One of the fundamental purposes of providing strategic threat assessments at the national and international level is to stimulate contingency planning in the diplomatic, economic and military fields to prepare for all eventualities that may pose a serious threat to a country’s national interests. These timely recitals from the nation’s intelligence apparatus are the single most important considerations that the executive branch of government must utilize to formulate coherent and effective policy on the global stage; where the vast stew of foreign interests are allowed to comingle and often compete with one another. The value of the strategic threat assessment cannot be diminished as a tool of sound operational policy and although their significance is often opened to wider interpretations and perceptions by each successive head of state, its relevance as a guide to unify inter-governmental coordination and response make it an essential instrument to the continuity of government during times of national emergency.
Anticipation and preparation are the cornerstones of a nation’s national defense capabilities because it is not so much the suddenness of a cataclysmic event that can evoke panic, chaos and disorder but more the government’s response time to garner the resources needed to mitigate the disaster that most determines the level of suffering experienced by the victims. America saw the failure of government to exhibit a sound national civil-defense policy firsthand in 2004 through its failure to coordinate a rapid response to the tragedy that befell the citizens of New Orleans, following the catastrophic flooding brought about by Hurricane Katrina. This was a prime example of the failure of the executive branch to activate defensive contingency plans even though the threat assessment had already been widely illustrated and conveyed to the offices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. What made the government’s response to this particular disaster event more shocking was the fact that it came so closely on the heels of the tragic 9-11 terrorist bombings, revealing a potentially fatal flaw in the government’s contingency planning for domestic disaster events of a non-manmade nature.
But it is one thing to make a strategic threat assessment in anticipation of a naturally occurring disaster such as a hurricane, flood or earthquake because these events can never be adequately defended. Their threat assessment merely requires a sustained level of civil defense coordination and contingency planning to utilize transportation and communications networks to channel disaster-relief resources to the affected areas. It is only through a timely and well-sustained response after the event has happened which will best mitigate the extent of the overall suffering of the victims. But man-made threats require a far more vigilant introspection and a closer level of inter-governmental coordination to parley investigative resources. Deterrence is the crucial denominator that accentuates the importance of the strategic threat assessment in analyzing the potential of economic and military dangers. It is also the main reason why strategic threat assessments on economic or military foes must be made far in advance as possible of the presumed threat in order to formulate an effective deterrent strategy.
During the Cold War America’s vast intelligence apparatus was primarily committed to countering the Soviet Union by fomenting political and military opposition against communist-run countries in the Third World and keeping democratically-run governments militarily capable of quashing communist agitation from within. In those days the ideological divide between east and west was much more pronounced and this black and white chasm made it much easier to differentiate friend from foe. Even in the highly contentious, sectarian strife of the Arab Mideast, the political divide between Washington and Moscow took center stage and served to stifle the region’s acute religious animosities by the façade of political Pan-Arabism. All this made it much simpler for the two side’s intelligence agencies to formulate long-range strategic planning since the international chessboard ran distinctly parallel to the game of dominoes Moscow and Washington had arrayed against each other. The common denominator that defined each other’s grand strategy and prevented them both from overlapping too far into the other’s domain was the persuasiveness of nuclear deterrence.
It now seems rather ironic that the world in which we live in today is seemingly far more dangerous than the world that for nearly fifty years threatened us all with nuclear annihilation at the whim of a lone air force pilot. What is perhaps more telling is the fact that with every noticeable stride that modern technology makes to enrich and simplify our lives, the danger increases that someone or something might utilize that same technology to bring harm and misfortune in a catastrophic way to those least likely to benefit from these advances. In coping with the advancement of modern communications networks, social media and the harvesting of information technology, today’s intelligence community is now imminently threatened by the same scientific forces that it helped create and monopolize for decades. One of the greatest examples of this phenomenon is the copious amounts of disinformation that is regularly disseminated in the modern media and is now frequently used to incite political and sectarian rivalries at home and abroad. As the availability and usefulness of information proliferated throughout the masses, it perhaps became inevitable that that same data could be used quite maliciously by more nefarious characters with ulterior and not-always-innocent motives.
