Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

If I were a terrorist... part 2

Ever notice those grey metal cylinders hung on telephone poles? Those are distribution transformers. They step down the high voltage electricity from the power lines to what gets delivered to your house.

I only notice them because I once worked in a factory winding the interior coils for them. There are only a few factories in the entire midwest that do this, and every summer there is a lot of overtime put in as transformers fail due to heat stress.

Now a funny story. Years ago a redneck bud of mine told me how as a teenager, he and some friends went out shooting their .22s outside of town and like the young a**holes they were, started taking pot shots at a transformer. When they got back to town, they found that a fair-sized part of their small town had had a power outage for a short while. Oops!

Now imagine a group of disaffected youths recruited and financed to drive around the country and take pot shots at as many transformers as they could, wherever they could do it without getting caught. (A silencer on the .22 makes it easier to operate in urban areas. That same bud of mine and I made one once, out of a beer can, window screen and cheesecloth just to see if we could.)

Of course not all transformers are at strategic areas serving large populations, power companies know how to route around damage, and county and municipal services have spares on hand.

Doesn't matter. Damage enough of them and the capacity to replace them will be stressed quite soon. They could also try for the larger transformer installations as opportunity presents. And every time anyone experiences even a brief power outage, they'll know how close terrorism came to them.

In the comments on part 1, a reader directed me to a site where a contest was held to suggest plots for a terrorist novel. Fun, but not serious. The suggestions ranged from the overly complex to the science-fictional (I'll get science-fictional myself later.) Most required resources and planning that made the notions impractical.

Now notice the essentials of this plan:

1) It does not require highly trained terrorists for the operation, only for the initial recruitment and financing which can be done by as few as one. The operations are carried out by local talent with minimal training, knowing little of the organization, who can be insulated from the foreign terrorist by several layers of cutouts if neccessary. Technical directions can be posted on the Internet.

2) It does not require any suspicious equipment to be smuggled into the country, only money. Nor for anything to be bought that would arouse suspicion or leave a paper trail.

3) It does not require that the agents die in the operation. If caught, it is unlikely that they could be convicted of anything that would get them serious time. (Except perhaps that silencer.) They'd be heroes in their set and compensation could be arranged for their time, as compensation is paid to the families of suicide murderers in Israel.

4) It could serve as the gateway/initiation for terrorists, providing a pool from which terrorists for more serious operations could be recruited in the future.

5) The targets cannot be "hardened". No security could ever monitor all of these things across the country.

Now lets consider another horrid plan: caltrops.

Huh? OK, before you go any further, have a look at this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caltrop it'll make this a lot simpler.

OK, back now? Now you know a caltrop is a device formerly used against cavalry, and in modern times against wheeled vehicles. As you see, they can be made by twisting wire together, bending small sheet metal plates, or made with nails welded together with a "buzz box" portable welder from any large hardware store. You throw them on the road and however they land, there's a sharp point sticking upwards.

Now what do you suppose would happen if, during the time of the heaviest traffic on the freeway that is still going the speed limit, someone threw a bunch of these across the road, or drove along merrily dropping them behind? Pileup would you say? How much anxiety could you cause across the country if people constantly wondered if they were going to drive over these things on the way home from work?

And again, it's a job for punks, not operatives trained in remote camps in Afghanistan. Nor do you need elaborate and expensive equipment and preparations.

Now we've gone from the sub-lethal to the potentially-lethal while conforming to the criteria listed. Now we come to the level of mass murder, and the plan that gives me nightmares.

I thought long and hard about publishing this, and refrained until I read that it had been done by Maoist terrorists in Nepal, and the M. Night Shaylaman film Unbreakable introduced the idea to the movie-going public.

Train wrecking.

A lot of passenger trafic goes by train every day on the East coast, and quite a bit of toxic material such as anhydrous amonia is shipped by train. You can heighten security to prevent anyone from smuggling weapons or bombs aboard an airplane, but how can you guard thousands of miles of track?

You could get a bit elaborate and use a small bomb under a rail, detonated by a pressure switch. This would have the advantage of allowing someone to plant it fairly quickly, which is a consideration in an urban area. But all you really need is a big wrench.

(About thirty years ago I remember reading about a series of train wrecks in the south that ended when someone the FBI considered a "person of interest" was killed by toxic gas released in a wreck he happened to be watching.)

This also conforms to the 5 criteria of a cheap and effective terrorist plan, except that if caught they might get the needle.

The purpose of this little exercise is to examine how one might go about seriously disrupting everyday life in an advanced industrial society with only some comparatively modest funds, a very few highly trained agents and a pool of youth disaffected from the host society, enough of whom think that terrorism is "sometimes justified" and that jihadists are heroes.

