29 August 2015

Getting Ahead of the Problem

by RC Porter 
August 26, 2015 

In 1915, the British poet Thomas Hardy wrote a short masterpiece about the sinking of Titanic, which had occurred several years earlier. He describes the long string of separate events by which both the ship and the iceberg are formed – one in a shipyard and the other in the sea. The climax of the poem is the collision and destruction of the ship; but the real point of the work is how all the industrial might and hubris of the industrial age was unaware of a malignant force slowly growing in shape, form, and destructive power. In Hardy’s words:

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Unfortunately, there is a looming convergence ahead of us as well in our prideful keeps here in the western world. It is the potential collision of the illegal but efficient global trafficking routes with the eventual production of a weapon of mass destruction. These two dangerous streams – global shipping routes that move narcotics, weapons, human slaves, cash, and other illicit goods AND a rudimentary weapon of mass destruction – must never be allowed to cross

Let’s begin with the transport routes.

The global shipping routes are constantly monitored, frequently documented, and reasonably well understood. Over $2 trillion in global goods and services make up the illicit economy, much of it moving in a financial sense across the dark net and in a physical sense on global trafficking streams operated by illicit actors. In terms of size, location, and timing of the routes, there are many estimates produced from the world’s security professionals, including the military intelligence services. A visual portrayal of just the illegal narcotic trade (cocaine, heroin, and so forth) reveals a global spider’s web of nets. Worst of all, they are constantly shifting and creatively executed by master logistic organizations – the drug cartels.

Looking specifically at the threat to the United States, it is instructive to review the recent testimony before Congress of General John Kelly, Commander of US Southern Command in Miami. His subordinate command, the Joint Interagency Task Force West in Key West monitors and attempts to interdict much of the narcotics (principally cocaine and heroin) moving north from Latin America in to the US by land, sea, and air routes.

He said, “The tentacles of global networks involved in narcotics and arms trafficking, human smuggling, illicit finance, and other types of illegal activity reach across Latin America and the Caribbean and into the United States, yet we continue to underestimate the threat of transnational organized crime at significant and direct risk to our national security and that of our partner nations. Unless confronted by an immediate, visible, or uncomfortable crisis, our nation’s tendency is to take the security of the Western Hemisphere for granted. I believe this is a mistake.”

General Kelly goes on to point out that the global illicit trade tops $650 billion annually, and that only about 1% of it is interdicted. Given this shocking level of relatively free movement, it is clear that it is relatively easy to move a wide variety of goods and people around the world – something we are seeing with remarkable clarity into Europe this year, when refugee flows over such routes will break all records and could reach over 600,000 displaced people by year’s end: 340,000 have already arrived. German Chancellor Merkel has advised her nation to brace for 800,000 refugees over time. The routes over which all of these people and goods move – illegally – represent a very real danger to the recipient nations.

The other side of the convergence is the production of weapons of mass destruction.

Here we see the efforts by a variety of regimes that are antithetical to the United States either attaining a nuclear device (North Korea) or seeking one (Iran). It seems highly unlikely that an outlaw regime would use an immediately attributable missile deliver of such a weapon. Far more likely would be an effort to deliver one clandestinely. And then there are terrorist organizations: while there is not agreement among intelligence services as to the degree to which trans-national organizations are seeking weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, or chemical), it is clear that enormous levels of malign intent exist in extremist organizations, i.e. Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, among many others.
The convergence of these two streams could occur with relative ease as a commercial transaction. On the side of the drug cartels, it would be driven by a profit motivation. For the regimes, both national and trans-national, the attraction of such an arrangement would be to strike the United States without direct retribution. Having seen the enormous effect on the global and US economy after 9/11 with the destruction of the World Trade Center and the deaths of 3,000 innocent citizens, consider how attractive detonating a nuclear weapon, even one of small yield and crude parameters, in the major US city. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England has asked rhetorically, “Why did Al-Qaeda kill 3,000 people on 9/11? Because they didn’t have the ability to kill 300,000 with a nuclear device.”

None of this is an immediate threat, of course. But like the looming iceberg in the distance from TITANTIC, ignoring it will lead one day to the convergence we have to avoid.

So what should we be doing?

First, we should simply recognize the possibilities. It is a commonplace observation to say that 9/11 was the failure of imagination. By thinking through these kind of convergent scenarios, we have a better chance of detecting them.
Second, intelligence collection and sharing is key. We need to focus more of our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance on these global trafficking networks. We will reap the additional benefit of thwarting some of the trafficking in people, narcotics, counterfeit goods and cash, and many other illicit schemes. And we will also be preparing more effectively to prevent the convergence.

A third key activity is better interdiction. It is not sufficient to simply track and analyze the shipping routes. By actually launching assets (generally law enforcement actors, supported by military) we can disrupt not only the routes themselves, but the organizations behind them.

Fourth, we need to aggressively “follow the money.” The interagency teams doing this are having reasonable success, but with more resources and talent, they can be more effective. This is the ultimate “team sport,” which will require interagency, international, and indeed private-public cooperation.

A fifth idea would be to involve the private sector more fully. Some of the best logisticians in the world work at UPS, Maersk, DHS, FEDEX, and other massive shipping companies. Let them help us analyze these traffic flows, reverse engineer them, and kill them. Also, the private sector is a huge neighborhood watch around the world with visibility over much of the transport segments used illicitly by the cartels.

Finally, there is a huge cyber component to all of this. The dark web is where most of the deals are done, and our ability to move through that space, gather intelligence, selectively disrupt in cyber-space, and snare the illegal organizations will be crucial. These global cartels are the “dark side of globalization” as some have called it, and stopping them will require a more robust and aggressive posture in cyber space.

We still have time to address this dangerous potential convergence. But the clock is ticking, much as it did in 1912 for Titanic. We need to be doing more than the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on that ill-fated ship. It is high time to go after these global shipping routes with real vigor.

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