Osama bin Laden offered a truce to America last month. This is an Islamic tradition prior to an attack. He coupled that offer with a threat of an impending attack. We should anticipate (To clarify: this is prudent and not predictive) that new attacks on US targets will occur soon. IF or when terrorists attack the US again, how will the attacks be accomplished? Which targets will be selected? When will it occur? There has been lots of speculation on these points. So far, this speculation has been useless, due to an inability to separate the probable from the possible. The key to knowing what is probable is found in a deep understanding how warfare is evolving. With this as a starting point, it is possible to discern the broad outlines of any future attack.
The Factors Framing the Next AttackThe timing, target, and nature of the next strategic attack on the US is shrouded in uncertainty. Its arrival will be a black swan -- an unexpected event that can't be anticipated with any degree of assurance. Despite this, there are some factors that will shape its arrival:
- The diminishing returns on symbolic terrorism (attacks on populations or national symbols). Read: "Terrorist Death-March" It details how the returns from terrorist attacks on symbolic targets diminishes unless the scale and scope is constantly increased.
- The organizational limitations of al Qaeda and other groups. Read: "The Optimal Size of a Terrorist Network." This brief provides insight into the limitations on terrorist group size due to the actions in Afghanistan and the GWOT.
- A shift in objectives towards economic coercion. Recent strategy statements from al Qaeda (always a good guide for future activity) and the experience of Iraqi guerrillas has moved the debate among prospective attackers towards attacks on systems rather than symbols.
A Crude Shape EmergesHere's what we can discern from these factors:
- It's clear that given the organizational limitations of al Qaeda and other prospective attackers that the network that will make the next attack on the US will not be as large and complex as the one that carried out 9/11. This creates hard limits on what can be accomplished through symbolic terrorism -- since operationally complex operations like 9/11 or the use of WMDs are beyond the capabilities of any network that can be fielded (of course, when dealing with black swans, anything is possible).
- Any potential symbolic terrorist attack that is less impressive than 9/11 will be a devastating blow to the moral momentum of the attacker. The diminishing returns from symbolic terrorism dictate this.
- The combination of the above with a growing recognition of the value of economic coercion will drive the development of alternative plans. These new plans will likely be focused on systems disruption.
What this means
Here's a likely scenario: The networks used by the terrorists in any future strategic attacks on the US will be small, decentralized clusters. Many of the clusters, like what we saw in London and Madrid, will be homegrown and only loosely affiliated with external groups. Instead of symbolic targets, these groups will hit infrastructure networks. Much of the instruction and research passed to these groups will be done through the Internet. Unlike 9/11, these networks will have operational cell sizes of 2-3 members with only a remote support system. Since the tools and training necessary for infrastructure attacks are crude, the moral burden of these attacks can be meager (these attacks don't have to result in the deaths and dismemberment of random civilians), and the chance of capture is relatively small, the pool of potential participants is quite large.
Their operational method won't be focused on training for a single wasting attack but on repetitive attacks within a radius from a safe location. They will focus on systempunkts that provide them the opportunity for cascades of failure across multiple systems. Widespread blackouts, natural gas cut-offs, water shortages, and more. These infrastructure systems won't be attacked once but on multiple occasions and timed to coincide with repairs (which radically multiplies the impact on economic systems). The net result of this effort will be that each attacker will have the capability of inflicting hundreds of millions (if done correctly, billions) in economic damage to the US before they are neutralized (typical of the leverage we see in global guerrilla returns on investment).The impact of these attacks, particularly if they are numerous (attracting copycats?) and spread out over an extended period of time will be severe. Given their lack of symbolic content (and the potential that they will be relatively anonymous), the moral benefit to US cohesion will be small. Initial outrage against the attackers will quickly turn against the government itself, with severe repercussions (particularly if the government's response is crude and deemed ineffective). Globally, these attacks will put at risk the US position as a safe haven for investment and may result in a large outflow of capital as the market's moral sentiment cracks.