In this week’s edition of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, our first for 2020, Bryghtpath Principal & Chief Executive Bryan Strawser discusses the recent drone strikes carried out against Iranian aligned unconventional forces, militia, and government officials by the United States – with a focus on steps that businesses that operate in the region – and globally – should consider as tensions rise and escalations occur in retaliation.
Topics discussed include intelligence, monitoring threats, freedom of navigation, travel safety & security, soft target protection, detecting pre-attack surveillance, and other measures that companies should take.
Despite knowing the proper pronunciation of Qasem Soleimani’s name, I pronounced it incorrectly multiple times during this episode. My apologies for my error. — Bryan
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Episode #76: BryghtCast for the week of October 7th, 2019
- Episode #78: BryghtCast for the week of October 14th, 2019
- Blog Post: Top 12 Global Risks of 2018
Bryan Strawser: Hello and welcome to the Managing Uncertainty Podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, principal and chief executive here at Bryghtpath, and I’m running solo again today. We’re here to talk about Iran and the Middle East. Given recent events that have occurred over the last couple of weeks throughout Iraq and Iran and the involvement of the United States admitted, confirmed involvement of the United States on a drone strike killing an Iranian official near the Baghdad airport about a week ago.
Bryan Strawser: I’m sure you’re familiar with the details of the incident, but to back up a little bit, there has been for a number of months, years even in Iraq, a number of attacks on United States military interest throughout the region that have connectivity back to the unconventional forces of the government of Iran. These unconventional forces in many cases, were the Quds Force, Q-U-D-S, and the commanding general of the Quds Force. Quds is the unconventional warfare arm of the Iranian military and intelligence apparatus. The commanding general was Major General Suleimani and a week ago as he was leaving the Baghdad airport in a three-vehicle convoy with some allies of his, no Iraqi government officials but Aronian allies that operate within Iraq, his convoy was struck by a series of missiles fired from a U.S. Government Reaper drone, a more modern version of the predator.
Bryan Strawser: Killed in this drone strike were General Suleimani along with some local allies as how I’d outlined before. It took a little bit of time, a few hours before this was confirmed, and then a few more hours for the United States to announce that they had made the drone striking, accepting responsibility for the strike. In addition in the following days, but the United States executed a number of other strikes, some of which our government has confirmed, some of which have not been confirmed as well as a special operation in Yemen that attempted to capture one of our top 20 wanted terrorists who was another close ally of the Iranian unconventional forces, the Quds Forces.
Bryan Strawser: Now, the geopolitics with all of this are super complex. They go back centuries in some cases and certainly some of it goes back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. There’s some very strongly held differences of opinion between the two countries but the important part here is there’s just no mistaking that the United States’ decision to strike General Suleimani was a very significant event in terms of the current conflict in the Middle East. And General Suleimani was a leading strategist for unconditional warfare, he played a very significant role in the Middle East as the Quds Force and the Iranian government has been involved with Hamas, with Hezbollah and with other unaffiliated groups that are aligned with the government of Iran, like Iranian militias that operate in Iraq and Yemen and elsewhere. And you could connect, and the United States certainly believes this in terms of the intelligence that they have published, they believe that we could connect General Suleimani to hundreds of deaths of American servicemen and women in Iraq and else his other actions against the United States, Israel, and other allies throughout the Middle East.
Bryan Strawser: So there’ll be almost certainly will be escalations and we’ve already seen some of this as a result of the decision to make this strike. And with all of that as background, what I want to focus on is what we always talk about here on the podcast, which is what American businesses and other businesses operating in the Middle East, and throughout the world, that might be impacted. What should we do in order to make sure that our people are safe, that our business operations are secure and that we’re prepared for what may come in the future in terms of retaliation and escalation from this attack?
Bryan Strawser: First, I think it’s important to point out the likelihood of an actual conventional war that would occur between the United States and its allies and Iran and its allies, is highly, highly unlikely. It’s unlikely for a couple of reasons. The first is that although Iran has significant military capability, perhaps has evolved nuclear weapons or may have some other weapons of mass destruction and Iran has a large inactive military, the United States remains the world’s really only superpower and the Leviathan as Thomas P.M. Barnett refers to, the Leviathan of the United States military would probably make short work of the country of Iran and its military forces if necessary. But I think there’s also the other side of this which is that Iran is playing a long game of chess here and hoping that the United States is not playing a strategy game of chess in return. Iran’s approach to the United States since the 1970’s when the current government took over from the Shah of Iran, and there was the Iranian revolution and they seized the United States embassy, their approach has been almost entirely to engage in a series of unconventional warfare campaigns that impact the United States and our allies.
Bryan Strawser: So, I don’t think you’re going to see head-on conventional military conflict between the two countries. I think what we will see is unconventional warfare, and I want to start that by saying that one of the likely areas that we’re going to see from Iran will be the use of cyber attacks of various types in order to disrupt United States government interests and private sector interests throughout the world. Though they will most certainly be targeting the United States and our allies and part of that will be impacting the business community and I think we’ll see that first in the cyber domain. Iran has significant offensive cyber warfare capability. They are one of the countries that U.S. Cyber Command talks about as being a significant threat along with Russia and China and North Korea and they’re a significant threat with significant capability. So cyber is one area where we’re going to see that.
