Whether or not Islamist terrorists prove capable of executing another attack on the United States on the scale of the strikes of September 11, 2001, we would be foolish to assume they can’t. The desire remains, while the bloodlust and the passion have only intensified. The willingness to sacrifice their lives to do us harm is indisputable. We are more vigilant and—somewhat—less willfully naïve, and grand attacks on the homeland are harder to stage today, but the price of deterrence is high in economic costs, resources, and diverted energies. Even failed attacks trigger expensive, long-term responses.
Whichever side we may judge as winning the violent confrontation, the terrorists continue to score impressive economic victories. One largely ignored cause of our economic doldrums has been the diversion of funds, public and private, to security since 9/11. Security costs are dead weight on an economy, money diverted irrecoverably from wealth-generating endeavors. Even when we don’t bleed red, we’re bleeding green.
We have immense reserves of physical and financial power, but the Islamists have strength of will, clarity of purpose, and rigor that dwarf our own. In a contest of raw power, we would win (were crippling restrictions on how we fight rescinded), but in the contest of wills—already under way—we have been thrust onto the strategic and moral defensive (and further into deficit spending).
In another sphere in which we logically should dominate, that of innovation, we’re also losing badly. If there is any single factor that should alarm us, it is the ferocious brilliance of our enemies. They use our laws, our technologies, our customs, even our freedoms against us. They work cheap, operating with the austerity of the guerrilla, but with global reach. We must defend everywhere. They can attack anywhere.
ISIS, in particular, has built a global brand—the Apple or Starbucks of terror—with a loose and successful franchising policy, corporate “best practices,” and a “flat” management that encourages initiative. Our counter-terror efforts, by contrast, are ponderously bureaucratic, with multiple levels of approval required for even mundane operations and a stultifying degree of politicization. And we still refuse to grapple with the religious nature of the threat—because religion, which our elite intellectually dismisses, terrifies intellectuals viscerally.
But how might Islamist terrorists take advantage of our (often self-inflicted) vulnerabilities to inflict another “big one” on us? While it is unlikely, thanks to new security measures, that we shall ever again see a dazzling aerial ballet of the sort we witnessed on 9/11, we may see even-greater levels of physical destruction or loss of life.
Look to the electronic realm, above all, as an axis of advance for post-modern terrorists. Islamist fanatics have proven adept at using the internet for propaganda, intelligence, and command and control. It’s only common sense to expect them to weaponize it. We cannot foresee precisely how they might act, but their goals would be to kill in large numbers and/or wreak widespread physical destruction, creating costly, if not debilitating, havoc.
But short of mighty attacks that achieve one or all of those goals, attacks on common devices and networks will appeal to our enemies. For a pampered, entitled, and much-indulged society, inconvenience assumes the proportions of tragedy. Which young American wouldn’t panic at the prolonged inability to share selfies with Facebook friends? And, of course, our media amplify the effects of even minor terror events on the national psyche.
For traditional targets, look first to our electrical system, which is already vulnerable to weather effects (the folly of not burying power lines will get us, one way or another) and could prove hyper-vulnerable to sophisticated cyber-attacks. And never believe the “expert” who says it can’t be done. None of us credited Islamist terrorists with the sophistication (and patience) required to bring off the 9/11 attacks. The hoary military dictum applies: Never underestimate your enemy.
Dams, waterways, telecommunications, data bases, the financial system…when imagining the scope of what terrorist cyber-warriors might achieve, bear in mind how readily a single terrorist, crudely equipped, repeatedly has been able to paralyze cities for hours, from Marseilles to Munich, and how small teams have shut down major cities for days, from Mumbai to Paris. The human and economic costs with which we have grown familiar may give way to unexpected infrastructure costs sufficient to drive the economy back into recession.
Again, large-scale attacks against the United States are more challenging for the terrorists today. From tightened visa regimes to a range of routine security checks, we’ve erected additional obstacles. But that only means that the terrorists must return to even stricter traditional cellular organization to stage a major operation, the management of multiple small units unaware of the others and informed only about their own narrow task—one task of many that would sum to a major strike. And we’ve already seen that our enemies understand the need for redundancy, for attackers who can replace failed attackers, for cut-outs and monitors. Arguably, the terrorists are better organized to achieve their goals than our security forces are to defeat them.
But while we await another epochal terrorist maneuver, we may be missing the impact of the ongoing war of attrition waged by Islamists. In Europe and the USA, they have inflicted casualties impressively disproportionate to their own losses (or costs). When does a succession of small-to-medium attacks achieve the cumulative effect of one spectacular event? The question is immediately relevant, if we consider how little 9/11 affected European societies (outside of airports), while the parade of smaller, if gruesome, attacks over the past few years has stricken governments, upset electorates, and altered the “structures of everyday life.”
The terrorists continue to change our lives, while we struggle, hopelessly and ineptly, to change their minds. We await the big attack and fail to measure terror’s ongoing success.