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.

COMMENTS: 1,172

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  1. Mark G says:

    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.

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  2. Mark G says:

    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.

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  3. Nancy says:

    Didn’t the Beltway snipers do this already?

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

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  4. Nancy says:

    Didn’t the Beltway snipers do this already?

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

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  5. g says:

    I must agree.

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  6. g says:

    I must agree.

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  7. Nate says:

    “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.

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  8. Nate says:

    “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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0