Technology & Terror
Techno terrorism? Chemical warfare? Be afraid, be very afraid?
It is a frightening statistic. Although the number of international terrorist attacks has declined over the last twenty years, the number of people injured or killed by the acts that did take place has soared. This trend was apparent even before the events of September 11th. It represents an inexorable global threat. Is something making terrorist attacks more 'effective'? Could that something be the spread of sophisticated technology? In general, the answer appears to be no. Most attacks still use conventional weapons. Even the devastation in New York and Washington was caused not by employing high technology but with a chilling ruthlessness and determination. The American attacks were less technologically sophisticated than the construction of a car bomb. The brutal truth is that technology cannot be blamed here. It is basic human nature that is at fault this time.
The increase in casualties is the result of different working methodologies and motivations by terrorist groups. Whereas terrorists once sought to draw attention to themselves and their demands, many of the worst atrocities these days are accompanied by silence. No one claims responsibility, leaving a gulf of shock and confusion. The tactic seems designed to enrage the attacked nation and provoke them into panicky, sometimes poorly directed, retaliatory action that can only result in an escalation of the crisis if they strike the wrong target.
From this perspective, it seems clear that the goal of today's mass terrorism is to ignite war. That is exactly what the attacks of September 11th have achieved. The only area where technology is thought to play its part is in the realm of communications. Many of today's largest, most threatening organisations are decentralised. Spread across many countries, communications between the various cells is of prime importance. Reliance on technology may actually be a terrorist organisation's Achilles' heel. It certainly was in the case of Osama bin Laden. He once used satellite telephones to communicate. US technological supremacy allowed them to keep tabs on him by monitoring his calls. However, a careless statement at a press conference, revealed this fact to the world. Needless to say, bin Laden no longer uses satellite phones. There has been a lot of speculation about whether the terrorists use the Internet and email, especially since encryption routines are practically unbreakable. Could it be that the same software, which keeps your credit card details safe when you are shopping on-line, also allowed the terrorists to coordinate the September attacks? As yet, the answer is unclear. American intelligence suggests that international terrorist groups target large organisations and companies, then slowly infiltrate them. This allows them to make use of the organisation's communications and logistical links, whilst providing the individuals with cover. The worst part is that those organisations dealing in humanitarian work could be the number one target for infiltration, as they tend to have the widest access across country borders.
This is another indication of the increasing sophistication of these groups. It fuels the fear that terrorists are aiming to develop technological means of mass destruction. This is a logical, even obvious, goal of such groups since their modus operandi is to kill as many people as possible. The agents people find most frightening are the ones known as CBRN materials: chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear.
Currently, there is a misconception that the United States has never been the victim of such an attack. In fact, in September 1984, 1,000 people in the town of The Dalles, Oregon reported the symptoms of salmonella poisoning. The town's population was only 10,000. So, 1 in 10 people were affected. Thankfully no one died. The perpetrators finally confessed to their responsibility a year later, shortly after leaving the country. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was the founder of a cult that had set up a 4,000-strong settlement close to The Dalles. When the town's authorities blocked a proposed expansion of his settlement, some of the members sprayed the salmonella around downtown salad bars.
Investigations subsequently discovered evidence that the cult had been developing other biological and chemical weapons. The Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway are another case in point. It matters not that these attacks took place in Japan by disaffected locals. The point is the technology is being developed. Reassuring platitudes from 'experts', who smugly pontificate about how difficult it is to build and deliver biological weapons are a sickeningly academic version of the 'can't happen here' attitude. Such attacks have and will continue to take place if nothing changes to undermine the reasons for such terrorism. Perhaps the fanatical beliefs that drive people to terrorism can never be addressed. In which case, some new kind of attempted CBRN terrorist attack is a certainty.
The immediate reaction would appear to be that the only way to combat terrorism is to develop greater and more powerful surveillance technology. That is only a short-term fix, part answer at best. At worst, it is a supremely naïve view. Perhaps developing more inclusive foreign policies is the real answer but then again, how can you reconcile yourself with regimes which practise what you consider to be a fundamental disregard for human rights? There are much larger issues at play here than good guys and bad guys. We do not live in a simplistic binary world of black and white. Technology is neither our enemy nor our route to salvation. Whilst those who have committed terrorist atrocities must be brought to justice, those attacked must also question why they were targeted in the first place.
In these new days of terrorism without explicit political demands, such introspection should not be seen as appeasement of the terrorists, but as a fundamental pillar of defence against future attacks.