Terrorism: How Vulnerable is the United States?

From Terrorism: National Security Policy and the Home Front,

Edited by Stephen Pelletiere, published by

The Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, May 1995.


If there is a “fog of war,” there is probably a more dense “smog of terrorism,” for the small nature of terrorist groups, their close interpersonal communications, and their predilection for soft targets of opportunity make it difficult to predict their future operations. Counterterrorism analysts must therefore peer through a very cloudy crystal ball when assessing the intentions, capabilities, and targets of existing and future terrorist groups. Life would be easier if, as when assessing a conventional army, analysts could pour over communications intercepts to discern orders of battle and make predictions based on the enemy’s known doctrine and strategy.

The problem of penetrating the “smog of terrorism” is further exacerbated by the fact that it is difficult to infiltrate terrorist cells to acquire the tactical information needed to prevent, or at least to mitigate, a potential threat or actual incident. The most sophisticated capabilities in the arsenal of technical intelligence are no substitutes for the HUMINT (human intelligence) capabilities that are needed to gather information on terrorists. The problem of predictive analysis is further complicated by the fact that even if terrorist organizations have an encompassing ideology—or what is at best a proto-strategy—it tends to be rather general in nature and directed at establishing a broad declaration on revolutionary action that may not provide a clear plan for action that can enable the analyst to have a foundation for assessing future terrorist operations.

Furthermore, predictive capabilities are challenged by the tact that there is a whole range of potential new terrorist weapons and associated scenarios for destruction that create major problems for those responsible for identifying a new generation of terrorist threats. There are those in the field who sometimes long for the “good old days” when a “terror network” guided by Moscow could be blamed for bombings, hostage-taking, skyjacking and other forms of mayhem.

Given these conditions, one faces an onerous task in attempting to assess how vulnerable the United States is to future threats and acts of terrorism. Nevertheless, such an assessment can prove useful if it can assist the analyst and those responsible for countering terrorism to look beyond the immediate threats or the latest incident. In their contingency driven, highly pressurized environment, analysts must concentrate on the collection and analysis of what is primarily tactical, combat or operational intelligence. They often lack the time to deal with strategic threats, to veer from the current requirements for narrowly focused, tactical intelligence.

What follows is a brief overview of the terrorist threat to the United States based on the application of strategic intelligence. This form of intelligence has a broader application than either operational or tactical intelligence, forms of information analysis dealing with immediate threats. Strategic intelligence integrates politics, social studies, and the study of technology. It is designed to provide officials with long-range forecasts of what is important rather than what is urgent.[1]


The analytical framework employed in this chapter will consist of the following components. The author will attempt to identify major changes in the international environment. He will then discuss how these changes create new terrorist threats in the United States. The author will then focus on probable technological/operational changes among terrorist groups. Finally, changes in terrorist motivations and goals will be examined. All of these components will then be analyzed in a strategic context to assess potential terrorist targets, operations, and resulting vulnerabilities within the United States.


Even though it probably never fully existed, the artificial superficial equilibrium imposed by the Cold War has been destroyed. Within the former republics of the defunct Soviet Union the order imposed by Moscow on ethnic and nationalist movements has given way to separatists’ demands often accompanied by political violence including terrorism, various forms of low intensity conflict, rapidly growing organized crime, and civil war. The instability has spilled over into Eastern Europe where the former satellites are attempting to cope with the uncertainties of democratization.

Additionally, now that Moscow and Washington are no longer inclined to use regional surrogates as a way of avoiding direct confrontation, a number of regional powers are emerging. Neither Moscow nor Washington have either the inclination or the influence needed to constrain many of these regional would-be superpowers. Iran is a case in point. Countries like Iran, Syria and Libya use terrorism as a form of diplomacy and as an adjunct to their foreign policies.[2] To these states, terrorism is as integral a part of their diplomacy as the exchange of ambassadors. Smaller states can easily emulate their example.

