Nine Cautionary Tales

If terrorists decide to strike again, are we prepared? Not really, as these scenarios of extremism make clear

27 min read
Opening illustration
Illustration: Brian Staufffer

1. Bomb in a Box

imgIllustration: Brian Staufffer

On 20 March 2007, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il blackmails the world’s wealthiest nations, threatening to detonate a 2-kiloton atomic bomb hidden inside a shipping container somewhere in the port city of Hong Kong unless he receives US $50 billion in gold bullion within 48 hours.

Kim says in a videotaped message addressed to the U.N. Security Council and broadcast by CNN that any attempt to disarm the device would result in “a nuclear holocaust for Hong Kong and the crippling of the world trading system.”

The threat sends the city of nearly 7 million into a panic, with many deaths reported as people attempt to flee by any means available.

Experts calculate that a 2-kiloton bomb detonated on the ground in Hong Kong would kill more people and destroy more property than the 22-kiloton airburst that devastated Nagasaki at the end of World War II. That bomb killed an estimated 70 000 civilians and leveled the city center.

The “bomb in a box” scenario is perhaps the worst of all potential terrorist threats. A small atomic device detonated at the Kwai Chung port facility in Hong Kong would indeed kill some 87 000 people within hours, says Matthew McKinzie, a scientific consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who ran simulations of such an attack for IEEE Spectrum using software designed by the Pentagon.

Because of Hong Kong’s position as a major shipping hub for Asia, such an attack could also paralyze global trade; 90 percent of international cargo now travels in standardized containers.

No one can know whether North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” lording over a half-starved population and a barren economy, would ever stoop to nuclear blackmail. Yet as the leader of a state, he has a “return address” and therefore ought to be deterred by the certainty of retaliation. Terrorists may not be so easily dissuaded, but they have next to no chance of getting their hands on a ready-made nuclear weapon, says nuclear proliferation expert Thomas Cochran of the New York City–based NRDC.

The threat lies elsewhere, agrees Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York City, one of the world’s experts on transportation security. “A nuclear weapon in a container is a low probability. Why would I stick a postage stamp on it and send it through the system?” What haunts Flynn and other experts is a scenario far easier to pull off: a dirty bomb in a container. On a scale of 1 (no hindrance) to 10 (impossible), “I would rate the ability to sneak a dirty bomb into Hong Kong as a 2,” Flynn says, noting that Hong Kong’s marine terminals handle about 15 million containers per year, which translates into roughly 100 000 containers in the port on any given day. A small dirty bomb could be crafted from about 20 kilograms of C-4 plastic explosive, a 500-gram cobalt “pencil,” such as those used in food irradiation plants, and a cellphone as a trigger. The package would be gift-wrapped in a several-centimeters-thick shield of lead to hide the radiation.

Although the detonation of a dirty bomb in Hong Kong would result in far fewer human casualties—McKinzie’s simulation predicts 61 people receiving a high radiation dose—it would cripple the global container transport system in the blink of an eye, Flynn says. “We simply cannot manage an event like that—the system is too brittle.”

Almost everyone agrees that the protective measures in place today are woefully inadequate. At the end of March, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, concluded that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is charged with protecting ports against terrorist attack, was unable to effectively identify “oceangoing cargo containers with the highest risk of containing smuggled weapons of mass destruction,” despite huge investments.

As it happens, Hong Kong could soon become the safest major port in the world. In a pilot project, two of Hong Kong’s largest container terminal operators installed a system that externally scans every incoming container entering two of their loading docks.

The system, which uses machines provided by San Diego–based Science Applications International Corp., does three things at once. A gamma ray imaging device shows the cargo shape and density, a radiation detection device passively checks the vehicle for radioactive material, and an optical character recognition device identifies the container number and links with the cargo manifest data. So even if a weapon were shielded, its dense, bulky profile would still be picked up by the gamma ray imager. The system does not slow down traffic: container trucks pass through the detection equipment at a speed of 16 kilometers per hour. But because it’s only a pilot program, nobody actually checks the scan data, which in a real-world setting would probably take additional time.

Flynn says scanning all containers at every port would change the degree of difficulty for a dirty bomb scenario from a 2 to a 7. Such a system would also allow a suspicious container to be tracked back to its origins, much as surveillance cameras deployed throughout the London Underground enabled investigators to rapidly identify the culprits of the July 2005 bombings.

It is unclear whether the United States and other seafaring countries will provide the backing for a worldwide system. The Security and Accountability for Every Port Act was overwhelmingly approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in May, but only after an amendment requiring the scanning of all U.S.-bound containers at foreign ports was dropped. Moreover, a $648 million provision, which would have paid for inspectors at 50 foreign ports, additional Coast Guard inspectors, and 60 container-imaging machines, was removed from a national security funding bill moving through Congress in June.

