The Future of Terrorism

18 November 2008


IEDs with cell phone detonators have played a significant role in recent terrorism. We should expect further developments along this model of exapted technology.

What is the future of terrorism? In order to take proactive measures against terrorism, we need to explore the possibilities of terrorism; we need to attempt to think like terrorists if we are to predict future species of the genus. The best police and intelligence forces in the world cannot discover the plan in the mind of a terrorist until he or she seeks to realize that plan through action. By the time the terrorist takes action, law enforcement and military entities are playing catch-up, and, as we hear so often, the terrorists only have to get it right once, whereas state actors have to be right every time or suffer the consequences of a terrorist attack.

The growth of the technology of violence, whether perpetrated by states or by non-state actors, has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of sophistication of strategies of organized violence, which is the application of the technology of violence to actual occasions of violence, which could also be called the application of social technology to weapons technology. While technology has been the focus of considerable commentary, and its use in organized violence can scarcely be overestimated, the parallel growth in the sophistication of the use of technology has gone largely unremarked, and because it has not been the focus of serious analytical interest, the potential for further surprises from the exploitation of sophistication rather than technology per se is high.

The basic model of terrorism has been clearly established, and any organization with a grievance can perpetrate spectacular acts of violence roughly proportional in social impact to available funding. And the funding of terrorism, like acts of terrorism, is itself a social technology, and one well familiar to terrorist organizations. There are long-standing connections between organized crime and terrorism, which I touched on yesterday in my The Threat of Piracy. The cocaine trade in South America has long supported leftist insurgencies (as well as rightist reactionaries), especially in the 40 plus year civil war in Colombia and during the Sendero Luminoso campaign in Peru. There is also the example of the opium and heroin trade funding rebel insurgencies in the Golden Triangle, and the previously mentioned lucrative pirating industry. At some point the political motive becomes mixed and shades off into a gray area of profiteering progressively less related to any political crusade; thus the linkage between crime and terrorism fuels violence indistinguishable from destabilization for its own sake.

While I will not at present attempt to define terrorism, I will remark that terrorism as we confront it today, in its most virulent forms, represents a particular approach to the marriage of social technology with weapons technology, and the particular marriage of these technologies has been called “high concept/low tech” terrorism. Sophistication and imagination can make use of technology in novel ways that are not in any sense due to or dependent upon high technology. Indeed, the most durable and effective forms of violence are those that creatively adopt durable and effective forms of technology to ends previously not linked to these technologies.

High concept / low tech terrorism

High concept / low tech terrorism

The paradigmatic example of high concept/low tech terrorism is the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers. In this incident, the existing infrastructure of a nation-state, viz. the transportation infrastructure of the US, was transformed into a weapon by men wielding box cutters. Terrorists, as non-state actors, are in most cases denied the resources available to nation-states, and this is one reason that no terrorist attacks have yet occurred employing nuclear weapons. The technology of nuclear weapons requires a considerable industrial and geographical infrastructure such as is only available to nation-states at the present time. Though the technology dates to 1945, more than fifty years later it is still, in a sense, high technology (certainly sophisticated technology) that is only available to a handful of nation-states.

Nuclear weapons technology is more than a half century old, but still difficult to master.

Nuclear weapons technology is more than a half century old, but still difficult to master.

By the same principle that it is nearly inevitable that even sophisticated technologies such as nuclear weapons will eventually, in the fullness of time, become available to terrorists, we can project backward in time to earlier technologies, once sophisticated and beyond the reach of all but the financial and industrial capacity of nation-states, that could feasibly be employed by terrorist organizations today and in the near future. One such military technology that answers this description is that of the submarine.

Submarine technology is tried and true.

Submarine technology is tried and true.

Submarines are a perfect example of a durable and effective technology. Like poison gas, they made their military debut during the First World War, and, again like chemical weapons, the submarines of major military powers today are among the most technologically advanced and deadly weapons in any arsenal. But this degree of technology is not requisite for the use of submarines in unconventional and asymmetrical warfare. The technology of the early twentieth century, publicly available to any interested party, is sufficient for the sophisticated use of submarines by non-state actors to perpetrate major acts of terror.

It is known that drug smuggling cartels have built several submarines (an incomplete submarine in the process of construction was discovered in Colombia in 2000, while completed submarines have been recovered off South American and European coastal waters); there may be operational non-state submarines at the present time of which we (the public) are unaware. Whether or not the Navy knows of non-state actors in the oceans will not likely be revealed in our lifetimes.

The most technologically advanced navies have focused on the stealth value of submarine technology. With the introduction of submarines into combat during the First World War, this stealth was achieved simply through submersion. During the Cold War, submarine technology represented one of the legs of the nuclear “triad” (land, sea, and air), and as such became central to that conflict. As a result, submarine technology became among the most sophisticated of military technologies, and stealth become ever more important. Submarines from the Cold War superpowers played a cat-and-mouse game throughout the world’s oceans, and even on occasion collided with each other, so close and dangerous was the pursuit. In this Cold War combat environment, great strides were made in quieting submarines. Nuclear missile boats usually rely on passive listening to monitor their environment, not even sending out the sonar “pings” that we associate with submarine warfare.

While advanced stealth technology would not be available to non-state actors, the importance of submarine stealth is common knowledge available in the public domain, and it is feasible that a sufficiently motivated unconventional military force could make a small submarine with very quiet propulsion (an electric motor with all moving parts cushioned by rubber mounts would go a long way toward effective underwater stealth) that could, by size and stealth, effectively elude even the surveillance capacities of sophisticated superpower navies. However, as noted above, the public is not likely to come into knowledge of this sort during our lifetimes.

A submarine fielded by non-state actors, probably for smuggling narcotics, recovered off the Spanish coast.

A submarine fielded by non-state actors, probably for smuggling narcotics, recovered off the Spanish coast.

Bringing together the weapons technology of submarines with the social technology of organized international terrorism, the other ingredients necessary for a major act of terrorism are mass civilian casualties and press coverage. It is easy to see how this could be engineered. Cruise ships routinely carry thousands of passengers per ship. A single submarine with a torpedo carrying a conventional HE warhead could cause the rapid sinking of a cruise ship resulting in catastrophic loss of life. A little further creativity could be employed to see that such an operation was conducted with the maximum publicity and media coverage, and at the least expected moment so as to magnify the horror of the event.

Torpedo technology is now well over a century old.

Torpedo technology is now well over a century old.

This is one possible future face of terrorism. No doubt there are many other possibilities. The important lesson to take away from the above has nothing to do with submarines, stealth, or torpedoes, but the general principle that technologies formerly available only to nation-states, with the financial, technological, and geographical resources, become easier, cheaper, and more widely available with time. We only need to review the history of innovative military technologies with an eye toward their exaptation by terrorists in order to get an idea of the dangers against which the civilized world must prepare itself.

As it takes a certain kind of mind to lie awake nights imagining novel forms of mass murder, and such minds, by their intrinsic character, are not likely to be employed by governments or their intelligence agencies, the latter are at a disadvantage in attempting to anticipate and proactively address the social technologies of terrorism. No doubt deep within the bowels of the intelligence agencies of the wealthy nation-states there are units dedicated to reproducing the conditions of the terrorist mind, as during the Cold War there were entire military bases devoted to reproducing Soviet training and tactics so that Pentagon war gamers would have a more authentic adversary. This is exactly the sort of intelligence undertaking that is needed, and if such an effort does not yet exist, it ought to be put into practice, the sooner the better.

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One Response to “The Future of Terrorism”

  1. The British government has said neither the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) nor the Bajrang Dal are terrorist organisations and their members are not banned from entering Britain.

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