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Terrorism and Technology sample essay

India and the United States, the world’s two largest democracies, are both vulnerable to terrorist attacks. As an Indian participant in the workshop said, “The most vulnerable states are those with open societies that tolerate dissent.” So far, India and the United States have faced rather different forms of terror attacks. Notwithstanding the terrorist threat, modern industrial societies have some offsetting advantages. Their global intelligence services and military presence, especially when they cooperate with one another, may keep the terror networks off balance, and may be able to damage some of them and interfere with their communications and money flows. Military action, or the threat of it, may discourage rogue states from supporting the terrorists.

Nevertheless, highly efficient economies also acquire vulnerabilities and reduced resilience from the private sector’s reluctance to sacrifice efficiency to reduce catastrophic risks whose likelihood is difficult to estimated One area in which both India and the United States enjoy impressive capability is research and innovation. Through the application of available or new technologies, states can make targets less vulnerable, thus less attractive. They can limit the damage that may result from an attack, increase the speed of recovery, and provide forensic tools to identify the perpetrators. However, terrorist networks are led by well-educated and well-financed people who may also enjoy advanced technical skills.

If supported by a government whose military establishment has developed weapons of mass destruction, these skills may be greatly amplified. Any technical strategy for responding to the threat of catastrophic terrorism must address this fact.

•fissile nuclear materials, tactical nuclear weapons, and radiological materials
•pathological organisms (human, plant, and animal)
•military-type toxic chemical weapons
•inflammable, toxic, and explosive chemicals and materials in industrial use
•cyberattacks and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks on electronic targets (telecoms, data, or command and control centers)
•transportation systems used as delivery systems for weapons
•explosives, either conventional or derived from fuel oil and nitrogen fertilizer (ammonium nitrate), for example Benefits-
•revitalization of the public health service for serving the normal health needs of communities
•technical capability to respond even faster and more effectively to natural biological threats such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, and monkey pox virus
•reduction in the number of illnesses caused by infection or poisoning of the food supply
•more reliable electric power and other services, especially in the face of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes
•further improvements in the safety standards of the chemical industry
•reduced incidence of cyber attacks by hackers and financial systems made more secure against theft and malicious damage •more efficient and timely tracking of goods in transit and billing for their content
•reduced risk to fire, police, and emergency health professionals


Nuclear and Radiological Threats

If terrorists with a minimal level of scientific knowledge can acquire enough highly enriched uranium (HEU), they may be able to assemble an inefficient but effective nuclear weapon for detonation in a major city. The countries are now cooperating in safeguarding fissile material and blending down stocks of HEU, but progress is far too slow. Even more dangerous is the possible availability to terrorists of finished nuclear weapons either stolen and sold from nuclear states or provided by rogue states capable of making them. The public must be educated on the nature of radiological threats, both from Radiation Dispersal Devices (dirty bombs) and from damaged nuclear electric power plants and radioactive waste storage. Public ignorance about radiation hazards may induce a level of panic much more destructive than the radiation from which people may be fleeing..

Biological Threats to People and Their Food Supply

Research on pathogenesis of infectious agents, and particularly on means for early detection of the presence of such pathogens before their symptomatic appearance, is important. Nations will stockpile vaccines against known diseases, but the threat of genetic modification—while perhaps beyond the capability of most terrorists but not of rogue states—requires a vigorous research effort to find solutions for detection, evaluation, and response. In the United States the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a robust capability in epidemiology, but there is no equivalent epidemiological response capability for possible biological attacks on agriculture and farm animals. Thus, measures to protect the food supply, and to provide decontamination after an attack, must have high priority.

Toxic Chemicals, Explosives, and Flammable Materials

. Dangerous chemicals in transit should be tracked and identified electronically. To ensure that only first responders, and not terrorists, know what the tank cars contain, the rail cars should be equipped with encrypted electronic identification. Sensor networks are required to detect and characterize dangerous materials, particularly when they are airborne. Self-analyzing filter systems for modern office buildings whose windows cannot be opened can not only protect the inhabitants but also detect and report the first presence of materials (such as aerosols) that may be trapped in improved filters. An example of long-range, basic research that could be highly beneficial would be the discovery of olfactory biosensors than can reach dog levels of sensitivity, some 10,000 times that of humans.

Communications and Information Systems

In the United States the most urgent issue is to reconfigure first responder communications so that police, fire, and medical personnel can communicate with one another and with the emergency operations centers. Inability to do so greatly aggravated loss of life, especially among firefighters, in the World Trade Center attacks. The main worry about cyber attacks is the possibility of their use, perhaps with electromagnetic pulse devices as well, to amplify the destructive effect of a conventional physical or biological attack.13 Cyber security is one of the top priority areas for research investment because private industry was, before September 11, 2001, largely content with the level of computer and network security available to it. A quite inadequate level of sophisticated talent is devoted to the goal of fully secure operating systems and networks.