—Marlowe Hood

2. Electroshock

imgIcon: Bryan Christie Design; Background: Brian Staufffer

It’s a lazy late-summer afternoon in New York City. So when the whole metropolis suddenly goes dark, everybody remembers the day seven years previously when a cascading blackout paralyzed much of the U.S. Northeast, Midwest, and southeastern Canada. Just as they did on that day, hundreds of thousands of office workers stumble down the dimly lit staircases of skyscrapers and brace themselves for the long walk home.

With most communications down, there is no way of knowing that the blackout had originated in the same region as the 2003 episode, but this time it’s the result of a mysterious and concerted series of attacks on high-voltage transformers and a few well-selected transmission towers. Though monitoring and supervision of the grid had greatly improved since the earlier blackout, this time too many failures happen simultaneously for the system to cope.

As thousands of homeward-bound pedestrians surge onto the Brooklyn Bridge, a young man suddenly tosses a grenade into the heart of the crowd. Pandemonium breaks out, as people attempt to escape the jammed walkway. In the horrifying stampede that ensues, hundreds are trampled and a few dozen jump or fall to the river below.

And it isn’t just the Brooklyn Bridge. The ferries and all five of the major bridges connecting Manhattan to its neighboring boroughs are attacked by grenade- and assault-rifle–toting terrorists. The eventual toll far exceeds 9/11’s. The parties responsible? A cluster of white supremacist groups, some with access to sophisticated weaponry and military training, who decided to attack the most multicultural of U.S. cities.

Not much would prevent terrorists from taking down the North American power grid. With about 300 000 kilometers of transmission lines and countless vulnerable nodes crisscrossing the United States and Canada, “it is impossible to secure the whole system, and thus a determined group of terrorists could likely take out any portion of the grid they desire,” a group of experts concluded in a recent issue of IEEE Power & Energy Magazine.

Especially vulnerable are the high-voltage transformers that step voltage down from transmission levels, typically above 100 kilovolts, to distribution voltages in the tens of kilovolts. There are about a thousand of these units in the United States, most of them located at substations that are secured by nothing more than a chain-link fence. Any one of these transformers could be knocked out of action quickly and easily with rocket-propelled grenades or improvised explosive devices. To be sure, perimeter security could be bolstered, and transformers could be encased in bunkers, but it would be a very expensive proposition to do so nationwide.

The Edison Electric Institute, in Washington, D.C., has worked with the utility industry to develop an inventory of large transformers as well as agreements about how they could be shared in emergencies. There’s also been a concerted effort to design generic power transformers that could quickly replace severely damaged transformers.

Engineers from the Electric Power Research Institute, in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Zurich-based electrical manufacturing giant ABB have produced a set of criteria for such replacement transformers. They got some initial encouragement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But the DHS has since shown little interest in following up with that effort. And even if such transformers now existed, they could not be delivered and installed fast enough to prevent the second punch anticipated in this scenario.

In the best case with the least damage, the system recovers quickly, and critically needed components like traffic lights start functioning again almost immediately, according to an article published four years ago in Issues in Science and Technology. “No one can prevent a terrorist from taking down a transmission pole,” wrote Alexander E. Farrell, Lester B. Lave, and Granger Morgan, all associated with the program in electrical engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “However, the system can be configured so that although the failure of single elements may lead to discomfort, the electric power system will still be able to fulfill its mission in a timely manner.”

As for a bombing attack aimed at civilians, the United States has been blessedly free of such tactics since 9/11. But there is no guarantee this will always be so, and public complacency is a real danger. Almost everywhere in Europe, there is a much higher level of public and police vigilance. In Paris, for example, every unclaimed package or suitcase is immediately put into a special container and blown up.

Outside the United States, private ownership of weaponry is often much more tightly regulated. Militias found in many U.S. states provide opportunities for weapons training. Terry Nichols, who with Timothy McVeigh plotted the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, had contact with one such group.

In the final analysis, old-fashioned gumshoe police work has the best chance of preventing bomb attacks. Ever since 9/11, the New York City Police Department has had highly trained and well-armed plainclothes officers patrolling high-risk target areas constantly and unobtrusively. But those patrols could get scaled back if the city fails to make up for lost federal funds. Citing the high cost of the extra police patrols and investigation, among other things, the DHS cut the city’s counterterrorist funding by 40 percent for 2006–2007.

—William Sweet

3. Toxic Train Wreck

imgIcon: Bryan Christie Design; Background: Brian Staufffer

On the evening of 4 July 2007, a man sits on a bench at a railway crossing near the Mall, in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of thousands of people have gathered for the Independence Day fireworks. He thinks of the execution that morning of his distant cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka Chemical Ali, the Iraqi general who ordered the poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja, in 1988. “Atrocity,” he mutters. “I’ll give them atrocity!” For the third time in 15 minutes, he looks at a pocket compass and checks that the breeze is still blowing from the southeast.