In this era of what should be called a “new world disorder” the breakdown of central authority and the domination of the existing state system has been under assault from a number of quarters. First, the legitimacy of many states has been challenged by the growing assertion of both sub-national and transnational calls for “self-determination” by ethnic groups and religious movements that deny the legitimacy of what they perceive to be a discredited international order. Despite the optimism of the past, primordial loyalties have not withered away in the face of technology, democracy, and the introduction of free market economies. Indeed, many groups and movements have fed upon a reaction to what is sometimes viewed as the secular immorality of the West. Tribal loyalties on a sub-national level share the rejection of secular mass societies with fundamentalist movements. Some of these movements seem to offer the chimera of psychological, sociological and political security to people who are trying find their place in an uncertain, even threatening, world.

New and dangerous players have emerged in the international arena. The level of instability and concomitant violence is further heightened by the rise to international political significance of non-state actors willing to challenge the primacy of the state. Whether it be the multinational corporation or a terrorist group that targets it, both share a common characteristic. They have each rejected the state-centric system that emerged 175 years ago at the Congress of Vienna.

All of these factors have accelerated the erosion of the monopoly of the coercive power of the state as the disintegration of the old order is intensified. And, this process will in all probability gain even greater momentum because of the wide ranging and growing activities of criminal enterprises. These include everything from arms traders and drug cartels, which will provide and use existing and new weapons in terrorist campaigns as a part of their pursuit of profit and political power.

In sum, present and future terrorists and their supporters are acquiring the capabilities and freedom of action to operate in the new international jungle. They move in what has been called the “gray areas,” those regions where control has shifted from legitimate governments to new half-political, half-criminal powers.[3] In this environment the line between state and rogue state, and rogue state and criminal enterprise, will be increasingly blurred. Each will seek out new and profitable targets through terrorism in an international order that is already under assault.


The remarkable changes in the international environment have been accompanied by technological changes that may have serious ramifications as regards future terrorist operations both internationally and in the United States. Up to now, terrorists have not been especially innovative in their tactics. Bombing, although not on the intended magnitude of that at the Oklahoma City Federal Building, remains the most common type of attack. Hostage taking and kidnapping are fundamental to the terrorist repertoire and skyjacking is always a possibility. Automatic and semi-automatic rifles and pistols remain the weapons of choice.

However, the employment of stand-off weapons like American Stinger and Russian SA-7 hand-held anti-aircraft missiles, the U.S. Army M-72 light anti-tank weapon (LAW), and the Russian-built RPG-7 anti-tank weapon may be more readily available to terrorists than many like to believe. The same may be said of terrorist bombing technologies. Dynamite has been replaced by the more destructive and easily concealed Semtex. Furthermore, the threat has grown as a result of increased technological sophistication of timing devices and fuses. But weapons need not be sophisticated to be destructive. One only has to consider what might have happened if the pilot of the lone single-engine light aircraft which crashed into the White House had filled his plane with something as simple as a fertilizer bomb. That incident, even if it was not a terrorist act, should serve as a warning for those who are concerned with more advanced technological threats. They should remember that smaller and more conventional instruments of destruction are still quite lethal and can have a profound affect on the targeted individual, corporation, government or what is often the ultimate target: public opinion.

A growing concern is that terrorists will cross the threshold to engage in acts of mass or “super terrorism” by using atomic, biological, and chemical (ABC) weapons. So far, the international order has been spared terrorist incidents involving nuclear weapons. Indeed, those that have been reported have turned out to be elaborate hoaxes. Fortunately, the threats have yet to be translated into actual incidents, but many believe it is only a matter of time before they are.[4]

All this could easily change as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The current trade in illicit weapon’s grade plutonium serves to underscore the fact that the necessary material and attendant technology will be increasingly available for those terrorist groups who may want to exercise a nuclear option, be it in the form of a dispersal of radioactive material that could contaminate a large area or the use of a relatively small but very lethal atomic weapon. The illegal trade in weapons and technology will be further exacerbated by the very real dangers resulting from the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is good reason to fear that either a rogue state, its terrorist surrogates, or independent terrorist groups will have the capacity to go nuclear. Whether this threshold will be crossed will depend in part on the motivation, attendant strategies, and goals of present and future terrorist groups. In sum, there is every reason to be concerned that terrorists will engage in their own form of technical innovation to develop the capacity to make the nightmare of a nuclear, chemical, or biological threat move from the pages of an adventure novel to the shores of the United States.

