By John L. Petersen, The Arlington Institute.
What will be next Will the terrorists strike again . . . and if they do, what might it be
I hope weve learned one thing from September 11th. The next event will not be to commandeer aircraft and fly them into buildings. These guys spent a couple of years trying to identify the subtle weaknesses of our air transport system and put all of their effort in exploiting that, all at once in a big way. So, if they try again, they will not attempt something that goes directly against our defenses. So thats the first principle: Asymmetric Attack hit them where they arent.
Secondly, it seems to be important in this form of political- religious conflict that lots of people get hurt. They could have theoretically flown into the World Trade Buildings in the middle of the night and had the same structural effect . . . but not the same social and political effect. We would have felt badly for the owners of the buildings and businesses in that case, but its a lot different when thousands of people die. The event reverberates throughout the social system for a long time. Second principle: Large-scale, Deadly Results
But there seems to be a rather specific objective behind all of this. There is an end-game that these terrorists seem to have in mind, and it is not just to kill a bunch of Americans. The analysis that I read points to all of this being the Islamic radicals first assault in a war aimed at elevating Islam to being the major influential religion and political system in the world.
How might they do that with the relatively limited resources that they have Again, the most salient thinking that Ive found suggests that theyd like to turn America against Islam, and vice-versa. A holy war between Islam and the West.
How do you do that Get the U.S. to overreact. Focus the unhappiness of the vast numbers of desperately poor Muslims around more high-profile injustice visited on them indiscriminately by American retaliation for the September 11 attacks. Mobilize them around a gross inequity . . . the same way that Americans (and the West) have mobilized around a great inequity. The third principle is therefore: Provoke Over- Reaction. Get the West to seemingly strike out against Islam again. Give them the basis for moving
If this is the framework for a second strike, then where should we look We should look for places where a relatively small, sophisticated effort can produce inordinate social pain and anger. Produce an event that will cause Americans, in the fury of the aftermath, to look with hate upon every Arabic-looking person they see and strike out in vengeance. (That, of course, is the predictable way in which things work in many places on the planet.) The best of all worlds would be a nuclear counter-strike that wiped out a bunch of innocent Muslims that would start the war for sure.
Where are our vulnerabilities in this kind of scenaric world Obviously, there is the possibility of a nuclear or biological attack, and that is where we will immediately put up our defenses. But where else could there be a big splash from a small stone Tom Frey, a very inventive futurist at the DaVinci Institute, has come up with one of the best ideas that I know of: Blow up the earthen dam at Fort Peck at the headwaters of the Missouri River. That huge amount of water then sequentially takes out each dam below it . . . and four days later an amount of water equal to half of Lake Michigan has wiped out all of the towns, cities and bridges from Montana to New Orleans, killing perhaps two million people and effectively cutting the country into two distinct pieces. The Corps of Engineers say that this couldnt happen but they could be wrong.
There are other places where small amounts of effort could produce great destruction, although not with the loss of life that would probably be most effective for terrorists. The United States (and many other places in the developed world) has become dependent upon the Global Positioning System (GPS), but not so much for positioning information as for timing standards. The GPS system is based upon satellites with highly accurate clocks which communicate timing signals that are used by most of the major information systems in the U.S. as a standard for inter-system communication.
As it turns out, because the satellites are so relatively far away, the signals received by GPS units are quite small so small that a hand-held, battery-powered device can potentially disrupt the timing signals for a radius of 50-60 miles. If all of the computers arent in sync, they cant talk to one another. In this scenario, the only thing that crashes are computers. But a coordinated attack (every terrorist turns on their device at the same time) in every major U.S. city could immediately shut down most of the country. Think of what the psychological effect would be if all of the institutions upon which we all depend (financial, governmental, educational, journalistic, etc.) would suddenly be perceived to be unreliable.
There are other possibilities for terrorism that shouldnt be discussed in a forum like this, but if we are going to primarily guard the front door and leave other entries simply latched, be assured that in a free and open society, those intent on disruption have every incentive to try all of the doors rather than commit to a frontal assault into the living room.
John L. Petersen is the president and founder of The Arlington Institute, a Washington, D.C., area research institute that studies global futures. He is the author of Out of the Blue: Wild Cards and Other Big Future Surprises, which is available from the Futurist Bookstore for $16.95 ($15.50 for Society members), cat. no. B-2101.
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