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The Psychological Impact of the Islamic State Terrorist Attacks – Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (6)

This article is part of a series seeking to identify the impacts of the current and most probably forthcoming Islamic State and jihadist terrorist attacks and focuses on major socio-psychological consequences. It follows a first article, which started outlining a framework for impact assessment out of our current understanding of the economic consequences of terrorism, which notably pointed out the need to use mapping as methodology if the complex and cascading characters of these impacts are to be properly assessed. The larger aim of the series is notably to understand if businesses should or not neglect these aggressions and related geopolitical uncertainties, while finding out ways to foresee these risks so as to best design answers (see Helene Lavoix, “Businesses and Geopolitics: Caught up in the Whirlwinds? (1)”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 17 Oct 2016)

To find out which could be the psychological impacts of the ongoing string of terrorist attacks, we shall use articles related to 9/11 as well as studies following the second Intifada, which took place in Israel from the end of September 2000 until the beginning of 2005 and was waged by “Palestinian terrorism on Israeli society” (Dov Waxman, “Living with terror, not Living in Terror: The Impact of Chronic Terrorism on Israeli Society“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 5, No 5-6 (2011). Each case will bring insights in what we could expect in terms of current and future socio-psychological impacts, although differences with the contemporary and forthcoming Islamic State’s and jihadist attacks should not be understated. Notably, 9/11 was a huge shock and a very large and spectacular multiple attack, but happened only once and only to one country. The Second Intifada, although targeting too a single country, taking place on a much smaller territory and aiming at a smaller population, compared with the current and probably near-future situation, should give us an insight into the consequences of attacks repeatedly waged over time and carried out in very various ways when, as outlined by Waxman, “once innocuous items (drinks, shoes, backpacks) can become the means of deadly attacks”.

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We shall first explain the disconnection existing between direct exposure to the attack, objective threat and socio-psychological impacts, i.e. how people are impacted psychologically even though they are not in the immediate vicinity of the attack and how this phenomenon takes place. This will allow us better envisioning who can be impacted. We shall then turn to the more individual harmful psychological consequences of terror attacks, from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to depression and insomnia and their impacts on businesses through impaired professional life. This will notably allow us pointing out that a crucial stakeholder for the corporate sector in terms of considering the Islamic State’s and Jihadist terrorist attacks and thus related geopolitical uncertainties is the department of human resources, which must thus be primarily involved, besides other more obvious departments such as security, risks, or sales, marketing, operations and finance. Staff in charge of exports and supplies must also become involved as the companies with whom they are dealing could be impacted by terrorist attacks. Finally, we shall turn to socio-psychological consequences with collective impacts, which have various effects on companies and de facto societies and countries, from avoidance (not doing something anymore, e.g. flying, traveling by train, visiting some countries, investing in some sectors and countries, etc.) to the rise of collectively aggressive behaviour.

Disconnection between exposure, objective threat and socio-psychological impacts

The first crucial element to consider if one is to understand and take into account properly the socio-psychological impacts of terrorist attacks is the disconnection existing between personal direct exposure, objective threat and happenstance of effects.

This disconnection has been observed again and again according to research. Silver, Holman, et al. show, in the context of the consequences of 9/11, that “the psychological effects of a major national trauma are not limited to those who experience it directly, and the degree of response is not predicted simply by objective measures of exposure to or loss from the trauma” (“Nationwide Longitudinal Study of Psychological Responses to September 11“. JAMA. 2002;288(10)). This was confirmed by Bleich, Gelkopf and Solomon, in the framework of the second Intifada, as they found “no association between symptom criteria for PTSD,…  number or intensity of TSR symptoms or any of the other indicators of distress”, and level of exposure to terrorist attacks (“Exposure to Terrorism, Stress-Related Mental Health Symptoms, and Coping Behaviors Among a Nationally Representative Sample in Israel“, JAMA. 2003;290(5): 619). Gigerenzer, similarly, in his study on dread risk and avoidance (see below) notably after 9/11, show that more people chose to drive rather than fly after the attack, even though those people had not been directly exposed (“Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire: Behavioral Reactions to Terrorist Attacks“, Risk Analysis,  Vol. 26, No. 2, 2006).

Furthermore, Bleich et al. (Ibid.) found “no significant association … between objective threat (high vs low residency risk, urban vs nonurban, Jewish vs Arab Israeli), exposure and future orientation, or sense of personal safety,” apart from association that could be found only in the case of fear for friends and family. The only demographic indicator that could be identified as having an effect on the happenstance of psychological symptoms was that women were more susceptible (5.5 times more likely for Israeli women) to develop PTSD and TSR symptoms and to experience feelings of depression (Ibid.), which, of course, does not imply that men do not develop these symptoms. This means also that neither the level of education nor age, nor social class etc. have an effect on the development of psycho-social impacts after a terrorist attacks, but, on the contrary that everyone is affected.

The explanation that is most often given for these disconnections is first that people are actually exposed to the attacks through media coverage (e.g. Vaxman; Daniel Antonius, “When fear is a weapon: how terror attacks influence mental health“, The Conversation, 5 Dec 2015, updated March 23, 2016;  Schlenger et al., “Psychological reactions to terrorist attacks: findings from the National Study of Americans’ Reactions to September 11.“, JAMA. 2002 Aug 7;288(5):581-8); for a review up to 2007, Marshall et al. “The psychology of ongoing threat: relative risk appraisal, the September 11 attacks, and terrorism-related fears“, Am Psychol. 2007 May-Jun;62(4). This does not mean that media should not provide coverage of the attacks, on the contrary, or, to anticipate on what is explained below, the factor of “unknowability” which mediates our distorted appraisal of risk would be heightened.

As far as the current Islamic State’s and other jihadist attacks are concerned, the rising spread not only of media access and exposure but also of direct access to witnesses’ videos, pictures and accounts through social networks, from Twitter to Facebook, through Instagram and YouTube may only heighten this characteristics of the socio-psychological effects of terrorist attacks.

Once people are exposed to attacks through media, individuals would interpret the information received through what Marshall et al. (ibid.) suggest to call “relative risk appraisal”,  a “multidimensional process that mediates the relation between environmental events and the individual’s meaningful appraisal of them.” Interestingly, we may note that individuals, when they evaluate the terrorist risk they face (ibid.) are prey to exactly the same biases as analysts trying to foresee future events (see online course, module 2).

As explained by Marshall et al. (Ibid.), this appraisal process is notably influenced by three elements, as identified by Slovic (“Perception of Risk”, Science, 1987 Apr 17;  236(4799), and Slovic P, MacGregor D, Kraus NN, “Perception of risk from automobile safety defects”, Accid Anal Prev. 1987 Oct; 19(5)). First, we have the “catastrophic, uncontrollable, and inequitable” aspect of danger, called “dread risk”. Second we have the unknowable character of the hazard, notably in terms of timing (when waiting for a plane, at a cafe, in a restaurant, when shopping, when commuting, any time and any place actually), and specificities (a suicide bomber, a knife stabbing, a lorry ramming a crowd, etc.). Finally, these characteristics must have “signal potential”, i.e. they must be interpreted as a warning of an existing danger, “which has entered the environment” (Slovic et al., 1987, ibid.).

As far as the Islamic State and other jihadist attacks are concerned, we definitely find the characteristics of uncontrollable as well as inequitable dangers, while the catastrophic element is sometimes present in terms of scope, as with the Bataclan, Stade de France and restaurants attacks in November 2015 in Paris, and often emphasised in repeated signal potentials, such as, for example, references to nuclear risk in Belgium (Debra Decker, “ISIL’s next Belgian target could be a nuclear plant“, USA Today, 24 March 2016), or regular mention of the potential use of Weapons of Massive Destructions (WMD) by the Islamic State (e.g. Associated Press, “Chemical weapons found in Mosul in Isis lab, say Iraqi forces“, The Guardian, 29 Jan 2017;  Rob Merrick, “Isis wants to carry out a chemical weapons attack in Britain, the national security minister warns“, The Independent, 1 Jan 2017).

Similarly the wide variety of modus operandi for the attacks, the inherent element of surprise found in terrorist attacks, added to the stress put by politicians, governments’ and states’ officials on the impossibility of zero risk, show that Slovic second factor is also present in the current string of attacks. Furthermore, the rising suspicion against the ruling establishment (as evidenced by President Trump election in the U.S., or shown by the degrading OECD index of “trust in government, with only 40% citizens continuing to trust their government in 2016), the willingness of governments and media to sometimes hide the terrorist character of attacks by initially favouring explanations in terms of psychiatric unbalance (e.g. Mark Mazzetti and Erik Schmitt, “In the Age of ISIS, Who’s a Terrorist, and Who’s Simply Deranged?“, The New York Times, 17 July 2016) may only heighten the feeling of “unknowability” of the population, while the signal potential has not been lowered. Finally, the signal potential may only remain as long as the Islamic State’s and Jihadist threat exist.

As a result, we may expect the disconnect to take place currently and in the near future, potentially leading to an even more distorted relative risk appraisal compared with previous episodes of attacks, considering current specificities.

The disconnection and the way it is taking place through relative risk appraisal process not only allows for the occurrence of pathological symptoms within individuals, but also favours harmful behaviour at collective or aggregate level (Marshall et al., ibid.). It is first to these different pathological symptoms in individuals  we shall now turn.

Harmful individual socio-psychological impacts: from PTSD to lower work quality and burnout

Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Stress-Related Symptoms

Without entering into the clinical details, best left to Medical Doctors, these disorders are now gathered in a single category, “Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders“, and are the most painful and incapacitating range of symptoms that an individual may experience after a terrorist attack.

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) usually appears immediately after the trauma and may last from 3 days to 1 months, while the others last for more than a month (MSD Manual).

A precise model of estimation would be necessary here, but without it, we can at least obtain a rough estimate of the number of people who are potentially concerned by these disorders out of previous instances. In the case of the second Intifada, Bleich et al. (Ibid.) report that 76.7% people suffered from at least one Traumatic Stress- Related (TSR) symptom, 9.4% suffered of PTSD and 1 person from ASD.

