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Orange Tech Waves

Managing risk in the aftermath of conflict

Posted on 29 April 2024

We are entering an age of rising conflict. The past two years alone have seen the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attacks on Israel by terrorist groups and the Iranian regime, ongoing conflict in Gaza, a reignited civil war in Sudan and increasing risks of ethnic violence in the Balkans.

Planning for this new world is a challenge. Conflicts, whether regional or international, have profound effects on organisations with operations, staff, or investments in affected zones. The repercussions are multifaceted, not only impacting the physical safety of assets and personnel but also escalating cyber risks and disrupting business continuity.  

For an organisation with operations or staff in an area where conflict occurs, or other connections to such an area, planning and preparation can be crucial. There are some immediate steps which can be taken to mitigate risks amid an escalation of conflict. However, organisations with longer-term interests in conflict zones should also plan for ongoing knock-on effects in economic, compliance and risk dimensions.

The immediate aftermath of a conflict is difficult to predict. Each conflict is unique, and the specific events and their consequences can vary widely. The way a conflict progresses, and the impacts it has, will be driven by the context of the conflict, the parties involved, and international responses to it. Further, even if a direct conflict has not yet happened, some countries in emerging or frontier markets are naturally more fragile.

Cyber threat assessment

Given the increasingly challenging global environment, cyberattacks directly relating to conflict are highly likely to increase. We can expect to see such attacks both as part of warlike operations and surrounding them from supporters or participants. This has been seen in multiple recent conflicts, as belligerents seek to undermine each other's security, interests and reputations.

Often termed 'offensive cyber operations', such activities are now universal in geopolitics and can be widely coordinated. For example, in February 2024, Google reported an escalation in offensive cyber operations against Israel in the wake of the 7 October terrorist attacks, with operations from Iran targeting Israel and associated countries.

These attacks can cause significant disruption to international business operations. Conflict escalations can be abrupt, and attendant impacts on communications are difficult to anticipate. A business presence in a country linked to one side of a conflict may also expose companies or individuals to direct cyberattacks by state or non-state actors. Countries which are both involved in a conflict and which host cyber attackers can pose especially acute risks. 

Many cyber operations are now better described as information operations, as they effectively serve propagandistic purposes. Russia, in particular, has developed (and made use of) considerable capabilities in this space, both in crafting and disseminating overt media, and in implementing more covert or undisclosed publications, such as anonymous or fake social media accounts, to pursue a particular narrative.

In addition to strengthening their cybersecurity capabilities and protocols, companies potentially exposed to such activities should also  calibrate their information protocols. Those which provide online platforms – including mainstream social media companies, but also companies where staff are particularly visible or prominent in social media outreach – should be aware of content that is being created and what is being shared.  

Any newsworthy event within a conflict will also likely be leveraged by cyber attackers to pique victims’ interest, often by leveraging the currency and urgency of conflict-related crises to craft phishing lures. State backing, and increasing use of generative artificial intelligence, adds to the scale and sophistication of such schemes. As a result, they pose a heightened risk of operational and commercial disruption, as well as fraud and harassment.

Physical threat assessment

Travel and business operations in conflict zones obviously present elevated risks. This is a well-trodden path, and dangers can be mitigated by limiting travel, providing safety training and ensuring appropriate support. However, crisis situations tend to develop where conflicts break out suddenly having previously been unforeseen or, as with the invasion of Ukraine, believed to be improbable.

For those situated in the conflict zone itself, and for members of staff with family or working relationships there, physical safety is naturally of primary concern. This can lead to understandable distraction among staff and can adversely affect their own health and wellbeing.

In our experience, the best course of action is often to recommend that directly affected individuals "shelter in place", remaining in their current location and taking steps to secure it. It is of course easier to plan for this where a conflict has built up over an extended period than where it has emerged or escalated suddenly.

Investigations and intelligence gathering in conflict zones

Conducting investigations in live conflict zones, or in the immediate aftermath of conflicts, typically presents significant challenges. The immediate concern is to ensure physical safety, and to understand what is likely to occur. However, at a country level, conflict is often regionalised and 'on the ground' investigations may be possible away from the areas of highest risk.

Communications into conflict zones are often impaired, contributing to a lack of reliable data and hindering decision-making. This can be because infrastructure is underdeveloped, depending on the country, or because it has been disrupted by what is occurring on the ground, especially where utilities are damaged or destroyed.

Information from conflict zones and directly affected areas may also become a tool for propaganda. Locally situated journalists may face pressure to disseminate, or unknowingly be provided with, compromised information. Journalists themselves may face restrictions or personal dangers when trying to report on active conflicts. Such conditions can persist depending on the content and progress of any conflict settlement efforts.

Business impacts and forward look

The breadth and depth of a conflict's economic impacts can of course vary. However, any instability is a key concern, even for those with lesser exposure to conflict events or conflict-stricken economies. The outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war saw organisations scrambling to adjust to profound supply chain shocks. The war between Israel and the Hamas terror group, meanwhile, has featured heightened logistical risks owing to attacks on trade vessels by Hamas-aligned actors.

These, and many other, risk factors can develop and intersect in unpredictable ways. This can lead to overarching pressures, including increased and persistent inflation.

Economic activity in a conflict zone can sometimes be counter-intuitive, and it is easy to forget that a normal life continues, especially against a media backdrop of war. In the case of Ukraine, the length of the conflict, and the volume and scale of economic measures introduced in the aftermath of Russia's invasion, have implied a degree of return to normal economic activity away from the immediate conflict zones.

International organisations will also need to navigate a complex and shifting legal landscape, including rapidly changing sanctions regimes. The invasion of Ukraine prompted immediate and coordinated sanctions activity against Russia, and escalations in other conflicts may lead to similar international responses, requiring further adjustment to the posture of many businesses internationally.

Ultimately, it can be hoped that conflicts will be resolved. A future focus on justice and reconciliation among parties to contemporary conflicts may bring another era of peace. However, in the meantime, the realities of the current geo-political context mean business must be alive to heightened risks of all kinds.

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