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STRATEGIC TERROR ATTACKS WITHIN THE UNITED STATES
by Gary Showalter

8:00 a.m. January 15, 2001 PDT

America's War on Terrorism is a conflict between cultures. It is a war of ideologies, religions and lifestyles, and it will go on for generations.



[Author's note: This article, and its companion, Tactical Terror Attacks in the US, is deliberately general in nature. Authors of such articles run the risk of providing information or methods to the enemy, and that is not something this author is willing to do. However, within the parameters of what the enemy is understood to know, and what the author feels comfortable with publishing, every attempt has been made to provide the reader with solid, verifiable and useful information.]

US Security Team; White House photoIntroduction

The goal of a strategic terror attack is the denial of the use of, or access to, a strategic asset belonging to, or under the control of the enemy. A strategic asset is a resource, whether it is a local resource such as a dam, a pumping station or a large hospital, or a national strategic asset such as a flight of heavy lifter cargo aircraft on a flight line, the Statue of Liberty or the Hoover Dam. For the sake of this article, the population of Manhattan would be considered a strategic asset, in the case of a chemical or biological attack.

Note that the goal of such an attack is not necessarily the destruction of the strategic asset—if the attacks are the preliminary for an invasion, the attacker may have every intention of making use of the strategic asset for his own use once the dust settles. However, in case of the Islamic (or other) terror groups operating within the United States, we may safely assume that total destruction of the strategic asset would be considered a bonus, rather than a disappointment.

There is no doubt that the security around these targets is being improved, but it is likely that the effort will prove to be insufficient until one or two such targets have been attacked successfully. Both sides in the conflict will study the results of each attack. The US government and its 40-odd security agencies will use those studies to improve the defenses of the remaining strategic assets. The terrorists will take the results of their studies—including the improvements made to the defenses by the US security agencies—and apply them to their next attack.

Attacks on strategic targets will be made by highly trained, highly motivated teams, and will most probably be made in coordination with additional attacks on multiple targets at the same time.

Learning to defend against terror attacks of any sort is a very painful process, and until all such targets are given adequate protection, the attacks will continue. At the end of the day, protecting these targets will tie down large numbers of highly trained and expensive security personnel. For the terrorists, this is a positive result for a negligible investment in men and material.

In this article, we will discuss the types of strategic assets that should rank very high on the attackers target lists (and why), the types of attacks that could be used against those targets and some concerns that should weigh very heavy on the minds of the men and women tasked with defending those targets. We will not discuss the work of the investigative agencies, such as the FBI, ATF, DEA and so on. Nor will we be discussing Infowar (Information Warfare), simply due to a lack of space. This article will deal only with fixed strategic assets and the issues related to defending them from attack.

The economics of defending strategic assets

Economics is not just a matter of money to military minds. It is about men, materiel and time. With a fixed amount of men and materiel in a given unit, and twenty-four hours a day with seven days in each week, how many men and how much materiel can be dedicated to the defense of 'X' number of assets that lie within the Area of Operations of that unit? How many personnel can be assigned to permanent guard duty on a specific asset, such as a dam, armory, research center or power station. How many must be assigned to patrol duty, driving from one site to another, such as within an oil field, along an aqueduct or oil pipeline?

Personnel must be fed, trained, given time to sleep, given leave, replaced when their tours of duty are over, the injured and sick need time in the hospital, and so on. Materiel, such as vehicles, radios and weapons, must be assigned strictly on an as-needed basis. When things wear out they must be repaired, serviced or replaced, or the unit must simply do without until replacements or parts become available to them. Of equal importance is the moral of the men on guard duty. They have their own economic concerns, not the least of which is their civilian jobs (in the case of National Guardsmen), and their families, should something happen to them.