In the case of 9/11, two months after the attack, “the prevalence of probable PTSD was 11.2% in the greater New York area and 4.3% across the United States as a whole” (Marshall et al.). Note the difference of results between the U.S. and Israel in terms of exposure. It could stem from numerous variations, such as size of country and would justify further research. Indeed, understanding the various variables leading to variations would be crucial to better estimates for the case of the attacks at hand: for example we could test the hypothesis that the further away not only in geographical terms and exposure but also feeling of “imagined community”, to borrow from Benedict Anderson, the least likely the relative risk appraisal would operate to favour the happenstance of TSR disorders (TSRD) (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and. Spread of Nationalism, 1983, 1991, 2006).

The number of people suffering of these disorders drops after 6 months but does not disappear. Studies found that 6 months after 9/11, between 3.4% and 5.8% of people indirectly exposed through media experienced PTSD symptoms (Ibid.). In the New York area, the six-month prevalence of PTSD in the directly affected subgroup of New-Yorkers was 12.0% … and in the indirectly affected group, 3.7% (Ibid.). Always in New York, one year after the attack 4.2 % people had PTSD and the following year this number fell to 3.3%(Joseph A. Boscarino, Richard E. Adams, and Charles R. Figley, “Worker Productivity and Outpatient Service Use After the September 11th Attacks: Results From the New York City Terrorism Outcome Study“, Am J Ind Med. 2006 August ; 49(8).

The repetition of attacks, although potentially allowing for desensitisation (Bleich et al., Ibid.), also obviously multiplies the number of people who can suffer from TSR disorders, thus spreading over time adverse consequences within the very fabric of everyday life of a society.

Operations within businesses may be impacted inasmuch as the staff is psychologically hurt, which can virtually hit almost anyone, with various consequences according to whom develops TSRD and to the size of the company: a small company with, for example 10 employees, which sees one crucial member of its staff suffering of PTSD may see its overall activity more hurt than a very large company employing thousands of people, when someone can more easily be replaced.

The findings from Israel regarding less severe “suffering of one symptom of TSR” let us expect that three quarters of the population may be impacted (Bleich et al.) Thus,  pretty much all companies will have to deal with negative symptoms and, as a result, impacts on operations. The impact of the psychological trauma is not only limited  to the few months following the attacks, but could last much longer, as seen. For example, Boscarino et al. document a loss of productivity (measured through work loss and lower work quality), especially through lower work quality stemming from PTSD, notably during the second year following 9/11.

Human Resources Offices and related services should thus pay a particular attention to the potential for terrorist attacks as stemming from related geopolitical uncertainties. Meanwhile clients and suppliers may also be impacted, and this should be kept in mind by all staff dealing with them.

Depression and impaired productivity

Depression is another symptom that has been observed following terrorist attacks.

For New York residents, a study found that 11% of workers had depression during the first year following 9/11 and 10% during the second year. Depression was found as a major cause of work loss and lower work quality during the first year following 9/11, mitigated by self-esteem (Boscarino et al., Ibid).

In the case of the second Intifada, Bleich et al. (Ibid.) find that “58.6% [of respondents] reported feeling depressed or gloomy and 28% that they felt “very” depressed or gloomy.” Yet, the authors also point out that “the majority of participants (82.2% [421/512]) stated that they felt optimistic about their personal future and 66.2% (337/509) that they felt optimistic about the future of Israel.” We thus are presented with strange results, as one of the characteristics of depression is “pessimistic thoughts” (DSM-IV Criteria for Major Depressive Disorder – MDD). Further research would be needed to investigate this phenomenon, all the more so that it is used to outline the resilience of society (e.g. Vaxman, Ibid.).

Considering the impact on work quality, again, human resources offices, as well as those staff dealing with clients and suppliers which may be likewise, impacted should pay attention to terrorist attacks and to uncertainties leading to them.

From Insomnia to Burn-out

Also working on the Second Intifada, researchers found out that fear of terrorist attacks heightened the probability to develop insomnia two years after the attacks. In turn, the tiredness generated by insomnia led to heightened odds to see the impacted people experiencing job burnout “two years after insomnia increased” (Sharon Toker, Gregory A. Laurence and Yitzhak Fried, “Fear of terror and increased job burnout over time: Examining the mediating role of insomnia and the moderating role of work support“, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Volume 36, Issue 2, pages 272–291, February 2015; George Watson, “Fear of terrorism hastens path to burnout for Israeli workers“,  Texas Tech University, 19 Feb 2015).

Note that insomnia may be part of PTSD and TSRD, as well as of depression (see MSD Manual and DSM-IV Criteria). It may also be experienced without PTSD, TSRD or depression.

As previously, human resources offices, and staff dealing with clients and suppliers, are most concerned here. Interestingly, Toker et al. study also points out that co-workers’ support but not management concern had a mitigating impact and suggests that the creation of a work environment conducive to this adequate support could be key (Ibid.). Assuming the current campaign of terrorist attacks continues, as the December 2016 attack in Berlin or the February 2017 Louvre attack in Paris (e.g. The Telegraph) indicate, we are thus faced here with the possibility to have to fundamentally re-design work spaces and possibilities for employees relations, assuming companies do not want to see their operations impacted because of adverse consequences of terrorism on staff, including management and senior executives.

Socio-psychological symptoms with negative collective impacts:  avoidance and aggressive behaviour

Impaired sense of safety and avoidance

People living in societies victims of terrorist attacks tend to experience an impaired sense of safety, which lasts for a relatively long time. In the 2002 survey in Israel, 60.4% people feared for their own safety and 67.9% for the lives of family and friends (Bleich et al, Ibid).  After 9/11 in the U.S. we find a similar impact: six months after the attack 40 to 50% of Americans “feared for their safety and that of family members” (Marshall et al.). One year after the attack, in New York, up to 73% people feared for their own safety and 75% for the lives of family and friends (Ibid.).

As fear for safety leads, besides notably the fear to relive painful memories, to avoidance behaviour (Marshall et al.), this psychological impact is particularly important.

Avoidance behaviour, which is not always considered as pathological, means that affected people will avoid places and situations where they feel their life can be threatened, considering the previous terrorist attacks. For example, after 9/11 people avoided flying:  airlines’ passenger traffic in the U.S. dropped by 20% for September to December 2001 (Marshall et al.; Gigerenzer). This avoidance led to an increase in driving at least for the next three months and, also, unfortunately to more death out of car crashes (Gigerenzer, Ibid; Ropeik D, “The consequences of fear“, EMBO Reports, 2004 Oct; Spec No 5). After the March 2004 Madrid attacks, for the two following months, people in Spain reduced train travel, however less significantly, and there no increase in driving-related death was observed (Gigerenzer; López-Rousseau, “Avoiding the death risk of avoiding a dread risk: the aftermath of March 11 in Spain“, Psychol Sci. 2005 Jun;16(6) ).

For the current string of attacks, a similar avoidance phenomenon seems to be observable in Paris, although comprehensive and detailed studies focusing on avoidance for these attacks are not (yet) available: following directly the November 2015 attacks, cafés and restaurants saw a drop in attendance of 44% and 58% respectively, while hotels saw their occupancy rate lowered by 51% (Sondage Synhorcat auprès des adhérents, 20 novembre 2015 in “Rapport au Premier Ministre sur la Destination France après les Attentats“,  Rapporteur M. Sharon Elbaz, Prime Minister Office, Sept 2016: 25). Avoidance continued, although less starkly, in the following months (Ibid, p.26-31)*. The attack in Nice and St Etienne de Rouvray in July 2016, again led to touristic avoidance not only in the Cote d’Azur (region of Nice) but attendance and occupancy rate remain bad in Paris, at least until September. At the end of the first semester 2016, the number of tourist in France had fallen by 7% since january 2016 (Ibid.). The sector of tourism for the region Ile de France (region around Paris) lost 1 bn euros for the first semester. We may note here that the recurrence of attacks appears to lead to a much longer avoidance compared with flight avoidance and 9/11.

Considering the very direct impact of this specific psychological consequence on business operations, it seems obvious that the corporate sector should definitely consider terrorist attacks and the geopolitical uncertainties from which they stem. As attacks are varied in their modus operandi, the way forward would be to start wondering where and how the activity of a company could become victim of terrorist attacks, considering understanding and knowledge available on the perpetrators, i.e. in our case the Islamic State and other similar Jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda. Contingency plans to face and mitigate avoidance could then be developed peacefully in advance and only activated if the threat materializes. Planning in advance would be even more important in the case of terrorist attacks that CEOs, managers and staff being human beings, they are as susceptible as others to be hit by the various psychological symptoms following terrorist attacks, which may then not be very conducive to think peacefully and strategically. Furthermore, in such dire circumstances, having a plan ready could contribute to a much-needed safety feeling for staff and management.

Rise of aggressive behaviour

Finally, research on the socio-psychological consequences of terrorist attacks points out a probably less known but as important impact: “the impulse to respond aggressively” (Marshall et al., Ibid.) going hand in hand with a “sense of victimhood” (Vaxman, Ibid.)

As a result, at least three interactive collective consequences may be observed.

First, in the case of Israel, a “brutalization of interpersonal relations” was observed through the proxy of school violence and proliferation of firearms (Simha Landau, “Societal Costs of Political Violence: The Israeli Experience“, Palestine-Israel Journal 10, no. 1 (2003); Vaxman, Ibid.).

Second, and relatedly, “violent crime (homicide and robbery) and property crime” increased in a way that is found related to the stress generated by terrorism, as well as to potentially increased hardship as generated by the impact on the economy: between 2000 and 2001 in Israel, criminal homicides increased by 28% and robberies by 11%(Simha Landau, Ibid.; Vaxman, Ibid.).