Scenarios addressing future acts of high-tech terrorism include a wide variety of assaults on the delicate interdependent infrastructure of modern industrialized society. These scenarios move beyond the bombing or seizing of conventional or nuclear power plants to include the potentially disastrous destruction of the technological infrastructure of the information super highway. However, the scope of what constitutes a terrorist act on computers and their associated facilities is subject to interpretation. The bombing of a multinational corporation or a government’s crucial computer centers could be judged an act of terrorism, but what if a terrorist hacker placed a computer virus in a very sensitive network? The results could range from the massively inconvenient to dangerous or disastrous. Such an act, however, would lack an essential element of terrorism as it is now defined: the use or threat of the use of physical violence. Nevertheless, as the technology expands so may definitions of what constitutes a terrorist act. From the terrorist’s point of view the following dictum may apply, “so many new targets… so little time.”

Finally, if indeed terrorism is “theater” and the people are the audience, the stage is changing.[5] CNN and other networks provide the terrorists with a potential and almost instantaneous means for spreading their message of fear and intimidation. The reality of video proliferation is just as significant as that of nuclear proliferation. Some terrorist groups already have the ability to stage and videotape their acts, sending them out to either a broad or limited audience. They can even transmit live events through low power transmitter stations. Furthermore, the next generation of terrorists may produce highly imaginative presentations to seize the attention of a violence jaded public, one which has grown used to the now standard images of hooded terrorists holding hostages in embassies, prisons, or aircraft cabins. This kind of theater of the obscene will find a ready mass audience among those who watch the tabloid television shows and depend on the National Enquirer for their news.[6] Given the public’s fascination with television happenings like the O.J. Simpson trial, one can only imagine what might happen if future terrorists direct and produce their own television spectaculars.


There are almost certainly going to be changes in both the motivation and goals of terrorist groups. The traditional motivations for terrorism: ethnic, tribal, and religious animosities, will continue and intensify. Even while people of goodwill struggle to find solutions to problems in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and the related turmoil in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere have engendered new groups pursuing their own varied agendas through violence, including terrorism. While much of the violence is confined to the various regions, the potential for involving surrounding states and for international assaults is significant. Even in the Middle East, where the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel are moving along a tortuous road toward accommodation, various factions, willing and able to engage in non-territorial terrorism, will continue to “bring the war home” to Israel and its primary supporter, the United States.

Perhaps even more ominous is the growing significance of apolitical groups which resort to terrorism in pursuit of financial gain as a part of criminal enterprises. While a number of these groups may, in part, justify their actions under the rubric of political rationalization, their major goal will relate to maximizing their profits through co-opting, corrupting, and neutralizing the authority of the states in their respective countries and regions of operations. These groups, which include narco-terrorists, are particularly difficult to counteract given their vast resources gleaned by illicit trade in drugs or weapons, and because of their ability to influence, control or demoralize governments in countries where they operate. This new criminal order can engage in operations with the kind of violence that makes the old Mafia seem pacifistic by comparison.

Finally, one might anticipate that in addition to existing extremists operating according to issue-oriented movements such as radical environmentalism, fringe elements of the pro-life movement, and extremist animal rights groups, there will emerge new groups willing to use terrorism to avenge grievances both real and imaginary. These groups, which at the outset may be small and not tied to any recognized social or political movement, may have the capability to maximize their impact through the availability of a wide variety of weapons, a rich selection of targets, and the skillful use of the media and communications technology. There will be both old and new adversaries to threaten the international order and, more specifically, U.S. interests and citizens both at home and abroad.


The following assessment is based on integrating the analytical components presented above. The focus will be on the vulnerabilities in the United States to attacks by international terrorist or domestic groups or by such groups with domestic-international linkages.