The men who will be given the duty of guarding strategic assets will not be front-line combat or support troops. They will be overage, or in some way ineligible for combat duty. They will be men no combat officer wants in their unit, they will be short-timers (with only a few months remaining until their discharge), or they will be on temporary assignment until their permanent duty slot comes open. They may come from the Regular Army, National Guard units, ROTC units or even Air National Guard. Most strategic assets will have their own permanent security units, either hired personnel or on assignment from one government agency or another. In most cases, where they are will be the last place they want to be. They will do their jobs, but it will not be the job they want to do. To be perfectly honest, guard duty, day after hot, sweaty day, and night after long, cold wet night, is incredibly boring.

Their NCOs and officers will probably feel very much the same way, but it is very likely their sense of duty will be strong enough to push them to do their jobs with sufficient attention to detail to ensure a workable guard roster and properly turned out and motivated guardsmen.

The terrorists know all of this.

No nation can afford to place its front-line, combat-ready, troops on guard duty in some backwater, one-horse town, to watch over an old, worn-out dam. The terrorists know that. They count on it, in fact. The reader can count on the fact that the Hoover Dam and the Statue of Liberty will be guarded by lots of good-looking, strapping young men and women in really smartly turned out uniforms, carrying the very latest in whiz-bang weaponry and communications gear. The terrorists know that, too.

They will attack both types of targets, using different tactics, with different goals, with the same amount of dedication, and with equal success.

The economics of attacking strategic assets

It should be understood that the men who direct these attacks do not require one hundred percent success from each and every attack. They gain ground in their war from the additional publicity (and the resulting effect on the moral of the enemy) that each attack, whether successful or not, will bring them.

The forces used in these attacks will for the most part expect to die, if not in the first attack on their first target then in the second or third attack on another target. Oddly enough, experience in Israel shows that if they are captured, meaning they have failed to die during the prosecution of the attack, it is very likely that they will sing like birds during their interrogation. Since they were not able to die, they might as well live as comfortably as possible.

The men and women who will be—or have already been—trained and equipped for each of the attacks listed below will for the most part be well-educated and highly motivated individuals who are thoroughly familiar with their target and its defenses. This means that the defenders and their plans for the defense of their asset are outclassed and outmaneuvered as a result of several months, if not years, of study and planning by some very intelligent, very focused and dedicated people.

The World Trade Center towers were designed to withstand the impact of a light plane. They were not designed to withstand the impact of a fully fueled commercial airliner. The designers were incapable of conceiving of such an attack. In truth, if any of the building architects had brought the subject up during a design meeting thirty years ago, it is very likely that he would have been fired on the spot.

In every way, the terrorists were able to outmaneuver whatever security arrangements they encountered in perpetrating their attack on the WTC and the Pentagon, including leaving behind a mass of clues meant to misdirect the post-incident investigating teams. The terrorists have the proven ability to out-think and out-plan the defenders, who really have no idea what they are up against. They won't, either, until the first series of follow-up attacks have taken place.

There is a great danger in underestimating the enemy. This is often a result of ignorance, arrogance and wishful thinking, all (or any) of which can lead to a stunning defeat. The United States government and its partners in the Coalition are, even today, fully a month after the WTC/Pentagon attack, dancing to the script written by Osama bin laden and his allies. The author does not speak only to the military aspects of the conflict.

It is as dangerous to overestimate the capabilities of the enemy. To date, however, this has not been a problem.

Thinking "outside the box"

The following section identifies some of the many strategic assets, both regional and national, and gives one or more ways in which an attack may be carried out against a target. However, it must be noted that there is always more than one method of attack against a target. The terror groups who plan these attacks do not have unlimited ways and means available to them. Terrorists will use every available means to get around the defenses of a target to avoid increasing the risk by attacking a target head-on. They do not want to waste time killing guards; they want to achieve the goal of the attack, whether that is blowing up an aqueduct or leaving a shopping bag carrying a container of VX gas attached to a timing device at the Vietnam War Memorial. While they do not object to dying in order to achieve their goals, they are not going to waste their lives shooting it out with a bunch of security guards.

