives should be aware of this—is that adversarial nation states have reach-out capability, largely unattainable by a less sophisticated adversary. Nation states have used such intimidation for hundreds of years. Now, the realities of international travel have dramatically expanded the range and speed of the adversary. This capability will remain as long as international travel continues to remain as open and convenient as it currently is. Expect more of these assassination events in the future as adversarial nations attempt to tamp down political opposition.

Reach-out capability like this could also be used by a nation state to intimidate other nation states by attacking critical infrastructures like food and water. Open literature indicators are that North Korea likely has an active biological warfare program. Past interactions between North Korea, China and Russia would likely mean that if bioweapons are indeed being developed by North Korea, some would be designed for attacking agriculture and/or the U.S food supply. Russia at one time had a huge bioweapons program called Biopreparat that contained within its inventory bioweapons specifically designed to target animal and plant agriculture.

The future will bring altogether new and continually evolving threats that will need robust and agile counter efforts to defuse the threats or contain their impact. The new reality is that the U.S. is in a permanent state of war, a new Cold War if you will, that like the last could under the right conditions become hot. We must prepare and be constantly vigilant if we are to ultimately triumph. Stay safe! Stay alert!