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.


Video game designers have already come up with the most effective terrorist ideas and they're all copyrighted. So any terrorist organization better be afraid of getting their pants sued off.



I think it's very naive to assume that terrorists would need to rely on our musings to gather their ideas for plotting terror.

Perhaps the musings are for our benefit? You know...so we can avoid that embarrassing, sobering moment in the aftermath of a tragic event where we shrug our shoulders and say, "We'd never thought they would ". Kind of like, "We'd never thought they would use planes as missles."

Let's not miss on this and other points of the article.


I also had the same idea as your father.

A variation. Have your 20 terrorists start 20 fires in one neighborhood. No fire department is prepared to battle that many fires at once. And fires cause more damage then single bullets. Of course this limits you to larger cities.

Contingent in both plans is that the terrorists take responsibility for their attacks. They must let the public know that they are responsible and that these events are totally random.


Anyone who has seen the film "Battle of Algiers" knows that the best way to surprise is to provide the unexpected. The terrorists in that film used beautiful women to enter the French quarter and cause havoc. Too much profiling aimed at stereotypical "middle-eastern" looking men is useless in that scenario.


I second c's motion. Economics, please.


As an avid online reader.. I'd like to point out a prominent fact that Mr. Levitt wrote:

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

Then ask yourself, what was date of the last terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Audience, keep your heads up. Starting conversations about weaknesses in our defense system is not something that can hurt us. It can only make us stronger and more adept at finding points of improvement.


'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.'

I believe this argument does not hold, since when are preemptive measures actually a focus of what is being done in this country? See Katrina or the recent, surprising collapse of a bridge known to be in poor shape.

J. Foster

Please, please remove this how-to guide for terrorists from the Web. Of course there's all sorts of information already out there, but suggesting more ideas to terrorists is extremely irresponsible. Stupid, in fact. Why on earth would you think this is a good thing to do? What purpose does it serve?


I would take those 20 terrorists and have the plant small bombs in malls all around the country set to explode at the same day/time (eg. around thanksgiving). I would then try and follow this up a week later and periodically after that until it becomes prohibitive. Casualties do not matter. What matters is that people will not go to malls bringing commerce to a halt. Also I wouldn't just target big cities. Hit the 'burbs, small towns, etc. The idea is that any time you go out of your house you risk being attacked. It will bring the country to a halt.


I've had the same thought: random snipers would be relatively easy, cheap, and terrifying. I've often wondered why no attacks like this have happened. Did the 9/11 attacks completely use up Al Qaeda's stock of US-based terrorists, or is law enforcement/homeland security is doing its job well in this case?


I find the topic of this blog to be highly irresponsible. Yes we need to be open in our thinking about these kinds of scenarios, but this could also be seen as encouraging would-be terrorists.

Erin Eisinger

I'm not sure what your point is in highlighting these scenarios, but now that you have, could you offer some contingency plans for the individuals who might get caught in one of these hellish experiences?

For example, what am I, as a private citizen, supposed to do if:
— the subway I ride to work every day is attacked,
— a suicide bomber is about to blow himself up in front of me,
— a biological agent is released in the city,
— a nuclear bomb detonates in the metro area,
— a terrorist army of gunmen start randomly picking off people with shotguns in my neighborhood.

This would be more helpful than stopping your analysis at how terrorists could more effectively terrorize us. Thanks.

The Dude

I was flying recently and had a scary epiphany along these very lines. Its so simple, in fact, that I'm a little wary of writing this, because I keep thinking "It's just a matter of time before..."

I was shopping in a duty free station and realized I had purchased all the necessary ingredients to make a Molotov cocktail. Liquor, clothing, and cigarette lighter all conveniently supplied by the airport. All of this purchased after the security screening. All of the items purchased provided in a handy little duty free bag that all but assures I will have no problem getting it on the plane unmolested. Nothing is taken from me when I enter the plane, so I could just as easily take the bag to the restroom, whip things up and set a fair portion of the plane and passengers on fire.

