The Future of Terrorism and Fear
John M. Alspaugh, DBA, CHS-V
Doctorate of Business Administration Specializing in Homeland Security Leadership and Policy
Master of Science in Administration
Bachelors of General Studies (Business)
Terrorist tactics can empower even the smallest groups, increasing the number of prospective adversaries capable of inflicting injury and destruction. Furthermore, there are multiple threat vectors available to terrorists, most of which fall within critical infrastructure and key resources. Disaster can bring forth fear in the population; however, researchers have ascertained that an adequately prepared population is less impacted by terrorism. Although multiple strategy documents exist to address terrorism, none specifically focus on the fear and panic generated by terrorism. The United States requires a strategy that not only addresses the threat vectors but also addresses the fear and panic generated by terrorism in order to minimize occurrences and their effects. It is incumbent on the government at all levels to communicate trustworthy and accurate messages in order to avoid creation of unnecessary confusion and fear in the population.
Key Words: Terrorism, Threat Vectors, Strategy
Target Audience(s): Government (Federal, State, Local, and Tribal), Public Affairs, Emergency Manager Military
Program Level: Intermediate
The American Board for Certification in Homeland Security, CHS®, provides this article for continuing education credit for Certified members, who are required to obtain 30 credits per year to maintain their status.
Fear of a possible terrorist attack can create a paralyzing sense of apprehension in the population (Mathewson, 2004). It is necessary to understand the threat vectors and realistic risks in order to prepare for and reduce the impact of an attack. In addition, all levels of government must inform the public regarding risks and incidents to reduce the likelihood of inflated fears. Furthermore, the information provided by the government must be timely, accurate, and address realistic threats rather than overstated perils that are unlikely to occur.
The future of terrorism relies on the advance, propagation, accessibility, and exploitation of technology. Technologies used to increase lethality, improve reach, and provide cheaper and more secure communications enhance the capabilities of terrorists. In addition, globalization contributes to the extended reach and effectiveness of terrorists. It is important to note that defensive actions developed and employed to protect against terrorism have a limited, useful life. Terrorists adapt and redirect their efforts to new areas, displacing risks and opening up new areas requiring protection (Hamilton & Cilluffo, 2007). Both sides must continually adapt or fail.
Terrorism is a tactic and not an adversary; however, any nation-state or non-state actor can employ this tactic. Terrorist tactics empower even the smallest group with substantial impact power, further increasing the number of prospective adversaries capable of inflicting injury and destruction. In addition, the variety of threats is diverse and potential targets are many (Hamilton & Cilluffo, 2007). It is impossible to protect all possible targets against all potential threats all of the time. Therefore, a strategy for addressing these threats is required and this strategy must not generate panic and fear by over-hyping threats.
Disaster can bring forth fear in the population. Moreover, the civilian sector is not sufficiently prepared for disasters, especially terrorist attacks, which increase the potential for anxiety and panic. Researchers have declared that when the population is adequately prepared for a terrorist incident, then the general impact is less severe. For example, military personnel and government employees receive regular training and practice evacuations for emergencies while the general civilian population receives little, if any, training and practice. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 demonstrated the difference in response by these two groups. Personnel at the Pentagon evacuated in an orderly manner while personnel at the World Trade Center experienced chaos and panic, with some people jumping to their death (Mathewson, 2004). Preparation does affect how a person responds during a crisis.
Threat vectors are a path or tool used to attack a target. Specifically, a threat vector path will typically fall within critical infrastructure and key resources. Threat vector tools include explosives, cyber, chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons of mass disruption or destruction (Bozarth, 2005). It is imperative for the government to know the existing and potential threat vectors in order to establish an adequate strategy for combating the threats. Additionally, this strategy must enable protection of the country without overstating the threat. Such exaggeration of the threat could generate unnecessary fear and panic in the population or excessive spending without realistic requirements or needs.
Terrorists have hijacked aircraft, exploded bombs on aircraft, buses, and rail systems, and even carried out chemical attacks on subway systems (Fletcher, 2008). Transportation can be utilized as a means of delivery, the end target, or to generate a crowd for targeting. The aircraft attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 are an example of transportation as the delivery means. On the other hand, the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988 is an example of an attack on the transportation mode or infrastructure to disrupt, destroy, and/or inflict economic losses. Finally, the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo, Japan subway system on March 20, 1995 is an example of targeting a crowd attracted to the transportation mode (Elias, 2009; Taylor, 2006). Transportation is unique in that it is multifaceted as a threat vector.
