Agribusiness and the food supply are vulnerable to terrorist activity. Although militants are being hunted down and much of their time is now spent in survival mode, it doesn’t mean all will be neutralized. Some “squirters” will make it into countries undetected. They mean to do harm, and having survived the battlefield, are well equipped to do so. Multinational agribusiness and food corporations remain within reach of militant fighters. This will not change for a long time.
Governments are watching for incoming ISIS fighters. The U.S. continues to coordinate military operations with a large number of nations, many very quietly. However, ISIS fighters are using smuggling routes in cooperation with criminal organizations to move themselves wherever they want to go. The linkage of criminal organizations to terrorist organizations is an alarming trend not likely to subside anytime soon.
Will ISIS target agriculture and food? Of the two, an attack on food is more likely. ISIS currently has neither the delivery capability nor access to the agents necessary to enable an agro-terrorism attack. That doesn’t mean the group doesn’t dream about attacking a nation’s critical infrastructure, however. They just don’t have the needed “chops,” so for the foreseeable future such an attack is a remote possibility.
The food supply is another matter. A terrorist group might not have the ability to attack an entire food supply but might have access to food industry facilities and have the capability to stage a successful local attack. The food industry has four vulnerabilities that terrorists could target: 1) food products, 2) industrial chemicals and systems, 3) personnel and trucking, and 4) rolling stock.
ISIS is quite familiar with the chaos and suffering that poisoning food can cause. Ironically, in 2015 a successful poisoning attack on ISIS’ own food supply killed at least 45 militants. Documents recovered from Mosul, Iraq, show the group used prisoners as guinea pigs for experiments using thallium sulfate, nicotine, and other toxic chemicals and has openly indicated a desire to poison the food supply. The toxic substances tested are possibilities, but using industrial chemicals and cleaners already present in the food industry is a more likely scenario. In addition, making threats without actual contamination could also cause major public relations problems for food corporations. And remember, ammonia refrigeration plants and chlorine tanks remain desired targets. ISIS has experience with both.
As far as personnel vulnerabilities, the food service industry has the same vulnerability as any other facility employing large numbers of people because large groups of people are a preferred target. A well-placed improvised explosive device, or IED, in a break area, cafeteria, or ingress/egress corridor would cause chaos. In fact, a phoned-in bomb threat recently disrupted operations at one U.S. food company. Fortunately, the call was a hoax, but that might not be the case in the future. Frankly, law enforcement and the Intelligence Community have been expecting more successful bombings. In terms of firearms, the Las Vegas sniper event last year proved how tragically successful a determined killer possessing lots of firearms and ammunition can be. In many ways that event was a game changer, and rest assured that ISIS noticed and would like to repeat such an event.
All in all, 2018 is likely to be an active year for ISIS and related terrorist groups. Europe and the U.S. will remain preferred targets, and agriculture and the food industry will need to continue to be vigilant.
The most important goal for 2018 should be to know exactly who is working inside the corporate wire. People with access to corporate personnel, processes, and systems can do considerable damage to both people and to the corporate brand, which will have lasting effects. People, of course, are the first consideration, but corporations are made up of people. The most important defensive strategy is to develop and maintain robust situational awareness. Vigilance is the thing that prevents or contains the damage. Stay vigilant to stay safe.
Dr. Norton, chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group, is a long-time consultant to the U.S. military, federal, and state law enforcement agencies and is editor of Bob Norton’s Food Defense Blog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by 334-844-7562.
AUTHOR’S DISCLAIMER: Dr. Norton and production of this article were supported by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station and the Hatch program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA. The article represents the personal opinion of Dr. Norton and does not reflect official policy or statutory related opinion.