The new threat environment may see the emergence of a wide variety of sub-national and transnational groups intent on venting their frustrations with Washington for what they perceive to be a lack of support for their causes or, conversely, for supporting their adversaries. As the major military superpower, with an increased global involvement, even when engaged under the United Nations, the United States is likely to be viewed as the primary party in future disputes. Even when neutral, Washington is likely to be viewed suspiciously by one or more warring factions. In addition, when Washington moves beyond “peace keeping” to “peace enforcement”‘ operations, the likelihood of a reaction among one or more disputants is possible.

Even though the United States may not want to be the policeman or the conscience of the world, the parties in any conflict may question whether Washington is intentionally or unintentionally pursuing a political agenda that may be counter to their objective. The result might be the spillover of violence to the United States by one or more parties in the dispute. Resort to terrorism could be a punitive action or it might be an effort to dramatize a cause. As the United States tries to redefine the formulation and execution of its foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, even if Washington is motivated by the highest of ideals, i.e., democratization, humanitarian assistance, or nation-building, those who will be the objects of such efforts might resent it. Their use of terrorism on American soil is a likely response.

The potential spillover effect may be intensified by the domestic political and economic environment. The potency of ethnic-based politics, coupled with the tendentious debates over immigration policy, may provide fertile ground by which ethnic-based conflicts from overseas may be transported to the United States. Even if that is not the case, the existence of large immigrant communities may provide the “human jungle” in which external terrorist groups can operate. The emergence of a variety of issue-oriented transnational groups could also lead extremists within their respective organizations to establish linkages with like-minded individuals or groups within the United States. Such groups could undertake joint operations against American targets in an effort to dramatize their causes or seek changes in public policy. Cooperation between home-grown terrorists and their foreign counterparts cannot be understated. In an increasingly interrelated international environment, a new “terror network” might emerge with issue-oriented groups launching assaults on domestic targets.

The threat posed by fundamentalist religious groups of all faiths cannot be discounted. Not only Islamic extremists, but other “true believers” of a variety of faiths are likely to engage in terrorist acts against American targets. These groups might be supported or joined in their operations by domestic religious extremists. In addition, they might also seek alliances with a variety of cultists, survivalists, or neo-fascists who, for their own reasons, reject the existing social, economic, and political order and await their own versions of Armageddon.

Perhaps even more dangerous will be the resort to terrorism by apolitical terrorists who are engaged in violence and intimidation as a pant of criminal pursuits. Such groups have operated overseas with impunity. Inner-city America could become a fertile ground for their operations. They will be particularly threatening since, as a result of their illegal trade in drugs and other criminal enterprises, they may have access to vast funds with which to corrupt local authorities. What will make these groups especially dangerous may be the fact that their threats and acts of terrorism will not necessarily be meant to achieve publicity or to dramatize their cause.

Such groups may use terrorist tactics in extortion attempts like those used to “shake down the neighborhood'”-only these gangs may attempt to blackmail the entire city. With their vast revenues, they could acquire a formidable arsenal of weapons with which to challenge local authorities and carry out their acts of violence on a scale not yet experienced in the United States. Furthermore, it may be very difficult for our already strained criminal justice system to address the development of new criminal cartels.

The scope and magnitude of future potential terrorist organizations will be enhanced by the rapid changes in technology that will provide the next generation of terrorists with capabilities undreamed of by the most highly dedicated and skilled terrorist of today. In a sense the capture of the infamous Carlos marked the end of an era. A new generation of terrorists armed with technologically advanced weaponry will be able to engage in violence that is more dramatic and destructive than that intended in the bombing in Oklahoma City. The threat at the lower end of the spectrum is likely to grow as well. The M-16, M-10, Uzi and AK-47 assault rifles will be supplemented by stand-off weapons like Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, LAWs and RPG-7s, already available on the world weapons market. Just because a weapon is relatively unsophisticated does not mean it cannot cause massive casualties. A stinger missile aimed at a jumbo jet as it takes off or as it approaches a large metropolitan airport could cause tremendous casualties. A LAW or RPG round lobbed into the right area of a nuclear power plant could produce catastrophic consequences.