Finally, it has been showed that terrorism leads to a “hardening of  attitudes” against the group responsible, or perceived as such,  for the terrorist attacks (Nehemia Friedland and Ariel Merari, “The Psychological Impact of Terrorism: A Double-Edged Sword“, Political Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 1985). Indeed, as explained by Vaxman, “terrorist attacks increase negative beliefs about and hostile attitudes toward the opposing group the terrorists claim to represent” (Daniel Bar-Tal and Daniela Labin, “The Effect of a Major Event on Stereotyping: Terrorist Attacks in Israel and Israeli Adolescents’ Perceptions of Palestinians, Jordanians and Arabs,” European Journal of Social Psychology 31, no. 3 (2001); Vaxman, Ibid.). This, added to the rising aggression and thus societal brutalisation, as well as to the feeling of “victimhood”, may only lead to a rise in hate crimes, as was also observed in the case of 9/11 (Marshall et al., ibid.).

As far as 9/11 was concerned, the increase in hate crimes seemed to have mainly occurred within 10 days following the attack (Ibid.), which corresponds to the impulsive aggressive reaction. However, in cases where attacks are repeated, then the impulsive reaction might be transformed into the more pervasive brutalization pointed out by Landau (Ibid.).

As a result, we may wonder if the Islamic State’s and other jihadists’ string of attacks does not participate in the contemporary rising polarization of society, which is observable notably throughout the Western world, as is evidenced by the brutality at work during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and its aftermath, as well as by the extreme reactions of the media and of the losing side after Mr Trump came President, as again shown by the very controversial cover page of the German magazine Der Spiegel on 4 Feb 2017 (BBC News, “Der Spiegel: Trump beheading cover sparks criticism“, 4 Feb 2017). It is most probably not the only cause, as explained in Lessons from and for the Brexit – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (2) (Helene Lavoix, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 22 Nov 2016),  but it cannot either be ruled out that it does not play a part. Feelings of victimization and its corollary of sentiments of entitlement and self-righteousness added to brutalization of societies are certainly not conducive to composed and wise democracies.

As far as violent crime is concerned, businesses should foresee them and take adequate preventative measures. As for the more general brutalization, this should also be considered in details, according to the activity of each business, while a better understanding of the processes at work and how they can evolve in the future should be promoted before policies are decided. Indeed, it may well be that decisions taken too rapidly or without proper analysis were themselves taken under conditions of “aggressive response and victimhood feeling”. Adequate related lobbying could also be endeavoured.

To conclude, studies on 9/11 and the Second Intifada also point out the resilience** of both the American and Israeli Society to terrorist attacks (e.g. among others, Marshall et al.). In the case of the Second Intifada, resilience suggests that a phenomenon of de-sensitisation could take place when terrorism occurs repeatedly and on a long period (Vaxman, Ibid.; Bleich et al., Ibid.). However, first, this potential  de-sensitisation does not consider the brutalization pointed out by Landau (Ibid.). Further research would thus be needed.

Second, since 2001 for 9/11 and 2000-2005 for the second Intifada, eleven years have gone by.  The world and the international system, as well as all the countries targeted and threatened by the Islamic State’s and other jihadists’ terrorist attacks are caught in the unsettling times of transition.  To this should be added the variety of targeted countries in the case of the current and potentially near future attacks, with different societies, values and belief-systems, political systems and interests, compared with past attacks on single countries, heterogeneous yet each being unified by values and beliefs. Thus, the very resilience that was displayed then should not be taken for granted now, but on the contrary cautiously checked. Targeted societies may be now and in the near future more or less resilient to the attacks, terrorism becoming then one of the causes that contribute to the transitional changes, besides potentially feeding polarization as pointed out above. The possible absence or lowered resilience of the victim societies, in turn, would heighten the importance of the socio-psychological impacts of terrorism on society as a whole, as well as, de facto, on its actors, making it even more important to foresee them and to feel concerned by the issue.

*Note that the report to the French Prime Minister does not consider the psychological aspect of avoidance and thus does not take into consideration corresponding measures that could have also been designed to face this specific impact.

**We use here the definition of resilience given by B. Walker, C.S. Holling, S. R. Carpenter, A. Kinzig Resilience, 2004, “Adaptability and Transformability in Social–ecological Systems,” Ecology and Society, 9(2): 5: “The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.” Note that the choice of the definition will greatly influence what may be seen or not as a resilient behaviour to terrorism.

Featured image: Battling PTSD, Marines, May 24, 2010, United States government work, Public Domain.

About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.

The Impact of the Islamic State Terrorist Attacks – Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (5)

Since the Islamic State declared a Khilafah on 29 June 2014, it carried out, worldwide, 6 attacks or series of attacks in 2014, which killed 2 and wounded 12 people, 23 in 2015, which killed 1020 and wounded more than 2171, 36 in 2016, which killed more than 1455 and wounded more than 3505 and so far 3 in 2017, which killed more than 109 and wounded more than 169 people, assuming all attacks are known and referenced as such (WikipediaList of terrorist incidents linked to ISIL“). As a whole, we thus faced 68 attacks, during which more than 2586 people lost their lives and more than 5857 were injured.

Prospects for the near future look no less grim as reminded by Europol as far as Europe is concerned in its report Changes in Modus Operandi of IS revisited (2 Dec 2016 – main points here). Indeed, a weakening if the terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, Berlin attackIslamic State in Syria and Iraq is most likely to imply a heightening of terror attacks elsewhere (Europol, Ibid.), as we warned here repeatedly considering the global character of the so-called Khilafah of the Islamic State (see Helene Lavoix “At War against the Islamic State – A Global Theatre of War“, 23 Nov 2015 and following articles, The Red (Team) Analysis Society).  Furthermore, Europol also points out that the weakening of the Islamic State may see a strengthening of its competitors such as Al Qaeda, which are also likely to carry out terror attacks (Changes in Modus Operandi…, Ibid.). This forward looking assessment would be reinforced by one of the latest declaration of Al-Qaeda’s leader al-Zawahiri stressing “the call to our nation and the mujahedeen to raise the jihad against the current idol, and its allies as their priority as long as they can make it” (Sheikh Ayman Al-Zawahiri, “Brief messages to a victorious nation; Part 5: Letter to our nation. For Allah we will not kneel”, 5 Jan 2017 – message and translation shared by Expect Consulting, specialist on jihadist groups, notably in Africa, in the Red (Team) Analysis partner network).

Intuitively, we would expect such numerous attacks, notably by a single (if distributed over territory) player trying to achieve a terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, Bangladesh, Dhakasingle aim, a Khilafah, to have a deep and wide impact not only on states and societies as a whole, but also on one of their actors, businesses.

This impact would stem from the specific character of terror, which aims at causing not only bodily harm while targeting civilians or non-combatants, as suggested by the 2004 description of terrorism of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change of the Secretary-General of the United Nations (U.N., A more Secure World, par. 164, p.52), but also to disrupt the system perceived as enemy (see, for example, for the plethora of official definitions, “Definition of Terrorism by Country in OECD Countries“).

Yet, terrorist attacks only made it to the top five risks of the “Global Risks Perception Survey” of the Global Risk Report 2017 (World Economic Forum) in Autumn 2016*, and only for large-scale attacks (see also report pdf, p.68). Similarly, the terrorist threat is mentioned neither in the May 2017 survey “Geostrategic risks on the rise (Drew Erdmann; Ezra Greenberg; and Ryan Harper, McKinsey & Company, 2016) nor in the latest “McKinsey global survey” (December 2016) regarding potential risks to businesses, even though we may surmise it is implicitly part of “geopolitical risks”.

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Does that mean that businesses do not care about terrorist attacks, beyond, of course, humanitarian concern? Should the corporate sector, whatever the size of the businesses involved, pay more attention to these geopolitical threats or, on the contrary, neglect them as not likely enough or not impactful enough to deserve consideration? Should only some sectors feel concerned, such as obviously tourism? But in that case, which are these sectors and what could be the depth and scope of impacts? These are the questions that this article and the following ones intend to address.

We shall start with seeking to identify the impacts of terrorist attacks, because being able to estimate the full range of potential impacts for uncertainties is a fundamental necessary condition if we are to do a useful thus actionable strategic foresight and warning. Starting with older studies on the economic impact of 9/11, we shall use them to single out potential types of impacts, while beginning to bring in elements of comparison with the current string of attacks. Indeed, 9/11, considering the very characteristics of the attack and the shock it created, may not easily compare with the current Islamic State’s attacks, which are globally distributed but with some countries being more hit than others (when furthermore each country has its own specificities and conditions in terms of stability), which occur over a relatively long time-span and display wide-ranging types of modus operandi, from the murder by stabbing of policemen to killing people in festive gathering by ploughing the crowd with lorries through mass shootings or more classical bombings.

We shall notably point out that the use of confidence indices may not be adapted to the current attacks and to those which are likely to happen in the near future. We shall also outline that states’ policies and answers, thus feedbacks, must fully be integrated in any such impact assessment, thus demanding  an adapted approach. This initial assessment will give us a general framework that we shall refine and further explore with the next articles.

Immediate, short-term and direct impacts

The OECD in its 2002 study (Patrick Lenain, Marcos Bonturi and Vincent Koen, “The Economic Consequences Of Terrorism“, Economics Department Working Papers No. 334) adopted a time-bound framework, distinguishing between immediate and short-term consequences on the one hand, and medium-term impacts on the other. A similar framework was used by a March 2005 IMF Working Paper (R. Barry Johnston and Oana M. Nedelescu, “The Impact of Terrorism on Financial Markets“), unsurprisingly as it grounded its work in the 2002 OECD study. There, the short-term effects are seen as direct economic impacts and medium-term effects as indirect.

Immediate impacts include the destruction of life and property, responses to the emergency, restoration of the systems and the terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, 9/11infrastructure affected, and the provision of temporary living assistance (OECD: 6; IMF: 3-4). They were evaluated for 9/11 in 2002 to USD 27.2 billion (Ibid.). This figure is lower than what was assessed by the more recent New York Times assessment (Shan Carter and Amanda Cox, “One 9/11 Tally: $3.3 Trillion“, September 8, 2011), which, using a survey of multiple damage estimates,  gives a figure of USD 55 billion for the immediate toll and physical damage (which does not appear to include restoration of systems).

