In the summer of 2002, I was sitting in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan on the Iranian border. I was the leader of an eight man CIA team which had been sent into Iraq to locate and acquire intelligence on a suspect terrorist weapon of mass destruction (WMD) manufacturing facility under the control of a Muslim extremist group called Ansar Al Islam and Al Qaeda operatives.
Over the course of several weeks, my team acquired chapter and verse on the facility, and the operatives associated with it. Avoiding detection, we mapped the enemy’s positions down to pinpoint accuracy, transmitted hundreds of pages of intelligence back to Washington, and then put together a detailed proposal for an immediate strike on the facility.
We were in the right place at the right time. We had the advantage of surprise. With one quick blow, we could have ended this growing threat to our national security. But our request for an immediate strike was denied.
Subsequent proposals were also turned down. Action was instead deferred for further analysis and deliberation. When the attack on the target compound did occur, it was nine months too late … and telegraphed too far in advance. All of the key terrorist personnel at the site escaped and lived to fight and kill Americans another day.
Business as usual
What happened to me and my team in the mountains of Kurdistan was not an aberration. It had happened before … and it has happened since — on innumerable occasions. Like a lumbering, awkward giant chasing a smaller, more nimble foe, we stumble after our prey. We build giant bases. We moved mass numbers of troops and spend billions of dollars in a vain attempt to corner the enemy, which can be vanquished when caught with a relatively minimal amount of force. We become mired in ruinous nation-building exercises when we should have kept our eye on the prize and focus all our energies on the elimination of terrorist cells which threaten the homeland.
At home, our methods are just as ill-suited for the task at hand. We suffered the tragedy of 9/11 because we did not have the right human sources in the right places to give us advance, actionable warning. What we needed was to reenergize human intelligence, destroy the culture of risk aversion that was crippling our efforts to penetrate terrorist organizations abroad, and turn loose a small number of select, seasoned operators to hunt our enemies to the ends of the earth.
Instead, we built massive new bureaucracies, filled hundreds of new buildings with flat screen computer monitors and “analysts,” and made the preparation of PowerPoint presentations virtually our state religion. Process became king. We were, apparently, going to win the “war on terror” by burying those who would attack us in paperwork and forms.
Fifteen years after 9/11, the results are clear to see. Usama Bin Laden is dead … Al Qaeda is not. While we have prevented another mass casualty attack on US soil, we have not come close to destroying the organization that brought down the Twin Towers. It lives on in a variety of guises in a variety of locations — in places like Syria and Yemen it retains considerable power. Threats to the homeland persist.
More ominously, Al Qaeda’s progeny, groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, continue to grow in power and influence. ISIS has created a true terrorist nation-state in the heart of the Middle East. Boko Haram has carved out its own caliphate in West Africa.
A very grim future
The future looks even grimmer. We live in a dangerous world which is becoming more dangerous and chaotic by the day. Threats are not diminishing; they are merely multiplying, and their ability to threaten us is increasing proportionately. As we look across the globe, we see the proliferation of extremist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. This trend will continue to be driven by demographics and competition for resources. The poor of the world will become more desperate — not less so — in coming decades, and the forces that have fueled the rise in extremism and extremist groups will only intensify.
In many parts of the world — the United States, Europe and China, for instance — population growth has stopped and population totals are declining. In the developing world, though, it is a very different story. There, populations are exploding. Nations that can barely sustain their current populations are faced with the challenge of feeding, educating and employing vastly larger populations.
Many of these nations will not meet this challenge. They will fail, and when they fail, they will unleash the forces of chaos and conflict. What American geopolitical thinker Saul Cohen calls the “shatterbelts” of the world — areas where nation-states are disintegrating and chaos reigns supreme — will explode in size.
In 2013, the world population reached 7.2 billion. The developing world was home to 5.9 billion of those. As of 2050, the world’s population will reach 9.6 billion, and almost all of that growth will occur in the developing world. In fact, by 2050, the developing world will be home to 8.3 billion human beings. That means over 85 percent of the people on the planet will be living in the poorest, most economically and politically challenged nations.
As this population explosion in the world’s poorest nations takes place, the average age of persons in these countries will continue to plummet. By 2050, 24 nations will have populations with an average age under 25. The youngest populations on Earth will be in Niger, Mali, Zambia and Somalia.
The impact of this population explosion in the poorest, least resilient nations on the planet can hardly be exaggerated. Nations already wracked by violence and teetering on the brink of chaos are going to be buried under billions of new citizens. Nations with astronomical unemployment rates are going to be faced with hordes of angry, unemployed young people unable to find work, unable to feed themselves … and looking for someone and something to blame.
The impact of this population bomb will be magnified by the struggle for resources. A planet already struggling to find enough energy, water and food will be even more desperate. Entire cities and nations may face collapse as a result.
