Nine Terror Scenarios

In our special report on Technology and Terrorism this month, we feature a round-up of nine potential scenarios that, we hope, should stimulate thinking in the ongoing debate over anti-terror preparations. Drafted from discussions with consultants and industry leaders, the scenarios depict troubling "what-if" possibilities that attempt to judge the difficulty and likelihood of each of the imagined attack vectors, as well as the potential damage each could inflict. Then we offer a tech solution aimed at preventing the attack—if possible at all. Edited by Senior Editor Jean Kumagai, "Nine Cautionary Tales" is a sobering reminder that governments and industries around the world have to exercise extraordinary vigilance to thwart the designs of the most determined and imaginative of the terrorists.

Here are a few samples of what could go horribly wrong one day:

  • Electroshock: A blackout cripples New York City. This time it's the result of a mysterious and concerted series of attacks on transformers and transmission towers. The ferries and all the major bridges connecting Manhattan to its neighboring boroughs are attacked by grenade-toting terrorists.
  • Toxic Train Wreck: A terrorist plants a bomb on a train car carrying 90 000 kilograms of chlorine. The resulting plume floats on the wind toward the nearby Washington Mall. Within minutes, the crowd begins to choke, and thousands die from inhaling the gas or from being trampled.
  • Crude Attack: A terror team manages to breach the security of the Western Hemisphere's largest oil refinery, on the north coast of St. Croix. They set off explosives in strategic areas that turn the facility into a raging inferno. Within hours, U.S. drivers face $5-per-gallon gasoline; within days, they'll have trouble buying it at any price.
  • Agro-Armageddon: A man walks into the petting zoo of the Houston Livestock Show and casually touches the tip of a fountain pen to his fingers. He then feeds some of the livestock from his hand. A week later the animals begin to show the telltale signs of foot-and-mouth disease. His co-conspirators in Australia and Europe mirror the attack. The blow to the agricultural sector pushes the world economy into a recession.
  • Black Christmas: On the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, radical anti-consumer activists discreetly deposit shopping bags with open containers of ethyl mercaptan. As panic spreads, the activists remotely detonate a series of smoke grenades, triggering a mallwide panic. Simultaneously, they have mailed fake-anthrax in letters via the U.S. Postal Service. The combined attack paralyzes the American economy.
  • Star-Struck: To protest the wearing of fur by Hollywood actresses at the Academy Awards ceremony, animal-rights activists don gas masks and explode canisters of tear gas throughout the theater. They manage to subdue the armed security guards. Then they televise their demand of equal standing for all animals and a ban on all fur and leather products.

We debated whether the hypothetical terrorist scenarios we present could do harm by giving terrorists ideas they may not have thought of (all have been suggested, in one form or another, somewhere in the open literature). In the end, we were swayed by the belief that exposing a danger is, in the long run, better than ignoring it while hoping that evil-doers will not notice it.

[Editor's Note: For more, you can listen online to a discussion of this topic—"Assessing the Risks of Terrorism"—at Spectrum Radio.]

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