Looking back at this moment four years ago, what I most remember is the difficulty of discussing analytical predictions for the incoming Trump presidency. A presentation that suggested his office would be ending amidst a global pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of Americans and a violent mob of supporters forcing lawmakers to shelter in the Capitol would not have been believed, to put it politely.
There is a lesson here about black swans, which is pertinent to consider on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It is of course the job of analysts to consider the unthinkable, and we have had no better lesson in that than the last 12 months. After all, it was exactly a year ago that a few hundred of the world’s leading CSOs sat down at the ISMA meeting in San Diego with the “Chinese Coronavirus outbreak” (as it then was) placed as an emergency session on the agenda. At that time, many could not believe or accept the impacts that were coming, although at least that session helped to change minds – setting the scene for successful US corporate security action and advice to leadership in the early stages of the pandemic, once it reached our shores.
This is not to get myself off the hook when predicting the security challenges President Biden will face, but rather a reminder that we all need to think widely and openly about possibilities in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. It is certainly much more of all these things now than in 2016! Still, there are certain things that one can reasonably expect to be on the President’s agenda early on.
Obviously, the domestic terrorist threat is now high priority. We are still fighting jihadism despite twenty years of sustained effort, and this has shown us the endurance of these sorts of movements. With up to 25% of Americans refusing to some extent to accept the election result, the ground remains fertile for the hard core of right wing actors who have prospered over the last few years. Trump’s impeachment will keep issues in the forefront, and the closure of social media channels will lead to the migration of, admittedly, a smaller number of people into more closed spaces where activities will be harder to track or mitigate. The most dangerous threat actors have been remaining away from rallies or events like the assault on the Capitol, and these groups continue to organize in the shadows. Their activities will focus on sustaining divisions, and conspiracy theories will continue to find willing adherents; as QAnon has shown, searching for the truth makes finding meaning even more rewarding. This will grow rather than fade as resentment and economic reality sets in.
Left wing violence also remains a threat, but this sits much behind the right wing and will continue to be deeply rooted in local issues. The issue remains the way in which various sides will feed off each other when events occur, although a firmer line from the government on support for social justice may mitigate anger and will limit the cycle of violence seen in, for example, Kenosha WI.
Organized crime has of course prospered under the pandemic, with extensions into new markets and activities based on opportunity. It’s simplistic to say that hard economic times drive people to the criminal economy, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Cyber crime has of course also seen a boost given more reliance on home working, and vulnerability of systems. Ransomware remains a serious threat, especially where critical data can be seized – hence so many attacks on healthcare this year; the likelihood of a payoff is greater. Vaccination programs can expect a very high degree of targeting, given what’s at stake.
Internationally, Biden will act fast to reverse the course of the Trump administration in terms of relationships with key partners and treaty organizations such as the WHO and the Paris Accord. NATO will also see benefits, not least as the scale of the SolarWinds hack shows that Russia remains a significant foe to the US, and the country will continue to try and frustrate and confuse US policy and domestic stability, conflating this with its own security. Putin’s relationship with the Obama administration was difficult, something that was focused in part on the then Vice-President, and so it is clear that the Kremlin is expecting renewed pressure on the relationship.
One thing that is also unlikely to change is the underlying trajectory with China, which is something that companies need to be particularly aware of. The course is set from both sides and although there may be increased politeness on the surface, the competition is in the open. The treatment of the Uighurs will color relationships not only with the US but with most allies, as will the transformation of Hong Kong, and tensions over technology will mount. Corporations make great proxy targets in this environment. China’s expanding position in Africa and Latin America may also receive greater notice.
Finally, one other top issue to consider is the growing assertiveness of regional powers in this more uncertain world. Iran and North Korea are likely to pose early challenges, not least to test and understand the boundaries. However other nations, including but not limited to India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey, may follow suit. Flashpoints certainly abound, and Nagorno-Karabakh shows us that they can boil over. How the new administration reacts will do much to set the tone, and it was also only just over a year ago since we feared a US-Iranian war in the Gulf.
This is of course without considering the immense policy impact and distraction of dealing with the pandemic, the economy, and the potential exacerbation of haves vs have-nots in the US this has all laid bare. Given all this, it’s going to be a critical and challenging initial period for the President – and, I suggest, a no less busy and critical one for all of us in security and intelligence, as we continue to help our organizations not only mitigate risk and survive, but find the opportunities and thrive, through a world of such complexity.