Global SOF Symposium
February 21, 2017
Good afternoon. Todd, thank you for the invitation to speak. It’s both a personal pleasure and a professional honor to be here in the company of so many men and women who have put the Special Operations community in the position it enjoys today. It’s particularly meaningful to join you to help mark the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
I won’t be the first to observe how much has changed in these thirty years. We have seen the Special Operations community struggle to establish – or more accurately to re-establish – its density as a legitimate contributor on the modern battlefield. But no one would have predicted three decades ago the scope or magnitude of the role SOF would be playing in today’s global fights in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and on a host of other less visible yet critical battlefields.
And yet with all that change, most of you are probably wondering why the U.S. combatant commander responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean – and a surface warfare officer at that – is giving a keynote at a SOF symposium. After all, it’s not like Latin America is a hotbed for terrorism, proliferation, or unconventional warfare. Compared to other combatant commands, SOUTHCOM’s got it pretty good.
So why am I here?
Let me start with a premise. If I were to ask for a show of hands, I suspect most of you would say “drugs” are the main security challenge we face in Latin America. Sure, there’s the FARC in Colombia, and maybe “shining path” in Peru, but everyone knows how they make their money. Pretty much every major criminal problem in the region has some sort of linkage to the drug trade. So that makes drugs the principle regional security problem, right?
Think again….if we only talk about drugs when discussing Latin America’s security challenges, we’re only talking about an isolated part of the story.
Contrary to what you might think you understand about this part of the world, drugs—or in fact any of the illegal commodities that move through our hemisphere—are not the true security threat that we face. They are simply the physical manifestation of our real concern – threat networks.
Today, we and our partners face a new reality in which the reach, influence, and capabilities of threat networks can rival many modern states. At SOUTHCOM, we use the term ‘transregional and transnational threat networks.’ You probably know them better as cartels, criminal organizations, third-generation gangs, terrorists, and the like. Whatever you call them, these networks represent a threat to the sovereignty, financial security, and institutional integrity of every nation in our hemisphere.
Who are these groups, and what makes them so dangerous?
Think of threat networks like the dark side of our modern, integrated world. These networks exploit the interconnected nature of our financial, transportation and technological systems to expand their illicit operations. What was once localized smuggling and criminality has, in many cases, gone global. And that has serious consequences for our national security and that of our partners and allies.
From organizations like the Sinaloa cartel that function like multinational, billion-dollar corporations…to Central America’s ms-13 gang, which just happens to operate in 46 of our 50 states…to groups like ISIL – ISIS – Da’ish -- who are finding new ways to market their ‘insidious brand’ to new audiences...these networks, as a whole and in their parts, are woven into the fabric of our environment.
These groups threaten the very underpinnings of democracy itself. They do this through corruption, violence, and by challenging—or even usurping—the role of the state. They engage in money laundering, bribery, intimidation, and assassinations. They outgun local police forces and offer services like medical care and employment to buy the loyalty (or the silence) of the local population. They use crude IEDS and beheadings to sow fear and destabilize the environments in which they operate while driving hundreds of thousands of migrants to our southwest border.
And like companies on the cutting edge of research and development, they employ sophisticated technology – including semi-submersible submarines - to conduct their illicit operations. The tactics, techniques, and procedures of these groups have advanced far beyond the typical activities of ‘drug traffickers’ or ‘jihadi-wannabes.’ These are superbly financed, efficient, and ruthless adversaries.
The true threat these networks represent lies in their ability to connect people and groups—dangerous in their own right—and much more so when empowered by others. And despite this grim picture, I would argue that these threat networks are pressing problems that we, as a government and an international community, don’t fully understand…especially as it relates to the world we live in today—not the world we envision or strive to achieve, but the complicated and entangled one we live in today.
We live in a world in which these networks, and the growing illegal economies that support them, undercut our national interests in multiple nations, multiple continents, and across multiple domains. 
We live in a world in which weapons-grade nuclear material may already circulate on the black market, and where fabrication technical expertise may be only one google search or Linkedin profile away. And we live in a world in which these threat networks can, and do, move anything and anyone, anywhere—and that is precisely what I worry about most.
So what does this mean for us at U.S. Southern Command, and for you who comprise the larger SOF community? Well, for one thing, it means that we require a different way of thinking about these challenges.
Now, I’m not talking about viewing threat networks in terms of convergence, or a nexus, or a hybrid super-threat, or whatever the term-du-jour happens to be. I’m entirely uninterested in that debate. It misses the point, and missing the point is very dangerous, especially in your line of work. I am interested in conditioning all of us to think differently, and to challenge our own assumptions. As an example, lots of folks dismiss the possibility that terrorist and criminal networks would actively collaborate, especially in Latin America. They’re likely correct when they say that drug traffickers may be reluctant to risk working with terrorists, especially to move something like WMD.
