The future terrorist threat to national security

July 28, 1997|By Steven Peck

TO MANY, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh symbolizes the terrorist threat of the 21st century: a mass murderer who uses a powerful bomb -- or a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon -- to kill and injure hundreds of people in a crowded American city.

In the future, however, there could emerge a different but potentially more far-reaching threat; technically knowledgeable terrorists who attack the nation's critical infrastructures to threaten millions of people over wide, multi-state regions.

The bombings at the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City and the Atlanta Olympics have focused national attention on the specter of urban terrorism. Yet, the physical impact of urban terrorism is usually confined to the crime scene, and the number of casualties inflicted, though tragic, is generally limited.

By contrast, a well-aimed and well-coordinated attack, or series of attacks, against the nation's critical infrastructures could cause extensive damage over a vastly wider area. Though less dramatic than a car bomb explosion in a downtown city, such an attack could affect millions of people and cause millions of dollars of damage far beyond the target site.

Critical infrastructure include electric power grids, petroleum facilities, telecommunications networks, financial institutions, transportation links, and water supply systems, among others. These highly complex and interdependent systems are the foundation of our modern industrialized society; virtually every citizen depends on them every day.

The potential for technically knowledgeable terrorists to disrupt these infrastructures is a significant threat.

For example, a terrorist group that understands the layout of a major electric transmission grid could disable its key circuits by physical or "cyber" attack, plunging an entire region into darkness. Similarly, knowledgeable terrorists could tap into the nation's financial databases and wreak havoc on the economic security of millions of citizens. And terrorists could contaminate water supplies with biological agents, endangering urban populations with infectious diseases.

Presidential commission

In July 1996, the Clinton administration established the Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection to develop a strategy for addressing this threat. The commission recently completed a five-city fact-finding tour, and will issue a formal report in October.

The body has only a one-year mandate, however, and reportedly has had difficulty gaining substantive support from the private sector, which fears its efforts may lead to increased governmental regulation. The commission's long-term effectiveness is unclear.

The federal government and many state and local governments are working hard to combat urban terrorism, however. Currently, the Department of Defense and other agencies are working with the nation's largest cities to assess their counter-terrorism needs and to provide specialized training to police, fire and emergency medical personnel.

This effort will expand to 120 cities by 1999. Additionally, security is being improved at thousands of government buildings, and parking around many of these buildings is now strictly limited.

Yet, as urban security improves and potential targets are hardened, terrorists may simply look for "softer" targets elsewhere, including critical infrastructures. Indeed, electric power substations, radio towers, water treatment plants and other facilities are typically located in rural or isolated areas, and often are protected by little more than a chain-link fence.

Additionally, technical information required to damage certain infrastructures is available from public documents, and foreign terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army have experience attacking them -- experience they could impart to American groups.

Infrastructures also are increasingly dependent on information networks, making them vulnerable to attack by computer hackers. Finally, a successful attack that affects millions of people would generate extensive publicity -- possibly shaking public confidence in national institutions.


Contrary to popular belief, then, the future terrorist threat may be directed not at our cities but at our critical infrastructures. While vandals and saboteurs have attacked targets like radio towers and power lines in the past, they generally have caused little damage due to their limited aims and lack of technical knowledge. This is no reason for complacency, however.

Government industry and other parties must strengthen the nation's critical infrastructures before this future terrorist threat materializes. The president's commission on infrastructure protection is an important step. The strategy it develops should be promptly implemented.

More important, industry must play an active role because it owns and operates most of these infrastructures and therefore has a strong incentive to ensure reliable service to its customers.

Industry could even take the initiative in this effort given its extensive experience at dealing with other catastrophes, including floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. And the cost of taking preventive steps would be minor compared to the cost of doing nothing.

Failure to protect U.S. infrastructures from terrorist attack could have far-reaching consequences and provoke an angry response from the American public. The future safety and welfare of the nation demands action now.

Steven Peck is an emergency management specialist at Mathtech Inc., in Falls Church, Va.

Pub Date: 7/28/97

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