Estimates are that worldwide demand for energy will increase by 35 percent by 2035 as compared to 2010. Fossil fuels will provide about 75 percent of this supply, with the gas sector seeing the largest growth. Most of the growth will occur in emerging economies, throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
In short, while the United States is rapidly moving toward self-sufficiency in energy, the rest of the world will be locked in a desperate race to keep pace with growing demand. Competition for oil, natural gas and coal, already fierce, will only increase. And as it does, this competition will spark conflict and soaring prices. The increased cost of energy, and, in many places, its scarcity, will in turn generate more conflict.
The basic resources
Perhaps more threatening than competition over fossil fuels, however, is the increasing difficulty of satisfying the need for the most basic resources of all, water and food.
Forty years ago, when intensive modern farming started, there were 120 cubic miles (500 cubic kilometers) of water beneath the Saudi desert. In recent years, up to 5 cubic miles (21 cubic kilometers) has been pumped to the surface annually for use on farms. Virtually none of it is replenished. Experts estimate four-fifths of the Saudis’ "fossil" water is now gone. The rest will be exhausted in the very near future.
Yemen has one of the world’s fastest growing populations. But because of overuse of groundwater water tables there, the nation’s aquifers are declining an average two meters a year. In Sana’a, the capital city, tap water is available once every four days. In Taiz, a smaller city in the south, tap water is available once every three weeks. Because of falling water tables, the grain harvest has declined by one-third over the last 40 years. Yemen now imports more than 80 percent of its grain.
The story is grim even in relatively well off Jordan. Forty years ago, Jordan was producing over 300,000 tons of grain a year. Today, it produces 60,000 tons and imports 90 percent.
Across the planet, similar stories are unfolding. In the face of an exploding population in the poorest nations, water and food are becoming increasingly scarce. Endemic violence and forced mass migration are the result. What we see in Europe today with waves of migrants from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa is only the beginning of what promises to be a generational phenomenon, with tens of millions fleeing war and famine.
Succinctly stated, we are headed into a long period of instability, and, in the middle of this whirlwind are an increasing array of deadly weapons whose proliferation is virtually certain. For years we speculated on when terrorist groups would begin to avail themselves of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The use of chemical weapons by ISIS on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq is now routine. The threat of the use of chemical weapons in Europe is so immediate the French have issued nerve gas antidotes from military stockpiles to civilian clinics and hospitals across the nation.
The investigation of terrorist attacks in France and Belgium recently uncovered efforts by ISIS-affiliated terrorists to attack nuclear power plants near Brussels. In response, several European nations have issued stocks of iodine tablets to their citizens living near nuclear plants. The tablets are to be taken in the event of a terrorist attack and a catastrophic release of radiation.
Just a few weeks ago, Kenyan authorities reported the arrest of ISIS operatives in that nation planning a biological terrorist attack using anthrax spores taken from a research laboratory. The plot was not simply aspirational — the cell in question already had personnel in place in the target lab.
None of these events is isolated or unique. The age of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction is upon us. Prior to 9/11, the notion of a terrorist attack that could cause 3,000 deaths was considered science fiction. No longer. In the not so distant future, if we are not vigilant, biological terrorist attacks may kill tens of thousands, while attacks on nuclear power plants may force the evacuation of major metropolitan areas for a generation – or longer!
Taken all together, the kind of factors I’ve outlined paint a picture of a violent, turbulent future. Mass migrations of impoverished populations will continue, and increase in scale. Poor nations will crumble under the pressure of population growth, poverty and resource scarcity. Failed states will be common. Extremist states like that being carved out by ISIS will continue to plague us. And weapons of mass destruction will become more and more widespread.
We will need to continue to protect the citizens of the United States in this dangerous world, and we will need to do so in a way which is affordable and sustainable. We cannot invade and occupy every nation that threatens us, nor can we simply sit and wait while threats gain strength. We will need to learn, or perhaps relearn, how to fight in bold, unconventional ways which maximize our strengths and exploit the weaknesses of our enemies.
So far, we have pursued the so-called “war on terror” as if time were inevitably on our side; as if muddling along was good enough because the enemy would inevitably fade away. But time is not on our side. The enemy is not withering or faltering. In fact, new enemies are appearing all the time, and arming themselves with ever more deadly weapons. A protracted stalemate guarantees only that we will pay an ever higher price in lost lives and treasure.
Business as usual will not do. We do not need, nor can we afford, mere bureaucracy and half measures, but rather bold, decisive strikes against terrorist groups that threaten us. As fast as a threat materializes, we need to detect it, act against it, and destroy it. Delay means the loss of lives, perhaps a great many lives. Time is not on our side. Time, is, in fact, of the essence.
Faddis served more than 20 years in the CIA as a Clandestine Services operations officer who led the first CIA team into Iraq nine months in advance of the post-9/11 2003 invasion of that nation.
After serving abroad in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, Faddis retired in 2008 as head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center (CTC)’s Weapons of Mass Destruction unit charged with pursuing terrorists’ weapons of mass destruction programs around the globe. He’s also managed large organizations, worked across the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense, and has been involved in national security matters at the highest levels of government. He’s also spent more than his fair share of time running sources and covert action operations in the field.
Prior to joining CIA, he was a US Army Armor and JAG officer who later served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Washington.