At last a locomotive pulls into view, and he spots the cylindrical tank car, 12 cars from the front, just where his confederate had told him it would be. Clambering up the car’s ladder, he attaches a backpack to the valve at the top, then bolts away to his coconspirator’s car, parked nearby with its engine running. The car screams away down the nearby freeway, and 40 seconds later, the pack explodes, blowing a hole in the side of the tank car. A jet of chlorine gas erupts, emptying the car’s 90 000 kilograms of chlorine in a couple of minutes. The resulting plume floats on the wind toward the Mall. Within a few minutes, the assembled crowds begin to choke, and though some think to cover their mouths with dampened clothing, few know which way to run, and thousands die from inhaling the toxic gas or from being trampled by the fleeing crowd.

A scenario like this one—assuming a chlorine release, but not necessarily an intentional one—was presented in 2003 to the Council of the District of Columbia, which was considering what to do about the toxic railway cargoes that pass through the capital. The model, by Jay Boris, a fluid dynamics expert at the Naval Research Laboratory, in Washington, D.C., assumed that on Independence Day, half a million people would be present in the Mall, that the chlorine would be released about 1 kilometer from them, and that the gas would be carried there by a wind moving at 16 kilometers per hour.

Within half an hour, the advancing plume would cover much of the gathered crowd, and as many as a fifth of them—100 000 people—would die, Boris estimated. (Should you ever be caught in such a plume, or if you learn that you are directly downwind from one, get out of its way by moving crosswind to the plume, away from the projected centerline. A plume’s shape depends on wind and terrain; in Boris’s model, it spreads only about 1 meter for every 5 meters that it advances.)

Fred Millar, a toxic-hazards specialist with Friends of the Earth, also in Washington, D.C., says that terrorists wouldn’t need a great deal of planning to catch a laden tank car. “About 11 000 dangerous railway cargoes come through D.C. every year—explosives, poison gas, and highly inflammable chemicals,” he says. “Rent an apartment near the tracks and wait a day, or maybe just a couple of hours, and you’ll get one.”

Poison-gas cargoes are held under high pressure, so a large hole in the tank will empty it quickly; a smaller one will also do the job, but very slowly. That was pretty much what happened, by accident, in Graniteville, S.C, in January 2005, when a train collision ruptured a tank car containing chlorine, which leaked for hours. Ten people died, hundreds were hurt, and thousands were forced temporarily from their homes—this in a sparsely populated area.

What kinds of countermeasures are most effective against such a scenario? “Rerouting is the no-brainer way to reduce risk,” Millar says. “You could switch cargoes from one railroad company to another [to bypass populated areas]. But railroads oppose it on principle—they hate the government telling them to do it.” Jacksonville, Fla.–based CSX, the freight railroad that travels across the U.S. capital, has said that it is rerouting some of its toxic cargoes that were running near the U.S. Capitol building; the railcars now take a westerly route that passes through Ohio and the New York City metropolitan area. CSX did not respond to requests for an interview.

Not all such hazards can be solved with rerouting. Take a city like Miami, a dominant economic hub sitting at the bottom of a peninsula. There are no alternative routes, and so the only way to keep out hazardous cargoes is to ban their transit altogether. Miami-Dade County officials are now looking at the feasibility of switching their sewage facility from chlorine gas to a safer alternative.

Another countermeasure that’s been considered by the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration, which shares responsibility for railroad security with the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration, is to adapt a method used on the armored Humvees in Iraq so that it can protect tank cars. The technique involves spraying on a plastic coating that can help heal a puncture.

Millar notes that the United States is far from the only country whose dangerous cargoes could be exploited by terrorists. The regulatory body Transport Canada, in Ottawa, rejected the armoring of railroad tank cars and rerouting, and it has decided instead to “expedite” the most dangerous cargoes through major cities. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, cargo rerouting is not even being seriously discussed.

—Philip E. Ross

4. Crude Attack

imgIcon: Bryan Christie Design; Background: Brian Staufffer

At 3 a.m. on a moonless night, a pair of armored vans race down an access road leading up to the sprawling Hovensa oil refinery a few miles west of Christiansted, on the north coast of St. Croix. The first van, equipped with a reinforced bumper, barges through the main gates and then explodes; Semtex plastic explosives toss concrete barriers aside like Lego blocks. The second van pushes past. Gunmen inside the van pour suppressing fire at the refinery’s marksmen, enabling the van to reach its destination: the refinery’s control center. Swinging about, the van turns into a mobile claymore mine: a ton of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosive propels a mass of scrap metal through the control center, sweeping it from the map.

Meanwhile, black-clad terrorists scale the refinery’s eastern perimeter fence and disperse throughout the dense forest of refinery units. Many are U.S.-trained refinery engineers, and they know precisely where to go. They carefully place Semtex on critical distillation towers, then make their retreat before the charges are remotely triggered, with a blinding flash.

