There are many ways in which terrorists could strike the United States, all designed to cause devastation and destruction in a variety of unconventional methods. The remarkable creativity of Islamist terrorists suggests that they can always find a way around American defenses. The only entirely effective means of preventing access to American interests is to stop a hostile actor before he reaches American targets. But since even the most well planned offensive action cannot be entirely effective, an understanding of the ways in which terrorists may strike is important for improving the vigilance of the American public. Osama bin Laden himself has estimated that American policies have caused the deaths of 4 million Muslims. He has therefore stated that he is willing to kill 4 million Americans, including 2 million children, in his war against the United States. If our enemy is this serious about his work, we must take him seriously as well.
1. Weapons of Mass Destruction
While all terrorist attacks are inhuman and horrific by their very nature, the true nightmare scenario is an attack by weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons are sadly available to those groups with the right connections and the will to possess them. In the inventories that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of small nuclear weapons, often known as "suitcase bombs" because of their size, could not be found and today, fifteen years later, are still missing. Though small, they can still cause widespread destruction and could be easily concealed within apparently innocent containers and brought into the United States through lax border and port security. The possibility that nuclear weapons manufactured by legitimate states may reach unfriendly hands is one reason why the United States opposes the spread of nuclear weapons to countries such as North Korea and Iran, whose ideological orientation may render officials or scientists more willing to sell technology to terrorist groups. A chilling example is that of A. Q. Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist who operated a supermarket of nuclear weapons for criminal groups and rogue states for decades before being ultimately forced out of his position by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Even when a government is friendly to the United States, a lack of domestic stability or support could place weapons in a precarious position if the government is overthrown. Once again, the current Pakistani president has been a supporter of the war on terror and the operations in the Afghan-Pakistan border, but he faces continuous opposition at home that threatens his control over his people and weapons.
In contrast to nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons can cause massive destruction without immediate detection. A disease outbreak may require several days' analysis before a determination can be made as to whether its cause was an attack or an accident of nature. The unfamiliar symptoms of chemical weapons may cause them to be explained away by many Americans or initially misdiagnosed by physicians. However, these difficulties do not make these weapons any less dangerous or frightening. In the anthrax attacks following 9/11, a relatively small number of people fell ill and even fewer died but the disruption to mail routes, security systems, and public confidence was much more widespread. A larger attack could decimate the American economic and public health systems, erode public confidence, and potentially cause uncontrollable epidemic, crossing political borders and ideological divides.
The best way to prevent an attack by a WMD is to locate and control those that already exist, while simultaneously deterring additional production. Various international organizations under the auspices of the United Nations are dedicated to this purpose, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But without the authority to force compliance with their searches, their regulatory abilities are severely limited. Saddam Hussein was but one of the numerous world leaders who defied IAEA efforts to locate and account for WMD. When IAEA efforts fail and weapons cannot be accounted for, they are then much more likely to fall into hostile hands, particularly since the IAEA will be least effective when dealing with rogue states and closed governments. For this reason, noncompliance with IAEA efforts by governments that have indicated an interest in acquiring or accumulating WMD must be dealt with severely, to deter future noncompliance and to secure these potentially fatal tools of death and destruction.
2. Conventional Bombs
Traditional explosives are the weapons most often associated by the public with terrorism. Countries such as Israel have a long and tragic familiarity with the damage caused by suicide bombers, while other groups, such as the IRA, preferred to use car bombs that protected their own operatives. The United States has largely escaped terrorism by conventional explosive within its borders, with the first World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing being notable exceptions. The frequent usage of smaller suicide or car bombs could cause massive disruption in American life, particularly if the targets were public transportation systems. While many London citizens defiantly used subway and bus lines following the July, 2005 attacks, the overall number of passengers temporarily declined. A similar change could be expected in the United States in the event of an attack.
Before the 9/11 attacks, most Americans believed the terrorist threat to airplanes would be constrained to a specific flight and its passengers. The events of that day showed that a hijacker could spread destruction and devastation far beyond the walls of the plane itself. One major lesson of 9/11 is that terrorists possess immense creativity in their struggle to inflict harm upon their innocent targets. Since terrorists have proven themselves eager and more than capable to think outside the box in planning and executing their attacks, it is important for government officials and American citizens to be equally free-thinking and determined in their efforts for prevention and response.
Computer systems offer a tempting new target to terrorist groups. In the United States, all of our communications, transportation, and utility systems depend upon modern computer technology to operate smoothly or at all. Unfortunately, these systems are also far more vulnerable to attack than physical infrastructure. In recent years, a number of computer viruses and worms have been released into American systems, causing extensive disruption and demanding expensive repairs. The most likely perpetrator of such past attacks has been a technologically-savvy young man on the other side of the globe, with less interest in causing harm than having some fun.
If a kid on a virtual joy-ride can temporarily shut down the computer systems of major communications or banking organizations, imagine the harm that a truly malevolent actor could cause. Regional power grids or phone lines could be disrupted. Water purification plants could be shut down or their activities subtly altered to change the chemical content of water running through our pipes without actually discontinuing service. Personnel records in government archives could be changed, causing massive disturbances in Social Security or unemployment distribution. Networks that control rail or traffic signals could be damaged, leading to accidents. Sensitive financial information could be hijacked, severely eroding public confidence in banking and trading institutions.