Yes of course I'm talking about a lot of the immigrant Muslim population of both the U.S. and Europe - but I'm also thinking of young, white, middle-class Hard Leftists that loathe America and support jihadism. The kind that take Ward "the-little-Eichmann's-had-it-coming" Churchill seriously.

Beyond the material damage done, what would we eventually be willing to accept in the way of security measures?

Now you know why they call me "Cheerful Steve".

In part 3 it's my turn to do science-fictional speculation.


  • At 1:34 AM, Blogger Grodge said…

    You state:

    "...but I'm also thinking of young, white, middle-class Hard Leftists that loathe America and support jihadism."

    That may be so (altho I would like to see an example), but the "Hard Rightists", ala Tim McVeigh, are statistically more likely to engage n such mayhem.

  • At 3:08 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I keep hearing McVeigh refered to as a "rightist", but on looking into it he doesn't seem to have espoused any coherent political position.

    Much was made of his outrage over the BATF massacre at Waco, and I know people who insist he was involved in the militia movement, though his involvement seems to have been to attend a few open meetings. But the only thing resembling a political statement ever found was a letter to the editor he submitted which was rambling, disconnected and about vegetarianism, ecology and anti-war subjects.

    Looks to me more like the kind of nihilist I refered to in my post "AYERheads".

    Please cite source of those statistics you refer to.

  • At 6:36 PM, Blogger MarkA said…

    Left and right are too subjective of terms anyway.

    Allegedly McVeigh hung with the white separatist crowd as well. Buncha fruit loops, IMHO.

    Anyhoo.. I see your Tim McVeigh and I raise you The Weathermen and the SLA.

    I'd argue that this is equally valid overseas as well so we must toss in Bader-Meinhof Gang, the Japanese Red Army and the IRA.

    A small group with a bit of popular support andthe right approach can cause oodles and oodles of problems.

    Imagine a

  • At 8:00 PM, Blogger Icepick said…

    I've been travelling and haven't had a chance to read your blog for a while until this evening, but the transformer idea was brought up by G. Gordon Liddy in an article for OMNI Magazine about 25 years ago, I think it was. He had 10-25 simple ideas for bringing America to a complete standstill. Few of them required any real skill or training. I've thought of it often since 9/11/2001....

  • At 8:20 PM, Blogger Icepick said…

    Okay, the Liddy article was different than I remembered. (See here.) For one thing, it was 18 years ago. It had fewer ideas, one of which is essentially science fiction, and required a little more co-ordination than I remembered. But the transformer, rail line and natural gas ideas seem all too viable, even though I'm certain much has changed in our infrastructure in the interveening years.

  • At 11:18 PM, Blogger Eva said…

    Tossing such ideas in private may be amusing, but publishing them on the net is irresponsible.

  • At 2:11 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Please read again, the parts at the beginning and near the end about how I considered exactly that point for the past six years.

    Do you think that the people who wish us harm are stupid? These ideas are, as I stressed, simple and easy to execute - and increasingly in the public domain. We'd damned well better be having a public discussion on the subject before it is forced on us.

    More than thirty years ago the Israelis had word of possible attempts to hijack airliners and use them for suicide attacks. I believe there was a French plane shot down by mistake after one such warning? (Anybody remember details?) They shared the information with us through channels, and there was some mention of it in articles I remember, but it never got any attention until 9/11. And that was less a failure of intelligence than it was a failure of imagination by our whole society.

    "The only safety lies in believing all possible evil of evil men."
    Edmund Burke

  • At 9:15 AM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    Heh, my pals and I had figured out the transformer thing, back in high school. One of those hangin' out, drinking beer, hey wouldn't it piss off everyone if we shot up stuff at all the electrical sub stations at the same time kinda' thoughts. Now, my friends and I, we always had such anti-social thoughts (always talked about how to rob banks as well) but we were smart enough to realize that wrecking civilization is basically just pooping in your own pants. Not really all that smart. Unfortunately, there seem to be enough stupid people out there who would think this would be a cool thing to do.

    As for suicide bombers (and bombers in general), I assume that people do such things to change society so that it's more favorable to their group or people. What I wonder about is, has a bombing campaign ever swayed opinion towards the group doing the bombing?

  • At 12:17 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Thanks for a thought for a future post. I actually don't know if it's really a change in society they want, or is the message "notice me!"?

    I can't think of a bombing campaign that ever resulted in a change the bombers considered favorable. But "What matter the victims as long as the gesture is beautiful?" as some Russian crazy said.


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