As the huge distillation towers at the upstream end of the refinery topple, the reformer downstream erupts, and the massive cat cracking unit bursts into flames. Without these two units, the refinery can’t make gasoline. Topping off the damage, the refinery’s power plant is reduced to rubble. With the control center gone and all power off, the refinery’s safety features are overwhelmed. Flames rise 100 meters into the night, as unquenchable blazes rage. By midday, the Western Hemisphere’s largest refinery is a mass of buckled, smoking scrap metal.

Minutes after reports of the blast hit the news wires, gasoline prices begin to race upward on Asian markets. When the New York Mercantile Exchange opens several hours later, East Coast consumers face US $5-per-gallon gasoline; within days, they’ll have trouble buying it at any price. Frenzied inconclusive speculation about the bombers’ affiliation is just what the mastermind intended.

It’s not easy to destroy a whole refinery. They’re huge, usually covering several square kilometers; an adjoining tank farm typically stores several hundred thousand barrels of crude oil. Our fictional account presupposes detailed knowledge of the refinery’s configuration. Without it, the risk of a major destructive fire is quite low. Refineries are elaborately instrumented and computer-controlled, with many fail-safes and redundant systems to isolate problems as they emerge.

Oil refiners clearly want us to believe that their facilities are secure. Experts will point to the attempted car bombing at Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq processing plant in February 2006, which failed to get past the front gate. “Our member companies’ approach is to imagine these kinds of scenarios and perform vulnerability assessments with outside consultants,” comments Scott Jensen, who follows security issues at the American Chemistry Council, in Arlington, Va. “From those assessments they then take steps to, say, harden the perimeter, create setbacks, or add more lighting. They’ll also focus on people issues like background checks on vendors’ staff and visitors.” Another critical step is to lock down information about a site by using scramblers on communications. “It’s also possible to have a second control room off-site, a completely redundant system,” says Jensen. “And there’s always a detailed plan of how to work with first responders, police, and fire departments.”

“But any perimeter can be breached,” says a Houston-based refining consultant (who declined to be identified ”to avoid the perception of feeding public paranoia”). “Is it impossible? No. Is it unlikely? Yes. Refineries operate on an almost military basis, with policies and procedures for everything.” Access to the facility is typically controlled by badge or electronic scanner, he adds. Some companies even stage mock attacks by “red teams” to test security. Any invader can expect plenty of barbed wire and razor tape, video monitoring, concrete barriers, and tire-shredding devices, as well as armed rapid response teams.

That said, refineries (or for that matter, any petrochemical plant having large inventories of flammable liquids) aren’t designed to withstand determined assaults by knowledgeable professionals armed with military-grade demolition materials. Refinery designs are similar the world over, and engineers and others with working knowledge of the facilities are plentiful. For a small price, you can download commercial satellite imagery of most refineries; Hovensa co-owner Hess Corp. even published a handy aerial view in its 2005 annual report. A would-be terrorist could scout out the security measures up close by posing as a deliveryman, a contractor, or even a cabdriver.

It’s not a job for an amateur—but neither was the simultaneous hijacking of four airliners.

—Peter R. Savage

5. Agro-Armageddon

imgIcon: Bryan Christie Design; Background: Brian Staufffer

On a cool, cloudless morning, a man walks into the petting zoo of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Casually, and without drawing attention to himself, he touches the tip of an old-fashioned fountain pen to the fingers of his right hand, dotting each finger with a few droplets of clear liquid. He then buys a handful of feed from a vending machine. The heifer behind the fence comes up to him and eats from his left hand as the man strokes its muzzle with his right hand. Next, he feeds and pets a few pigs, which snort and grunt appreciatively. Then he slips back to the parking lot, gets into his car, and checks off the 10th and final entry on a list of state fairs and stockyards. “Not bad for three days’ work,” he thinks to himself as he gets on a southbound freeway toward Mexico.

A week later the heifer begins to show the telltale signs of foot-and-mouth disease: fever blisters around the mouth, muzzle, udder, and hooves. The pigs are likewise stricken. Even before that, reports of similarly diseased animals have begun to roll into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s veterinary service. The affected areas stretch in a line from Toronto to Texas, and the service soon concludes that this is no ordinary outbreak. Agriculture officials alert their counterparts in Europe and Australia, but too late; they, too, are beginning to register the gruesome signs of a foot-and-mouth epidemic, set in motion by the man’s two accomplices.

To contain the highly contagious disease, authorities eventually slaughter more than 300 million cattle, hogs, and sheep the world over, burning or burying their carcasses. The blow to the agricultural sector pushes the world economy into a recession it might have avoided.

Not bad for three men, unencumbered by ideology or animosity, who merely wanted to make a dishonest buck by betting on the rise in the price of futures contracts for pork bellies and beef. Although the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are able to reconstruct how the men did it, the commissions cannot do so in time to impound more than a small piece of the profits, nor can they identify the culprits.