Ultimately, the most fearful and recurrent terrorist nightmare may be drawing closer to reality. The proliferation of nuclear weapons and associated technologies, and the diffusion of knowledge needed to manufacture chemical and biological weapons, raises the fearful specter of mass destruction that makes concerns related to use of anthrax as a way of spreading both disease and panic pale to insignificance. The scary truth is that the United States is all too vulnerable to this kind of attack. The porous borders that have allowed massive illegal immigration are just as open to those who want to import new instruments of mass destruction. And, because there are significant profits to be made, there are suppliers who are willing to provide the new generation of portable nuclear weapons, chemical and biological delivery systems despite Washington’s growing concern and the improving technical means to counter such threats. Furthermore, the next generation of terrorists will have the capability of effectively exploiting the highly competitive electronic and print media both to dramatize their conventional or ABC capabilities and to extort money.

Technological changes will certainly have an impact on target selection. At the outset, the availability of more sophisticated conventional explosives could enable terrorists to inflict greater damage on potential targets while lessening the risk of capture that results from having to process or transport the material. Highly symbolic targets like government buildings and corporate headquarters will be more vulnerable to attack. Major public events, like the Super Bowl or the 1996 Atlanta Olympics are also prime targets.

Despite more effective physical security and technological countermeasures it will be increasingly difficult to harden potential targets. Even if the range of the weapons is relatively short, it will be a considerable challenge to expand an anti-terrorist security zone beyond the immediate periphery of potential targets like sports facilities, government buildings, or nuclear power plants. Defense in depth will require broader protective measures.

Even of greater concern is the potential threat of such weapons to aviation security. While anti-skyjacking measures have been largely successful in the industrialized West, the possibility of the threat or the destruction of commercial aircraft cannot be dismissed. It is exceedingly difficult to expand a security zone beyond the confines of an airport. Moreover, stand-off weapons provide the opportunity for highly flexible hit and run attacks. The resulting mobility will make it very difficult to predict or take appropriate action against terrorists. Finally, as potential targets continue to be hardened in urban areas, there is no reason to believe that terrorists will not seek softer targets of opportunity either in the suburbs (corporate headquarters) or rural areas (nuclear or thermal power plants and other installations). Despite these threats, it will remain difficult to develop the necessary awareness, technology and training among those corporations outside urban areas. Too many people may not take the threat seriously enough due to an “it can’t happen here” syndrome.

Most ominous, however, is the threat issuing from mass or super-terrorism. Cities may be held hostage by threats to poison the water supply or to disseminate any number of dangerous chemical or biological agents. Such threats must also be taken seriously given the proliferation of ABC capabilities. The threat might be overt, in which case the authorities will have the onerous task of reconciling the need to take appropriate action without creating a panic. Or the threat might be covert, in which case governments will be facing a form of nuclear, chemical, or biological blackmail unknown to the public. Finally, one can anticipate that there will be more incidents of criminal terrorism directed against senior executives, public officials, and their families. The terrorists will justify such acts of hostage-taking and kidnapping on the basis of political causation, but in many cases they will be motivated by nothing more than a desire for ransom money. There is no reason to believe that criminal extortion, which has become a major industry in Mexico and throughout Central and South America, will not be emulated within the United States. In sum, the constellation of potential targets and the means to attack them will continue to expand in the coming decade.

The traditional motivation behind the resort to terrorism by various groups is sure to continue. Ethnic identification and hatred, the call to right perceived wrongs, and the demand for self-determination will continue to inspire terrorists. The ranks of the traditional terror mongers will be joined by religious extremist groups who have rejected what they view to be the excesses of Western and American secular society. These forces of reaction may come from the Middle East, but there will be the non-Islamic equivalents of the HAMAS and Hizbollah venting their anger and demanding the destruction of the “Great Satan.” These true believers, in the conduct of what they view to be a “just war,” may attack the symbols of their religious or secular rivals.