Today’s intelligence and counter-intelligence technicians are constantly adapting, refining and contriving new methods and countermeasures to thwart the enemy’s ability to communicate with each other over a wide spectrum of avenues and frequencies and to preempt their operational tendencies. It is a never-ending battle of detection, evasion and improvisation. Conversely, the enemy comes replete with their own set of invasive, high-tech tricks and gadgets to infiltrate the most modern and secure computer networks; giving today’s intelligence technician a dizzying array of threats and dangers they must continuously defend against. And these threats are no longer emanating solely from today’s high-tech inventories of the more organized and bellicose, state intelligence services such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran; more and more of today’s electronic threats stem from novice, computer-hackers under the employ of radical Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. These groups are now constantly interfering with critical electronic transmissions in the commerce and financial industries, as well as their infiltration of vital civil infrastructure such as electrical grids, air-traffic and control and public transportation traffic.
The evolution of communications technology in just the Twenty-first Century alone continues to expand at a mind-boggling and often alarming rate. If you can imagine that your state-of-the-art, high-tech cell-phone that you bought in January of 2014 is now impractically obsolete, than you’d be hard-pressed to realize just how far other, more sophisticated computing devices and their accompanying security systems have already fallen by the wayside. These developments compel today’s intelligence community to work infinitely harder to detect and track the most viable electronic threats in an ever-shrinking timeframe, lest their most applicable technological breakthroughs be discovered and exploited before the source of the threat is identified. This also makes it extremely difficult to furnish a timeframe estimate of the strategic threat assessment; with the unintended consequence that the threat might be ignored or mitigated through political negligence or bureaucratic inertia. These are very real possibilities, especially in an age where governments focus disproportionately on the “here and now” rather than further on down the road.
These are just a snapshot of the harrowing challenges that the intelligence community is continuously subject to in devising a coherent strategic threat assessment and equating that threat to its proper level of risk appraisal. Today’s color-coded, risk assessment index to correlate terrorist threats is a handy tool to use in boosting the level of vigilance for the nation’s emergency first-responders but it has no relevance to the formulation of sound national policy or political grand strategy in setting that policy to achieve long-term goals. Thus the terrorist threat index is not to be confused with a strategic threat assessment; the latter deals exclusively with future risks as they correlate to national grand strategy while the former is a rather abstract, early-warning system to stimulate national vigilance at the local level. The one common denominator in both intelligence agendas is the overarching reach of international terrorism and asymmetric warfare on the part of non-state entities. As they both stand today, these are the most cogent, long-term threats to the democratic free world and the most viable threats which will inevitably require a sustained military effort somewhere down the line. For example, the strategic threat assessment against ISIS clearly portends a progressively worsening threat to the west the longer the group remains in conventional existence.
|ISIS on the march|
However, this doesn’t negate the threat the radical Islamic jihadist group will most assuredly become if it reverts back to its former incarnation as a small-band group of militant suicide-bombers, should its expanding base be decisively beaten on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. But it clearly is a more persuasive and regional threat to the whole Mideast the longer its conventional elements remain dug in around Eastern Syria and Anbar Province. Its entrenched presence in Iraq and Syria is clearly more than just a military threat, giving that its toehold on some of the richest oil deposits in the Persian Gulf is bound to have a serious, destabilizing effect on the global economy. Clearly this makes ISIS more than just a threat to its Arab neighbors yet its menacing presence doesn’t seem to have registered more than a distant blip on the radar screens of most other nations of the western world, especially those in Europe. This is not because these nations don’t run their own strategic threat assessments from time to time rather it seems to have a lot to do with these nation’s reluctance to venture militarily outside of their own continent. Europe’s intransigence to military adventurism seems to be an acute byproduct of its decades-long, Cold War posture as a defensive bulwark against conventional Soviet ground attack.
But deterrence need not always assume a defensive posture and because outside threats are not always plainly discernible it is oftentimes wise to expand the nation-state’s security perimeter to encompass forward asymmetric outposts far from the nation’s borders where proactive, unconventional forces can be tactically positioned to preempt the threatening source through intervention or interference. This holds especially true when the threatening source has taken the form of the non-state entity, whether it be an individual terrorist cell, a regional guerrilla army such as ISIS or the command and control center of a major terrorist organization. Every nation’s military high command has their own innate, strategic master plan for dealing with outside threats that could endanger the welfare of their citizens or the country’s sovereignty, yet for the most part, only the USA, Russia and Israel enforce a defensive perimeter that extends far beyond their sovereign frontiers. It is no coincidence that these three nation’s biggest external threats hail from non-state entities without natural borders. Thus they must travel far and wide to elicit a sound judgment as to what kind of threat presents a more imminent danger.
