The Scariest Terror Threat of All
For a while now, I have been writing about our penchant for "movie-plot threats" -- terrorist fears based on very specific attack scenarios.
Terrorists with crop-dusters, terrorists exploding baby carriages in subways, terrorists filling school buses with explosives -- these are all movie-plot threats. They're good for scaring people, but it's just silly to build national security policy around them.
But if we're going to worry about unlikely attacks, why can't they be exciting and innovative ones? If Americans are going to be scared, shouldn't they be scared of things that are really scary? "Blowing up the Super Bowl" is a movie plot, to be sure, but it's not a very good movie. I decided to raise the stakes.
So I announced a Movie-Plot Threat Contest on my blog:
Entrants are invited to submit the most unlikely, yet still plausible, terrorist attack scenarios they can come up with. Your goal: Cause terror. Make the American people notice. Inflict lasting damage on the U.S. economy. Change the political landscape, or the culture. The more grandiose the goal, the better. Assume an attacker profile on the order of 9/11: 20 to 30 unskilled people, and about $500,000 with which to buy skills, equipment, etc.
The contest spread across the internet. Even The New York Times wrote about it. By the end of the month, the blog post had 782 comments. I printed them all out and spiral-bound them so I could read them more easily. The cover read: "The Big Book of Terrorist Plots." I tried not to wave it around too much in airports.
The submissions fell into several broad categories. The first was attacks against our infrastructure: the food supply, the water supply, the power infrastructure, the telephone system. The idea is to cripple the country by targeting one of the basic systems that make it work.
The second category was of big-ticket plots. Either they have very public targets -- blowing up the Super Bowl, the Oscars -- or they have high-tech components: nuclear waste, anthrax, chlorine gas, a full oil tanker. And they are often complex and hard to pull off. This is the 9/11 idea -- a single huge event that affects the entire nation.
The third category was low-tech attacks that go on and on. Several people imagined a version of the D.C.-sniper scenario, but with multiple teams. The teams would slowly move around the country, perhaps each team starting up after the previous one was captured or killed. Other people suggested a variant of this with small bombs in random public locations around the country.
A fourth category had actual movie plots, often comical or unrealistic, some with science-fiction premises. That wasn't what I was looking for, so I mostly ignored them.
The best ideas tap directly into public fears. In my book, Beyond Fear, I discuss five different tendencies people have with evaluating risks:
- People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
- People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
- Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
- People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can't control.
- People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.
The best plots leverage one or more of those tendencies. Big-ticket attacks leverage the first. Infrastructure and low-tech attacks leverage the fourth. And every attack tries to leverage the fifth, especially those attacks that go on and on.
I almost don't want to pick a winner, because the real point is the enormous list of them all. And because it's hard to choose. But after careful deliberation, I chose the winning entry by Tom Grant. Read it; it's chilling. Although planes filled with explosives is already a cliché, destroying the Grand Coulee Dam is inspired. The chain reaction destroys most of the other dams on the Columbia River, taking out the West Coast power grid for months.
If you think Tom's entry is scary, consider that I received a bunch of e-mails from people with ideas they thought too terrifying to post publicly. Some of them wouldn't even tell them to me. I also received e-mails from people accusing me of helping the terrorists by giving them ideas.
Both of these reactions make the same erroneous assumption: that terrorist attacks are easy, and all terrorists need are a few good ideas. But if there's one thing this contest demonstrates, it's that good terrorist ideas are a dime a dozen. Anyone can figure out how to cause terror. The hard part is execution.
Some of the submitted plots require minimal skill and equipment. "Twenty guys with cars and guns" -- that sort of thing. Reading through them, you have to wonder why there have been no terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11. I don't buy the "flypaper theory" that the terrorists are all in Iraq instead of in the United States; it just doesn't make any sense. And I don't buy that our post-9/11 security programs have made it impossible for terrorists to operate within the United States -- although I do believe that our successes in intelligence and investigation have made it harder.
But mostly, I think terrorist attacks are much harder than most of us think. It's harder to find willing recruits than we think. It's harder to coordinate plans. It's harder to execute those plans. It's easy to make mistakes. Terrorism has always been rare, and for all we've heard about 9/11 changing the world, it's still rare.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s and the cold war over, the international community seemed to be on the threshold of an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Instead, a new series of problems was created, like ethnic conflicts, weapons proliferation, environmental problems, population growth, drug trafficking, and terrorism. Terrorism, as defined by Title 22 of the United States code, section 2656f(d), is the “pre-meditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence and audience.” Islamic terrorism is a serious problem for the United States because of the threat to national security, the safety of innocent civilians, and the foundations of democratic societies throughout the world.