This shows first that impacts evaluation changes over time and may increase. Thus, for the current series of attacks we shall probably need to wait before a full evaluation is available. Furthermore, the fact that we are facing an ongoing series of attacks multiplies the work needed to obtain an estimate.

The OECD study then identifies that short-term general impacts are loss of confidence, potential instability of financial market and “self-fulfilling depression”. It points out that the shock was truly short-term, and emphasises that the major negative impacts were, in a large part, avoided thanks to proper liquidity management integrating “financial support to any sector or industry … [through] short-term loans or guarantees”, while  only some sectors were truly impacted. We see here emerging a crucial point if we are to properly evaluate impacts of terrorist attacks: we must also consider state policy answers to these attacks, as we shall detail further below.

If we take confidence indices as a first element of measure for impacts, and apply them to the current string of attacks, we would expect to see confidence dipping over the period (mid 2014 until today) or right after each attack. However, none of the most commonly used statistics as provided by the OECD (consumer and business confidence indices, see graphs below), shows in an obvious way such a reaction. As far as consumer indices are concerned, Germany, and Turkey appear as displaying the most obvious downward trends, while Belgium, although appearing to have registered the attacks that hit it on 22 March 2016 (see Wikipedia for a summary), shows for the period following the attack a dip which is less strong than what is displayed for the end of 2016.

terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, consumer index

If we look at the Business Confidence Index for the same countries, the attacks appear to have been even less registered.

terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, Business Confidence Index, BCI

Surprisingly, France, which has been one of the worst hit countries by the attacks, shows no major dip in confidence.

terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, Business Confidence Index, BCI

When shown on the longer term, for all countries, the periods following terrorist attacks appear to register less loss of confidence than other events, notably the financial crisis.

terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, Business Confidence Index, BCI

These curves could thus confirm a lack of corporate interest as well as a disinterest by citizens. We may hypothesise, cautiously at this stage, that a mix of absence of awareness of the threat, including as a result of psyops operations by governments of hit countries, added to the low probability to be hit by an attack contributed to this result. It could also be that the very short-term impact on confidence pointed out by the OECD study is sufficient, furthermore considering the small size of each Islamic State terrorist attack compared with 9/11, to imply that the current string of attacks has no effect on confidence.

However, we should also consider that such indices as confidence may not be suited to measure the real impact of the types of terrorist attacks we are currently facing.

Indeed, assuming that the statistics communicated by each country are trustworthy, it is, first, particularly difficult to attribute a terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, Turkey, Istanbulsingle cause to an indicator meant to indicate confidence in general. For example, Turkey knows so many upheavals, that imputing a loss of confidence solely to terrorist attacks would be most probably wrong, even though the multiplication of these attacks participates in the evolution of the Turkish situation. A single statistical measure cannot follow such complex dynamics.

Furthermore, on top of the very short-term effect of attacks on confidence pointed out above, as far as 9/11 was concerned, the attack was much larger than each of the attacks we now face, and can be seen as the first in a long series continuing nowadays, hence the shock and thus the fact it registered on confidence index. As far as the current attacks are concerned, the specific character of the distribution of the attacks, may stop any confidence index to register them. We may however wonder why there is not, to the least, a slow degradation of the confidence overtime.

Let us thus compare the confidence measures to a survey investigating relations to the European Union carried out by RedC and Win Gallop International (25 Nov – 7 Dec 2016), which also asked the question: “In general do you think that things in your country are heading in the right direction or the wrong direction?” To this, 78% of Belgium people, 82% of French people and 62% of German people answered that they thought their country heads in the wrong direction.

This does not sit very well with the confidence expected from the confidence index, unless we should also consider some fatalism at work, including a measure of desperation and feeling of terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, Paris, Bataclan, Sidney, Opera House, Australiapowerlessness. Thus, in our case, the terrorist attacks would participate in an overall negative outlook, which is not expressed through purchasing plans for consumers and “assessment of production, orders and stocks” for businesses (the confidence indices), but could be expressed during elections, as we showed in the case of the Brexit for the U.K. (Helene Lavoix, “Lessons from and for the Brexit – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (2)“, 7 Nov 2016, The Red (Team) Analysis Society). This implies that the impact of terrorist attacks should be seen from a dynamic point of view, through complex and cascading effects, and not through a single aggregate index. For the corporate sector in general, it is these nth order cascading impacts that should be taken into account as highly likely to largely upset the whole framework within which they operate.

The OECD report then points out that a direct negative impact hit airlines and aircraft manufacturers, the insurance sector, tourism-related industries, the upscale retail sector and U.S. postal service, whilst businesses in security and information technology were positively impacted. The negative impacts are constituted by business interruption and business reduction, evaluated by The New York Times for 9/11 to USD 123 billion, notably for airlines, to which should be added other costs such as interests to finance all activities related to the impacts of the attacks (estimated for 9/11 at $185 billion), and social costs (between $300 billion and $400 billion, including immediate damage) (NYT, Ibid, “What’s not shown in this tally?“).

This outlines the importance of the target and of modus operandi of the attack(s) to identify those that will see their operations impacted. We may also point out that little foresight is used by those reacting to terrorist attacks and contributing to business reduction (for example avoidance of some places or activities). Indeed, the highly likely possibility that future attacks may take various forms – as terrorists also follow a learning curve – obviously is not considered in the reaction. This is all the more important in the Islamic State attacks’ case, as we have here a series of diverse attacks and not a single large one. We shall look more in detail to these specific impacts for the current Islamic State – or more generally jihadist attacks –  in the next articles.

Medium term and indirect impacts

According to the OECD report, on the medium term, first, insurance premiums were raised while coverage was lowered.

Second, as transportation systems were disrupted and border controls were tightened, the “just-in-time supply chain management system” was threatened (Ibid. pp.23-27). As pointed out by the terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, Belgium, Zaventem, Germany, Brandenburg, BerlinOECD, a trade-off between security on the one hand, costs on international trade on the other thus appears. Interestingly, the authors stress that terrorism through this cost estimated to 1 to 3 percent ad valorem re-introduces tariffs that globalisation and liberalism strove to abolish (Ibid. p. 25). Seen from the point of view of 2017 and not anymore 2002, after the Arab Spring, which is also a child of globalisation, among other causes (for a review, Ella Moore, “Was the Arab Spring a Regional Response to Globalisation?” July 2012, e-IR students), with the U.S. of President Trump and the post-Brexit U.K. now actively looking for new models of socio-economico-political developments beyond pure liberalism, it might be worth reflecting if thinking in terms of a trade-off between security and international trade is still possible or relevant. As a result, supply-chain management might change or need to be reassessed.

Finally, the OECD underlined that public and “private sector spending [was] likely to be on the rise … to improve the security of premises, employees and information”, with still debated economic consequences, as far as military spending is concerned. The New York Times (Ibid, What’s not shown in this tally?) estimates this cost for 9/11 at “$200 billion in increased state, local and private security spending”, which may also constitute a profit for security companies.

At business level, this last impact will depend first upon the sector of activity. Second it will depend upon the answers designed and implemented by the state hit by terrorist attacks, to which we shall now turn.

Integrating state answers and related impacts

We progressively saw emerging that, in the case of terrorist attacks, it was impossible to neglect answers given at state level as they were having a large impact. This is confirmed in the case of 9/11 by the estimates given by the New York Times (Ibid.):  the overall cost of the 9/11 attacks to the United States ̋for all actors did not only include, as we saw, USD 55 billion for toll and physical damage and USD 123 billion for economic impact (business interruption and business reduction, notably airlines), but also USD 589 billion for homeland security, USD 1649 billion for war, and USD 867 billion for future war and veterans’ care, for an overall cost of USD 3,3 trillion. Hence, the cost of answers is far higher than the rest.

The impacts related to answers are numerous and far-ranging. The OECD report (Ibid: 13-16) pointed out the importance of the management of liquidity in facing the most immediate impacts of terrorist attacks. Further, we had the implementation of border controls impacting the supply chain management, as seen.

We must also consider all the anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism legislations (e.g. for a worldwide list Wikipedia “Anti-terrorism legislation” )terrorism, terrorist attack, Islamic State, scenarios, strategic foresight, warning, geopolitics, uncertainties, political risk, anticipation, sanctions, impact, political impact, forward looking information, forward looking statement, G20, and the compliance measures they entail, which deeply impact business activities, notably in the financial sector. Anti-terrorist financing obligations will then impact all companies and citizens through the regulations banks and financial institutions must follow. Each successful attack is highly likely to prompt legislators to review laws and regulations and possibly to change them, with new consequences added to previous obligations.

Furthermore, and in an even more complex way, if we have, as the New York Times did, to look at supplementary public spending generated by the answer to attacks, and from there deduce an overall cost, which is then born by tax-payers, we cannot limit ourselves to this. For example as far as military spending is concerned, the overall impact will also depend upon the capability of the state – where business operations are based and taxes paid – to ripe dividends from the novel insecurity, not only in showcasing thus selling more arms, which may lower the overall cost of security spending (and even allow for surpluses), but also in acquiring or losing international influence. This may be considered as being the case in terms or arms sales for Russia and its Syrian campaign (e.g. Mansur Mirovalev, “How Russia’s military campaign in Syria is helping Moscow market its weapons“, Los Angeles Times, 25 Nov 2016), while a rising Russian influence in the Middle East is debated (e.g. Joshua Landis, interviewed by John Judis, “America’s Failure — and Russia and Iran’s Success — in Syria’s Cataclysmic Civil War“, 12 January 2017, Syria Comment; Anna Borshchevskaya and Philip Gordon, “Putin’s Middle East Policy: Causes and Consequences“, March 23, 2016, The Washington Institute; Nikolay Kozhanov,Arms Exports Add to Russia’s Tools of Influence in Middle East“, 20 July 2016, Chatham House; Walter Russel Mead, “Russia Re-Emerges as a Great Power in the Middle East“, 12 Sept 2016, The American Interest).