Terrorists have not only attacked aircraft, but also infrastructure, such as the June 2007 attack on the Glasgow International Airport passenger terminal. Attacks on transportation modes and related infrastructure typically generate heightened fears in travelers, negatively affecting the airline, hotel, restaurant, and tourism industries (O'Sullivan, 2005). Also, cargo is at risk as well, as demonstrated by the attempt to ship bomb-laden printer cartridges from Yemen (Wassef, 2010). Aviation has received significant attention from terrorists groups.
In contrast, transit and passenger rail systems carry approximately five times as many passengers as airlines do each day. Moreover, passenger buses are an even larger and softer target. These buses number in the tens of thousands and carry approximately 19 million passengers each day (Peterman, Elias, & Frittelli, 2009). Airlines are a hardened target due to increased security, placing transit and passenger rail systems and buses at risk as a softer target.
Then again, the maritime domain has the potential to be especially damaging if attacked. Objectives of maritime terrorism include human, environmental, and economic terrorism, whether alone or in combination. For example, terrorists attacked the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002, and the Superferry 14 in the Philippines in 2004, all of which were attributed to al-Qaeda or other groups tied to them (Parfomak& Frittelli, 2007). While maritime attacks are inherently difficult, developing a false sense of security is unwise. Al-Qaeda has proven to be adaptable, ingenious, tenacious, and to possess high levels of audacity.
Finally, the cargo aspect of transportation is particularly vexing. Trucks and railroad tank cars are used to transport tons of hazardous materials each day, each a potential tool or target of terror. It is not feasible to scan 100% of the maritime cargo containers in port due to the impact to commerce if cargo offloading and transshipment is delayed (Peterman et al., 2009). However, an attack on a critical port could not only destroy high value assets but also has the potential to cripple the U.S. economy as well. What's more, relatively free access to docks enables terrorists to retrieve illicit arms and explosives or highjack a ship. Case in point, al-Qaeda shipped bomb-making materials to Kenya on freighters owned by Osama bin Laden. These materials were subsequently used to blow up the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in August 1998 (Mayer, 2004). Cargo is a relatively unusedtarget for terrorists, but probably not for much longer (Nadler, Markey, & Thompson, 2012; Willis & Ortiz, 2004).
The Internet acts as a significant facilitator of terrorist activities by providing the means to spreading jihadist ideology, fundraising, training, communications, and planning (Hamilton & Cilluffo, 2007; Janbek &Williams, 2014). In addition, use of cyber resources makes recruiting new members, scouting potential targets, and coordinating attacks easier. Hackers can access control systems for the electrical grid, banking institutions, air traffic control, industrial databases, and military databases (Colesniuc, 2013; Walters, 2014). The results of a hacker attack can be devastating economically and, in some cases, deadly (Elmore, 2006). Computers and the Internet are great tools, but they can also be used against the interests and security of the United States.
Cyber threats have increased, partly due to the adoption of standardized technologies with known vulnerabilities. Attacks on control systems can result in devastating consequences to public health and safety, the environment, or production, generation, and distribution by public utilities. Examples of control systems attacks include the release of 264,000 gallons of raw sewage in Australia in the spring of 2000 and the disabling of a safety monitoring system at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in January 2003 (Dacey, 2004). Moreover, the attack on the Iranian nuclear program by a highly sophisticated and malicious software worm, effectively a software missile or digital warhead, demonstrated the physical damage a computer technology attack could create (Markoff, 2010). The potential effects of a cyber-attack are intimidating.
Finally, millions of home computers are poorly protected from malicious code and hackers. This vulnerability created an opportunity for hackers to take control of these computers to create large botnet armies and launch debilitating cyber-attacks (Cisco, 2008; Glennon, 2012; Temmingh & Geers, 2009; Wilson, 2007). These botnets could be engaged to attack other computer systems, disrupt critical operations, or undermine government credibility and confidence (Wilshusen& Powner, 2009). The capabilities of these botnets were demonstrated in distributed denial of service cyber-attacks against Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal (Poulsen, 2010). The significant number of exposed computers systems presents an available resource that can be used against the United States and critical infrastructure.