Transportation and Borders

Sensor networks for inspection of goods and passengers crossing the nation’s borders will be a research priority. The primary technical challenge will not be the design of sensors themselves, although much progress is needed in this area, but in the systems engineering of the networks of sensors together with data fusion and decision support software. Biometrics for more secure identification of individuals shows promise, and systems superior to the driver’s licenses and passports used by most travelers are promising. The range of threats to the transportation networks of a modern state is very great, and careful systems analysis is essential to identifying the weak points and finding the most effective and economical means of protecting them.

Cities and Fixed Infrastructure

The Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) in many large U.S. cities are quite vulnerable, not only to a destructive physical attack but to more indirect attacks on their ability to access data and to communicate through a cyber attack or electromagnetic pulse attack. Remedying these vulnerabilities must have high urgency; in many cases the centers will have to be relocated. Tragically, the EOC in New York City was located in a known target, the World Trade Center. Much research is already under way to analyze the structural characteristics of high-rise buildings that may make them much more vulnerable than necessary. Without waiting for this research to result in revised building codes, the expert panel recommended immediate adoption and extension, where appropriate, of European standards for fire and blast, which were much improved following World War II. As already noted, air intakes for large buildings need to be less accessible and equipped with better air filters, perhaps with chemical analysis sufficient to determine if a toxic material is present.

Instrumentation to allow first responders to detect toxic and hazardous materials; special provisions for protecting harbors, bridges, dams, tunnels, and dikes; and protection against attacks on urban water supplies downstream from the treatment plant are all discussed in Making the Nation Safer. How much of the long term, imaginative research and development envisioned in Making the Nation Safer has been undertaken by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)? Not enough. The Science and Technology Directorate of DHS does not have the scope of authority, nor the length of vision that the Academies’ study urged on Congress. Critics say that it has been difficult for DHS to sustain an expert staff with low enough turn over to build and execute the needed technical strategies. Nor has the Homeland Security Institute been given the necessary scope of independent system-level review of the DHS technical priorities.


the public can also be an attack amplifier. The government faces a number of dilemmas, such as using a color-coded warning system to alert the public to the perceived likelihood of additional terrorist attacks. Some citizens feel that this system itself may needlessly amplify the threat, thus doing terrorists’ psychological job for them. An urgent issue to be addressed is for government to train and introduce to the public, well in advance of any attack, a number of trusted and knowledgeable people who are prepared to provide accurate and trustworthy information quickly and authoritatively.


From the great variety of threats studied by the National Academies’ experts, several commonsense conclusions about technical strategy can be extracted: •repair the weakest links (single-point failures) in vulnerable systems and infrastructures •use defenses-in-depth (do not rely only on perimeter defenses or firewalls) •use “circuit breakers” to isolate and stabilize failing system elements •build security and flexibility into basic system designs where possible •design systems for use by typical first responders

•Focus priority attention on the “system of systems” technical challenge to understand and remedy the inherent weaknesses in critical infrastructure that are inherent in their architecture. •Ensure that first responders, including technical teams from critical infrastructure service industries, are properly trained and equipped, and the targets themselves are designed to be more resilient in the face of disaster. •Emphasize the importance of flexibility and agility in responding to disasters that were not anticipated in the system design and personnel training. The last point is particularly important. Future attacks are likely to involve multiple complex systems. There are a number of dimensions to the systems engineering challenge of homeland security. The multiple critical industrial infrastructures are closely coupled.

Almost all of the responses to terrorist threats require the concerned action of national agencies, state and local authorities, private companies, and in many cases, friendly nations. The technologies used in counterterrorism will themselves be coupled, complex systems. An evident example is the notion of complex networks of sensors that are coupled to databases, within which the network output is fused with other information, and from which sensible and useable information for local officials in Emergency Operations Centers must be provided. Thus, setting priorities requires modeling and simulating attack and response, and “red teaming” to test the effectiveness of proposed solutions.

Finally, there is a need to build up investments in the social sciences, which will be especially important in devising strategies for countering terrorism. Both the roots of terrorism and its consequences need to be better understood. Social science can also contribute to a sustainable effort, involving multiple levels of government, with minimal economic cost, and where the perceived conflict between security activities and protection of individual freedom can best be informed and adjudicated.


Because major terrorist attacks against civil populations may be separated by considerable intervals of time, there is reason to be concerned that the public will lose interest in the threat, and that none of the organizational or investment needs will be satisfactorily met. For these reasons, the strategy for maximizing civil benefits deserves high-priority attention. There are many obvious examples of how counter terror research and development can create values appreciated by the public and of economic value to firms, such as creation of a more agile vaccine development and production capability, information and communications networks that are more resistant to cyber attack, energy systems more robust in the face of natural disasters and human error, security technologies that are more effective yet more unobtrusive and convenient for the public.

Sustainability will be a challenge for those in political power in the United States, for they find themselves compelled to emphasize the public’s vulnerability (for example, with the color-coded alert system, which is largely successful in making the public nervous) and at the same time to emphasize that the government’s efforts “have the terrorists on the run.” Indeed, we can easily imagine that terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda may deliberately wait long intervals between attacks to decrease the alertness of the target’s defenses.