As another example, the ability of the host polity to let emerge through its policies a new and adapted model of socio-political organisation able to win against the aggressor carrying out the terrorist attacks  will also have important consequences on impacts. Indeed, societies that will be able to reorganise themselves, from systems of values and beliefs to political authorities through economic interactions and adequate regulations as seen previously, to win against the enemy carrying out the terrorist attacks, will be stronger, more influent and wealthier and those actors inhabiting them will benefit from these favourable conditions.

To be able to identify precisely and then estimate these multiple impacts, we need to adopt a complex framework, which allows us to address feedbacks and cascading effects. We must be able to include the various impacts identified for previous attacks, yet not become dependent upon frameworks that may have been adapted to these attacks but are unsuited to what we face now and are highly likely to face in the future. Considering the needs, the approach to the evaluation of impacts will most probably be best done through mapping the network of impacts, which will allow us to look at first, second, third and nth order effects and at feedbacks in a multi-disciplinary way, as we practice and recommend (e.g. “Assessing Future Security Threats” series;  online course “From Process to Creating your Analytical Model for Strategic Foresight and Warning, Early Warning, Risk Management and Scenario-building“).

Considering the multiple impacts we have started identifying, it seems obvious that businesses indeed should feel concerned by terrorist attacks. Building upon these initial findings and identification of impacts, with forthcoming articles, we shall turn to more specific cases such as the tourist and transportation industries and wonder if and how strategic foresight and warning, anticipation and risk management may practically help actors and notably businesses in addressing current and future terrorist threats.

*conducted between early September and mid-October 2016 (GRR 2017, p.65)

About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.

Featured image: Before the start of the G20 summit. A minute of silence to honour the memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris. 15 November 2015 – Russian Presidential Press and Information Office – Kremlin.ru [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lessons from the Conflict in Ukraine – Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (4)

This article identifies lessons we can learn from the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on businesses, as presented in the first part, to continue enhancing our understanding of the way businesses and the corporate world could usefully anticipate or foresee geopolitical and political risks and uncertainties.

From the way to identify which crises and geopolitical uncertainties can be – sometimes unexpectedly – of concern to a company (Lesson 1) to the best timing for starting the anticipation  process (Lesson 2), the need to think outside the ideological box (Lesson 3) and multi-dimensionally (Lesson 4) and to understand “national interest” and its evolution (Lesson 5), the impacts of the war in Ukraine bring us a wealth of understanding and points out many necessary if not crucial improvements that may be endeavoured. These will thus be added to the points previously identified in “Lessons from and for the Brexit – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (2)”, after a general framework was defined in “Businesses and Geopolitics: Caught up in the Whirlwinds?” (1).

Continue reading Lessons from the Conflict in Ukraine – Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (4)

Impacts of the Conflict in Ukraine – Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (3)

With this article and the next one, we shall use the instability and conflict in Ukraine and the related impacts on businesses to continue enhancing our understanding of the way businesses and the corporate world could usefully anticipate or foresee geopolitical and political risks and uncertainties.

Here we shall review two major impacts of the war in Ukraine. First we shall look at the surprising cost of sanctions related to Ukraine on businesses of sanctioning countries. Second, we shall move to the multiple impacts of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. With the forthcoming second part, wondering how a firm could have avoided or to the least mitigated  these impacts, we shall use what we learned to identify main lessons to improve strategic foresight and warning, anticipation and risk management of geopolitical and political risks and uncertainties for the corporate sector. These will thus be added to the points previously identified in “Lessons from and for the Brexit – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (2)”, after a general framework was defined in “Businesses and Geopolitics: Caught up in the Whirlwinds?” (1).

Continue reading Impacts of the Conflict in Ukraine – Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (3)

Lessons from and for the Brexit – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (2)

On 24 June 2016 morning, the U.K. announced the results of the referendum on the Brexit: 51.9% of the population voted to leave the EU against 48.1% wanting to remain, while the turnout reached 72,2% (BBC Referendum Results). This vote triggered among the media, financial and European political elite a “shock”, consternation, and a host of predictions of Geopolitics, Uncertainties, Business, Brexit, scenarios, warning, riskimpending doom, while markets plunged worldwide (BBC News, “Brexit: What the world’s papers say“, 24 June 2016). It also set off a series of events and dynamics still unfolding nowadays with far-ranging consequences, globally, for the future. Continue reading Lessons from and for the Brexit – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (2)

Businesses and Geopolitics (1): Caught up in the Whirlwinds?

What if, by May 2017, “non-liberal” movements and parties were in power in the U.S. with Donald Trump, France with Marine Le Pen and Austria with Norbert Hofer? The overall geopolitical configuration would most probably greatly change, in areas such as the tensions between “the West” and Russia, the upheavals between the U.S. and Eastern Asia, the Trump, Clinton, U.S. election, scenario, geopolitics, geopolitical uncertainties, geopolitical risk, instability, business, corporate, risk management, political risk, client, strategic planningEuropean Union’s definition, policies and survival, or the TTIP and more largely the neo-liberal economic approach, without forgetting relations with the Middle-East. Would this impact most businesses? Yes, most probably.

What if the defeated parties, candidates and their supporters, in these three coming presidential elections – whichever they would be – refuse to accept the results? Considering the way some proponents of the “Remain” in the U.K. refused – and still refuse – to accept the democratic vote of the “Brexit”, such reactions, unthinkable a few years ago, have become scenario, geopolitics, geopolitical uncertainties, geopolitical risk, instability, business, corporate, risk management, political risk, client, strategic planning, Brexit, referendum, democracya very real possibility (e.g. Brendan O’Neill, “The howl against democracy“, 26 June 2016; “Democracy is hanging by a thread in this country“, 6 September 2016, The Spectator; Uri Friedman, “Should the Brexit Vote Have Happened at All?” The Atlantic, 27 June 2016; BBC News, “Brexit case ‘of fundamental constitutional importance’“, 13 Oct 2016), even if likelihood still must be discussed. Would we head towards institutional deadlock, extreme polarisation, or instability, if not civil wars in the U.S., France and Austria? Is the trend towards less democracy to continue? Would this impact most businesses? Yes, most probably.

Should businesses envision such scenarios (even if their likelihood widely varies) coldly, without considering any personal and individual preferences? Should businesses, actually, envision all possible scenarios, not only those outlined above? Yes, they definitely should, because it is only by properly identifying  scenarios for the future that correct answers may be designed, and profitability – to say nothing of survival – be ensured. In turn, all staff should also be keen to see their employer properly designing answers, because, at the end of the day, their job is at stake, with overwhelming consequences in all areas of their lives should their company downsize or close down.

The question is: will businesses consider these political and geopolitical risks and uncertainties and how?

Our aim with this series of articles is to understand better the relationship between businesses or the corporate sector and geopolitical and political risks and uncertainties, as well as those actors who are specialised in their study, and to suggest elements of answers and solutions that should help businesses to properly address these “risks”.

We shall first look, with this article, at general trends regarding the way businesses’ executives perceive and deal with geopolitical and political risks and uncertainties, using mainly the results of a survey published by McKinsey in May 2016*. This part will allow us identifying a first series of questions and features.

With forthcoming articles, we shall turn to three main examples where geopolitics and politics impacted businesses: the Brexit (“Lessons from and for the Brexit – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (2)“), the crisis in Ukraine and impact on some sectors (“Lessons from the conflict in Ukraine – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (3) and (4)”), the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks (“The Impact of the Islamic State Terrorist Attacks – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (5)”), and, to which we shall add a couple of emerging new or recent uncertainties. We shall use these examples to point out a few key elements related to geopolitical and domestic instabilities’ risks and uncertainties and what they mean (or should mean) for businesses. Finally, we shall deduce from these cases practical ways forward.

Geopolitical risks, what increasingly keeps executives up at night

Back in May 2016, McKinsey Global Survey on globalisation pointed out that “in two years’ time, the share of respondents [executives across regions, industries and companies’ sizes] identifying geopolitical instability as a very important factor affecting their businesses has doubled” (Drew Erdmann; Ezra Greenberg; and Ryan Harper, “Geostrategic risks on the rise, McKinsey & Company, 2016). Thus, 84% of executives now consider that these risks will have an impact on their business, and 49% a very important one, besides domestic instability, which is mentioned by approximately 66% of respondents (Ibid.).

scenario, geopolitics, geopolitical uncertainties, geopolitical risk, instability, business, corporate, risk management, political risk, client, strategic planning, regulations

Interestingly, what businesses have in mind when they think about “geopolitical instability” and domestic ones, always according to the same study, is mainly “uncertain or restrictive regulatory environment” (from 40% to 54% according to sectors), followed by “political or social instability” (from 27% to 43%) – and “disruption to supply chain” (27%) for the manufacturing sector – “protectionist and trade related policies” (from 17% to 32%), and only far behind “volatile prices of commodities” (from 9% to 33%) or High levels of public debt (from 5% to 24%)(Ibid., exhibit 3).

The answers, logically, differ according to sectors. The manufacturing sector is more concerned about what can disrupt its production and its transportation, compared with financial services, which are obviously not so worried about these risks, indeed quite irrelevant for them, at least directly. The differences in answers thus first point out, as stressed by McKinsey, the need to consider corporate sectors according to type of activities rather than an undifferentiated “businesses”, if we want to deliver useful actionable anticipation.

Finally, businesses, assuming that McKinsey’s survey is representative, understand “geopolitical risks” differently from those who are meant to help them understanding these risks. First, the broad label of geopolitical risk has hardly anything to do with geopolitics, “a method of foreign policy analysis which seeks to understand … international political behaviour in terms of scenario, geopolitics, geopolitical uncertainties, geopolitical risk, instability, business, corporate, risk management, political risk, client, strategic planning, wargeographical variables…” (Evans and Newnham, The Dictionary of World Politics, 1992). Then, specialists would tend actually to have in mind what is part of their field, mainly international relations – or international politics – and the study of escalation to war or out of war (in a nutshell, the discipline started by Alfred Zimmern right after World War I in Aberystwyth). To accommodate with historical developments, scholars then, in terms of issues, would look at what could impact security, understood as the security of human societies organised as polities. If we use Buzan’s pioneering work, we thus have five main sectors: military, political, economic, societal and environmental, “all woven together in a strong web of linkages” (Buzan, People, States and Fear, 1991: 20).