The narcos aren’t stupid. They know it would be bad for business. And terrorists are great OPSEC practitioners…no way they’re going to collude with some group outside their tight circle of ideological fellow travelers. But here’s the issue I have with this assertion. It presumes that criminal networks exercise perfect insight, absolute oversight and complete control over their smuggling routes. It presumes they have their own version of TSA…that they conduct thorough background checks and screen everyone and everything that moves along the illicit superhighways that traverse the region. It presumes that just because witting collaboration wouldn’t take place…unwitting collaboration couldn’t. It presumes that even if paid the right amount of money, the reward would never outweigh the risk.
What keeps me up at night is thinking about the many illicit pathways that thread throughout the western hemisphere…and knowing I’m not the only one thinking about those routes. Extremist networks like ISIL are thinking – and writing -- about them too, and how to use them. And the truth is, whether criminal and terrorist networks collaborate, or keep their distance from one another—in Latin America and everywhere else—they both intersect in the same illegal orbits. They both benefit from exploiting the same vulnerable populations and the demand for something people can get nowhere else. They both use key facilitators—like corrupt lawyers, accountants, and government officials—to exploit weaknesses in our financial and security sectors. And we have, at best, an incomplete understanding of how all this fits together in any type of threat network, be it criminal, terrorist, WMD procurement, or something else.
This is a crowded, but sloppy playing field. All of the right players may be talking, but there does not seem to be widespread common awareness or a shared way of seeing and acting on these problems.
So what can we and especially the SOF community do about it?
To start, we need to create inherently collaborative organizations that increase common awareness and enable us to act rapidly and in unison. We need visualization tools that allow us to share information and ideas on platforms that are open to as many people as possible.
We need to out-innovate our exceptionally innovative adversaries. We need to leverage revolutions happening in commercial space and machine learning to transform how we and our partners use things like nano-satellites to provide critical situational awareness. We need to develop advanced data analytics of publicly available information to understand how these groups recruit members and how they conduct their operations in the cyber domain. We need a better understanding of how illicit funds move through the global financial system, and who benefits from these funds. We need to increase regional cooperation with our key allies and partners and increase integration across our own military, law enforcement, diplomatic and intelligence organizations.
Of these efforts, none is more important than the absolute imperative to foster trust, expand relationships, and prioritize efforts across our U.S. government “blue” network. If all these “needs” sound familiar, they should. They are exactly the fields at which today’s modern SOF professionals excel. No organization in the world does counter-threat networks better. And so that’s why I’m here today, to enlist your help.
If this sounds like a call to action…it is. For a long time, SOUTHCOM has focused on what we can diminish or degrade…how many metric tons of cocaine we can disrupt…or how many coca or marijuana plants we can help our partners eradicate.
And while that remains important… we recognize that it’s time to redefine our approach. At USSOUTHCOM, we’re challenging ourselves to be a more responsive, outward looking, networked organization. At the geographic combatant command level we’re modeling a lot of our efforts on how SOF does business—not the more visible ‘kicking in doors’ side of business, but the relationship-building side of business.
We’re deepening our integration and cooperation with our U.S. government partners, especially U.S. Special Operations command.
We’re making every effort to speak with one voice – reinforcing our commitment to our hemispheric partners -- as well as to our adversaries -- that by operating together, we’re capable of denying threat networks critical maneuver space.
We’ve stood up communities of interest to facilitate regional communication and coordination across stakeholders in areas like countering WMD and combating terrorism. We’re strengthening the capacities of regional militaries and security forces to control their borders and work together, and with us, to confront shared challenges like threat networks.
And we’re deepening our partnerships with regional NGOs, businesses, and civil society to support efforts that expand economic opportunity and good governance, and weaken the influence of threat networks in local communities. There’s still much work to be done. We need to do a better job of leveraging the unique capabilities SOF brings to the table.
We need to do a better job aligning and sequencing the various tools in our toolkit to help our interagency partners apply pressure to threat networks on multiple fronts. Nothing we plan or execute should happen in isolation. After all, in a network, everything is connected…so that should apply to our own efforts as well.
Alongside our brothers and sisters in the SOF community, we’re looking forward to building those connections with our partners across the U.S. government, throughout Latin America, and with the private sector. We’re looking forward to translating these ideas into actions … and to working with the friendly network of supporters I see before me.
So it’s fitting that we acknowledge just how much has changed over the three decades since the establishment of U.S. Special Operations command. And as we peer into the future we can see the kinds of roles that SOF will be called on to play to help ensure our continued security. I would like to add my voice to the growing chorus from across this great nation and from around the globe who recognize the extraordinary contributions you have made…Who salute the visionary leadership you continue to provide – in uniform and out – to our national security enterprise…And who honor the profound sacrifices shouldered by this truly “special” community.
David Luna, “Fighting Networks with Networks.” Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization. Center for Complex Operations, National Defense University, 2013.