(ISIS photo)

From ISIS Lone Wolves to Pyongyang’s Warheads: Threat Picture in the New Year

With concerns about the Islamic State evolving beyond its onetime border-busting caliphate, high-profile events that pose unique security challenges and mounting tensions with rogue nations already marring the new year, Homeland Security Today asked experts at Jane’s by IHS Markit about the complex threat forecast facing the world in 2018.

How do you see the international terrorism threat picture developing in 2018? Do you expect increasing “lone wolf” attacks and are there signs of a more coordinated response from specific groups?

Now that all territory controlled by the core Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been recaptured, alongside a resurgent use of asymmetric insurgent tactics, the group can be expected to further amplify its calls for punitive, retaliatory attacks by its supporters in the West. – Matthew Henman, head of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC), IHS Markit 

Do you expect to see attempted attacks at large-scale events such as this summer’s FIFA World Cup, as IS has called for? How have counterterrorism efforts improved to counter such an attack?

Given that the World Cup is being held in Russia, this will make the tournament an even more lucrative target for militant Islamist groups, and particularly the Islamic State, which will be keen to retaliate for Russia’s sizeable role in the group’s territorial defeat in Syria. Consequently, it would be unsurprising if mass-casualty violence was attempted, either targeting Russian civilians or infrastructure, or fans of other nations participating – particularly Western European countries as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russian security efforts will be noticeably heightened, making it more difficult for a coordinated and planned attack to be conducted, although there is a stronger likelihood of a successful lone actor attack utilizing either vehicles or edged weapons, with a lower possibility of the use of explosive devices. – Matthew Henman

Various organizations (e.g. UN, Interpol) have been calling for increased and enhanced cooperation between countries in terms of counter-terrorism initiatives and information sharing. Is it fair to claim that countries and organisations are not collaborating as well as they might?

The sharing of counter-terrorism intelligence and best practice is generally robust, but where the information is classified, the exchange is normally carried out on bilateral or restricted multilateral channels to protect the source of the intelligence. All major countries are reluctant to share classified information through multinational organizations, where they would lose a degree of originator control. Where the information is unclassified or only protectively marked to a low level, some exchange does occur in multinational organizations, such as through Europol. For many politicians and commentators, it is unfortunately a standard reaction to terrorist attacks to claim that intelligence-sharing is lacking and should be improved, without fully understanding the nature of current arrangements. – Robert Munks, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Review, IHS Markit 

How does the UK leaving the European Union affect the country from a security perspective? Are there any programs or agreements that the UK is currently involved with that will be in jeopardy as a result of the Brexit vote?

Commentators differ on the security implications of Brexit for the UK, but in general agree that the overall security environment is unlikely to be greatly affected. As discussed above, much intelligence-sharing on threats already happens on bilateral intelligence channels that do not pass through the EU, and this will continue as before without any change. The major effects will be in the areas of police and judicial cooperation, with the greatest potential negatives being in continued access to initiatives such as the Schengen Information System database and the European Arrest Warrant, as well as police cooperation through Europol. However, given the UK’s status as a leading European defense and security power that has much to offer the rest of Europe, it is highly likely that arrangements will ultimately be negotiated – such as associate status – that will confer broadly the same privileges and obligations as previously. – Robert Munks

Which countries do you see as being most vulnerable to terrorist attacks in 2018 and why?

Aside from countries already experiencing a high-level of violence by non-state armed groups, it is highly likely that the threat from militant Islamist violence will remain high in Western European nations, such as the UK, France, Germany, and Belgium, as well as in the United States, which will also likely suffer from a continued high tempo of right-wing extremist violence. – Matthew Henman

What about Russia and North Korea? Is there a real risk of cyber/nuclear warfare and is the West prepared?

We continue to assess that conflict on the Korean peninsula is unlikely; however, the risk has increased substantially over the past couple years, especially in 2017. The main factors contributing to an elevated risk of escalation towards unintended conflict include:

  • North Korea’s accelerated and advancing development of miniaturized nuclear warheads and longer-range ballistic missiles
  • Fewer open channels of communication, both official and unofficial, between North Korea and China, South Korea, and the U.S.
  • Ambiguity around the redlines of North Korea and especially the U.S.; especially in brinkmanship similar to U.S.-North Korea exchanges of threats in 2017, the risk of miscalculation is high

Theoretically, this stage of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is inherently risky because there is an incentive for the U.S. to attack and remove its nuclear arsenal while it is relatively small and North Korea is unable to retaliate against the U.S. mainland.

North Korea, however, is still able to invite U.S. restraint by threatening U.S. allies and assets in the region. Specifically, South Korea is within range of North Korea’s artillery and presumed chemical weapons capability, and Guam is within range of North Korea’s Hwasong-12 missile. However, the Trump administration has signaled that the importance of Seoul’s vulnerability as a constraint in the U.S. calculus might be waning, while the U.S. has deployed the THAAD missile defense system to Guam.

The only way to effectively halt, let alone reverse, North Korea’s progress on nuclear missiles would be conflict. However, the most likely scenario is one involving the passing – and, importantly, implementation of – increasingly stringent sanctions against North Korea, and encouragement by China and Russia for all sides to reach a diplomatic solution. This does not remove the nuclear aspect of North Korea’s diplomacy, but provides an acceptable halfway house for the international community to express their disapproval of North Korea’s nuclear program and allow time for a diplomatic solution, or for the U.S. and its allies to accept the reality of a nuclear-armed Pyongyang.

Regarding cyber-attacks, North Korea is widely suspected of having used its cyber capabilities to conduct a range of activities from generating revenue. For example, it is accused of stealing $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank in May 2016, and $60 million from a Taiwanese bank in October 2017. North Korea is also likely to have conducted attacks targeting companies that it perceives to have harmed North Korea in some way, including Sony in November 2014. North Korea is highly likely to continue such operations, particularly as sanctions begin to bite and the country looks for alternative sources of hard currency. – Alison Evans, deputy head of Asia Pacific Country Risk, IHS Markit & Karl Dewey, CBRN analyst, Jane’s by IHS Markit

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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