We thus have quite a strong disconnect between the perception of businesses and the communication of understanding and accumulated knowledge generated by “geopolitical experts”.** When the latter talk about war, be it civil war or interstate ones, at best they directly address, from a business perspective, only “supply chain disruption” (one of the risks deemed as least important, save for the manufacturing industry) and part of “political and social disruption”.

Yet, political and geopolitical scholars could also explain and contribute to monitor, for example, that high levels of public debts (a geopolitical risk which is not deemed as very important for businesses , see above) could have, at second and third order effect a much higher impact on businesses’ operations than thought. Indeed, the capability of a state to maintain a secure enough environment to allow businesses to operate depends also on the level of public debt or more exactly on the resources available to the state (see Seeking SecurityBudget Deficit and LiquidityPublic Resources and Lenders in The Chronicles of Everstate, RTAS January/Feb 2012): without resources the state cannot ensure its fundamental missions, and thus essential functions such as police cannot be fulfilled successfully. Infrastructures – if they have not been liberalised (note that their privatisation also faces its own challenges, e.g. water, “Learning from water privatization” in The Chronicles of Everstate, RTAS July 2012) – cannot be maintained. Also public debt and state budgets may imply institutional deadlocks – as has been the case in the U.S. (e.g. Clinton T. Brass, “Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects“, Congressional Research Service, 2011 ) – with also impacts on businesses’ main concern, regulations. It is thus crucial that political and geopolitical experts make the effort to help executives deciphering their geopolitical environment.

The gap between the two perspectives is not a fatality and only needs to be bridged, while a common vocabulary is developed. Yet, the bridge must be built if hundred of years of efforts are not to be wasted when it could be used by businesses, and if businesses are to improve their odds when facing and dealing with “geopolitical and domestic instabilities”.

A need to change perspective to go beyond negative impacts

Then, businesses estimate the impact of the geopolitical and domestic instabilities to be largely negative: 57% (for geopolitical scenario, geopolitics, geopolitical uncertainties, geopolitical risk, instability, business, corporate, risk management, political risk, client, strategic planninginstabilities) and 58% (for domestic instabilities) (McKinsey, Ibid., exhibit 2).

Yet, and this time placing ourselves from the point of view of strategic foresight and warning, risk management (in its 2009 approach)  or more broadly, anticipation, we know that what has a negative impact is not so much “instabilities” but the inability to foresee them properly and thus to answer in a timely way these coming changes. To use the wealth of military and intelligence understanding existing on the topic (see J. Ransom Clark, The Literature of Intelligence: A Bibliography…, “Strategic Warning: Surprise, Intelligence Failures, and Indications and Warning Intelligence“), what must be prevented is surprise.

This was well expressed by Guenter Taus, the head of the European Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines, faced with the rapidly changing situation in the Philippines under the impulse of President Duterte (e.g. Reuters, “China confirms Duterte visit amid strained U.S.-Philippine ties“, 12 October 2016):

“We can all deal with risks. We can put measures in place to provide for risks… But uncertainty is a factor that we do not like in business, and that is exactly what we’re experiencing right now because we don’t know where we are heading.” (Guenter Taus in Associated Press, “Uncertainty over Philippine president alarms investors“, Asahi Shimbun, Oct 3 2016)

scenario, geopolitics, geopolitical uncertainties, geopolitical risk, instability, business, corporate, risk management, political risk, client, strategic planning

By focusing mainly on instabilities, or risks (i.e. most of the time pre-identified probability x impact, which is still how most people understand a risk, despite the new ISO 2009 definition – see H Lavoix, “When Risk Management Meets Strategic Foresight and Warning“, RTAS, 5 May 2014, updated June 2016 ), the corporate sector deprives itself from the capability to, potentially, turn instability into an opportunity, as well as to answer an often inescapable instability better than its competitors, which would then provide a specific company with a definitive advantage.

Moving out of fatality?

Finally, McKinsey’s study stresses that, even though, executives have developed a new awareness of “geopolitical and political risks”, even though they point out the potential negative impact to their businesses, they have not started addressing properly these risks: only 13% have taken steps to address both risks of geopolitical and domestic instabilities (exhibit 4).

Furthermore, and strangely enough, although 58% deemed that “comprehensive scenario methodologies, integrated into a strategic planning process” – of the type we are promoting and doing here at The Red (Team) Analysis Society –  are the most efficient way to address these risks, only 18% of executives and their companies use “scenarios”. Meanwhile, the large majority tend to use internal analyses (ad hoc or not) and external think tank resources, such as specialised reports, ad hoc analyses, consultancy and dialogue with external experts, yet executives consider these ways to face geopolitical and domestic risks as less efficient (exhibit 5).

maze, scenario, geopolitics, geopolitical uncertainties, geopolitical risk, instability, business, corporate, risk management, political risk, client, strategic planning

The reason for the lack of efficiency of internal analysis, on the one hand, and of the use of external think tanks and consultants – probably specialised in international relations, on the other hand, lies in what we uncovered in the first part: the difference and discrepancy between languages, center of interests and education, somehow between supply and demand. If two sets of actors do not understand each other, and live on different planets – not to say in different universes – then it is most likely that unsatisfactory relationships will follow.

The more frequent use, nonetheless, of these two “inefficient approaches” most probably comes from the fact that these approaches are what is mainly available.

Furthermore, the absence of training of most international relations specialists in anticipation methodologies, and of “business-related anticipation experts” in international relations, most probably also participate in the generalised use of an expertise considered as inadequate.

Finally, developing scenarios, assuming the right expertise is available, if it is well done is also a relatively long, resource-intensive and thus more expensive and demanding process than buying a generalist subscription to one think-tank or another. This supplementary cost, fundamentally allows for more profit and less losses, but may also be perceived as just a new supplementary cost by companies. As a result, this perception might also be an element in the current lack of use of the methodology deemed most efficient.

Meanwhile, a timeframe issue may also emerge. If a business needs scenarios in the next hours – actually for yesterday because the crisis is now evident, when one month or a couple of months, according to the scope of the issue and level of details, would necessary to obtain proper actionable scenarios, then it may just give up and think it is too late to use scenarios. There are ways to overcome this challenge, including because it is never too late to make scenarios, accepting and taking hold of unfolding crises, within the bounds of possibility and quality.

If businesses are unsure of the way to address geopolitical and political uncertainties, and tend to believe that what is mainly on offer is inefficient for their needs and purpose, then it is not that surprising that they fail to take practical steps forward, and remain caught up in the geopolitical whirlwinds.

This is not, however, a fatality. Using the McKinsey study, we have identified a few crucial yet still general elements that shape the way businesses address  – or not – geopolitical and political uncertainties and started thus envisioning ways forward. With the forthcoming articles, using specific cases, we shall look at the way geopolitical and political uncertainties (and crises) impact businesses, so as to refine our understanding of what could be done better.

——–

*Initially, we planned to also use the part of the Global Risk Report 2016 (GRR), published yearly by the World Economic Forum,  which is dedicated to businesses and global risks (part 4 for the GRR 2016, pp. 69-78). However, the differences between the McKinsey study and the WEF approaches are so important that comparison and even complementarity, for our specific purpose, are impossible.

The McKinsey’s study concerns risks that will impact “global business and your own business” in the coming years, and more specifically (see exhibit 3) “risks that will most affect organizations in countries where they operate over the next 5 years”. Meanwhile the GRR questions are about “the five global risks that they [business executives] were most concerned about for doing business in their country within the next 10 years” (p.69, see also appendix C, p.90). The way the question is asked (at least as portrayed in the report) tends to rule out foreign operations as well as international trade – surprisingly considering the World Economic Forum outlook.

The GRR survey is thus less relevant to our purpose and will not bring us further insight into the relationship between businesses and “geopolitics”.

Furthermore,  the period when the survey were conducted is different too. The McKinsey survey was done between 3 and 13 November 2015, while the GRR was conducted between February and June 2015. Considering the evolution of the war against the Islamic State and its impact notably in Europe, to have a better understanding of the GRR results, we would need to wait for the forthcoming results, corresponding to a survey conducted around Spring 2016.

**Note that the discrepancy most probably comes from the fact that, initially, international relations – and foreign policy – belonged mainly to the state and that it was meant to serve the state and governments by training diplomats, analysts and policy-makers. The discipline thus covers and deals with issues and categories that are relatively congruent with the organisation of the modern state. With the withering away of the state (at least in the liberal world), businesses must face, in a novel way new tasks for which they are not prepared, while “geopolitical specialists” must work with new types of decision-makers, with very different concerns… and education.

About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.

Featured image by Solomon_Barroa, CC0 Public Domain, via Pixabay.


Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear – 2nd edition: An agenda for international security studies in the post-Cold War era, (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1st edition 1983, 2nd edition 1991)

“Interstellar” – Strategic Warning and Response Alternatives for the Resource Crisis

 “Interstellar”, the 2014 global blockbuster movie by Christopher Nolan is a feat of intellectual and strategic thinking. The movie follows the adventures of three astronauts whose mission is to find a viable planet for humankind, while people on Earth are struggling with the rapid decay of the biosphere and the increasingly dangerous effects of climate change.

In fact, this movie addresses the political and existential issues of what is to become of humanity once the climate change crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the energy and minerals crises will have been firmly and clearly interlocked for two dozens years from now. This nexus of “socio-bio-vital crises” is very smartly used by Christopher Nolan to elaborate a vehicle for a new kind of strategic warning communication.

A warning: From “sustainability” to “survival politics”

“Interstellar” is not only Hollywood entertainment, but also a massive “thought experiment” in communication of strategic warning. In this case, the notion of “strategic warning” reveals the depth of its function by helping the spectator to experience the emotion and unease of witnessing what could be the fate of humankind when its most basic life conditions are being taken into a spiral of fatal degradation, in less than a lifetime.

The “strategic warning dimension” of this movie is supported by the way the likelihood of the  collapse of conditions of life in America is projected and tested upon different timelines, in order to reveal political and strategic impacts.

