As I wrote in an earlier post, I was able to attend a U.S. Army conference for mid-level officers and civilians last week aimed at identifying possible scenarios in which the service may have to operate in the coming decades. One of the factors attendants were asked to consider shaping the world of the future was a series of trends in the evolution of terrorist technology.
While we all know that terrorists are constantly trying to come up with new ways to strike, a presenter (while open to the press, the conference was held under Chatham House rules to encourage free debate) listed seven trends in terrorist technology that he and his company -- which specializes in predicting defense trends -- identified for attendees to consider.
Here they are:
1) The potential for terrorist groups to revisit the aerial attack. Except this time they would use model aircraft as "a homemade cruise missile" or even building a model sailplane out of plastic or composites with a pound or two of explosives and something to serve as shrapnel,"the presenter said. Such a craft could evade radar and penetrate no fly zones to hit specified targets such as "the next presidential inauguration," he said. "Let's call this a homemade cruise missile," he added.
2) Next, the growing potency of terrorist cyber ops. Counter-terror officials are already finding it increasingly difficult to penetrate terrorist communications channels with more sophisticated groups embedding coded messages in images keyed up for their recipients to decode, according to the presenter. "Only the amateurs are going to leave us some way of detecting them using the traditional electronic intercepts" in the near future, he said, adding that "cyber attacks may be the number one choice for future terrorists. Furthermore, "there's absolutely no reason imagine that" terrorists wouldn't try to take advantage of foreign made microchips to hack U.S. networks, he noted.
3) Number three on the list was the potential for terrorists to mimic the effects of a nuclear bomb by building a dirty bomb with leftover radioactive medical waste or with material purchased from a rogue nation. Still, for all the fear they can stir, dirty bomb might not be that bad, according to the presenter. "I'm not sure it has the impact that the general news stories would have us believe," said the presenter. "Granted, if you blow up a dirty bomb in Grand Central [Terminal] you mess up commuter traffic for a very long time." (I've gotta say, I never want to find out how bad the effects of a dirty bomb would be.) Another type of strike in this category would be an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) bomb aimed at frying a region's electronics. "It will not surprise me if we do see EMP attacks designed to slow Internet traffic to a crawl," the presenter said. "A whole lot of the world's Internet traffic goes through this area of Virginia, we figured one day that [a number of well positioned] EMP weapons would take out 40 percent of the world's Internet capacity and it could take a year to repair."
4) Home cookin' terrorist chemists brewing DIY bio-chemical weapons. This one sounds real fun to deal with. In fact, the consulting firm the speaker works for actually predicts this as the "high-tech weapon most likely to be used in the near future," according to a slide shown during his presentation. Still, this type of attack "doesn't produce masses of debris [and] rubble sells on network television," he said. Nonetheless, there are "biohackers" working around the world to "splice useful genes into bacteria." While this many people working on advanced medical problems is overall a good thing, "it does mean that in ten years, at most, this technology is going to be in the hands of a large number of amateurs and unfortunately, some of them will not have good things in mind," he said. He went on to warn that in several decades we could see genetically targeted pathogens aimed at hurting specific populations or even individual people.
5) "Mass-effect things that go bang." Here we see terrorists' bread-and-butter, blowing stuff up. We're talking about fuel-air and dust-air bombs with 15 times the power of TNT. While it takes some serious engineering talent to develop these weapons, "I don't see any reason why somone who wanted to couldn't devise their own fuel-air bomb," said the speaker.
6) Tiny terror tech. And we're back to the theme of engineered bio-weapons. The presenter listed man-made bacterias designed to take out entire cities, "smart dust" capable of disbursing fuel from a fuel-air bomb to ensure maximum carnage and "malignant nanomaterials" designed to "eat building materials" and devour vehicle lubricants.
7) We feel your pain ray. Great, we might see terrorists use so-called, pain rays, to trap and incite panic in crowds or immobilize security forces during a Mumbai-style attack, the presenter said. "For the moment that's just fantasy and I don't see it going anywhere," he added. Oh, ok.
Well, all of this puts me in a great mood (sarcasm). Especially considering the presenter signed off this segment saying that anyone who wants to get their hands on this type of technology will; they're already trying. The real question is, "who has the will to use" it?
-- John Reed