In the Eye of the Storm: Managing Terrorism and Asymmetric Threats During the COVID-19 Pandemic

October 2020 No Comments

Speakers: Braniff, W. (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland); Holt, C. (CHC Global); Smith, J. (CHC Global)

Date: 14 October 2020

Speaker Session Summary

SMA hosted a speaker session as a part of its SMA UK MoD Speaker Series, entitled “In the Eye of the Storm: Managing Terrorism and Asymmetric Threats During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The speakers included Prof. William Braniff (Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland), Mr. Chris Holt (CHC Global), and Mr. Jerry Smith (CHC Global).

Prof. Braniff began the presentation with a conversation on pandemic fatigue and its role in cognitive dissonance in the coming months. As winter approaches, leaders and civilians alike need to be contemplating how best to prepare for the potentially increased impact of the pandemic, Prof. Braniff argued. He then stated that the insurance industry offers a useful perspective to leadership and can assist in examinations and preparations for the coming winter. Government spending is a problem, according to Prof. Braniff, so government preparedness is always at risk and is not inherently sustainable—a disadvantage that the insurance industry may be able to assist with. Currently, the US’s biggest vulnerability is towards influence operations conducted by our adversaries, who aim to use disinformation to control a given population. More broadly, the world is struggling with the dilemma caused by the devolution of the information age into the misinformation and disinformation age. Because immediate science was unable to provide sufficient answers to questions regarding COVID-19, Prof. Braniff, explained that uncertainty opened the door to a wave of extremist and conspiratorial ideologies. Extremists and conspiratorialists have used the lack of knowledge surrounding the virus to their advantage by promoting unrealistic information and ideas, ultimately leading to internal dissent. Prof. Braniff stated that the insurance perspective is useful in combatting this challenge due to its recognition that bad things will happen, its developed mechanisms that respond to recurring problems, its financial incentives for good behavior, its transferring of some risk from the public to the private sector, and its ability to incentivize the collection and analysis of more and better data.

Mr. Holt continued the presentation by providing an overview of how the insurance industry orients itself towards these issues. The insurance industry has existed for a long time, and it has been assessing risk and risk factors since its inception. Therefore, it is a regulator of risk financing and is well-versed in areas of political risk, political violence/terrorism, cyber risk, and kidnap for ransom/piracy. Mr. Holt explained that insurance is essentially where capital meets risk, so the client, whether that be an individual, company, or government, is seeking to share their risk. It is in all of the stakeholders’ interest to manage risk before its transferred. In other words, clients will transfer their financial risk for a higher price, so it is worth reducing the risk in order to lower the expense. The processes and conceptual strategies used in the insurance industry can therefore be effectively applied to risk management and assessment more broadly. For example, when engaging with a terrorist group that commits malicious acts, it is critical to thoroughly assess the risks of such engagement.

Mr. Smith elaborated further on observations gathered by START and CHC Global. They identified three imperatives resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. The first is “honest risk assessment,” or how the pandemic should have been more sufficiently prepared for given the clear indicators that a pandemic was possible. The second is “agnostic event resilience,” or the recognition that events may have an array of causal factors, but the crises’ consequences and outcomes have common factors. The third imperative is a “public-private partnership,” or a requirement for public-private coordination and communication from the cyber sector to critical national infrastructure to risk financing. This must be enhanced and developed through both the influencing of behaviors and adopting shared preparation and response paradigms, such as disease surveillance. Mr. Smith argued that economic conditions are intimately tied to the pandemic’s outcome and that continuing to prepare for and recover from this challenge will significantly impact the fate of the pandemic. He further suggested that there will likely be a concurrent crisis and that the world is not prepared to manage multiple crises. Mr. Smith concluded by stating that the pandemic has enabled an environment in which more vulnerability to malicious actors exists. There is uncertainty and fatigue, and people are losing their stamina in managing the pandemic—a vulnerability that malicious actors will seek to exploit.

Speaker Session Recording

Note: We are aware that many government IT providers have blocked access to YouTube from government machines during the pandemic in response to bandwidth limitations. We recommend viewing the recording on YouTube from a non-government computer or listening to the audio file (below), if you are in this position.

Download Prof. Braniff, Mr. Holt, and Mr. Smith’s Briefing Materials


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