A death-march is a term used in the software development world for projects that fail despite extreme sacrifice (time, effort, money, health, etc.) by the project teams. Terrorism as we know is a death-march project. The reason is that traditional terrorism suffers diminishing returns the more that it is used. The reasons for this include:
- Desensitization of the audience. Traditional terrorism, like violent crime, will increasingly become part of the fabric of daily life for targeted populations. Over time, people will "tune it out" and return to the travails of daily life.
- Declining media coverage. In response to a decline in interest among targeted populations, the media will relegate terrorist incidents to the back-page. This is already going on in regards to casualties in Iraq. The operative term in news is NEW.
- A lack of "evergreen" damage. Outside of the psychological impact (which declines due to overuse) of terrorist attacks, there is little lasting damage to the target. Occasionally, there is collateral damage to economic infrastructure or systems. However, this type of damage takes the backseat in planning to a "high body count."
To compensate for this decline in effectiveness, terrorists have developed a series of work-arounds. These include:
- Increasing lethality (increasing scale). A general trend in terrorism, since the seventies, has been an increase in the median lethality per attack. Higher body-counts compensate for the desensitization of target populations and generate the needed media coverage. However, the increasing proliferation of groups (via the bin Laden and Hamas VC/incubator system) may deplete the "currency of scale" through more numerous and less well planned small attacks.
- A wider venue (increasing breadth). Terrorists have extended their reach to new geographies. The attack on Spain (and planned attacks on the UK) as well as the hostage crisis in Iraq (Japan, China, Russia, Germany, etc.) has served to increase the psychological impact of terrorism. New "start-ups" will serve as a way to quickly exploit this "opportunity space" and as a result, these attacks will suffer the same diminishing returns they do in the traditional venues.
- Selective targets with political potential (increasing focus). Attacks that have political consequence -- during the final days of an election or during a symbolic holiday for example -- have proven effective. However, the political learning curve is often quick.
These work-arounds to the quicksand of diminishing returns won't work in the long-run. At a point in the near future, traditional terrorism will fail to offer the means necessary to terrorize. It will hit the limits of conventional munitions and techniques to continue scale increases. It will also run out of new (breadth and focus) targets to attack. At that point, terrorists will either innovaten (enter rational decision making) or continue on a grinding death-march using traditional methods (an effort that leads to dissolution). Here is what this means:
- One path of innovation will be to acquire a nuclear weapon. However, it is unlikely that terrorists will gain access to nuclear weapons in any relevant time period. Nuclear weapons, despite the pulp fiction to the contrary, are difficult to obtain and deploy. So, its likely that the nuclear path is a dead-end.
- Another, more viable terrorist innovation will be to adapt tactics to provide evergreen returns on effort. This next generation terrorism will consist of sustained attacks on systems. The evergreen return: dislocation and economic damage. These new methods will serve to bridge the gap between conventional terror and nuclear terror.
- A new emphasis on systems disruption will catch existing counter-terrorist forces unaware and unprepared. These security forces are constrained by historical precedent without reference to the major changes going on in the nature of the terrorist forces arrayed against us.