If I were a terrorist, I could not only create a great deal of havoc and possibly take down an aircraft, but I would also put the liquor industry under the radar, very likely resulting in the termination of liquor sales at airports worldwide. A small victory for any islamically inspired terrorist.



People who say talking about terrorism scares them give me an uneasy feeling.

An open society that discusses all the risks and dangers and possible solutions to those dangers is a much more effective society than one in which we trust our elected father figure to do the right thing while keeping us in the dark.

Tim Rosenblatt

"Can you talk about economics?"

Seems like he is talking about economics. This is the economics of terror. Using the least resources possible to generate the most meaningful outcome.

The Beltway Sniper situation is an example of this, but that was small scale (and there was still a reaction -- I remember talking heads on the news telling people to walk in a zigzag fashion to make it harder to get sniped). A few more groups and there'd be some real chaos.

And to all the people posting that he shouldn't be giving the terrorists ideas, you must be new here. This switch to NYTimes must be bringing in people who aren't familiar with the variety of things posted, and this must be a bit awkward for the "first meeting" of you and this blog.

I've asked myself this question before "If I were a terrorist..." and I've come up with a real similar scenario. I don't think people who want to be terrorists would have a problem coming up with this same idea.

Which makes me wonder why this hasn't happened yet. It's not difficult to come up with this idea.

The CIA/FBI/NSA always say that since so much is classified, no one hears about their successes, only their failures. Either the US Govt is unusually good at preventing these types of attacks, these types of attacks are harder than they seem, or terrorists are very stupid. I'm not sure which.



For those who think that this is giving ideas to terrorists:

If you or I (or the author or his dad, for that matter) can come up with an idea, what makes you think that a terrorist can't do the same? After all, the terrorist's whole existence is devoted to dreaming up new and creative ways to kill and/or scare people.

The thing that I think our leaders don't get is that it's not for lack of imagination that more terrorist attacks don't happen. It's for lack of resources. If you can barely afford a rock to throw, how are you going to get a plane ticket to America?


There is absolutely no reason for airlines not to block lighters from being on planes. Why do you need lighter on the plane? And, after all, it costs about $1 a piece, no big deal. You can afford one once you're on the ground.

Adam C

"He who gives up liberty for security deserves neither."

In a nation where many people believe that guns are a fundamental right, terrorists are the least of its worries; let your uneasyness abate.

While Levitt's idea is very effective, I think, it would be increasingly effective if there were clear targets (eg financial centres)--but with some strays. That way you would make people think it could be them, but also shut down certain sectors and derail the economy.

While they are at it, they may as well cavass for the most protectionist democratic frontrunner. They would damage the US more than anything else in the world.


Many of us have had those thoughts pass through our minds, how easy it would be to stage a terrorist attack. While I don't think such paranoias should be shrugged off, I also want to make a comment that I find your seeming lightheartedness a little offensive. Perhaps I am sensitive as I lost loved ones on 9-11, and I have a relative serving in Iraq. But reading you muse about getting the most bang for your buck in striking the fear into millions of people really and truly upset me. Have we forgotten that while, yes, terrorism is all about what you've outlined above, it is also all about loss of life, international strife, poverty, injustice, rage, and ultimately tragedy.

The pain we feel when we lose a loved one for any reason, the centuries of injustice that have inspired cultures of people not to care whether they live or die -- I'm sorry but these aren't issues I can take lightly.

Your describe your terror plot idea in the tone of a loud-mouth football fan with the best idea for sacking the opposing team. The more we take this attitude, the more we grow comfortable. Comfort allows us to forget what is at the root of this problem: age old religious, political and economic issues that should no longer be ignored in the name of US "foreign interests."


Venkat Rao

Moving to the NY Times was a horrible thing to do to your readers. Since I can't access the entire content from a RSS reader, I will not visit the NY Times every time an article is posted since I have 5 other interesting articles left to read. When will traditional media understand technology?