Interstellar, Strategic Warning, policy alternative

The systemic degradation impacts as much the natural world, through the death of vegetation as the artificial human environment, due to the lack of basic resources. This is showed, for example, when vehicles powered by gasefiers, cross dying cornfields. The convoy of trucks and cars leaves a small town because of the state of permanent “dustbowl storm” consequent to the destruction of topsoil.

In other words, we are shown the world of the “post-car culture” (Mike Davis, City of Quartz, excavating the future of Los Angeles, 1990), brought by the definitive rarefaction of oil, or at least cheap oil (Michael Klare, Rising powers, Shrinking Planet, 1988), while the “die-off” of soils and plants goes with the failing first of wheat and okra crops, then of maize, which so became the last support for mass food-producing, all other cereals having failed.

It could be remembered that the start of the sedentary sequence of human history started with the invention of agriculture. The failing agriculture can thus only lead to a massive “failed history” (Jared Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, 1992).

In this depleted and fundamentally impoverished world, governments have focused all the remaining resources on agriculture, to the point that they are now too poor to even wage war in the way inherited from the industrial revolution, the nineteenth, twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century.  They have, officially, demilitarized themselves, to the point that, instead of “official war”, it could be said, by misquoting Carl von Clausewitz “agriculture has become the continuation of politics through other means” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War).

Interstellar, Strategic Warning, policy alternative, war zone, Oklahoma, tornado

So, in a world totally dependent on its own agricultural resources, the dying of vegetation is tantamount to total collapse (Edward Wilson, The Future of Life, 2002). If “Interstellar” stopped only at that, it would already be a very important work in strategic anticipation, because it shows what a very large array of scientific works warns about: the consequences of the crisis of the current “climate change/biodiversity/top soils/ water” nexus.

We already have existing instances of such impacts, with immense continental “dead zones” due to the interaction between the induced consequences of badly thought agricultural development and climate change. For example, the destruction of the Aral Sea, because of past Soviet agricultural ambitions, has dire biological and human, social and political consequences. The draining of the Aral Sea has led to the atmospheric diffusion of huge quantities of salt, which sterilizes an immense region between Uzbekistan and Iran (Valantin Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale, 2007).

Aral, Interstellar, Strategic Warning, policy alternative

In the US, California is experiencing the worst drought in its history. The latter has now been almost ten years long, and it leads to the return of dustbowls,  the multiplication of giant wildfires, as well as to water tensions (Melissa Gaskill, “Climate Change Threatens Long Term Sustainability of Great plains“, Scientific American, Nov 17, 2012).

The movie deepens its status as a “strategic warning experience” by confronting the narration with the issue of time. In effect, it does not propose a “snapshot” of the coming collapse, but it develops along the timeline of an eco-political collapse that deploys itself during more than thirty years, thus following the principles of dramatic narration and of the elaboration of strategic warning scenarios (Hélène Lavoix, Improving the impact of foresight thanks to biases, 2013). And so, we follow the psychological evolution of Murphy, the hero’s daughter, who accuses her father of having “left them to starve and suffocate”.

This accusation encapsulates one of the extreme effects of the current massive injection of carbon in the atmosphere, which not only destroys the very conditions of agriculture and land vegetation, but also acidifies the ocean (Callum Roberts, The Ocean of Life, 2012). In turn, a massive die off of the marine flora could be induced, when one knows its extremely important role in maintaining the current chemical atmospheric equilibria (ibid).

Thus, this movie is a real strategic warning scenario, with all its crucial components. Under the guise of fiction, it anticipates the way our society could “choose to fail”, in the words of Jared Diamond (Jared Diamond, Collapse, How societies choose to fail or survive, 2005).

An alternative response: From “survival” to “sustainability in a new age of extremes”

“Interstellar” does not only warn about the ultimate strategic risk, but also provides a way out of the critical situation in order to answer the crisis it warns about. The way in which, in the movie, the whole political system is centered on agriculture and food production shows its only focus is now strictly organized around materialistic survival, by trying to avoid mass hunger. This goal has become the end of the system in itself. It banishes the possibility of a future, which wouldn’t be dominated exclusively by the preservation of the very fragile present conditions.

This stark warning imposes a new “categorical imperative”, if more than just survival is to ever exist again, which is nothing but the reinvention of the future through space exploration (William E. Burrows, This New Ocean, 1998).

Interstellar, Strategic Warning, policy alternative, Space

However, this new and “space age” comes after alluded wars during which “bombing from space” was used, then had to stop. Indeed, the militarization of space and the operational uses of space power (John Pike, Eric Stambler, Space Power interests, 1996) on a continental war scale were brought to a dead-end for the very simple reason that, in a time of extreme basic resources depletion, modern industrial war has no more use. Indeed, survival absorbs all the resources necessitated by modern technological warfare.

This proposition is nothing but a giant leap in strategic thinking: “Interstellar” goes as far as proposing that space exploration and exodus in space are the reinvention of politics, outside of the original “polis”, that is to say inhabited Earth.

By doing this, Christopher Nolan is proposing a way forward that has been lacking in strategic thinking since the sixties and the development, on the one hand, of nuclear strategic thinking and, on the other hand, of futurist thinking opened by the remarkable works of Dennis Meadows and the Club of Rome (Dennis and Donnella Meadows, The Limits to Growth, 1972 and updated version of 2012). The former were establishing that nuclear war would destroy infrastructures and deeply damage human life conditions (Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, 1983), while the others demonstrated how economic growth would deplete world resources, which would have similar effects for the future of humanity.

Since then, the emergence of the multipolar world has triggered a new space race, centred on China and India, as well as a new nuclear arms race (Paul Bracken, The second nuclear age, 2012), but nuclear war remains an intellectual and strategic dead-end (Luttwak, Strategy: the logic of war and peace, rev. 2002). In answer to social, economic and environmental conundrum, there has been a remarkable implementation of the “sustainable development” (UNEP, Our Common Future, 1987) school of thought, but sustainable development is, before all, an exploration of methods and experiences to prevent the worst path of social/economic/environmental degradation or to reorient collective destinies while it is still possible.

Interstellar, nuclear, strategic warning, space, resource crisis, policy alternative

“Interstellar” suggests that sustainable development, or any other approach for supporting human life, cannot anymore be implemented in a world that is too depleted, while political authorities have been so traumatized by recent and “too extreme” wars that the latter has been identified as a counter-productive tool of preservation, contrary to millennia of political history. Nevertheless, these conditions make even more necessary to open the future, through a new alliance between science, space, generations and vision.

In fact, “Interstellar” shows us that it is possible to invent the future and, in the same time to intervene on it. To do so we must accept what it tells us of the coming “end of growth” through the “end of resources and life”, while space exploration may very well hold the key to the challenge to our survival and life through new possibilities.

Interstellar, nuclear, strategic warning, space, resource crisis, policy alternative

History gives us a powerful example of that kind of evolution. The Cold War history (1947-1991) has been dominated by the “balance of terror” created by nuclear deterrence. Nevertheless, this “non-strategy” (Luttwak, ibid) became politically unacceptable between the end of the seventies and the middle of the eighties, as evidenced by a series of movies, going from the “Planet of the apes” series to the terrible “The Day after”, which depicts the day-to-day life in a little town of the Midwest after a nuclear exchange. More than symptoms of change, these movies helped societies and political authorities to understand but also to represent to themselves, at an existential level, what “the end of history” really means (Valantin, Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington: The Movies and National Security from World War II to the Present Day, 2005). During the eighties, These movies fueled both the collective protests against the nuclear arms race and the political will of Ronald Reagan to end the nuclear stalemate (Frances Fitzgerald, Way out there in the Blue, Reagan, Star Wars and the end of the Cold War, 2000). This evolution was a strong support to US and Soviet policies for veering off from nuclear deterrence during the Reagan/ Bush/Gorbachov years.

In fact, this shows us that movies play an important role not only in the political history of the twentieth and the twenty-first century, but also play an important role as a strategic warning vehicle.

However, contrary to the “nuclear warning” movies of the eighties, “Interstellar” starts with the end of hope, and, through strategic warning and presentation of a response alternative, shows that bending the future for the better is still possible. In that way, it goes to the very essence of strategy.

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.

Featured image: Nothing stands except the tattered American flag in an area looking like a war zone. This area in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma was devastated by an F-5 Tornado with winds up to 230 miles per hour. The area of destruction was 1 mile wide and left a path of destruction 19 miles long by T Sgt Bill Kimble, Public domain photograph from defenseimagery.mil.

Event EEAS (EU): High Level Conference on Managing Complex International Crisis

EEAS (EU) Event: High Level Conference on Managing Complex International Crisis

To inform those of you who would be interested in attending (registration needed) to this very interesting forthcoming high level conference, to which we participate by moderating (and contributing to the organization of) a session. Click on image to register (closing 15 November 2013).

Facing the Fog of War in Syria: Updates

Syria, Syrian WarAs underlined when we started the series on Syria, one of the analytical challenges we face, in terms of strategic foresight and warning, is the fog of war. The, at time, rapid evolution of the situation, fits badly with any static mean to deliver analysis. We need, of course, to monitor what is happening, but also to regularly integrate this surveillance in our strategic analysis and finally to make it known to concerned audience (readers, decision-makers, policy-makers). After having outlined the methodological difficulties and presented the solution chosen, we shall focus on the updates themselves.

Methodology: challenges and imperfect solutions

First, in terms of periodicity and content of publication (delivery in SF&W jargon), a right balance must be found between publishing too many updates, which will contribute to drown readers into the existing mass of information and analyses – and this is furthermore perfectly done by Syrian experts, as exemplified by the must read Syria Comment – and not enough, which will make our assessments quickly outdated and thus useless, or only useful as background information. Second, in terms of audience, we need to inform both knowledgeable readers, who already know the situation in Syria, and newcomers, who discover it. We also need to face a wide variety of audience, which would ideally demand to see their specificities considered.