Acts such as the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires might be emulated in Washington or New York. Moreover. domestic groups acting either independently or with the support of external terrorist organizations may launch their own assaults. One need only recall how a sectarian dispute within the United States was transformed into a mass hostage taking by the Hanafi Muslims in Washington, DC in 1977. The most alarming aspect of the religious extremists is the fact that they did not necessarily constrain their actions by using terror as a weapon to coerce or to propagandize for their causes. The new true believer, armed with the certainty of faith, may not be concerned with current public opinion or a change in the policy of an adversary. To them, being killed while undertaking an act of terrorism may be a way to paradise in the next life. The image of the smiling truck bomber driving his vehicle into the Marine barracks in Beirut may be duplicated in a large urban center in the United States. And the nightmare only becomes more horrific if such a perpetrator uses a nuclear device. While one does not want to overstate the threat, the strategic thinker must be willing to “think the unthinkable” so that appropriate responses may be conceived.

The panoply of potential attacks, save for the nuclear option or other forms of super-terrorism, will probably not create a major change in U.S. foreign policy or the articulation and pursuit of U.S. strategic interests and national security objectives. However, in this new world disorder terrorism may come to the United States whenever foreign adversaries want to test Washington’s resolve in continuing its support for activities of the United Nations and friendly governments. Given the lack of coherence in the international environment and the low threshold of pain in regard to the taking of American casualties in ill-defined conflicts and the emergence of neo-isolationism, one must recognize that future acts of terrorism, if skillfully executed, might have a strategic result. The bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut changed the course of U.S. policy toward Lebanon. That kind of act could be duplicated in the United States with even more dramatic results.


As noted at the start of this chapter, it is difficult to see through the smog of terrorism to assess America’s vulnerabilities. Furthermore, it is dangerous to either understate or overstate the threat. If one minimizes the threat, little action may be taken. If one overstates it, the public and the authorities might overreact. What is needed is a realistic assessment which avoids both extremes. While recognizing that there is a threat, but not overemphasizing it, appropriate measures can be taken to lessen the likelihood of an attack. Moreover, a balanced and cautious view can assist both the public and policymakers in developing a consistent level of anti-terrorism awareness and countermeasures. Constant awareness and preparedness are fundamental to deterring terrorists. Such a prudent approach is far better than the overreaction that might occur after an incident. In the final analysis, the United States is vulnerable to the changing terrorist threat. But the threat can be met through heightened levels of awareness, resolve, counterterrorism measures, and consistent policies.[7]


1. Bruce D. Berkowitz and Allan E. Goodman, Strategic Intelligence for American National Security, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 304.

2. Stephen Sloan, “International Terrorism: Conceptual Problems and Implications,” Journal of Thought: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, Vol. 17, No.2, Summer 1982, p.23.

3. Xavier Raufer, “Gray Area: A New Security Threat,” Political Warfare: Intelligence, Active Measures and Terrorism Report, No. 20, Spring 1992, p.1.

4. For a short chronology of chemical and biological incidents, see Joseph L. Douglass, Jr. and Neil O. Livingstone, “Selected List of C/B Incidents by Terrorists and Other Nonstate Actors,” in America the Vulnerable: The Threat of Chemical and Biological Warfare. The New Shape of Terrorism and Conflict, Lexington Books, 1987, pp. 183-187.

5. Brian Jenkins, Intentional Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict, Research Paper No. 48, California Seminar on Arms Control and Foreign Policy, Crescent Publication, 1976, p.4.

6. See Stephen Sloan, “Acts of Terrorism or the Theater of the Obscene, in Simulating Terrorism, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981, pp. 19-28. This book illustrates how the techniques of improvisational theater in the form of highly realistic simulations were prepared and conducted to test the ability of police and military forces who are responsible for responding to terrorist threats.

7. Stephen Sloan, “US Anti-Terrorism Policies: Lessons to be Learned to Meet an Enduring and Changing Threat,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol.5, No. 1, Spring 1993.

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