Anyone who is responsible for the security of a strategic asset must be prepared for both the out-of-the-ordinary and for the incredibly ordinary as a means of attack. Anything that is out of place should be considered suspect. A can of shaving cream left in a little-used hallway in a shopping mall is just as dangerous today as a Petrie dish filled with plague bacillus (since the one may well contain the other). If it isn't where it belongs, it must be considered as a threat, and treated accordingly. A shopping bag left unattended in a crowded restaurant is as much a threat as a fully fueled Boeing 727.

This is the sort of thinking that must go into analyzing the defenses of a strategic asset site. Trust the terrorists to do the unlikely in order to achieve the unthinkable. Trust them to do exactly what you would never have thought of to get around your defenses. Unconventional warfare requires unconventional thinking.

The defense systems of fixed strategic assets, including fences, armed guards, floodlights, motion sensors and so on, can only make a site unattractive to an attack. Defensive systems such as these increase the risk of detection. They add to the cost of an attack by increasing the time it might require to close with the objective. They add to the risk involved in attacking a particular site. Such defensive measures only limit accessibility; they do not, and cannot, make a site impervious to attack.

They also give a false sense of security to those assigned to guard the site from attack.

As a means of comparison, consider the following: the recent spate of Anthrax-contaminated letters is unlikely to be the work of an international terror group. It is too amateurishly carried out, and will probably prove to be a copycat local group, or terrorist wanna-bes. "Normal" Anthrax (of the sort provided to researchers by the CDC and other biotech centers), without the incredibly costly preparation that can turn it into a deadly weapon, is not the bioweapon of choice for such attacks. Rather than being an anti-personnel weapon, Anthrax could be properly termed an "area denial" weapon, as with adequate coverage the anthrax spores will deny the use of the infected land for food production or residential use for thousands of years.

Types of targets and two goals
Strategic targets are major hospitals, university campuses, tank farms, fuel depots, dams, fresh water reservoirs and aqueducts, airports (and aircraft), LPG carriers in harbor, telephone exchanges, power stations, high-voltage power lines, national monuments, armories and ammunition dumps, population centers, food production areas (cattle, sheep, chicken, wheat, corn and soybean fields, and so on) and fresh-water reservoirs and aqueducts, sewage treatment plants and on and on and on.
  • Colleges and universities
    It would only take two or three successful attacks on college or university campuses across the United States, using biological or chemical agents, to shut down the higher education system throughout the country for several years. The number of parents who would forbid their children to return to school following a series of such attacks would bankrupt the educational system and destroy the economies of each and every college and university town across the country. Simply the fear of such an attack could cripple the economy of the country for many years, since the expectation of a drastic reduction in the number of qualified graduates leaving the higher education system would force many industries to scale back their planned growth for that period.

    Given the influence the American economy has on the global economy, this would cause serious repercussions throughout the Western World.

  • Water supplies
    The Tennessee Valley Authority controls thirty-two major dams and a larger number of smaller dams. While the larger dams, in the area of 150 feet or higher, can be expected to withstand anything short of a major assault and the detonation of a small nuclear device to destroy their integrity, the many smaller dams and levees will not be so well built or protected. The same will be true across the country.

    Particularly during the winter and into the spring, small dams and levees should be considered prime targets. Note that the dam itself need not be destroyed, only the floodgates and the hardware that controls them. The release of the water behind these structures can be expected to devastate any small towns lying within the flood plain downstream. A number of such attacks, backed up by the rains and floods that are common during the winter, will cause a large number of deaths and a wide swath of destruction, since it will prove to be impossible to control the flooding to any useful degree.

    Fresh water reservoirs are susceptible to biological or chemical attacks. Even the fear that such an attack has taken place will cause the reservoir managers to shut down the flow of water until the system has been checked thoroughly, including the aqueducts that supply the fresh water to the distributors.

    Aqueducts (some of which are miles in length) are ideal targets for sabotage attacks using detcord or shaped charges anywhere on their length. Where an aqueduct crosses a ravine, the columns that support the aqueduct will be very tempting targets, since their destruction will keep the aqueduct out of service for a very long time. Pumping stations, often way out in the middle of nowhere, will almost always be very lightly guarded, with perhaps a team of inspectors visiting each site once a week or so for maintenance.