Bryan Strawser: The second area where I think we’re going to see risk, the areas that are most at risk, are going to be the military targets that are in the region. And we’ve already seen some of that with a missile strike on U.S. bases launch from Iran. These are bases that the United States operates inside the country of Iraq. We saw that within a few days of the drone strike on Suleimani and I believe we’re going to continue to see those types of unconventional attacks on United States interests in Iraq for at least as long as we’re there.
Bryan Strawser: The third area of risk is ocean traffic that is moving in the Persian Gulf, particularly through the Strait of Hormuz where Iran has previously, as recently as July, seized Western flagged ships. They seized a couple of ships that carried United Kingdom flags, which just means they’re kind of homeported or registered with that country, but they’ve taken other actions over the years to engage militarily across the Persian Gulf. They shot down the United States drone and some other attacks over the last 20 or 30 years have occurred there. The United Kingdom since July has been organizing protective missions for ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz. The United States has also been involved in supporting that mission and I believe there are some other NATO and EU countries that have participated in this as well.
Bryan Strawser: The area of greatest concern in the region from our standpoint and in real area of concern globally are our soft targets. Here we’re talking about business interests, civilian populations, and would almost think about this as something that should be looked at as kind of concentric levels of risk. We think the closer that we are to the Persian gulf, the more challenges and more risk that can be seen and the farther out that you are geographically then the less risk that there are. Certainly, businesses that operate close in or in the Middle East are likely at the greatest risk. We believe the secondary risk is in Europe of both Eastern and Western Europe, and then we get into some farther afield targets even here in the United States. The way to think about the geographic risk here is that civilian populations that are massing in areas in the Middle East or in Europe and then in the United States are possible soft targets. Think about these indirect attacks like shopping malls and sporting events, movie theaters, large public gatherings, large public events, as being places that should really consider their level of soft target protection. In this time of this kind of global uncertainty, what other measures should be taken in those areas, for example, here in Minnesota, the Mall of America has long been talked about as a significant terrorist target of opportunity, and I know that the security team there who does a lot of things both seen and unseen, likely took steps, I don’t know for sure, but I would predict that they took steps in response to Iran’s vows of escalation and revenge following General Suleimani’s death at the hands of U.S. Forces.
Bryan Strawser: We haven’t seen too many of these kinds of soft attacks coming from a foreign aligned group here in the United States but I will take you back to a few years ago in San Bernardino, California, where two individuals that had come to the country and had been radicalized, kind of align themselves with the ISIS/ISIL movement, a man and his wife committed a mass shooting of his co-workers at a county worker gathering in San Bernardino, and then engaged in a running gun battle with local state and federal law enforcement. Ultimately that resulted in their deaths and the subsequent investigation pointed to their close alignment with ISIS acting on their own in a lone wolf manner, but having been radicalized through the Internet and other encounters that they had had. So these kinds of attacks, certainly Iran is not publishing the kind of self radicalizing material that ISIS did on the internet, but this type of attack on a soft target is still a strong possibility. And this is the kind of campaign that the Quds Force really focused on, these unconventional attacks on softer targets throughout the world.
Bryan Strawser: So what should companies do? Well, first is just to continue to monitor the threat. We want to make sure that you’re looking at the news, you’re looking at information from the U.S. State Department, from groups like OSAC, the Overseas Security Advisory Council, at the state department. If you’re an FBI InfraGard member, you’ll have access to some information there, certainly, some information that’ll be more physical and cybersecurity-focused. These are things we want to make sure we’re monitoring the threat that we understand what might be at risk for us as this situation continues to evolve. When you think about your soft target protection, really think about how can you engage in efforts to detect pre-attack surveillance. That almost always happens in some of these attacks. There’s an attempt to surveil the target and understand the points of weakness and opportunity that they could use to strike.
Bryan Strawser: I think companies should look at their travel safety and security policies, how you’re monitoring geopolitical risk and what your approach is to travel in the Middle East. Do you have contingency plans for operations and business travel in the area and do you feel like in your worst-case scenario that could happen here in terms of a soft target attack or an unconventional attack on some forces where you happen to have facilities or may have travelers nearby, what does that approach look like? Certainly would look at what you’re training the teams too that are traveling to these areas, but also looking strongly at what’s your capacity, whether organic to your organization or through a third-party service to get folks out if the situation escalates. And again, we want to make sure that you’re monitoring current events and taking appropriate actions to protect your team and your assets and your business operations.
Bryan Strawser: So, hopefully, that gives you a little bit of background on the situation following the killing of General Suleimani by the United States, what that might mean for your business operations. Again, if there’s anything we can help you within these areas here at Bryghtpath, we’d be happy to chat about that. Give us a call anytime at 612-235-6435 or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s it for this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast. We’ll be back next week with another new episode. Thanks for listening.