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(EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert A. Norton, Ph.D., is chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group. He is a longtime consultant to the U.S. military, and federal and state law enforcement agencies. He can be reached at nortora@auburn.edu or 334-844-7562. Disclaimer: Dr. Norton and production of this article were supported by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Stations and the Hatch program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture. The article represents the personal opinion of Dr. Norton and does not reflect official policy or statutory-related opinion of the federal government, NIFA or USDA.)

Abu Henricki al Canadi is a name likely unfamiliar to most readers of this publication.

Henricki is a supposedly reformed ISIS sympathizer, captured in Rojava, Syria, by Syrian Democratic Forces.  He is also an English speaker, having dual citizenship in Canada and Trinidad.

In a recent interview with Anne Speckhard, the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, Henricki claimed that ISIS attempted to recruit him in 2016 “… to do financial attacks. Financial attacks to cripple the [U.S.] economy.” Translated, that means to hit critical infrastructures.

Food and agriculture are critical infrastructures that help make our way of life possible. Mexico was one possible port of entry for ISIS recruits.

Were the claims credible? Possibly.

Important point: The claims remain unverified and for reasons not detailed here, are suspect. Perhaps the better question to ask is whether the claims are plausible. That answer would be yes.  Very much so. Could the U.S./Mexican border be a potential portal of entry for ISIS, or other terrorist organizations? Again, yes.

Porous Border

The U.S./Mexican border is very porous and already heavily used by human traffickers and drug smugglers. These same routes have been and will continue to be one likely route of entry into the U.S.

More information, more “intelligence” would be necessary to validate the specific claims of Henricki. Because the border has and will continue to be a route of entry for people wanting to do bad things, does not mean Henricki is telling the truth, as related to himself. Why would he lie?

Captured and now in custody in a place most people would choose not to go, it is reasonable to assume he could be lying, perhaps to glean better treatment at the hands of the captors, perhaps as part of an ISIS disinformation plot.

Big surprise – ISIS captives frequently lie. Then again, sometimes they also tell the truth. The press is fixating on the sensational aspects of claims made by a one-time terrorist wannabe.  Intelligence and law enforcement professionals sometimes also fall into the sensationalism trap. The important point is to look beyond the sensation and focus on those aspects of the story that are more truly important.

How Smart Is ‘intelligence?’

Dr. Bob Norton

The government’s responsibility is to “vet” all claims, regardless of their source, in other words prove or disprove their veracity.  U.S. government officials and the press often refer to “intelligence.”

What does that actually mean? The word “intelligence” has two meanings, both of which are interrelated. The first definition refers to a person’s ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. The second definition refers to national security.

In this instance, intelligence refers to the collection and analysis of any information that pertains to “threats to the U.S., its people, property, or interests; the development, proliferation, or use of weapons of mass destruction; or any other matter bearing on U.S. national or homeland security.”

You likely have access to information that the government does not have.  Intelligence could developed from your information.  Better intelligence = better insight.  Translation – you and your family are safer.

Deadly Aspirations

ISIS has aspirational goals to attack the United States. Wanting to do something and actually being able to do it are two very different matters.

On the Border: U.S. Border Patrol forces near El Paso

The United States government spends huge amounts of money to ensure ISIS’ aspirational goals fail. Since 2001, the United States has been very fortunate, in that we, unlike Europe, Africa and the Middle East have not experienced large-scale coordinated terrorist attacks by actual ISIS members. There have been smaller scale attacks by single individuals, who were ISIS inspired, but most likely not ISIS directed.

The tragic killing of 50 people, by Omar Mateen at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando is an example where the shooter was inspired, but not actually directed by ISIS. This does not discount the tragedy, but it does recognize the nature and scale of the event.

Whether success in preventing ISIS directed attacks will continue is an open question, answered day to day. ISIS does and will continue to take advantage of a porous border. That’s a given.  Eventually, there will be some new intelligence or law enforcement failure(s), as there were before 9-11 and ISIS will succeed in directing an attack inside the U.S. After the event, we will likely look back and realize that we had the necessary information to prevent the attack all along, but for whatever reason, we either had not yet looked at it, or if we had, not yet realized its meaning.  Another possibility is that needed information resides in places to which the government did not have access.

Information overload

In defense of Intelligence and law enforcement professionals, the amount of information currently needing examination is staggering.  That volume expands by the minute.  Remember also, these are human endeavors, conducted by fallible people.  Humans make mistakes, sometimes willfully, but other times not.  Some mistakes occur when government officials look at information they do not understand and therefore cannot interpret properly.