    Sewage treatment plants and toxic materials treatment plants, if sabotaged, can deny the use of ground-water aquifers and fresh-water supplies downstream of the plants for months, if not years.

  • Airports and aircraft
    An airport can be shut down very easily. They come in all sizes, from small private airfields without control towers to community airports serving a small town, county airports, airports serving large cities to international airports. All such installations have several things in common. The need for electrical service from a local provider, the need to store avgas and jet fuel on site, and in the case of the county airports and larger, the need for sophisticated radar, instrument landing systems and communications systems.

    Any airport can be shut down with one thermite device placed against the side of a fuel storage container, the larger the better. The threat of additional explosions will force the airport management to evacuate the airport and divert incoming flights to other airports. Electrical substations will almost always be secured with nothing more than a lock on an access gate. Once inside, an experienced saboteur can destroy an entire substation with a few meters of detcord and one or two blasting caps attacked to a timer or a cell phone.

    Commercial jetliners (all aircraft, in fact) are both expensive and delicate. They are also lightly guarded, especially when they are on a service ramp or under repair. A small explosive device set against a landing gear strut, hidden in the gear housing under the wing, will collapse the landing gear. This will cause major damage, including the high probability of a major fire when it is set off. Anyone with access to the flight line at a large airport has the capability of setting numerous such charges in a single night. The results will be catastrophic to the owners of the aircraft and will further degrade the customers faith in the airlines, and, therefore, their willingness to trust their lives to an airline company that cannot even guard their own aircraft.

    Napoleon once said that an army moves on its stomach. According to United States military doctrine, however, those stomachs are moved in aircraft called "Heavy Lifters," very large transport aircraft, C-130's, C-141's, C-17's, C-5A's, and so on.

    Equally important to US military doctrine are the refueling aircraft (KC-135's and KC-10's), without which nothing will fly for very long. Both the heavy lifters and the refueling aircraft are dispersed all over the world, in air bases within the continental United States, Germany, Guam, and so on. They are vital strategic assets, since without these aircraft the US cannot move men and materials to a war zone when necessary. More than any other strategic asset mentioned in this article (or any other, for that matter), the safety of these aircraft must be considered to be of paramount importance to the United States war effort. These aircraft can no longer remain parked side-by-side on a flight line, depending on base security patrols to keep them safe. This is especially true within the continental US, where there is very likely to be a feeling of "it can't happen here" among the base security personnel.

    It takes very little effort to disable such aircraft, or to blow them up. These aircraft must be parked well apart from one another, preferably with some sort of embankment or sandbag walls between each aircraft to prevent collateral explosions if a team of attackers were to penetrate base security and reach the flight line in a bid to destroy these aircraft.

  • Shipping
    LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) carriers are as large as VLCC's (Very Large Crude Carrier), supertankers, in other words. These vessels contain two, three or four large spheres in which the liquefied petroleum gas is stored at close to zero degrees. These vessels are so large that very few harbors can accept them, which is a good thing, when one stops to consider what will happen when one of these ships is blown up. San Francisco is one such, and if one of these ships is attacked successfully in San Francisco harbor, the resulting explosion, on a par with a small nuclear device, is expected to destroy most of the city.

  • Power lines
    High voltage power lines, and their attendant booster stations, cover the United States, and more than any other utility, are responsible for the quality of life Americans enjoy today. That makes them very tempting targets. They are also very vulnerable.

    High voltage power lines are run on massive pylons, which are built on concrete foundations. They are designed to withstand high winds without collapsing, and the power lines themselves are designed to withstand high winds, ice and snow. Provided, of course, that the integrity of the pylon itself remains intact.

    Many of these high-power lines run through desolate areas, and maintenance crews in these areas usually due spot checks via helicopter once a week, with a ground crew visiting each pylon only infrequently for a visual inspection.