Most of the Islamic world view the West, especially the United States, as the foremost corrupting influence on the Islamic world today. The Hizballah have taken this further by labeling the Unites States as “the Great Satan.”(22) This growing animosity the Islamic nations feel toward the Western world has been continually demonstrated by the increase in international terrorism. However, Muslims do not view their actions as acts of terrorism, but self defense and their religious duty. The Islamic radical movements main success or failure has been their ability to gain legitimacy from the general public or from the greater part of it in each Muslim country.(14) During the past two decades, they have had enormous success with their ability to present themselves to the Arab and Muslim world as the true bearers of Islam. They appeal to the lower class due to the shared resentment of wealthy westerners while the middle class and intellectuals are drawn toward these radical groups in order to expel imported ideologies and forms of government(*). Radical Islamic organizations have declared a holly war , Jihad, in order to bring the Arab world together and take their place as a world power. In order to accomplish these goals, these Islamic radicals have mainly used terrorism as their main instrument of persuasion.
The biggest and most active terrorist organizations are those which are state funded. These organizations act as both an overt and covert way of spreading the sponsor countries ideologies. The U.S. Secretary of State has designated seven governments as state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.(13) These governments support international terrorism either by engaging in terrorist activity themselves or by providing arms, training, safe haven, diplomatic facilities, financial backing, logistic and/or support to terrorists.(13)
Iran is one of the most active state sponsors of terrorism, involving themselves in the planning and execution of terrorist acts by its own agents and by surrogates such as the Hizballah. Tehran conducted 13 assassinations in 1997, the majority of which were carried out in northern Iraq against the regime’s main opposition groups. An example occurred in January 1997, when Iranian agents tried to attack the Baghdad headquarters of Mujahedin-e Khalq using a supermortar. Despite sanctions and foreign political pressure, Iran continues to provide support in the form of training, money, and weapons to a variety of terrorist groups, such as Hizballah, HAMAS, and the PIJ.(13)
Sudan is another large supporter of terrorist organizations. The Sudanese Government supports terrorists by providing paramilitary training, indoctrinization, money, travel documents, safe passage, and refuge. They also condone many of the objectionable activities of Iran, such as funneling assistance to terrorist and radical Islamic groups operating in and transiting through Sudan.(13) Since Sudan was placed on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1993, the Sudanese Government still harbors members of the most violent international terrorists and radical Islamic groups.(13)
The countries of the middle east have found terrorism beneficial for many reasons. First, terrorism is an inexpensive alternative to fighting a war, while still spreading their ideology and advancing their political agenda. However, defending against terrorism is very expensive; the United States spends approximately five billion dollars annually to guard against terrorism.(11) Random terrorist acts cause a great amount of psychological damage to the target area. Even though terrorism kills relatively few people, the random nature by which innocent civilian are killed evokes a deep fear and insecurity upon the population. This form of terrorism was successfully used to target tourism and the economy of Egypt in 1997. Publicity is another benefit of terrorism. By involving acts which are designed to attract maximum publicity, terrorism can bring the smallest group to the forefront of attention.(22) All this is done while exposing the terrorist to minimal risk when compared to war.
By secretly funding terrorist organization, the patron state avoids the possibility of defeat and does not appear to be the aggressor. Modern technology has now made terrorism an efficient, convenient, and general discrete weapon for attacking state interests in the international realm. Furthermore, terrorism causes fear, unrest and hysteria among civilians of target countries which is the ideal setting to launch propaganda. Through propaganda patron states are able to organize revolts, coups, and even civil war.
Throughout history terrorism has only been successful in prolonging conflicts, as in Ireland. However, technology is constantly changing the nature of life-threatening hostilities by delivering more sophisticated devices that cause greater damage. No longer are terrorists restrained to simple car bombs and explosives; now nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are becoming more readily available. The terrorist attack in Tokyo that injured 5,000 people is an example of this kind of terrorism. The latest threat is the cyber terrorist, who can corrupt a governments computer system, steal money, and/or classified information while never leaving his house. Changing methods and techniques that terrorists employ today make threat of attack worse than ever. First, terrorists operate at an international level, no longer concentrating on a particular region or a country. The dawn of the modern age of terrorism dates back to September 5, 1972, when the Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli Olympic team in Munich(*). Following this, there has been a period of hijacking of commercial airlines, which culminated in the destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Another new aspect of terrorism is the growing possibility of terrorists making use of weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, biological and chemical. Also, the governments have to think seriously about the threat of chemical weapons and biological toxins. Both these types of weapons are easy to manufacture but have horrifying after-effects on the civilian population. The Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 by Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic Japanese sect, showed that the threat of chemical terrorism is now a reality(*).
