on security

Dec 25, 2018 | 07:00 GMT

9 mins read

On Security in 2018: A Chronology

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Security men watch police CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras overlooking a street in Croydon, south London.
(WILLIAM LOVELACE/Express/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

As we look back on the year that was, it's important to remember that effective security requires constant vigilance, maintenance and review. To counter and anticipate threats, teams, businesses and individuals should review the threats that were, alongside existing strategies to mitigate risk. Compiled below are highlights from Stratfor's On Security column in 2018. Written by Scott Stewart and the team from Stratfor Threat Lens, a unique protective intelligence product designed with corporate security leaders in mind, these articles cover some of the most important security trends from the past year.

Hacking: Another Weapon in the Asymmetrical Arsenal

Jan. 25, 2018: Iran's Islamic Revolution could play out, in part, online. On Jan. 4, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a report describing the country as a "third-tier cyberthreat." The report's authors note that despite Iran's success with cyberattacks such as Shamoon and a spear-phishing campaign that hit Deloitte and several other companies, Iranian attacks generally feature poor tradecraft. Hacking will not replace terrorism as an asymmetrical weapon, however. Terrorism is not going anywhere, and it remains a popular tool for state and non-state actors alike, as a glance at the battlefields in Syria, Afghanistan and Libya will attest. Instead, cyberattacks are a supplement to terrorism — just another wrench in the toolbox of Machiavellian statecraft. Many of the features that make terrorism attractive as a conduit for state power also apply to cyberattacks.

Tracking Mexico's Cartels in 2018

Feb. 1, 2018: Since 2006, Stratfor has chronicled the dynamics of the organizations that make up the complex mosaic of organized crime in Mexico in the form of an annual cartel report. Back when this process began, the cartel landscape was much simpler, with only a handful of major groups to track. But by 2013, the splintering of the cartels into smaller factions had made it difficult to analyze them the same way. Indeed, many of the once-dominant umbrella groups, such as the Gulf cartel, have fragmented into several, often competing, organizations. In response, the focus of the analysis shifted to the clusters of smaller groups that emanate from a specific geographic area. Nevertheless, the organizations that arose in the Tierra Caliente region and in the states of Tamaulipas and Sinaloa remain on the radar.

Russia Sends a Chilling Message With Its Latest Chemical Attack

March 13, 2018: To understand the true reason for the chemical attack [on former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, England], we must consider the current intelligence environment first. After the ascension of former KGB officer and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Vladimir Putin to Russia's presidency in 2000, we witnessed a dramatic resurgence of Russian domestic and foreign intelligence efforts. By the mid-2000s, Russia's intelligence agencies had become far more assertive not only in their collection activities, but also in their wet operations — assassinations and other dirty jobs. Opponents of the Kremlin at home and abroad began to die. And many of these operations, including the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former FSB officer Litvinenko, were deliberately brazen. 

As Russia well knows, there are more practical ways to kill someone — as opposed using a deadly chemical or radioactive isotope — but sometimes the Kremlin just wants to send a message.

The use of a rare radioactive isotope (polonium-210) in the Litvinenko murder was akin to leaving a calling card at the scene of a crime. There are far more subtle ways to kill someone, and Russia frequently employs such methods. Thanks to the elaborate means used, it's not hard to conclude that the Kremlin wanted to make it clear that it was responsible for killing Litvinenko. Likewise, I believe that the use of a rare nerve agent in the Skripal attack was intentional — and another example of the Russians leaving a "calling card."

Living in a Time of Twitter and Mass Murder in the U.S.

April 10, 2018: In the past I have written about how the media can act as a terror magnifier and leave the wrong impression about threat levels in the United States. In fact, FBI statistics show that the U.S. murder rate is near historic lows. It was 5.3 per 100,000 people in 2016, the last full year for which statistics were available. That figure is close to the murder rates in the early 1960s and is little more than half of the historic high of 10.2 in 1980. Some cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Columbus, Ohio, have experienced recent increases in their murder rates, but preliminary data suggest that New York City's rate in 2017 dropped to the lowest it has been in seven decades.

Why are Americans so fearful of being murdered?

That drop goes beyond just New York. In the nation's 50 largest cities, homicides fell about 2.1 percent, from 5,863 in 2016 to 5,738 in 2017. In 1980 there were 23,404 homicides in the United States and only 17,250 in 2016. This drop happened while the population of the United States grew from 226 million in 1980 to over 320 million today. So if homicides and homicide rates are down considerably from 1980s high, why are so many Americans fearful of being murdered?