Foot-and-mouth disease is caused by a virus that is harmless to people yet spreads quickly among cloven-hoofed animals. “It is one of the most transmissible diseases known to veterinary science,” says Peter Chalk, who studies agroterrorism at the Rand Corp., in Santa Monica, Calif. “It will get the cow sick, and by the time the disease becomes obvious, it will have infected other cows, especially given the intensive nature of modern agriculture.” The last major outbreak in a developed country came in Britain in 2001 and led to the slaughter of 6 million animals. The direct costs to the British treasury came to US $3 billion, but indirect costs, including those to the tourism industry, which was hurt by the quarantine of the entire countryside, came to about $5 billion.

The Web site of the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health lists countries recognized as free of foot-and-mouth disease. Any malefactor could use the list to begin research into which of the unlisted countries offered the easiest access to diseased animals and the laziest border guards. It would then be relatively straightforward to fill a small vial with virus-laced liquid from the blisters of a few animals. That would be enough to light the fire at dozens of focal points across a continent.

There are effective vaccines against foot-and-mouth. North America, which hasn’t had an outbreak since the 1950s, maintains a stockpile of vaccine; European countries are considering universal vaccination. But the vaccines aren’t routinely used, because the perceived threat is low and current laws make it cumbersome to export vaccinated animals and animal products. What’s more, containing so highly contagious a disease through vaccination is extremely difficult when there are many focal points, as in the above scenario.

Would we even recognize such an attack if it struck? “We have people who can be anywhere on the ground in the U.S. in 4 hours,” says James Rogers, the spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service. “They know how to distinguish foot-and-mouth from the other diseases that mimic its symptoms.” Yet the first signs might well be missed by veterinarians who have never seen the disease firsthand.

Back in December 2003, the Department of Agriculture announced an accelerated program to create a national ID system for tracking livestock during a disease outbreak. Although to date the department has spent $84.7 million to develop such a system, it is still not in place. Moreover, our defensive posture is directed against natural outbreaks, not a malevolent attack designed to spread quickly and overwhelm our resources.

—Philip E. Ross

6. Black Christmas

imgIcon: Bryan Christie Design; Background: Brian Staufffer

It’s the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States—“Black Friday”—when Christmas shopping begins with a vengeance. Shopping malls across the country are packed. At five of the biggest malls, nobody notices the terrorists in their midst. These radical activists are members of a little-known but determined organization that despises consumerism and agitates for global economic equalization. They scatter throughout the mall, discreetly depositing shopping bags with open containers of ethyl mercaptan, the highly volatile and noxious-smelling chemical ordinarily used to signal the presence of propane gas. They leave the bags in the malls’ food courts, in public sitting areas, and near the entrances to the malls’ department stores.

Almost immediately, the fumes induce intense unease among shoppers, prompting many to start leaving. As disquiet spreads, the activists remotely detonate a series of smoke grenades, triggering a mallwide panic. Amid the choking, screaming, and general confusion, the assailants quietly retreat to their cars. News of the attacks spreads quickly through the media, and worried shoppers everywhere head home, perhaps thinking they might complete their shopping online.

Later that day, bioagent detectors at several postal sorting stations start to pick up traces of anthrax in the mail, prompting an immediate shutdown of the postal system. The substance detected is in fact just an anthrax simulant of the kind produced to test anthrax detectors, utterly benign and readily obtained from laboratory supply companies. But in the several days it takes the postal service to figure that out, online Christmas-shopping sales plummet. The public’s fear is renewed when the organization responsible for both attacks posts notices to news organizations and on several popular blogs warning that if its anticonsumerist message goes unheeded, the next time it will break out the real anthrax.

Carrying out a lethal biological or chemical attack would be far more difficult than most people realize. Systems capable of detecting anthrax and a number of other biological agents are in wide use in the United States. Starting in 2005, the U.S. Postal Service installed 1700 GeneXpert detectors, made by Cepheid, of Sunnyvale, Calif., at 282 mail distribution and processing centers. Since then, there has been no anthrax attack on a center, and in roughly their first year of wide use the detectors delivered no unwarranted warnings of an attack.

To kill hundreds or even dozens of people, biological or chemical agents would have to be produced in quantity, not a trivial task. Terrorism expert Amy E. Smithson, a member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., has calculated that it would take a terrorist “roughly two years to make enough sarin in a basement-size operation to kill five hundred [people] and another eighteen years to produce the ton of gas required to kill ten thousand.”

Figuring out how to deliver and disperse the agents would also be a challenge. When members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult used sarin to attack the Tokyo subway in 1995, they set plastic bags filled with the substance on the floors of several subway cars and then pierced the bags with sharpened umbrellas. The technique seems primitive, even laughable—until you try to think of a better one. For these reasons, Smithson concludes that terrorists most likely will stick with what they know best, namely “bullets and bombs.”