There are seven major points that I would conclude from this discussion. First, only a far-sighted foreign policy, addressing the roots of terrorism and denying terrorist ideologies a foothold in other societies, can make the United States and its allies safer in the long run. Second, weapons of mass destruction are potentially devastating, but the most probable threats will be fashioned from the economy itself, as was the case on September 11, 2001. Private property and commercial industry is most often the target of terrorist attacks, and may be providing the weapons for their own destruction. Thus, the federal government must devise both positive and negative incentives for private investments in hardening critical infrastructure and urban targets. Third, the protection of critical infrastructure must, to the extent possible, be accomplished through a civilian benefits maximization strategy.

Fourth, reducing vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure is a highly complex systems problem; it requires a strategy tested by the most modern systems analytic approaches. Fifth, since most of the science and technology capability of market economy governments lies outside the security agencies, governments must be able to coordinate and fund a national science and technology strategy. Sixth, a degree of cooperation between industry, cities, and government unknown in prior experience is required. In particular, local authorities must have an effective voice in setting the technical agenda for equipment for which they are the customer. Finally, for the protection against terrorism to be sustainable, more than a civilian benefits maximization strategy is required. The negative effects on civil freedoms from increased authority in the central government must be resisted, since the threat of terrorist attack is indefinite and emergency measures may never be relaxed.

Now, let us examine security. First, although science and technology will not solve all problems related to terrorism against the components making up a modern regional or national infrastructure, it can help in prevention, mitigation, and restoration if an attack or attacks are attempted or carried out. In other words, science and technology will help to reduce the threat of terrorism, but it cannot eliminate it. Unfortunately, terrorism has become a fact of life. Whenever there are dissatisfied people who are willing to give up their own lives or do not value human life, it will be difficult to eliminate the threat of terrorist attacks. A specific point where science and technology can help is in the area of intelligence, by providing information about the potential for an act of terrorism to be conducted. For example, what is being done to sort through open-air communications—both e-mail and voice wireless—is rather startling both in quantity and in degree of sophistication.

There are programs, such as Trailblazer at the National Security Agency, that look for keywords and matches. Some of the recent terrorism alerts have been based on information gathered through these programs. There is another aspect that inexorably links infrastructure and security. The more sophisticated, complicated, or technologically evolved the infrastructure, that is, the more fragile it is, the more difficult it is to secure against terrorism and the greater theneed for science and technology solutions. The latter was the particular challenge that we were confronted with at the National Academies in producing the report entitled Making the Nation Safer.50 What can and should be done incrementally as society becomes more and more complex, sophisticated, and interdependent? How do you establish layers of protection because of increased vulnerability? First, communication and coordination is required. When the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, the New York City Response Center was in the World Trade Center.

So the ability of the fire and police departments within New York City to respond was hampered severely because there was no way to centralize and coordinate the actions of the first responders. The lesson to be learned is that redundant response centers are needed for just this sort of contingency. The lack of communication was another lesson coming from the World Trade Center disaster. There is a definite need to have common systems that will allow all parties to communicate seamlessly Regarding building structures, another lesson can be drawn from the attack on the Pentagon. The Pentagon was hit exactly at the point between a newly restored portion of the Pentagon and the old Pentagon. While there was damage to the newly restored section, there was no structural failure to that part of the building. The walls absorbed the energy of the crash. In contrast, the old Pentagon suffered severe damage.

Its walls collapsed. Most of the loss of life was in the old part of the Pentagon. The lesson here is to incorporate blast-resistant designs and materials into high-profile buildings For cities, one of the areas that is most in need of immediate attention is the ability to respond to catastrophic events. There is a need for simulation models, improved communications, and associated training. There is also a need to conduct systems analyses of responses to events in both space and time. For transportation systems, there is an immediate need for intelligent “information agents” for cargo. These agents would include a combination of global positioning systems and sensors to detect intruders and, possibly, the presence of certain materials as well as shipping documents detailing the contents. Such agents would be installed on every freight car in a rail system, every container on a ship, and every container transported by truck.

Thus, one could monitor at every point in time exactly where each container or rail car is, what it contains, its destination, and whether there has been any attempt to tamper with or enter it. The various pieces of the so-called intelligent agent exist today and have been used on a limited basis. Efforts are under way to marry these various components into the type of agent I have described. Cargo scanning technology is complementary to the intelligent agents. While cargo scanners do exist, there is a need to integrate various components into a “one-stop shop” to monitor for specific items or radioactivity. The scanning equipment should be located at the point of embarkation of the container to prevent lethal weapons from reaching their intended destination.

What good would it be to identify a nuclear weapon in a container as you offload it in New York Harbor?53 Transportation technology needs to extend beyond the cargo. There is a compelling need to develop means of rapidly identifying people, checking them and their luggage. Although there are systems in place today, the sheer numbers of people and locations is daunting. The use of biometrics would greatly alleviate this problem, while increasing the confidence level of the security forces. Rapidly deployable barriers to keep underground structures and tunnels from being flooded are another need.

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