Nearly all terrorism results in an economic impact and attacks over the last decade have affected both the national and global economy. Case in point, the direct costs of the September 11, 2011 attacks was estimated to be $27.2 billion, with indirect costs estimated at more than $500 billion (Kean, 2004; Morag, 2006). In addition, reduced spending and investing in less risky ventures due to lost consumer and investor confidence was an indirect effect of this attack. Additionally, increased transaction costs related to augmented security measures and higher insurance premiumswere a productivity effect of this attack (Bruck & Wickstrom, 2004; Johnston, R.B.& Nedelescu, 2005). The economic impact of a terrorist attack goes beyond the mere cost of response and recovery and strikes at the very fabric of confidence and security.
Terrorist leaders understand the power of economic strength. They are beginning to focus their jihad efforts on an economic terrorist campaign to erode this economic strength. In fact, Osama bin Laden included commentary on his video tape releases that stated the September 11, 2001 attacks cost $500,000 and inflicted $500 billion in economic damage to the United States (Morag, 2006). The current economic crisis provides an ideal opening and stage to leverage an economic terrorist campaign (United Press International, 2010). Terrorists can inflict significant economic damage for a relatively minimal cost, and some effects can be gained with merely a threat of attack.
The attack on the World Trade Center was a strike at the world’s main financial center and sought to undermine the stability of the U.S. and international financial system. Financial markets closed and the securities trading infrastructure was damaged, forcing relocation to backup sites. In addition, substantial delays in the processing of securities and payment transactions added uncertainty regarding completion of trades and liquidity demands. The sharp and rapid declines in major equity markets after the attack verified the effectiveness of economic targets (Johnston, R.B.& Nedelescu, 2005; Makinen, 2002). Moreover, hackers have repeatedly penetrated NASDAQ computers (Wall Street Journal, 2011). While these attacks were benign, the unauthorized access demonstrates the vulnerability of these systems, and terrorists could inflict serious economic damage by interfering with trading or sparking a selloff.
Finally, domestic terrorism is just as much of a threat as international terrorism and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. More terrorist actions against Americans have been the result of domestic terrorism as opposed to international terrorism. There have been several notable domestic terrorist incidents. First was the attempt to assassinate President Truman in 1950. Then an attack on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954 resulted in the wounding of five members of Congress. Next was the bombing of a Wall Street Diner in 1975, which killed four and injured 56. The last example was the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168, injured 680, and destroyed the building (Johnston, W.R., 2015). Curiously, the National Security Strategy for Combating Terrorism does not address domestic terrorism (Elmore, 2006). Domestic terrorism continues to be a threat and should not be taken lightly.
A strategy to address the threat vectors above is essential. Current strategy documents, such as the National Security Strategy, National Strategy for Homeland Security, and the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, address the threat vectors to some degree. Still, these strategy documents do not go far enough to deal with the threats, as they are likely to evolve over the next five years or more.This strategy must specifically address the fear and panic generated by terrorism in order to minimize the occurrences and effects. The most important aspect of this strategy must be preparedness. This preparedness is not just of the government agencies, but must also include the private sector and the general population as well.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must work with state, local, and tribal governments to plan, prepare, educate, and inform. In particular, DHS must work with other levels of government and government agencies as a partner, rather than a heavy-handed leader. Government officials at all levels must ensure they are prepared to prevent terrorist attacks and respond when prevention fails. In addition, engagement with the private sector is vital to ensure adequate protection of critical infrastructure.
The population must be kept informed in a manner that facilitates reduced anxiety and fear. Fears can be limited by ensuring the population is informed in a timely manner and that the message is logical, truthful, and consistent. Fear and anxiety are increased when the government appears to not understand what is going on or how to respond. On the other hand, credible and accurate information is powerful and can calm the sense of chaos and aid in rumor control (Hamilton & Cilluffo, 2007; Mathewson, 2004). It is crucial for government at all levels to communicate trustworthy and accurate messages.
In addition, the public must become engaged in understanding the threats and preparing for potential terrorists attacks. A certain amount of risk must be accepted in order to maintain the level of civil liberties and individual rights the Nation was founded on. Moreover, the public must be educated to understand and accept this reality (Hamilton & Cilluffo, 2007). Free Internet-based training and informative web sites, such as those used by the State of Pennsylvania (PEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), are essential to developing an informed public (FEMA, 2015; PEMA, 2011). Training and information should focus on understanding the threat to society, citizenry responsibility in community protection, and common sense measures to enhance personal security (Elmore, 2006). The security measures must not be worse than the threat.