The impact of cyberterrorism will not be strictly economic or disruptive. A deliberate miscalibration in water purification or food preparation may spread disease or even death. A power outage in a large urban area will strand individuals in hospitals, elevators, and subways, without light or climate control. Even if an attack has a seemingly minor initial impact, such as temporarily disrupting communications, financial transactions, or government services, these events may trigger a breakdown in the social structure and public confidence, leading to violence and looting in the streets. Such a situation has the added appeal to terrorists of appearing to emerge spontaneously from the American social system, rather than being caused by a foreign hostile actor, and can therefore cause a more lasting impact upon the public consciousness.
The key fact to understand when considering cyber-attacks is that nearly all aspects of life in America depend upon computer systems in some way. Government services, sensitive communications, highly synchronized transportation, and even food preparation and distribution are all computerized at some point. Equally important is the fact that only a fully closed and isolated computer network is invulnerable to external assault and even its security is only as strong as the dependability of each person with access to it. An assault upon America's computer systems is not within most people's idea of a terrorist attack, but could still cause immense harm and expensive damages to our nation's security and our citizens' safety.
Fear is, of course, a terrorist's most useful tool. Instilling fear in a population is the objective of any terrorist attack. If there were no intention to spread fear, they would simply attack their targets directly, trying to force a military out of a region by causing extensive damage, rather than eroding the popular support that allows continued expenditures and efforts. But fear is a force-multiplier, in that it makes the effects of any attack greater than simply the immediate physical harm. Seeing the World Trade Center fall and the Pentagon in flames was surely gratifying to al Qaeda's leadership. The greater objective, however, was to frighten the American people, causing a loss of confidence in the American government and other institutions. It was to show the world that even the great United States could not escape the righteous anger of the Islamist ideology. A materially-disadvantaged enemy, such as a terrorist group, must rely upon emotional impact when facing a stronger foe, such as the United States. In this case, fear is the most useful weapon in the terrorists' arsenal and is one they have learned to wield with skill and intensity.
One of America's greatest strengths is the openness of its society. In the United States, we place great value upon transparency and honesty and believe we should assume the best about other people's actions and intentions. Unfortunately, we also tend to believe the rest of the world operates in the same way, leaving ourselves vulnerable to subversive attacks within the structures of our own legal and cultural systems.
Terrorist groups and radical sympathizers can greatly influence American policy and society through a numerous of legitimate means. One major means of infiltrating American society is through the legal system. Domestic groups with discrete financial or ideological ties to radical organizations have threatened legal action against writers and broadcasters critical of the Islamist movement on the grounds of discrimination or inciting hate. While only a small but growing number of such individuals have lost their jobs, others find themselves intimidated by the prospect of facing such well-funded and well-organized opponents. Other lawsuits have focused on the actions of the United States military. Lawsuits that have effectively forced the release of numerous prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have placed embittered enemies of the United States back in a position to threaten our soldiers. Another example is the restrictive guidelines placed upon security workers in public buildings designed to prevent racial profiling that have the adverse effect of ignoring those individuals statistically most likely to carry out an attack while investigating members of overwhelmingly innocuous groups. There are numerous other examples of the power wielded by advocacy groups intruding upon the American effort and eroding public support at home. All of these examples represent the misapplication of benevolent laws. The United States must not forsake the ideal of a society committed to the equal application of the law to all individuals, no matter their cultural or racial background. But this dedication also represents one of many points upon which radical Islamists may prey in their quest to manipulate and damage American courage and will.
One of the United States' greatest sources of power has traditionally been the respect accorded it by much of the world. When the population of a country has a favorable impression of the United States, its people, leaders, and policies, the government of that country will be much more likely to support American efforts as well. The years since the end of World War II and the ascendancy of American influence, however, have seen a proliferation of anti-Americanism across the globe. While some countries have long resented American power, others have only recently seen support for the United States dwindle. The causes of this increasing anti-Americanism are complex, but certainly include the skillful manipulation of public perception by terrorist groups and sympathetic allies. Within the Arabic world, news organizations such as al-Jazeera present a view of news events slanted against the United States. While al-Jazeera in particular has made an effort to portray itself as an increasingly unbiased news outlet, it still has a well-deserved reputation as a resource for radical sympathizers. Other news organizations in non-Muslim countries often have an anti-American slant as well. When stories from their pages are picked up and published internationally, many readers and listeners will assume the information is straightforward and honest.
Whatever the source of anti-Americanism, its effects are advantageous for terrorist groups. It makes it more difficult for the United States to win support for and implement its policies overseas. It causes groups on the receiving end of American policy, whether military, diplomatic, or humanitarian, to be suspicious of American intentions. And, of course, it fuels the unceasing effort to win more active supporters, passive enablers, and generous financial donors to the terrorist struggle to establish Islamist ideology as the dominant global force.