The latest terrorist atrocity – this time in Brussels – has drawn attention to a growing cause for concern in the energy sector and beyond.
Chilling reports are now coming in that two of the suicide bombers responsible for last week’s Brussels massacre had been planning an attack on a Belgian nuclear research facility.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, either.
In August 2014, a worker at the Belgian Doel-4 nuclear power plant tried to sabotage it by draining lubricant from the system. While nuclear material was never in any danger, the damage was in excess of $100 million.
Now, the worker responsible was never conclusively identified. But authorities later discovered that an employee of the Doel-4 nuclear plant had left for Syria to join ISIS…
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Attacks, whether planned or successful ones, against energy infrastructure are increasing.
Attacks on Energy Infrastructure are Growing Common
Just a couple of days after the Brussels attacks, a guard was found dead at Belgium’s national radioactive elements institute.
And it’s not just Belgium, either.
In January, Israel’s Electricity Authority was attacked with a sophisticated virus, just as temperatures in Jerusalem were dropping below the freezing point and the country’s electricity consumption reached record highs for two days.
The Israeli government was forced to shut down several computers and even part of the country’s power grid to deal with the attack.
The month before, two days before Christmas, Ukraine suffered the first known power outage caused by a cyberattack, as three of the country’s regional power authorities had their power cut by a virus.
225,000 people were left without power in the dead of the Ukrainian winter, with the virus disconnecting electrical substations from the grid. Hackers affiliated with Russia (which is still in conflict over Ukraine’s eastern regions and Crimea) are the likely suspects, but as is often the case with cyberattacks, proving anything of substance will be difficult.
That’s not to mention the 2012 cyberattack on Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco, which wiped out some 30,000 computers, or the 150 successful (out of 1,131 attempted) cyberattacks on the U.S. Department of Energy (which handles the nuclear weapons stockpile in addition to the electrical grid and energy laboratories) between 2010 and 2014.
As you can see, the list just goes on and on.
Of course, when attacks like the ones in Brussels take human life at such a huge scale, economic consequences are far from the first priority.
But over the long-term, the impact on energy security – and thereby price – may be the most long-lasting effect these terrorists achieve.
This goes to show how much has changed since I worked in counter-intelligence (CI)…
The Intelligence Game is Moving Into the Public Eye
Unlike what Hollywood would have you believe, much of the Cold War was actually fought in some of the least “touristy” locations imaginable. The reason was straightforward.
We were targeting an entire network set up by the other side – and they were doing the same against us. In such a scenario you had to identify the most vulnerable locations in the opposition’s command and communications chain, and then exploit it.
These were rarely found in London’s Belgravia or Paris’ Neuilly-sur-Seine.
Instead, you’d often find yourself in the backwaters of the world, where the opposing personnel were at their weakest.
Enter yours truly. One time, I needed to set up a coordination center in a hotel room. This required some equipment. Now, any standard hotel plug would do the trick.
But this was not a normal place – at least for anything beyond the nineteenth century…
I plugged in the equipment… and promptly knocked out electricity for half the town, blowing an entire multi-month operation in the process.
The lesson here was a text book illustration of the primary directive KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. Any operation needed to conform to the minimum expectations of the terrain.
In other words, don’t assume that anything usually available will be there when you land.
Fast forward to today and the war against terrorism.
Our Tactics Need to Change
This is still regarded by some as strictly a law enforcement exercise: capture the bad guys and put them on trial. Unfortunately, that’s really hard to do when the bad guys are only too willing to take themselves out with their own bombs.
Counter-terrorism is quite different from CI. The immediate stakes are now much higher. In my time, one might ultimately (well after the fact) determine (at least part) of what went on from the natural flow of history. Today, the media counts bodies in the streets as soon as an event occurs.
The main approach has changed dramatically, too. During my days in CI, operations were covert (denying the identity of the activity’s sponsor) and/or clandestine (denying the existence of the operation itself). This was a game played in the shadows. The deeper this shadow world, the better.
Today, the war is waged in the open…
This is War
We used to target practitioners and their resources on the other side. We may not have been wearing uniforms but your adversary had at least signed on and knew the risks involved.
Victims today are innocent bystanders. In fact, today’s operations count on inflicting maximum human damage on people who have no part in whatever injustice is supposed to be the perverted justification for the attack.
Collateral damage is no longer a side effect. It’s now the main focus.
The public still does not understand the rationale here. It is precisely because the victims are innocent that the event receives its massive media exposure. The culprits are counting on it.
And that makes anybody just about anywhere less secure.
It is called “propaganda of the deed,” a psychological tag hung on a distortion of humanity. The attack achieves a massive amount of press time for the miserable creatures perpetuating it.
This is warfare, not a political action. And it deserves to be recognized as such.
But that does come at a price. There had been at least a modicum of comfort in the West by saying that we retain the moral high ground. And I quite agree for the most part. We do not target noncombatants on other side just because they do so with us.
But this has not been a court room exercise for some time. This is war…
Uncertainty is the New Normal
In addition to the horrific loss of lie, the long-term effect of terrorism, now being played out in the streets of major cities (and elsewhere, if “lone wolf” actions are included) is this: uncertainty.
Terrorists don’t have to hit often for this uncertainty to fester, undermining how we conduct ourselves. After all, tourism still has not returned to pre-tragedy levels in Paris. The atrocities linger in media portrayals of an attacked location well after the deed, setting the stage for the next one.
It is also likely to be how we are constrained to conduct our daily lives moving forward – with one glance to our backs.
Following the spate of cyberattacks on energy assets worldwide, as well as the real and growing threat of physical attacks on, for example, nuclear reactors, this uncertainty is now also hitting the energy sector.
And that means Oil & Energy Investor will be changing a bit in focus. Starting today, matters of “energy security” – making sure energy can be safely generated and transmitted despite the now ever-present threat of attack – are going to become an integral part of what we do here. They are just too important to the overall energy picture.
This new approach will also open up some interesting opportunities. Stay tuned for more.
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