    However, the pylons were not designed to withstand sabotage. Each pylon has from four to eight legs, which are bolted to concrete foundations by massive bolts. Shaped charges placed on the concrete, around each leg (or even two), will destroy the integrity of the entire structure. The pylon need not collapse immediately, but if the damage is not discovered before the next high wind, the pylon will come down, bringing with it the electrical service to the customers "downstream." Rebuilding the pylon, especially during a major winter storm, can be expected to take days, if not a week or more. Should several pylons across the country be hit simultaneously, the failure to provide electrical service to several major cities (and their attendant suburbs and small towns) can be expected to cause death and injury due to freezing and massive financial loss in all the affected areas.

  • Food production and population centers
    Food production areas and population centers are prime targets for biological and chemical attacks. Chemical attacks, such as those that occurred in the subways in Japan a few years ago, involved the use of Sarin, an extremely caustic gas. However, biological attacks are to be preferred, at least from the attackers point of view. Chemical weapons, when used on a small scale (such as the subway attack in Japan), for all the fear they inspire, will rarely be as effective as their publicity threatens.

    Biological weapons, on the other hand, can be massively efficient, with a very small investment. As a means of comparison to the Sarin subway attack, note the mad cow disease in Europe a few years ago, and the foot and mouth disease epidemic in England only last year. There is strong reason to assume that both epidemics were not of natural origin, and were, in fact, meant to convince the European and British governments to pursue a conciliatory policy towards Iraq as well as to punish them for their involvement in the Persian Gulf War.

    Anthrax, as was mentioned above, is more of an area denial weapon than it is an anti-personnel weapon. Used properly, against herds of cattle, it will cause far more damage with far less risk to the user than sending spores via the US mails. As mentioned above, large deposits of anthrax spores in the soil of farmland will force the owners to abandon the infected area for many long years.

    Many biological weapons are designed for aerosol dispersion, and work either through skin contact or through inhalation. Shaving cream cans, deodorants, air fresheners and so on all come in aerosol cans. Setting up these cans with a small timer is a very simple affair. If such a can (or two, or three) should be placed in a crowded indoor shopping mall, everyone who enters or leaves that mall will help to further spread the contagion (plague bacillus, anthrax, botulism or smallpox, to name a few). No one will know anything about the attack for days or weeks afterward, until the first patients enter the medical system. By the time it becomes clear that a bioweapon has been released, the victims will scattered to the ends of the earth, traveling by car, bus and plane, carrying the contagion with them, and infecting many, many others once the disease enters its infections phase.

    Finding and treating them will be a nightmare. It will, in effect, be impossible to find them all, and isolate them before the contagion has become a world issue. The resulting anger and determination to extract revenge for such an incident is likely to fuel a deadly backlash against any and all Islamic nations. For this reason alone, it is doubtful terrorists will make use of such a weapon...it is doubtful, but it is not impossible.
Wrap up

The advantages to the terrorists in striking strategic targets can be manifold. First, there is the immediate advantage in denying the use of the strategic resource to the target nation, even if only temporarily. There is the advantage in the resulting media coverage, which, first, demoralizes the citizenry and second, encourages other terror gangs—and terror wanna-bes—to pursue their own targets with greater vigor than before. Along with this there is the cost of repairing or replacing the strategic asset.

The simple threat of terror delivers many benefits to the terrorists. False alarms—and there will be many such over the years—overwhelm the security agencies, tie up the communications systems and exhausts the investigators. All of this leads to sloppy investigation, even more sloppy documentation and, when an incident really does occur, the investigators and security agents involved may tend to react sloppily (since they will not know the incident is real until it is far too late), which will result in many more dead and injured than there should have been.

Terror attacks—and the threat of terror attacks—will result in an increased tightening of security restrictions, which will have the added result of placing necessary limitations on the freedoms Americans have taken for granted. In itself, this will add to the frustration and anger of the citizenry, add to the level of mistrust of the government, and increase the level of suspicion of the security agencies. There will be an increase in the number of "home grown" paramilitary and vigilante groups, all of which will place an additional drain on the resources of the security agencies of the Federal and State governments.

