Living in the Era of Megaterror
By GRAHAM ALLISON
Forty years ago this week at the Munich Olympics of 1972, Palestinian terrorists conducted one of the most dramatic terrorist attacks of the 20th century. The kidnapping and massacre of 11 Israeli athletes attracted days of around-the-clock global news coverage of Black September’s anti-Israel message. Three decades later, on 9/11, Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 individuals at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, announcing a new era of megaterror. In an act that killed more people than Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, a band of terrorists headquartered in ungoverned Afghanistan demonstrated that individuals and small groups can kill on a scale previously the exclusive preserve of states.
Today, how many people can a small group of terrorists kill in a single blow? Had Bruce Ivins, the U.S. government microbiologist responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks, distributed his deadly agent with sprayers he could have purchased off the shelf, tens of thousands of Americans would have died. Had the 2001 “Dragonfire” report that Al Qaeda had a small nuclear weapon (from the former Soviet arsenal) in New York City proved correct, and not a false alarm, detonation of that bomb in Times Square could have incinerated a half million Americans.
In this electoral season, President Obama is claiming credit, rightly, for actions he and U.S. Special Forces took in killing Osama bin Laden. Similarly, at last week’s Republican convention in Tampa, Jeb Bush praised his brother for making the United States safer after 9/11. There can be no doubt that the thousands of actions taken at federal, state and local levels have made people safer from terrorist attacks.
Many are therefore attracted to the chorus of officials and experts claiming that the “strategic defeat” of Al Qaeda means the end of this chapter of history. But we should remember a deeper and more profound truth. While applauding actions that have made us safer from future terrorist attacks, we must recognize that they have not reversed an inescapable reality: The relentless advance of science and technology is making it possible for smaller and smaller groups to kill larger and larger numbers of people.
If a Qaeda affiliate, or some terrorist group in Pakistan whose name readers have never heard, acquires highly enriched uranium or plutonium made by a state, they can construct an elementary nuclear bomb capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people. At biotech labs across the United States and around the world, research scientists making medicines that advance human well-being are also capable of making pathogens, like anthrax, that can produce massive casualties.
What to do? Sherlock Holmes examined crime scenes using a method he called M.M.O.: motive, means and opportunity. In a society where citizens gather in unprotected movie theaters, churches, shopping centers and stadiums, opportunities for attack abound. Free societies are inherently “target rich.”
Motive to commit such atrocities poses a more difficult challenge. In all societies, a percentage of the population will be homicidal. No one can examine the mounting number of cases of mass murder in schools, movie theaters and elsewhere without worrying about a society’s mental health. Additionally, actions we take abroad unquestionably impact others’ motivation to attack us.
As Faisal Shahzad, the 2010 would-be “Times Square bomber,” testified at his trial : “Until the hour the U.S. … stops the occupation of Muslim lands, and stops killing the Muslims … we will be attacking U.S., and I plead guilty to that.”
Fortunately, it is more difficult for a terrorist to acquire the “means” to cause mass casualties. Producing highly enriched uranium or plutonium requires expensive industrial-scale investments that only states will make. If all fissile material can be secured to a gold standard beyond the reach of thieves or terrorists, aspirations to become the world’s first nuclear terrorist can be thwarted.
Capabilities for producing bioterrorist agents are not so easily secured or policed. While more has been done, and much more could be done to further raise the technological barrier, as knowledge advances and technological capabilities to make pathogens become more accessible, the means for bioterrorism will come within the reach of terrorists.
One of the hardest truths about modern life is that the same advances in science and technology that enrich our lives also empower potential killers to achieve their deadliest ambitions. To imagine that we can escape this reality and return to a world in which we are invulnerable to future 9/11s or worse is an illusion. For as far as the eye can see, we will live in an era of megaterror.