Finally, in terms of analytical practice, we need to find the resources to fulfill the previous criteria. It is one task to monitor continuously what is happening in Syria and around, according to our indicators, and another to deliver products out of this monitoring. Indeed, and this will not come as a surprise to many, no amount of technology can save the real and time-consuming work needed to collect and check information,  including specialists’ work and news item, then to analyze it, and finally to transform it into what could be called intelligence – according to the issue under investigation (or research focus).

Although far from being perfect, the solution we have adopted here, for now, is

  1. To update, where and when necessary, each previous posts. Considering the importance of dynamics and the need to document it, previous information and analysis will be kept as such, as well as the date of writing.
  2. To reorganize all posts on Syria and make them accessible through a “portal,” where the last date of revision is easily seen.
  3. To make a new post (this post) presenting all relevant changes in the state of play since the last revision, as a warning that something has changed

Finally, each evolution of the situation in and around Syria should have bearings on our scenarios, their likelihood and timeline. If and when such changes are major, then they will be underlined, waiting for a better tool to ease the task of the analyst on the one hand, and to allow for adequate form of delivery, on the other.

Updates on Syria

The war goes on

Let’s start by stating the obvious, besides international crises, diplomatic moves and political alliances’ reconfiguration, the war has not stopped, on the contrary. The new blog of the Institute of War has documented over September through maps air strikes and fighting areas. Wikipedia provides a timeline of “Continued fighting, rebel infighting (July 2013–October 2013)” and has just updated its map of the Syrian war (first map below, click on image to reach the full size map on Wikipedia), which can be compared with a screenshot of the map on 12 July (second map). Both maps together would seem to indicate a slight advantage has been taken by the Al-Assad regime groups, which wold be logical considering in-fighting among opposing factions..

map, Syria, Syrian war

Map Wikipedia 12 July 2013 scaled

Meanwhile, the situation in terms of refugees (2,15 million to date compared with 1,64 on 17 June), of internally displaced people (more than 5 million according to USAID, compared with 4,25 million in early July) and casualties (UN figures have not been updated recently) worsens.

Pro-Assad regime groups 

Geneva 2

  • Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry reiterated their hope to see the peace conference organised in mid-November on the sideline of the APEC summit (7 October 2013Ria Novosti), however Lavrov also underlined he doubted the West capability to bring in the “opposition”. West may fail to bring Syrian opposition to Geneva talks in time – Lavrov“, 1 October 2013, RT News, mentioning he was ready to see this date postponed “as the formation of the opposition delegation may require more time” (3 October 2013Russia Beyond the Headlines).
  • Secret talks would have taken place between one part of the “Free Syrian Army” (see below) and the regime, starting “six weeks ago” (Robert Fisk, “A Syrian solution to civil conflict? The Free Syrian Army is holding talks with Assad’s senior staff: Secret approach to the President could reshape the whole war,” The Independent, 30 September 2013). Within the framework of a mounting Islamist threat, this would potentially result, according to Fisk, from a campaign undertaken by the regime to win back the many defectors composing the FSA. This information has been denied by the NC or rather “Colonel Malik Al-Kurdi, the Deputy Commander of the Free Syrian Army”, who emphasized the fragmentation power of secrecy (“Free Syrian Army denies secret negotiations with Assad regime“, 1st October 2013, Middle East Monitor).
    The timing of those talks, as told to Fisk by “a senior official on the staff of President Bashar al-Assad” is also particularly important: if we count 6 weeks back from Monday 30th September, we get 19 August, i.e. 2 days before the chemical attack (see below). We may thus be led to wonder if, hypothesis 1, Fisk’s source is reliable and the information he gave his true, which Fisk seems to believe considering the other signs he indicates in his article, this would not increase the likelihood that Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad are correct and that one fighting group loosely associated with the opposition but refusing the possibility of such a peace could have carried upon the chemical attack. Alternatively, hypothesis 2, the information given to Fisk is false or partly true and planted to lead people to reason as done here for hypothesis 1, and thus to enhance Bashar al-Assad’s regime status. The indications selected by Fisk would then be nothing else than a smart strategy by the regime and tiredness by the FSA having to fight on multiple fronts. We should not forget that we are here in the context of war and of international politics, and that disinformation and psychological war have been used by all sides and in multiple ways.
    Other reasons could exist for having interest in spreading news (which could also have been disseminated on the ground before 30 September) regarding the very existence of the talks and their content  – be it true, partly true or false (considering the scattered, chaotic and localised quality of the Syrian fighting forces opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, such talks may well have taken place but represent only one or a few groups within the FSA). Some of the new groups or loose alliances that were announced at the end of September 2013 could use it to enhance their own legitimacy and thus gain ground and mobilisation power, while discrediting the NC and FSA or some elements within it. The Al-Assad regime could have interest in underlining the weakness and division of the opposition. It could seek to provoke a reaction from the less moderate part of the warring groups, which would polarize further the conflict, frighten the moderates – as well as “the West” – but also reduce the number of opponents for the Al-Assad regime. Some groups within the Bashar al-Assad regime could have interest in seeing a continuation of war for profit and power, etc.
  • The regime of Bashar Al-Assad continues to welcome a Geneva 2 and to state that it would participate, emphasizing that “There is no civil war in Syria, but it is a war against terror…” (“Statement by Walid al-Moualem, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Syria” at the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly, 30 September 2013, also summary of statement in “Syrian FM to UN: ‘Terrorists from 83 countries fighting in Syria‘,” 30 September 2013, RT News )

Chemical attack(s) in Syria

On 21 August 2013, attacks using chemical weapons were made in Syria, in Gutha, a suburb of Damascus, where fighting between factions opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the latter’s armed forces was ongoing. As underlined by Kendall, in her detailed and comprehensive early reportage (Bridget Kendall, “Syria ‘chemical attack’: Distressing footage under analysis“, 23 August 2013, BBC News), those attacks were first denounced by groups fighting al-Assad regime (e.g. EinTarma Coordinating on its Facebook page) and followed by many videos made available on the internet. The regime of Bashar al-Assad denied using chemical weapons during the fighting.

Since then, Syrian forces on the ground used abundantly classical and new media to see their viewpoint heard and believed.

As the use of chemical weapons is proscribed according to international law, as “since 1968, Syria has been a party to the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of War, better known as the Geneva Protocol.” (Zilinskas, National Interest, 6 August 2012), and as US President Obama had warned on 20 September 2012 that Syria would face American military intervention if it used unconventional weapons (e.g. Mark LandlerThe New York Times, 20 August 2012), then international reactions could only follow. The challenges that had to be faced were first to be certain that chemical weapons had been used in this specific case, and second to identify with certainty the perpetrator of the attack.

In a nutshell, the UK, France and the US argued first that Sarin had been used, according to their intelligence services, and second that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible. On the contrary, Russia, and also China and Iran, asked for more neutral evidence regarding the use of chemical weapons (a U.N. inspection – their report (or access here) establishing the use of Sarin was made public on 16 September 2013), and then asserted that some group from the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad was the perpetrator.

International actors tried to give as much legitimacy to their positions as possible, using not only domestic and international law, but also making public intelligence assessment in the case of France (Synthèse nationale de renseignement déclassifié, 2 Septembre 2013) and the US (Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013, 30 August 2013) and making abundant use of media in the case of Russia. Afraid to be dragged into another war on another intelligence failure as had happened with Iraq, on 29 August 2013, the UK parliament, refused to authorize military action (e.g. Andrew Sparrow, Politics Live BlogThe Guardian).

Considering irreconcilable positions from members of the U.N. Security Council, which thus forbade any full international legitimacy to any armed action against Syria, yet the necessity to act to ensure the continuation of the current international order, not only Syria but the world were in a very dangerous situation that could potentially have led to another world war or to a disaggregation of the international order. “The use Russia made of US Secretary of State Kerry’s comment, transforming it in a practical and actionable – however complex and difficult – strategy, according to which “the Bashar al-Assad regime could avoid a strike by “agreeing to give up his chemical weapons” (for a summary, see Gordon and Lee Myers, New York Times, 9 September 2013, among others), was an extremely smart move, which took the whole international order out of a very dangerous quagmire” (Democracy: the Key to Avoiding Future Wars 3). Syria’s chemical disarmament has now started and can be followed on the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA).

Yet, uncertainty regarding the perpetrator does remain – it is likely to remain so in the absence of certain direct evidence, as well as considering the psychological war that has been waged through the media. New “revelations” are made by the Russian side. The latest is that “the August chemical weapons attack in the Syrian capital’s suburbs was done by a Saudi Arabian black operations team, Russian diplomatic sources have told a Russian news agency [Interfax]”, according to RT (4 October 2013). This alleged Saudi involvement is to read in the framework of the evolutions among the anti al-Assad factions (see, for example, Joshua Landis and Syria Comment experts “Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders” 1 October 2013), notably – but not only – following from the loss of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (see below updates for the NC) and of the regional tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Russia also insists in seeing another chemical attack that would have taken place on 19 March in the vicinity of Aleppo investigated (“Sergei Lavrov will meet Syrian rebels halfway“, October 3, 2013, Russia Beyond the Headline, Ria Novosti). Another attack using Sarin has taken place in April 2013, as French declassified intelligence report (ibid. p.2, 6) recalled and was according to the French report perpetrated by the Al-Assad regime.

As a result, of the chemical attack and consequent developments, if everything goes well in terms of disarmament, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is most likely to see its credibility and status enhanced internationally, while the international public opinion, so important nowadays, has grown more confused.

Featured image: Building burning in Homs – By Bo yaser (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Big Brother in France? Discussion on BBC World Service

Under the backdrop of the many stories on spying on citizens, friends and allies, France is now under the spotlight, after a breaking Le Monde article (See also BBC “France ‘has vast data surveillance’ – Le Monde report” and many other articles).

The BBC World Service – World Have Your Say invites three experts, including from Red (Team) Analysis, to discuss: “We also hear from France, where it’s been alleged that the country’s foreign intelligence service has been intercepting computer and telephone data on a vast scale, like the controversial US Prism programme.”  (5 July 2013, 12:30) – Listen to the podcast here.