There is both good news and bad news on the terrorism front. ISIS is now being defeated on the battlefield, but the group remains dangerous. Despite that, it is important to realize that our food supply remains vulnerable.

In early September of this year, for example, ISIS called for its supporters to target “unbelievers” (i.e., the West) by injecting poisons (such as cyanide) into fruits and vegetables or containers of ice cream found in supermarkets and grocery stores. The chance of ISIS sympathizers in the U.S. being able to obtain cyanide is remote, but their ability to obtain other toxic chemicals is not. ISIS has also called for additional attacks on markets, restaurants, clubs and bars. The numbers of victims in these types of venues are actually quite stunning. Many of the attacks, including those that occurred in London and Paris, started or ended in and around restaurants. Food- and drink-related venues offer advantages in the adversary’s favor. Because they are places where people congregate socially, situational awareness is often lacking or impaired, making patrons more vulnerable. 

A Potentially Serious ‘Brand Issue’
So where are we in the fight to maintain the safety and security of the food supply? Food corporations overall are refining their defenses in response to new and evolving federal regulations (e.g., the Federal Information Security Management Act, or FISMA), but also in response to increasing pressure from insurance carriers. Federal guidelines, at best, serve only as a baseline, whereas insurance incentives like rate reductions could immediately cause corporate defenses to be bolstered. Food leaders increasingly understand that terrorism, like an unintentional contamination event, can rapidly become a serious brand issue. Food corporations are most likely to experience disruption from intentional contamination because of the actions of a disgruntled employee, but an attack from someone with terroristic motivations remains a possibility.    

The scope of the problem of battlefield returnees is vast. Most are male, but not exclusively so. Some are disillusioned and traumatized (yes—actually suffering post-tramatic stress disorder) and just wanting to leave the fight altogether. Of these, a percentage will never again attempt further violence. Other returnees may need only a respite to rekindle their enthusiasm for violence. Still others have vowed to continue their fight to the death. Some are highly skilled, well-trained and combat-hardened. These are the stone-cold killers, who are often clever adversaries. Being smart, these people may superficially look like good potential employees. The question is, of course, how do you know who is a threat and who is not?  

Probable Manifestations of Terror
Prognostication is always dangerous for practitioners of the Intelligence arts, who seek to accurately discern an adversary’s intentions. Specifics such as time, place and exact nature of a potential event are particularly hazardous to predict, since one wrong estimate could cause defenses to be shifted. A best strategy for corporations is to prepare for what is termed “strategic surprise,” accepting that specifics will remain unknown beforehand. The best approach for assuring corporate survivability is to build corporate resiliency, continuity options and robustness in detection and response, no matter the nature of the surprise.

ISIS or some other terrorist group at some point will again be successful at carrying out an attack. In the U.S., the likely weapons of choice will be vehicles, improvised explosives, knives, guns or some combination. In Europe, improvised explosives, vehicles and knife attacks will predominate for the near future. Europe is getting better at breaking up terrorist cells, but must be more proactive. Israel intelligence is a master at proactive operations, largely because of their ability to infiltrate terrorist groups with native speakers. The U.S. struggles with recruitment of native speakers, but is continually getting better at infiltrating and disrupting violent groups.

Lone wolves will always be a threat. The recent shooting tragedy that occurred in Las Vegas is one of those very sad instances that escaped early detection, in part because Stephen Paddock had no cyber signature to suggest he might be a person of interest. The problem of a shooter bent on destruction may seem remote to the food industry, but it is not. Someone like Paddock could as easily have decided to turn on fellow employees. Here too, prevention is difficult, often made more so by HR restrictions that limit what investigations can be done with an employee that appears to be potentially violent.  Again, robustness in detection and response are key.

Another potential threat is industrial chemicals, herbicides and pesticides, which will be sought after by some terrorist groups. Intentional contamination of a food system already occurred in South Africa in early 2017, when a farmworker put a toxic herbicide in a dairy storage tank. Not long afterwards, a Nigerian man attempted to poison the food in a restaurant. The contamination was successfully detected in the dairy, while two died and more than 40 were injured in the second case.

Yet another potential threat is posed by vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, followed immediately by gun and knife attacks, which have occurred on multiple occasions in Africa and the Middle East. Those specific kinds of phased attacks, starting with an improvised explosive device, could eventually occur in Europe and the U.S. Adding to the potential problems, FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told Congress that terrorist groups would like to use drones to attack in the U.S., predicting the probability as being “imminent.” This threat will only increase as drones improve. Eventually, someone or some group will drop an explosive device, either on people or on infrastructure. That kind of attack will be a game changer on many levels. Well-placed, the results could be catastrophic.

Given the difficulty of predicting what an “event” could look like, how is a food corporation to be prepared? I’ve put together a few suggestions to achieve this aim:

• Make preventive actions a priority.

• Design vetting programs for all new employees that include a police background check as a requirement for employment.

• Conduct annual police background checks on all employees, including management personnel.   

• Initiate active employee location/time monitoring programs of all employees.   

• Prioritize point security in areas where concentrated ingredients or products are located.

• Utilize tamper-evident packaging on products used as ingredients for other food products.

• Develop a tamper-evident packaging protocol, isolating a product until an investigation into the nature of the event is complete.

Robert A. Norton, Ph.D., is chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group ( He is a long-time consultant to the U.S. military and federal and state law enforcement agencies and is editor of Bob Norton’s Food Defense Blog ( He can be reached at or at 334.844.7562.