That said, getting your hands on such lethal substances wouldn’t be impossible, as the letter-borne anthrax attacks in the United States, still unsolved after five years, suggest. (Something else to keep you awake at night: that anthrax, Smithson says, was perhaps the most lethal ever made.) Just pretending to kill people would be a relative snap. As this scenario illustrates, a gang intent on merely scaring the wits out of people and causing wide economic disruption wouldn’t need real chemical or biological weapons.

And how vulnerable are shopping malls? After 9/11, the shopping industry went to considerable lengths to make malls safer, says Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, in New York City. Committees consisting of security chiefs from all the major malls, with representatives of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, have developed protocols for surveillance cameras, illumination of parking lots, and emergency procedures to be followed by first responders. There are also procedures for protecting heating and ventilation systems—including rapidly extracting air in the event of a gas attack or quickly injecting oxygen. And the shopping council has developed a counterterrorism training program that it hopes to give to virtually all the 20 000 security guards employed at major U.S. malls.

At any well-run shopping center, maintenance staff are carefully vetted, and employees are taught to keep an eye on each other, says Kavanagh. After all, people will not shop at malls if they feel unsafe. Experts don’t spend much time worrying about a chemical attack on a mall. But a series of small attacks on public places where large numbers of people congregate, done mainly for psychological effect—that’s something to get exercised about. In the oft-quoted words of Rand Corp.’s Brian Jenkins: “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

—William Sweet

7. Star-Struck

imgIcon: Bryan Christie Design; Background: Brian Staufffer

Fur is back. At every runway show, from Paris to Milan to Tokyo, nearly every major fashion designer has decided to incorporate real fur into the new collections for fall. Taking their cue, three Hollywood actresses declare that they’re sick of all the fuss over animal rights and that they’ll wear whatever they please to the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony.

Appalled animal rights activists launch massive letter-writing and petition-signing campaigns. But a few hard-core factions begin plotting a more sensational statement. Their plan: seize control of the Oscars, take thousands of cowering actors and producers hostage, and televise their demand of equal standing for all animals and a ban on all fur and leather products. It’s a plot even a Hollywood mogul could love (after he’s been set free and taken a few Xanax tablets to calm down, of course).

Conveniently, a handful of the extremists are already employed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or have been invited as guests to the Oscars; with help from the insiders, several dozen others succeed in getting themselves hired by the catering and sanitation companies contracted for the event. With military discipline, they begin strategizing and training, honing their physical and mental reflexes for what will amount to a commando operation.

Shortly after the award ceremony gets under way, with an estimated 600 million viewers tuned in worldwide, the activists go into action. They don gas masks and explode canisters of tear gas throughout the theater. Using Tasers, sticky foam, and nets, they quickly subdue the armed security guards. The other assembled guests offer no real resistance. (“Heroics? Isn’t that what we have stuntmen for?”) When the network broadcasting the event moves to cut the TV feed, the activists announce their ultimatum: air their message, or this year’s nominees for best actor will be dispatched to the big soundstage in the sky.

Security at the Oscars is about as tight as it gets, short of a function involving a head of state. “The Academy Awards has very high security to prevent a whole spectrum of terrorist attacks,” says Brian Jenkins, senior adviser to the president of Rand Corp., in Santa Monica, Calif. Such precautions predate 9/11; the Academy has struggled for years to keep out gate-crashers.

These days, each attendee has to register in advance, a procedure that includes having a photo taken and stored in a database. Before the ceremony, guests receive a security badge embedded with an RFID tag, which they must wear throughout the event. The badge gets read upon entry to the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, where the awards are held, and at various interior checkpoints; the information read from the badge is then compared with the database. However, no access control system can prevent a savvy terrorist insider from being able to move about freely and wreak havoc.

Even apart from overcoming whatever security measures are in place, Jenkins notes, there would be the extraordinary task of having to keep more than 3000 hostages in line. “From the terrorists’ perspective, there’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of requirements for coordination, and it could easily go wrong,” Jenkins says. Consider the Moscow theater episode in 2002, in which four dozen Chechen separatists held about 800 people hostage for several days; in the end all of the terrorists, and 130 of the hostages, were killed.

A more plausible attack, Jenkins suggests, would involve two or three armed assailants storming the stage, seizing a celebrity, and then reading their message. The whole brief episode “would have a good chance of being televised before producers figured out whether it was a Hollywood publicity stunt.”

The vast majority of animal rights activists, it should be noted, don’t condone attacks on human beings. But extremist elements within the movement have engaged in car bombings, mail bombings, and other violent acts. In May 2005, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives declared that animal rights extremists now pose one of the biggest terrorist threats in the United States. Still, it might be hard to recruit the sizable corps of militants demanded by the above scenario. And with so many attackers involved, the likelihood of getting caught would rise considerably.

