The Threat of Terrorism Naturally Grows

A Real War on Terrorism

The Threat of Terrorism Naturally Grows
Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 4 2002 10:00 AM

A Real War on Terrorism


This is the second of a nine-part series on how America should fight its war on terrorism.


Yesterday, in my introduction to this series, I vowed to defend Proposition No. 1: Al-Qaida and radical Islam are not the problem. OK, now that I've got your attention: Obviously, they are a problem, and a big one. We'll have to find a way to neutralize the specific threat they pose—and in the coming days, I'll spend lots of time on the roots of Muslim rage, the structure of Islamist terrorism, and so on. Still, if we're going to treat the war on terrorism as the long-term struggle that it is, we have to first understand that the threat posed by radical Islam is just a wave that signifies a deeper, even more menacing current.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

The current, driven by technological change, is described by Proposition No. 2: For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people. They won't have to claim that they speak on behalf of a whole religion. They'll just have to be reasonably intelligent, modestly well-funded, and really pissed off. It may be hard to imagine a few radical environmentalists, or Montana militiamen, or French anti-globalization activists, or Basque separatists, or Unabomber-style Luddites, killing 100,000 people. Yet what makes this plausible is exactly what makes radical Islam such a formidable long-term threat: two enduring aspects of the evolution of technology.

First, there is the much-discussed growing accessibility of massively lethal munitions—in particular, nuclear weapons and biological weapons. (Chemical weapons, though called a "weapon of mass destruction," really aren't. They're horrible, yes; but a chemical attack by a dozen terrorists can't kill hundreds of thousands of people, as the nuclear or biological equivalent can.)

Of the two, biological weapons are in a sense spookier because the threat is so deeply ingrained in commercial progress. The things it takes to make biological weapons—fermenters, centrifuges, and the like—are in buildings you drive by routinely: hospitals, universities, pharmaceutical plants. Every year they grow in number, along with the number of people who know how to use them. And, as if it weren't scary enough that these things are essentially unregulated, the march of progress keeps creating new regulatory challenges. In Julyscientists announced they'd created a polio virus using mail-order DNA and a recipe available on the Internet. Hmmm ... maybe someone in the government should look into this mail-order DNA business!

If last fall's anthrax attacks were indeed, as some speculated, perpetrated by an American  trying to sound a useful alarm, he/she chose a lousy germ for the job. Anthrax, though scary, is a pale harbinger of impending bio-disaster. It isn't contagious, so it's basically the equivalent of a time-release chemical weapon. Smallpox, Ebola—not to mention as-yet-unknown designer plagues—could kill millions, even tens of millions.

I could go on about the various advances that are making massively lethal attacks a layperson's sport, ranging from the already available poor man's cruise missile to the nanotechnology in Bill Joy's fevered-but-not-entirely-crazy nightmare. But the basic problem is widely recognized—Thomas Friedman called it the "superempowered angry man" in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree—even if its magnitude is underestimated and a solution to it remains unarticulated.

The second technological force behind Proposition 1 is less widely understood: the diverse threat posed by information technology. For starters, there is the obvious value of infotech in orchestrating a terrorist attack, both in the planning and execution phases. (Mohamed Atta, while awaiting takeoff on American Airlines Flight 11, used a cell phone to keep in touch with his troops.) Less obvious but more important, there is the use of ever-cheaper, ever-more-powerful information technologies to mobilize constituencies.

One example is Osama Bin Laden's recruiting videos—deftly edited, complete with special effects—to maximize emotional impact. Twenty years ago, before cheap desktop editing, making such films was beyond the capacity of a rag-tag terrorist group—and, anyway, distributing them was hopeless since almost nobody had VCRs. Twenty years from now, distributing them will be much cheaper and easier, thanks to the emerging broadband Internet. (If you have broadband, check out Bin Laden's videos—complete with expert commentary—at Try to imagine yourself as an alienated Saudi or Palestinian teenager, looking for a way to channel your discontent, as you watch the powerful images of starving Iraqi babies and of a Palestinian woman being manhandled by Israeli troops.)

This high-tech mobilization of radical constituencies needn't be centrally orchestrated. Since 9/11, American pundits have griped about the propaganda issuing from TV channels run by Arab governments. But take a look at the free market at work: The new, unregulated satellite TV channels—notably Al Jazeera, founded in 1996—haven't exactly been a sedative for irate Muslims. The uncomfortable fact is that a free press often fuels antagonisms because people choose channels that bolster their biases. (Which is the most popular American cable news channel? The most ideological one—Fox.) Increasingly, "tribes"—interest groups of any kind, including radical ones—will be, in effect, self-organizing. 