How Do You Measure Success Against Jihadists?

June 12, 2018: It was just last week that I was talking to a person who is working to help a country combat a significant jihadist threat. In the course of our chat, we started thinking, how do you actually measure success against jihadist groups? As operations the world over have shown, simply destroying a high number of Toyota Hiluxes driven by militants isn't necessarily the defining mark of success in the "war on terrorism," and a tally of terrorist attacks doesn't necessarily signal failure. I've written before on terrorism and insurgent theory and the trajectories of specific groups, but never on how to gauge militant groups. As it turns out, there's more to assessing a jihadist group's strength than straight numbers.

When Drones Attack: The Threat Remains Limited

July 17, 2018: Attacks involving drones likely will only become more common and will eventually pose a global concern. On July 11, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published a study of the Islamic State's drone program by Don Rassler that detailed how the group was able to obtain commercial drones and components that it used to conduct both surveillance and attacks. Rassler's study traced how an array of companies owned by a pair of Bangladeshi brothers in the United Kingdom, Bangladesh and Spain bought drones and parts and shipped them to Turkey to be smuggled into Islamic State territory.

Getting hold of drones is easy, getting hold of military-grade ordnance is not, depending on where you are.

The complex, transnational supply chain that enabled the jihadist group's robust drone program could be replicated elsewhere. However, an individual or a small terrorist cell wishing to obtain a drone or two for an attack does not have to go to such lengths. Commercial drones are readily available around the globe. Most can carry relatively small payloads — the popular DJI Phantom 4, for example, can bear just over a pound. Heavy-lift drones available for commercial sale that can carry over 20 pounds are far more expensive, and their purchasers will face more scrutiny.

Violence, Security and the Next Mexican President

Aug. 14, 2018: On Dec. 1, Lopez Obrador will be sworn into office for a single, six-year term. Mexican voters have given him a free hand to take on the endemic graft and the brutal cartel violence that are hampering the country's economic growth. And for the first time since 1997, a single party will control the presidency and both houses of Congress, giving Lopez Obrador a rare opportunity to make a real difference in Mexico's future. But having power doesn't always guarantee success; that, instead, will depend on how well the new administration executes on its promises and on how well its proposals actually reduce the violence.

Applying Long War Theory to Insurgencies

Aug. 21, 2018: While Western commanders seek rapid and decisive victories, insurgent commanders aim to prolong the fighting and create a grinding war of attrition that will wear down stronger enemy forces while allowing the militants to build up their strength. If the enemy is a foreign invader, insurgent commanders seek to attack the foreign forces with persistence and savagery in the hopes that such action will compel the occupier to withdraw from the conflict once the cost in blood and materiel outweighs its interest in the country. The withdrawal of the foreign force will then allow insurgent commanders to finally achieve a decisive victory over local foes. Naturally, if there is no foreign invading force, rebel leaders simply aim to wear down their domestic enemies until they can overpower them.

The Benefits of Traveling 'Gray'

Sept. 4, 2018: Before I took a recent vacation trip to Beirut, a friend asked whether I was concerned about being targeted by jihadists or Hezbollah during my visit to the "pearl of the Middle East." I had done my due diligence research, so I wasn't worried. Besides, I explained, I was going to "be very gray" as I traveled. I first became aware of this concept, which dictates that travelers should blend in with the local environment, during my work at the U.S. State Department. The techniques of traveling gray can benefit other travelers who visit potentially hostile regions.

China's Corporate Espionage Looms Large in Its Battle With the U.S.

Nov. 6, 2018: Concerns about Chinese corporate espionage are rising to the fore in the United States. Late last week, senior officials in the U.S. Department of Justice announced an initiative to counter the major threat posed by Chinese spying that has raised alarm in both Washington and farther afield. The espionage (and counterespionage) struggle between the great powers spans a number of areas, including those falling into traditional national security categories such as intelligence collection efforts that target military plans and preparations, not to mention diplomatic initiatives and stances, sanctions and trade negotiations.

The espionage — and counterespionage — struggle between great powers will only intensify in 2019 and beyond.

The U.S. government's recent release of court documents and statements has shined a light on Chinese efforts to acquire critical technologies, as well as the U.S. efforts to counter them. Such counteractions are just the latest salvo in the brewing battle between China and the United States, and given that Beijing is likely to alter its strategy in response, they won't be the last.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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