For many years, it had been thought that weapons of mass destruction did not serve the purpose of terrorists, and it was not mass murder they wanted. But in the modern age of terrorism, one sees a wider use of powerful explosives that attack mostly the civilian population, and availability is the only thing that prevents the use of larger weapons. This trend towards larger attacks is represented by a 25-year low in international terrorism in 1996, with reported incidents down from a peak of 665 in 1987 to 296 in 1996, there was a drastic rise in the number of casualties (311 people killed and 2,652 wounded)(16).
The third aspect of terrorism that is new is cyber terror. It has become very easy to penetrate the telecommunications and computer systems of nations and also private organizations, and enter new computer codes that cause the system to shutdown or which make it accessible only to the intruder. Terrorists use computers, cellular phones, and encryption software to evade detection and they also have sophisticated means of forging passports and valuable documents. Similarly, they could even introduce “morphed” images and messages into a country’s radio and television network, and spread lies that could incite violence. Technology advancement has made it possible to carry powerful explosive devices in a purse and explode these at the right place, at the right time.
Another recent trend in terrorism is suicide bombing. Suicide bombings have emerged as a tactic used particularly by radical Islamic terrorists. Even though Islam prohibits suicide, these suicide bombers believe that death in a holy struggle assures them a faithful place in heaven; thus, by committing this act of war, they feel they are guaranteed to go to heaven. This method of terrorism is almost impossible to defend against, that is why the terrorists must be prevented, not deterred.
Many radical Islamic terrorist organizations have developed in recent years, but the biggest organizations are the Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Al-Gama’a ai-Islamiyyah, and the Hizballah. These organizations all seek the elimination of western and Jewish influence, and will not hesitate to do anything to prevent this.
The Islamic Jihad Group , in Egypt, has been active since the late 70’s, and currently includes two factions. The goal of these factions is to overthrow the Egyptian government and replace it with an Islamic state. To accomplish this, the Jihad operates in small underground cells and attacks high level government officials. Their most notorious acts of terrorism have been the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, the 1993 attempted assassination of Prime Minister Atef Sedky and the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center(19).
Al-Gama’a ai-Islamiyyah (The Islamic Group, IG) evolved from a phenomenon of Islamic prisoners in Egypt. After being released from prison in 1971, they began forming militant groups that operated separately but were loosely organized. These groups target police officers, liberal intellectuals, Coptic Christians, and tourism in order to hurt the economy and rid Egypt of Western influence. The IG’s most recent attack was November 17, 1997, when 58 tourists were killed; this severely impacted Egyptian tourism for several months.(4)
Hamas is the Arab acronym for, “The Islamic Resistance Movement,” and means courage and bravery(3). This organization has evolved from the Muslim Brotherhood and was active in the early stages of Intifada, operating in the Gaza strip and the West bank. The main objective of the Hamas is a “Holly War” for the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of an Islamic Palestine. A variety of non-governmental charitable organizations in the Gulf States, four central charity funds throughout the world, and Iran have enabled Hamas to become the second most powerful terrorist organization(3). During Intifada, Hamas claimed responsibility for 43 attacks that killed 46 Palestinians, and is believed to be responsible for another 40 deaths.(3)
Hizballah (Party of God) is an extremist political-religious movement based in Lebanon. The movement was created and sponsored by Iran in July 1982, initially as a form of resistance to the Israeli presence in Southern Lebanon. Hizballah followers are radical Shi’ite which adhere to Khomeinistic ideology.(5) The principle goals established by Khomeinism are the equality of all Lebanon’s citizens, complete American and French withdrawal from Lebanon, the complete destruction of Israel, and the establishment of Islamic rule over Jerusalem(5). The Hizballah has tried to accomplish these goals through the use of terrorism, of which 704 attacks were committed from 1991 – 1995.(5) The scope and nature of Hizballah’s terrorist campaign reflect its close dependency on Iranian support for both the ideological and financial levers. Iran donates fast amounts of money to Hizballah, which among other things funds the movement’s health and education services(22). The funds received from Iran in the 1980’s totaled $60-$80 million a year. Because of the recent terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and foreign embassies in Africa, the United States is aware of the danger that terrorism presents. Being a politically correct country, no United States official has specifically named the radical Islamic groups as our primary enemy. However, the Islamic groups are the only terrorists that specifically target Americans. The United States now has an official three part counter terrorism policy that has so far proven to be effective.
