If You Were a Terrorist, How Would You Attack?

The TSA recently announced that most airplane carry-on restrictions will stay in place for at least another year, until new X-ray technology has been fully installed. Surprisingly, one item that will now be permitted on board is a lighter. While it seems crazy to keep people from bringing toothpaste, deodorant, or water on a plane, it doesn’t seem so strange to ban lighters, which could be used to start fires. I wonder whether the lighter manufacturers were lobbying for or against this rule change — on the one hand, having 22,000 lighters confiscated per day would seem good for business; but on the other hand, maybe fewer people will buy lighters if they can’t travel with them.

Hearing about these rules got me thinking about what I would do to maximize terror if I were a terrorist with limited resources. I’d start by thinking about what really inspires fear. One thing that scares people is the thought that they could be a victim of an attack. With that in mind, I’d want to do something that everybody thinks might be directed at them, even if the individual probability of harm is very low. Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk.

Also, I’d want to create the feeling that an army of terrorists exists, which I’d accomplish by pulling off multiple attacks at once, and then following them up with more shortly thereafter.

Third, unless terrorists always insist on suicide missions (which I can’t imagine they would), it would be optimal to hatch a plan in which your terrorists aren’t killed or caught in the act, if possible.

Fourth, I think it makes sense to try to stop commerce, since a commerce breakdown gives people more free time to think about how scared they are.

Fifth, if you really want to impose pain on the U.S., the act has to be something that prompts the government to pass a bundle of very costly laws that stay in place long after they have served their purpose (assuming they had a purpose in the first place).

My general view of the world is that simpler is better. My guess is that this thinking applies to terrorism as well. In that spirit, the best terrorist plan I have heard is one that my father thought up after the D.C. snipers created havoc in 2002. The basic idea is to arm 20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrange to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn’t be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.

I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them. Consider that posting them could be a form of public service: I presume that a lot more folks who oppose and fight terror read this blog than actual terrorists. So by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.


Two such examples of random chaos was the anthrax mailings of 2001, and the tylenol poisoning of 1982. Both of which were never caught.

Mark G

Considering all you said I thought a sure fire way to accomplish such horror is to have multiple terrorists attack a geographic variety of small town sporting events at their local stadiums, high school gymnamsiums, public arena's etc... Security is so lax at these events and one or two terrorists with high powered explosives or rapid fire machine guns taking out 100 or more people across the land would really instill terror and create such a paralysis. As the author points out..getting guns is easy in this country.


Didn't the Beltway snipers do this already?

And how would it be distinguished from the usual random gun carnage?


I must agree.


"Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk."

The politicians either do not understand this accurate observation (Bush et al), or they are loath to mention it for fear of losing their one perceived "strength" (Rudy G.), or they do not want to appear "soft of terrorism" (practically every single elected official). At some point, the probablities must be taken into account and used in away that means something. Just this morning, NPR interviewed a TSA "checker" who claimed that all the airport delays are necessary "because a terorist can strike anywhere, anytime." Sure a terrorist can, but let's check the odds, and then let's make a cost assessment (risk v. reward analysis) to determine if creating 2-3 hour delays and forcing Americans to wait in long lines is worth it.

Bob Carson

You have got be kidding me. Ideas for terrorists?
Think you are being cute? Clever? You are an idiot.

Michael Murphy

In Richard Preston's book, The Cobra Event, his scenario is frightening in its simplicity. A lone terrorist concocts a hybrid virus that spreads like a common cold, but has a very high mortality rate. He produces a lot of the virus in powder form, and then release a bag of it on the New York subway system. It's very low-risk, and each person who gets infected becomes a carrier spreading the disease in every imaginable direction. That has to be the Center for Disease Control's nightmare scenario, and would hit most of your five objectives - especially if drops were coordinated simultaneously in many cities at once.


Your father and I had exactly the same thought after the DC sniper attacks. Here's another I had recently: blow up random freeway overpasses and bridges (in a coordinated manner if possible). Very easy to do (roadside bombings in Iraq are proof of that). And if teenage gangbangers can get up onto signs to paint graffitti, it can't be that hard to get under a highway to plant explosives. And the terror and interruption of commerce would be immense (see Minneapolis).


Very interesting piece.

I think one key to triggering a fear response is to play on existing concerns that people have that the government has failed to act on. So my idea would be to send in the terrorist that will execute the random shootings across undefended borders. I would have some of them take a small boat in from a larger vessel off both coasts. I would of course have them come across the border with Mexico. The key, however, would be for the terrorists to get caught and explain how they did it.

1) Americans lose faith in the government to defend them since border security is already an issue.

2) People would demand a massive expansion of the coast guard, border fences and other major capital allocations

3) States on the coasts, borders would break into vigilante passions

lynn eaton

"it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur" - I would propose that the best ideas are ones that can't be planned for - hence, you are actually helping the terrorists. If you are going to publish good terrorism ideas, you might want readers to respond with their best ideas on how to "plan for" these attacks.


Can you talk about economics?

Keith Rhodes

Are you kidding me? I loved your book, but what exactly is the point of this Blog entry? As far as I'm concerned, we need less of this type of talk as it only serves to perpetuate the whole idea of terror. Isn't that the primary mission of the terrorist themselves? PLEASE, think before you write this type of gibberish in the future. This type of work is part of the problem not the solution. I am very disappointed in your concept here.


I don't know about other people, but you posting good
suggestions for terrorists plots gives me a very uneasy feeling.


Smoke grenades at sporting events, eithe hand carried in and chucked onto the field, or launched into an open stadium with something like those large water balloon slingshots. The panic induced by the loud bang and colored smoke would almost certainly cause a stampede for the exits. I'm guessing a small fraction of the crowd would be trampled, but that's a much higher instance at one go that a sniper could hope for, plus there would be guaranteed coverage. You could pick and choose, hitting the most americanized targets (patriots, yankees, etc) to make a political point. Most people (and security) are in the stadium, and if you take college football at 1:00PM you could strike multiple targets simultaneously across the country, all with excellent tv coverage to add to the fright factor.


Bob Carson,

If we had more thinking like this prior to 9/11, maybe we would have had precautions about the taking over a planes and using them as missiles.

We collectively have to be smarter than the terrorists - they can read Tom Clancy books too.


Steven's dad's idea s the same one I had at the time of the DC sniper shootings. It would be low tech and it would create widespread panic. The other aspect of that plan which mirrors the 9/11 attacks is the terrorists' use of our own vulnerabilities against us:

On 9/11 it was our total lack of air travel security. In the case of the sniper teams it would be our easy availability of firearms and ammunition.

Andrew Berman

There's an alternative type of terrorism, the goal of which is not so much to terrorize a population, but to gain support from others. The terror aspect is, in this case, secondary to the goal of gaining publicity. This means attacking highly symbolic targets such as the Statue of Liberty, even if the casualty count is low. Or taking a single hostage and releasing multiple videotapes.

OK, back to your direct question. Take those 20 terrorists and have them randomly poison food at supermarkets. Rat poison on the fresh vegetables, for example.


Would it be clear that this was due to terrorism, or would it disappear into the general background noise of gun violence?
How many unsolved shootings are there a day in the US, and how many extra would there need to be for it to be noticeable.

I think the biggest asset you could get in this situation would be someone inside the media, to help push the stories in the right direction.

I am not sure that giving suggestions is a good idea. I wonder how Tom Clancy feels, given that the whole 'crash a plane into a building' plan was a key part of one of his books shortly before September 11.


Thanks for the tip! I'll pass your idea along to the rest in my cell.



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