Terrorist acts involving lots of hostages were popular in the 1970s, starting with the Munich Summer Olympics in 1972, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped the Israeli team and eventually murdered 11 athletes and a German policeman. The trend soon spread to foreign embassies, with hostage takings in Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. But they fell off after governments became resistant to meeting the demands of the attackers and many countries created paramilitary units to respond to hostage situations.

“Generally, that type of hostage taking has not been a feature of terrorism for many years,” Jenkins notes. “There is fashion in terrorism, just as there is in automobiles and women’s clothing.”

—Jean Kumagai

8. A Farmer’s Fury

imgIcon: Bryan Christie Design; Background: Brian Staufffer

Like most of his French farmer friends, Jacques X., a wine and fruit grower in the Loire Valley, had come to rely on the generous subsidies he received every year from the European Union. He’d read the news reports about the escalating calls to cut the subsidies, from countries looking to expand the market for their much-cheaper farm goods. He didn’t worry, though; he counted on his government and a food-obsessed French public to protect his interests.

But in late 2007, after national elections, a new government in Paris agrees to a program of gradual, but large-scale agricultural reform, starting with an immediate 25 percent reduction in farming subsidies.

For Jacques and others, it is the ultimate betrayal. He helps organize mass rallies throughout the country, and he’s pleased when a protest parade of tractors chugging down Paris’s Champs-Elysées makes the evening news.

Still, after concluding that a more dramatic show of force is needed, he joins a small, hard-core group of fruit growers to plot a series of attacks on local EU offices. With unfettered access to chemical fertilizers, the plotters take one of the easiest routes to terrorist havoc: the truck bomb.

Their plans are nearly thwarted when an agriculture inspector notices several tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer being shipped to an organic farm. The inspector charges the farmer in question with surreptitiously nurturing his prize-winning pommes et poires with inorganic chemicals, warning him that the orchard will have to forfeit its “organic” designation. Only later will the inspector’s tragic oversight become clear.

Shortly after dawn on 15 May—not coincidentally the day of St. Isidore, patron saint of farmers—three fruit trucks pull up to EU buildings in Marseille, Lyon, and Strasbourg. Only a few early risers are on the street at that hour. The drivers, clad in dirt-speckled coveralls, turn no heads as they park their vehicles and quickly walk away. A half-hour later, the trucks explode.

In terms of technological sophistication, the fertilizer truck bomb—used by antigovernment extremist Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City in 1995 and by Islamic jihadists in the Bali, Indonesia, nightclub bombing of 2002—is right out of Terrorism for Dummies. All you need is a vehicle, one or two thousand kilograms of ammonium nitrate mixed with a much smaller amount of fuel oil, plus an intermediate explosive to trigger the explosion. (McVeigh’s bomb used a 2300-kg mix of ammonium nitrate and nitromethane.) For delayed detonation, an electrical charge or even a simple burning fuze suffices.

About 1.4 million metric tons of ammonium nitrate is sold in the United States alone each year, as fertilizer and also as a mining explosive, at a cost of about US $220 per ton. Years of debate on reducing its availability have had a limited effect. Australia’s leading fertilizer maker, Incitec Pivot, no longer sells ammonium nitrate products. But there are no EU-wide restrictions on the fertilizer, according to Hans van Balken of the European Fertilizer Manufacturers Association (EFMA), based in Brussels. And in the United States just a few states even require people purchasing the compound to show ID. Recently, Congress began considering legislation that would require producers, sellers, and distributors of ammonium nitrate to register with the Department of Homeland Security.

Can ammonium nitrate be rendered inert? Germany and Ireland require the fertilizer to be blended with calcium carbonate, apparently to reduce its usefulness to bomb makers. But a 1998 study commissioned by the U.S. National Research Council concluded that such an approach would still be explosive, and the EFMA Web site notes that “heating [the mixture] under strong confinement can lead to explosive behaviour.”

More recently, Larry Sanders, CEO of Specialty Fertilizer Products in Belton, Mo., has suggested that his products could be made more bombproof by encasing the fertilizer pellets in a polymer coating. Sanders says the coating would prevent the pellets from mixing with fuel oil but would dissolve in water, so the pellets could still be used to nurture crops. The encapsulation process would undoubtedly add to the price of ammonium nitrate, and the method still needs to be tested to confirm its effectiveness.

The French farming sector is perhaps slightly less volatile. France does receive the largest share of EU agricultural subsidies, amounting to more than $10 billion annually. A November 2005 essay by two analysts at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C., likened the controversy over France’s farming subsidies to the festering conditions that touched off 11 nights of ethnic rioting there last fall. “With France’s 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections on the horizon, British and American efforts to isolate France on this issue could lead to an ugly crisis,” the two scholars warned.