In addition, inclusion of developmentally appropriate education for all levels of primary and secondary school, as well as college, is necessary. Nearly every child has been taught to stop, drop, and roll if they catch fire, and this training has saved many lives and reduced the extent of burn injuries over the decades. This training did not make the children fear fire, but rather empowered them with the knowledge that they are able to do something if they catch fire. Educating America’s youth will provide them with the knowledge and tools to facilitate their preparedness and response when a disaster strikes (Hamilton & Cilluffo, 2007). Basic first aid and survival skills should be included in the curriculum as soon as children start school.
In particular, understanding how to apply a compress to a bleeding injury, immobilize a fracture, treat for shock, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, start a fire, and boil water are all essential survival skills everyone should know. Moreover, providing these basic skills and expanding the detail as the children progress through school will facilitate the development of a nation of confident and capable initial responders. It is better to develop a generation of informed and prepared individuals who are capable of assisting in a disaster rather than creating a generation of helpless, uninformed victims.
In addition, it is imperative to acknowledge terrorists will continue to adapt to counterterrorism tactics. Therefore, counterterrorism and defensive tactics must also continue to evolve. Rigid security measures are unwise as they promote predictability that can be used against the United States. Make it more difficult for terrorists to succeed in an attack attempt by removing predictability from the equation. Adaptability, flexibility, variability, and unpredictability serve to increase our security advantages while simultaneously complicating and increasing risks to potential adversaries (Hamilton & Cilluffo, 2007). A continuous modification of tactics is necessary to introduce uncertainty as to which tactics are in use at any given time.
The National Response Framework provides a firm foundation for responding to disasters and emergencies using and all-hazards approach. A primary tenet of this document is working from the local level with higher levels of government providing a supporting role as lower levels reach the limit of their resources and capabilities. Communication and prior coordination are essential to the success of the flow of support, without interfering with lower levels of government’s authorities and responsibilities (DHS, 2013). The agencies and resources of the DHS must increase their focus on communication and coordination before a terrorist act occurs. All levels of government working together in a concentrated effort send a message to the public and terrorists, potentially increasing confidence and safety.
The nation cannot continue to spend significant amounts of national treasure in an attempt to address all threats. Instead, an in-depth analysis of the threats and risks can identify the realistic risks and enable focusing resources on the most likely threats. Likewise, a realistic examination of the threats and potential impacts must include identification of areas of overlap. These overlaps are opportunities to tailor actions and policies to address multiple threats, rather than expending resources on individual risks. In addition, the area of small-boat threats, domestic terrorism, access to hazardous materials, and cyber threats require attention.
Small boats have been used against large ships and even military vessels. For example, the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 involved a bomb-laden small boat and the pirates off the Somali coast use small boats to approach and capture large vessels. The threat is not limited to the Middle East or Africa as small boats are very easy to obtain within the United States. A national maritime domain awareness system is required to ensure adequate focus on protection of maritime resources and assets at home and abroad, and the U.S. Coast Guard is the logical choice to lead the development of this system (McNeill, 2010). Allowing ourselves to become complacent in our own security at home is a recipe for disaster.
Domestic terrorism strategies should focus on public awareness and legal processes. An aware public generates confidence and readiness, reducing the success and impact of terrorist attempts. In addition, publishing a consolidated domestic terrorist list, similar to the U.S. State Department’s international terrorist list, is essential to both informing the public and sharing information among all levels of government. In addition, although terrorism is inherently a criminal act, domestic terrorism must be treated the same way as international terrorism (Elmore, 2006). The threat is no less because of the source, and the punishment should be the same.
Obtaining chemical, biological, and radiological materials is too easy in many cases, such as with chlorine and anhydrous ammonia. Reduce access to biological, radiological, and chemical materials by further regulating and introducing limitations. Furthermore, access to industrial radiological materials, as well as medical radionuclides, requires additional protective measures. Engagement with the private sector to develop useful, yet realistic, regulation and control can strike a balance between access for commerce and control for security.