The Arab and Islamic worlds have still not grasped this strategic concept, especially its more hallowed religious institutions and spiritual leadership. The more radical imams might be spiritedly inclined to send forth an army of youthful jihadists to rid their sacred lands of infidels and other malicious interlopers yet they don’t seem to fully comprehend that it is exactly this kind of hostile response that is working counter to their overall objective. It is precisely the radicalism and violence of their message that sustains America’s paramilitary presence in their homelands because this is the clearest option the USA has in preventing another 9-11 terrorist attack from ever coming to fruition again. Soon Europe will also awaken to the threat of radical Islam and they too will move to fashion a buffer between themselves and the imminent threat from violent jihad. And as the jihadists become more brazen and violent, so too will America and the west be forced to elevate their presence in the Islamic holy land until the threat of its unwelcome export abroad dissipates. But it’s hard to foresee any radical change of posture from the jihadists since they’re currently riding the bubble of ISIS’s recent military victories and for all intents and purposes, will have to be forcefully dragged from their current positions in Syria and Iraq.
Which brings us back to those hard-pressed intelligence techs in the gloomy catacombs underneath CIA Headquarters in Langley. Once the wonder-wizards of the intelligence community, these covert technocrats now find themselves on the frontline of America’s War on Terrorism because terrorists have gradually come to the conclusion that the key to the whole Western World’s hold on political power lies increasingly on its technological prowess. That technology is at the heart of America and Europe’s ability to detect threats and protect its people from them. Governments and civil defense infrastructure increasingly rely on high technology to safeguard the well-being of their societies. Hence it makes sense that the group with the most unbounded hatred for America and the west will attempt to strike out at it vast domestic infrastructure from the one area its internal defenses are most vulnerable; its electronic communications. And as ISIS acquires more and more oil wealth from their occupied territories and begins to accumulate their own high-tech gadgets and ultra-modern tools of war, they will no doubt, be lured to attempt to infiltrate America’s electronic firewalls from the safety of their own desktop terror centers in the Islamic heartland.
|European leaders at EC conference in Brussells|
This potentially ominous development brings a heap of credibility to the assertion that America and Europe harbor the same mutual enemies. Consequently, they must be guided by the same strategic threat assessments wherein cooperation and mutual trust are essential to combat these threats wherever and whenever they emerge. Only when the west consents to combining their resources for the sake of strategic necessity can they begin to wholeheartedly confront their most menacing nemeses from a position of sound and unadulterated strength. Both America and Europe must resolve to attain an awareness that they share a common bond that transcends all foreign obstacles that would attempt to divide them and permeate their shared strategic goals. However, Europe’s relationship with their American allies has been palpably strained since the fall of the Iron Curtain and not all of Europe’s leaders are comfortable with ceding the political lead to a government that has increasingly focused its attention on Asia as its new strategic center of gravity.
Obviously there are sizeable differences in the way America and her European allies interpret their strategic threat assessments. Currently Europe, for good cause, seems fixated on Russia’s newly invigorated, aggressive tendencies thus they can’t help but look beyond the imminent threat of ISIS materializing in the Levant. As a result, America’s strategic threat assessment of ISIS can only be viewed as exaggerated by European standards. But just because Europe and the current administration in the White House are not overly alarmed by the distinct warning signs’ being signaled from Langley and the Joint Chiefs of Staff doesn’t mean they’re not there. Sooner or later both Europe and Washington will be forced to come to the conclusion that airpower alone cannot rid the Levant of this violent scourge and just as things were during the Cold War, they will be compelled to pool their resources behind one collective military doctrine and resolve to destroy ISIS on the field of battle, once and for all. This is the one strategic threat assessment with overarching repercussions for both the USA and Europe. It must be attended to before the threat becomes a terrible, hard-to-believe tragedy.