What’s more, French farmers have a long, rowdy, and occasionally violent history of protesting trends they don’t like. Back in 1984, dairy farmers kidnapped the head of the French National Milk Board to protest curbs on milk production. In 1999, a group of farmers dumped several tons of manure on a McDonald’s in Arles, in response to U.S. tariffs on high-end cheese and other gourmet goods. And just last year, radical wine producers dynamited agricultural offices in three French cities in the Languedoc region, causing extensive damage but no injuries.

Nevertheless, in a recent interview, one of the Brookings fellows, Nicolas de Boisgrollier, noted that France is “slowly but surely” taking steps to reduce its subsidies. As for the likelihood that the country’s farmers will revolt in response to EU cuts, he said, “I don’t think they will become violent…. They see the sense of history.”

—Jean Kumagai

9. Too Much—or Too Little

imgIcon: Bryan Christie Design; Background: Brian Staufffer

Future A: It is Sunday, 11 September 2011, 10 years to the day after the infamous attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. No new attacks have occurred on U.S. soil, apart from a few pinprick incidents. Those attacks have nonetheless sufficed to keep authorities ramping up the countermeasures.

Leaving on a business trip, you drive to the airport under the lidless eyes of roadside surveillance cameras, park near an antimissile-missile battery, stand in a very long line, then take off shoes, cellphone, and belt before flattening yourself against a fluoroscope. On board the plane, a flight attendant locks you into your seat, then returns to feed you your in-flight meal: a protein drink you must sip through a straw. At your destination, an internal migration inspector decked in body armor greets you: “Welcome to Smallville! Let me see your papers.” You hand him a domestic passport carrying a holographic image of your face, a sample of your DNA, and electronic copies of your fingerprints and the pattern in your right iris. “Thank God, I’m American,” you think, as you watch the non-U.S. citizens being led off for full body searches.

Future B: It is Sunday, 11 September 2011, 10 years to the day after the infamous attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. No new attacks have occurred on U.S. soil, apart from a few pinprick incidents. The initial resolve to defend against terrorism has waned, much of the vast appropriations already made to that end have quietly been funneled to political swing states rather than to truly vulnerable targets, and airport security checks and other annoyances have been gradually reduced. Politicians and the public alike have largely lost the sense of urgency to protect the homeland.

Leaving on a business trip, you breeze into the airport, get waved past bomb-sniffing machines that are plainly out of order, enter an airplane with an open cockpit, and sit down beside an oddly serene man, who, it is later discovered, paid for his one-way ticket with cash. “Thank God, he’s not going to talk my ear off,” you think.

There are two basic perils in attempting to discern and counter terrorist threats: overestimating them or underestimating them. Throughout its recent history, the United States, in particular, has tended to do one or the other.

“Our approach to terrorism has always been one of either feast or famine,” says Timothy Naftali, a professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. “We’re like a dinosaur: you have to beat us on the head to get our attention. We don’t take the low-level steps necessary to complicate our enemy’s planning, but wait until he does hit us, then we exaggerate his strength.”

Some groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, argue that the pendulum has now swung too far toward security and away from personal freedom. They cite the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping and other digital data-mining for information on citizens. “It’s a hollow victory if, in the name of counterterrorism, you eliminate the very principles on which your country is founded,” notes Peter Chalk, a terrorism analyst at the Rand Corp., in Santa Monica, Calif.

But a still stronger case can be made that the pendulum is already swinging toward complacency and that “Future B” is the likelier of the two. Consider security checks in airports. A terrorist-proof system would rely on specially trained observers using constantly changing strategies of profiling, questioning, and surveillance, rather than predictable, routine procedures such as baggage scanners, shoe removal, and metal detectors. Airliners may be more secure than they were before 9/11, but that’s largely because of a single, cheap improvement: cockpit doors are now strong and locked. As many observers have pointed out, much of the screening done in airports is designed more to reassure the public than to thwart determined terrorists.

Meanwhile, many vulnerable points, notably cybersecurity, are getting short shrift, says Claire B. Rubin, managing editor of the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. And, she adds, the government has already flirted with treating counterterrorism appropriations as so much pork. “Montana was getting an insane amount of money, considering there’s nothing in Montana,” Rubin says. Chemical suits, air filtration systems, and a lot of other equipment were bought, with federal money, for small towns in the Midwest that surely did not figure high on any terrorist’s hit list.

Rubin applauds what she describes as the first, tentative steps toward a rational assessment of risks. The Department of Homeland Security’s urban areas security initiative grants, which provide money to U.S. cities to pay for counterterrorism equipment, training, and planning, are a welcome start, she says. Still, the latest round of funding in May left major cities like New York City and Washington, D.C. with significantly less than they received the previous year.

If risk assessments continue to fall prey to political whims, we can imagine how “Future B” might end: as the airplane takes off, the serene man sitting beside you bends down. You then have to wonder: is he just fetching something from his bag, or is he igniting a bomb in his shoe?

—Philip E. Ross

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