So let us bring this discussion back to farms and farming. What are the lessons we can learn from this?

Do not focus on the U.S./Mexico border. That is the responsibility of the politicians and the agencies charged with maintaining security.  Focus on your borders – the boundaries of your farm or ranch. Would you want an ISIS sympathizer or actual terrorist working for you? Of course not! A person like that might come very cheap, but will use the opportunity to hide out on your farm or ranch. That happening would cause significant risk to you and your family’s safety.

Think also for a moment about your “brand quality.” Imagine the impact to your business if a terrorist launched an attack from your property – successful or not. There is potential for both criminal and civil liability, depending on your level of knowledge and your actions. National security therefore begins with you, on your farm and ranch.

Rules To Live By    

  1. Control access to all your property.  That may be a contractual obligation. If it is not, it should be a standard practice. If outsiders should not be on your property, make sure they are not. One of the most successful ranch security programs I have ever heard about began with the tactical placement of an ill-tempered bull on land previously accessible by outsiders. Perhaps not surprisingly, outsiders no longer tried to access the property. In that case, nothing said BIOSECURITY better than a 1,500-pound bull. ISIS sympathizers are likely agree.
  2. Know those to which you have given access. No. 1 and No. 2 are different. Controlling access is fence and gate stuff.  Knowing who you allow beyond that gate or fence is as important as who you keep out. Perhaps even more so. Verify identities of employees. Background checks do cost something, but they also help screen out people you do not want around your family, your equipment, your facilities, and your livelihood.
  3. Think more about the “what is”, rather than the “what ifs.” Could ISIS attack your farm or ranch as a way to attack the food supply? Is there a high probability that will occur? Not at this time, but that will change, the first time it happens. The government considers these kinds of attacks as “low probability/high consequence.”  What is in fact a high probability event is that you will one day encounter a disgruntled employee. Disgruntled employees are more of an immediate threat to your operation than ISIS. Why?  Disgruntled employees are a) inside your fence; b) have access to your operations and processes; c) have access to things, such as chemicals, which could be used for malign activities; d) know your vulnerabilities; e) are more motivated to do harm than are satisfied employees. Here again, the best practice is to require a background on your employees. Talk to your local sheriff or police department. A background check also sets the tone for your security program. Having a security program helps diminish the probability of potential problems.
  4. Talk to your local law enforcement agencies. Good working relationships are critical. Law enforcement seldom has a large footprint in large rural areas. Personnel are present, but usually in small numbers and only occasionally passing any given property.  Having a positive relationship with law enforcement can pay important dividends. Law enforcement obviously cannot patrol only your perimeter fences and property. What they can do is take seriously your specific concerns.  Understand that law enforcement has to deal with a full spectrum of humanity, some of which are problematic, even though good intentioned. Do not become a person who cries wolf. A good working relationship with law enforcement can ensure that they consider you as credible for both your concerns and the information you can provide.
  5. See something – say something! This goes back to the earlier statements on Intelligence. You likely have information that would be of interest to law enforcement. You may not even know the importance of the information you do have in your possession – the things you have observed, the people you have talked to, the rumors, the smells, etc. Any of this information could be of importance if made known to the right person(s). In this case, the right persons needing to know are those in law enforcement.
  • You can help law enforcement acquire and apply knowledge.
  • Intelligence could developed from your information. Better intelligence = better insight.
  • Conversely, you have expertise in farming or ranching. You could help law enforcement develop better insight, by interpreting the information they possess. Law enforcement needs the assistance of good citizens.   Better insight = better intelligence.

Act Locally

Everything related to national security begins at the local level, whether here in the United States or in foreign lands. Bad people exist. If that makes you uncomfortable, then approach it with the understanding that some people want to do bad things. In some cases, verybad things. Some of them live in foreign lands.  Others, live in the United States, or even closer to home, in your county, perhaps even nearby to your farm and ranch.

You as a farmer or rancher have an obligation to protect your property and your family. Farming and ranching are endeavors where property and family are closely dependent. If something, God forbid, happens to your family, what does your property matter?

On the other hand, if something happens to your property, your way of making a living, how do you take care of your family?  National security is YOUR security!

Protecting both better ensures you are able to provide not only for your own family, but also for all those families that depend upon your agricultural products, whether food or fiber. Farming and ranching are noble callings. We need to work together to ensure they endure into the future. More secure farms and ranches means a safer nation. Stay vigilant. Stay safe.

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