Address cyber terrorism by uniting the country as a whole. This is a way to combat terrorism. Many Internet providers provide free antivirus and firewall software (Cox, 2015). However, not all customers download, install, and configure the software for a variety of reasons. All of these unprotected systems are at risk of being added to a botnet, which could then be used to launch attacks on financial, utility, or other critical infrastructure systems. Work with the major security providers, for example, Symantec and McAfee, to combine forces and develop a single product that is provided to the entire country. Enable automatic deployment and configuration of this protection, reducing the public’s need for skills that individuals may not have. The Internet is similar to a utility and should be regulated accordingly, specifically by ensuring all computers attached are protected; thereby reducing accessibility to hackers and cyber terrorists.
Intelligence is of great value only when the information is shared with the organizations and personnel who are in a position to utilize the information to the United States’ advantage. Development of intelligence-sharing protocols with all levels of federal, state, and local authorities is imperative. Furthermore, engagement and sharing with the private sector, such as airlines and nuclear power, is required in some circumstances as well (Hamilton & Cilluffo, 2007). More integration of intelligence sources, to include law enforcement sources, is critical.
Next, engagement with the media to adjust the focus of terrorism news is essential. The media is too quick to broadcast stories that unnecessarily increase the public’s fear and cause panic. This unwarranted focus frequently results in diverting the attention away from more pressing concerns and can cause resources to be expended unnecessarily just to calm the public, even when the threat is not significant. Encouraging the media to work together to develop guidelines to reduce or eliminate speculation, exaggeration, overhyping, and inaccurate information will likely reduce public fears and anxiety dramatically. If the public is calmer then government officials can focus efforts on the realistic threats instead of expending resources to protect the public from their fears, even if the risk is minimal.
Law enforcement personnel require access to the full range of tools available to facilitate identifying and apprehending criminals, including terrorists. Profiling is an effective law enforcement tool for this purpose, provided officials concentrate on perpetrator profiling instead of racial or ethnic profiling (Elmore, 2006). Use of profiling requires law enforcement to walk a fine line in order to identify perpetrators without violating an individual’s rights by applying illegal racial or ethnic profiling.
Finally, engagement with constitutional law scholars is imperative to developing legal tools and remedies to address Internet, cellular, and other emerging communication technologies, as well as religious freedoms. National security must be enhanced without corrupting the enduring principles this country was founded on. Respect for religious faith is imperative; however, society must be protected from those who would use religion to incite others. Furthermore, freedom of speech is also a critical tenet of American society; however, there must be a logical point where this freedom becomes limited and abusers are held accountable for the provocation of others. Just as one cannot shout fire for no reason in a crowded theater, fomenting hatred and violence through speech and religion requires a legal mechanism for holding the perpetrators accountable for the results their words incited. A well thought-out approach that provides a high level of confidence in effectiveness, while limiting the potential for adverse consequences, is required. In addition, these measures must include a process for monitoring, preventing, and remedying abuse (Jenkins, 2007). The freedoms granted by the Constitution and Bill of Rights must apply to all, not just bad, people. A balance is required to ensure that protecting one’s rights does not infringe on the rights of the many.
It is impossible to protect all possible targets against all potential threats all of the time. Furthermore, terrorists only need limited successes to be effective while their targets must be successful every time. Because of the prevalence of terrorism, fear of a possible terrorist attack can create a paralyzing sense of terror and panic in the population. However, an aware public generates confidence and readiness, reducing the success and impact of terrorist attempts. In addition, familiarity with the threat vectors and realistic risks of attack enable preparation. This preparation can aid in reducing the level of fear, as well as lessening the impact of the attack on the population. The United States requires a strategy that not only addresses the threat vectors but also addresses the fear and panic generated by terrorism in order to minimize the occurrences and effects. Key aspects of this strategy include preparedness and information. Prepared and informed people are less likely to succumb to the fears generated by the threat of terrorism. In addition, it is incumbent on the government at all levels to communicate trustworthy and accurate messages in order to avoid creation of unnecessary confusion and fear in the population
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Dr. John M. Alspaugh retired from the U.S. Air Force after 26+ years of combined enlisted and commissioned officer service, including three remote tours overseas. He is currently the Director of Missile and Space Solutions at Software Engineering Services, supporting the United States Strategic Command in the Space and Missile Defense Division. Dr. Alspaugh has a Doctorate of Business Administration with a specialization in Homeland Security Leadership and Policy and is Certified in Homeland Security Level V. His training includes courses from the FEMA Emergency Management Institute, Defense Security Service Academy, Defense Nuclear Weapons School, and Defense Acquisition University.