Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action

Article excerpt

Technology contains no inherent moral directive-it empowers people, whatever their intent, good or evil. This has always been true: when bronze implements supplanted those made of stone, the ancient world got scythes and awls, but also swords and battle-axes. The novelty of our present situation is that modern technology can provide small groups of people with much greater lethality than ever before. We now have to worry that private parties might gain access to weapons that are as destructive as-or possibly even more destructive thanthose held by any nation-state. A handful of people, perhaps even a single individual, could have the ability to kill millions or even billions.

Indeed, it is possible, from a technological standpoint, to kill every man, woman, and child on earth. The gravity of the situation is so extreme that getting the concept across without seeming silly or alarmist is challenging. Just thinking about the subject with any degree of seriousness numbs the mind. The goal of this essay is to present the case for making the needed changes before such a catastrophe occurs. The issues described here are too important to ignore.

The Power of the Stateless

For generations, the biggest menaces to our nation have been other nuclear-weapons states, especially the Soviet Union and China. Russia is on a much less confrontational path than the USSR was in its day, but China will soon rival the United States as an economic superpower. It will outgrow us, but does China really pose a military threat? After all, launching an attack that might kill a million Americans would trigger a retaliatory attack that might kill 100 million Chinese. What's more, most of those million Americans would be wearing clothes and digital watches, and buying consumer items made in China. Killing your best customers just isn't good business, and besides, they are already on a path to great wealth and success. A direct military attack from China seems very remote.

Failing nation-states-like North Korea-which possess nuclear weapons potentially pose a nuclear threat. Each new entrant to the nuclear club increases the possibility this will happen, but this problem is an old one, and one that existing diplomatic and military structures aim to manage.

The newer and less understood danger arises from the increasing likelihood that stateless groups, bent on terrorism, will gain access to nuclear weapons, most likely by theft from a nation-state. Should this happen, the danger we now perceive to be coming from rogue states will pale in comparison.

The ultimate response to a nuclear attack is a nuclear counterattack. Nation states have an address, and they know that we will retaliate in kind. Stateless groups are much more difficult to find which makes a nuclear counterattack virtually impossible. As a result, they can strike without fear of overwhelming retaliation, and thus they wield much more effective destructive power. Indeed, in many cases the fundamental equation of retaliation has become reversed. Terrorists often hope to provoke reprisal attacks on their own people, swaying popular opinion in their favor.

The aftermath of 9/11 is a case in point. While it seems likely that Osama bin Laden and his henchmen hoped for a massive overreaction from the United States, it is unlikely his Taliban hosts anticipated the U.S. would go so far as to invade Afghanistan. Yes, al-Qaeda lost its host state and some personnel. The damage slowed the organization down but did not destroy it. Instead, the stateless al-Qaeda survived and adapted. The United States can claim some success against al-Qaeda in the years since 9/11, but it has hardly delivered a deathblow.

Eventually, the world will recognize that stateless groups are more powerful than nation-states because terrorists can wield weapons and mount assaults that no nationstate would dare to attempt. So far, they have limited themselves to dramatic tactical terrorism: events such as 9/11, the butchering of Russian schoolchildren, decapitations broadcast over the internet, and bombings in major cities. …

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