First, the US will make no concession to terrorists and strike no deals. If the US were to give in to terrorists’ demands, it would inspire every other terrorist to commit violent crimes. An example of this plan is the hostage situation in Peru, where 72 hostages were taken and four months later a successful rescue took place. The second US policy is that all terrorist will be held accountable for their crimes in a court of law. In recent years many international terrorists have been convicted and sent to prison. The third, and most important policy is to isolate and apply pressure on states that sponsor and support terrorism and force them to change their behavior. UN sanctions and the use of military force are now actively used to force host countries to change their views on terrorism.
Radical Islamic terrorist organizations have the ability and desire to threaten the United states. Sanctions and diplomatic bargaining will not solve the problem of Islamic terrorism, yet military force will only make the problem worse. There will be no resolution to this problem in the near future, meanwhile the gap between the Western world and the Arab nations will continue to grow. Without constant monitoring a careful planning, this could soon turn into WW III.
1. al-Thawriyyah, Fatah al-Qiyadah. Fatah – Revolutionary Council. Available: http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/orgdet.ctm?orgid=2. March 22, 1999
2. Coordinator for Counterterrorism of the State department. Fact Sheet: Usama bin Ladin. Http://www.state.gov/www/regions/africa. March 22, 1999
3. Al-Islamiyya, Harakat. HAMAS(Islamic Resistance Movement). Http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/orgdet.ctm?ogid=13 March 22, 1999
4. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya( The Islamic Group, IG). International Counterterrorism website. Available: Http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/orgdet.ctm?ogid=12 March 22, 1999
5. Information division. Israel foreign Ministry – Jerusalem. Hizballah . Available:
Http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/orgdet.ctm?ogid=15 March 22, 1999
6. US State Department. “Armed Islamic Group.” Patterns of Global Terrorism. Available: Http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/orgdet.ctm?ogid=7 March 22, 1999
7. Erlich, Dr. Reuven. The Beginning of an Internal Dispute in Iran and Lebanon over the fate of Hizballah in the wake of the implementation of Resolution 425. ICT Research Fellow. Available: http://www.ict.org.il/articles/articledet.ctm?articleid=20 March 22, 1999
8. State Department. Anti-US Attacks, 1997. Available: http://www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism/1997Report/ March 22, 1999
9. State Department. Casualties of Anti-US Attacks 1992-1997. Available: http://www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism/1997Report/ March 22, 1999
10. Albright, Madeleine K. “Interview on ABC-TV ‘This Week’with Cokie Roberts and George Will.” State Department. August 23, 1998. Available: http://secretary.state.gov/www/statements/1998/980823.htm March 22, 1999
11. Wilcox Jr., Philip C. “International Terrorism” September 12, 1996. Available: http://www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism
12. “State-Sponsored Terrorism.” Available: Http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/st_terror/State_t.htm. March 22, 1999
13. State Department. “Over of State-Sponsored Terrorism” Available: http://www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism/1997Report/ . March 22, 1999.
14. Paz, Reuven. “Is There an ‘Islamic Terrorism.'” September 7, 1998. Available: Http://www.ict.org.il/articles/isl_terr.htm. March 22, 1999.
15. Schweitzer, Yoram. “Resonding to Terrorism–the American Dilemma.” September 2, 1998. Available: Http://www.ict.org.il/articles/articledet.ctm?articleid=44. March 22, 1999.
16. “1997 Global Terrorism.” Available: http://www.state.gov/www/global/terroeism/1997report/. March 22, 1999.
17. “Electronic Sources: MLA Style of Citation.” Available: http://www.uvm.edu/~xli/reterence/mla.html. March 22, 1999.
18. “1997 Global Terrorism-definitions.” Available: http://www.state.gov/www/global/terroeism/1997report/. March 22, 1999.
19. “Jihad Group.” Available: Http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/orgdet.ctm?ogid=18.
March 22, 1999
20. Sinha, P.B. “Pakistan–The Chief Patron-Promoter of Islamic Militancy and Terrorism.” Available: http://www.idsa-india.org/an-oct-5.html. March 22, 1999.
21. Sinha, P.B. “Threat of Islamic Terrorism Egypt.” Available: http://www.idsa-india.org/an-nov8-6.html. March 22, 1999.
22. Rajeswari, P.R. “U.S. Policy on Terrorism.” Available: http://www.idsa-india.org/an-nov8-7.html. March 22, 1999
Filed Under: History, Islam, Middle East