All of this applies to all potentially violent interest groups. Those paranoid-nationalist videotapes full of fiery Waco imagery have already instilled fear and loathing in some Americans, but the efficiency with which they reach vulnerable minds will grow as the Internet goes broadband. So, too, for the sermons of radical environmentalists or rabid animal-rights activists. All are becoming more powerful by virtue of information technology. The sudden emergence of anti-globalization demonstrators wasn't due to the sudden emergence of globalization—which, actually, hadn't emerged all that suddenly. It was due largely to the Internet, the medium by which demonstrations are cheaply publicized and organized.

True, we haven't seen much lethal terrorism from these mainly Western, well-educated groups. Then again, the fact that they're Western and well-educated means that a small number of them could turn very lethal very easily. (Remember Timothy McVeigh?) So, whatever the conversion factor by which highly hateful Muslim adolescents become terrorists—one in 10,000; one in 100,000—the conversion factor for these Western groups is scarier. (Suicidal terrorism, the thing that has made Islamic doctrine so distinctively frightening, will be less and less a prerequisite for massive atrocity as time goes on and munitions technology evolves.)

Again, the point isn't to minimize radical Islam, which is probably the biggest single threat to American security of the next decade, if not longer. But as we address that threat on its own terms, we should be building a policy framework that will apply to the larger, more generic threat as well. This is especially true in light of the fact that the current phase of rapid change—info revolution, globalization, etc.—is hardly over, and periods of rapid change tend to spawn intensely aggrieved groups. Indeed, this point is important enough to deserve official proposition status. Proposition No. 3: The number of intensely aggrieved groups will almost certainly grow in the coming decades of rapid technological, and hence social, change.

Propositions 2 and 3 together give us our first italicized policy principle: Prescription No. 1: Take your bitter medicine early. Often in the course of human events—or in the course of just living your life—you can either bite the bullet now or bite it later. In the stock market, for example, America enjoyed a wild ride in the 1990s and is now paying the price; alternatively, it could have shown more discipline and circumspection then and enjoyed more stable prosperity now. Who's to say which is better? Not me. But in the case of terrorism, I have a decided preference because in 10 or 20 years, terrorism will have much more lethal potential than it has now. So, if there are burdens we can bear now—in money, even in lives—that will dampen future terrorism, they're probably worth it.

This is a crucial principle, for the menu of policy options in the war on terrorism is loaded with short-term/long-term trade-offs. And democracy—like most other human systems of decision-making—is naturally biased toward short-term gratification.

I'm not saying, by the way, that the growing lethality of terrorism is a universal constant, immune to human influence. There are things we can do to cut access to munitions—in fact, we'll have to do some things that are beyond the imagining of the Bush administration, a point I'll address by the end of this series. But, even if these things are quite successful, scenarios of horrific death and destruction will still be more plausible in 20 years than now.

We'll get to the first of our short-term/long-term policy trade-offs later this week. But I want to close this installment by addressing an obvious question: Who cares whether a channel like Al Jazeera helps Bin Laden "mobilize his constituency"—if, after all, it takes just a handful of al-Qaida staffers to set off a nuclear bomb? So long as 19 hijackers will get the job done, why does it matter whether al-Qaida has a thousand supporters or a hundred million? It matters for several reasons, chief among them the fact that today's angry adolescents are tomorrow's terrorists. Sure, only one in 10,000, or in 100,000, of these adolescents stays angry enough to become a true terrorist, especially a suicidal one—and of that subset, only a fraction is smart, well-educated, and disciplined, and thus as dangerous as a Mohamed Atta. But it doesn't take many Mohamed Attas to markedly lower the planet's quality of life. So, keeping hundreds of thousands of adolescents from getting hateful today could save hundreds of thousands of Americans 10 or 20 years from now.

Besides, it isn't just a question of terrorist "recruits." Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, who went on a shooting spree in the Los Angeles airport on July 4, had never been to an al-Qaida training camp. But he had in some sense been tuned in to al-Qaida's wavelength, imbibing the same resentments and hatreds as al-Qaida recruits. As time goes by, and the Internet goes broadband, and satellite channels keep proliferating, wavelengths of this sort will get more powerfully enthralling.

That there was only one anti-American terrorist evident on a holiday that America-haters would love to ruin tells us that hatred, and its expression, remain at low enough levels that there's still time to salvage a reasonably peaceful future. (On July 5, the stock market breathed a sigh of relief.) At the same time, July 4 was a warning about the price of American inaction. It wouldn't take many Hadayets—walking into an airport and killing a few people before being killed—to have a major effect on American travel habits.

All of this points to Proposition No. 4: The amount of discontent in the world is becoming a highly significant national-security variable. I'll elaborate on this, and on the watershed in foreign policy it portends, tomorrow.

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