Success breeds success. As terror groups are captured, others will form to take their place. Once one terror group demonstrates that the US can be hurt, that Americans can be killed and maimed in large numbers, others will begin their own terror campaigns in pursuit of their own warped aims.

This will not be a war of six months or a year or two or three. It is a conflict between cultures. It is a war of ideologies, religions and lifestyles, and it will go on for generations.

Trust in the ability of the government at all levels will evaporate as it begins to appear that the security agencies—local and State police, the FBI and so on—are incapable of preventing these attacks. But what must be remembered is that the security agencies do stop most of the attacks, even though you may not be aware of them at the time, or even hear of the arrest and detention of the attackers.

Society will tend to fragment into smaller groups and divisions in the political and economic structure of society will grow even larger and more strained than they are today. The main goal of all of these attacks is the destruction of the American society and culture.

Every effort must be made to prevent this. After each and every attack the people must come together, to comfort one another, to escort the dead to their graves, to visit the mourners in their homes, to rebuild the damaged structures. All of this is meant to demonstrate to one another and to the attackers and that while the terrorists can destroy buildings and kill American citizens, nothing can destroy the unity and the spirit of the American people.

<<
Gary Showalter is a novelist and independent journalist, specializing in political issues surrounding the Middle East. Recent articles by the author include:
Tactical Terror Attacks in the US
Peeling the Onion
The Misunderstood Object of War
The Long View
A Rumor of Democracy

Article copyright © Gary Showalter; all rights reserved
related resources

| r e a d i n g |

Combating Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Terrorism: A Comprehensive Strategy (A Report of the Csis Homeland Defense Project); Frank J. Cilluffo, Sharon L. Cardash, Gordon Nathaniel Lederman; ISBN: 0892063890

Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland; Anthony H. Cordesman; ISBN: 0275974278

How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War; Gideon Rose, James F. Hoge Jr.; ISBN: 1586481304

The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11; Strobe Talbot, Nayan Chanda ; ISBN: 0465083560

Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland; Anthony H. Cordesman; ISBN: 0275974278

Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare; Bard E. O'Neill, Edward C. Meyer; ISBN: 1574883356

What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response; Bernard Lewis; ISBN: 0195144201

Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox; Jonathan B. Tucker; ISBN: 0871138301

The New Face of Terrorism: Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction; Nadine Gurr, Benjamin Cole; ISBN: 1860644600

Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World of Osama Bin Laden; Peter L. Bergen; ISBN: 0743205022

From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine; Joan Peters; ISBN: 0963624202

Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society); Mark Juergensmeyer; ISBN: 0520223012

Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy; Richard Haass, Council on Foreign Relations; ISBN: 0876092121

Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy ; Paul R. Pillar, Michael H. Armacost; ISBN: 0815700040

Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare;Bard E. O'Neill, Edward C. Meyer; ISBN: 1574883356

The Ultimate Terrorists; Jessica Stern; ISBN: 0674617908

The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism; Simon Reeve; ISBN: 1555534074

| u s e n e tg r o u p s |

alt.activism

alt.politics

alt.security.terrorism

gov.us.fed.congress.record.senate

gov.us.fed.doc.announce

gov.us.topic.emergency.alerts

gov.us.topic.foreign.trade.misc

misc.activism.progressive

talk.politics.european-union

talk.politics.mideast

talk.politics.soviet

talk.politics.usa

| w e b s i t e s |

National Security Agency

Office of Homeland Security (White House)

Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security (US Gov)

Defense Technical Information Center (US Dept of Defense)

DefenseLINK (Official Website of the US Dept of Defense)

GAO Reports: Homeland Security (US General Accounting Office)

US Immigration & Naturalization Service (USINS INS)

Jane's Information Group

Jane's Regional Security Digest

Homeland Security and Defense (Business Week publication)

Center for Security Policy

ANSER Institute for Homeland Security

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Center For Strategic & International Studies

Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

The Henry L. Stimson Center

Adm. Blair on Regional Security, Fight Against Terrorism (US Dept of State)

The Army and Homeland Security: A Strategic Perspective... (US Army War College)

(*see our resource directory for add'l resources)


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