Movie Plot Threat Contest: Status Report

On the first of this month, I announced my (possibly First) Movie-Plot Threat Contest.

Entrants are invited to submit the most unlikely, yet still plausible, terrorist attack scenarios they can come up with.

Your goal: cause terror. Make the American people notice. Inflict lasting damage on the U.S. economy. Change the political landscape, or the culture. The more grandiose the goal, the better.

Assume an attacker profile on the order of 9/11: 20 to 30 unskilled people, and about $500,000 with which to buy skills, equipment, etc.

As of this morning, the blog post has 580 comments. I expected a lot of submissions, but the response has blown me away.

Looking over the different terrorist plots, they seem to fall into several broad categories. The first category consists of attacks against our infrastructure: the food supply, the water supply, the power infrastructure, the telephone system, etc. The idea is to cripple the country by targeting one of the basic systems that make it work.

The second category consists of big-ticket plots. Either they have very public targets -- blowing up the Super Bowl, the Oscars, etc. -- or they have high-tech components: nuclear waste, anthrax, chlorine gas, a full oil tanker, etc. And they are often complex and hard to pull off. This is the 9/11 idea: a single huge event that affects the entire nation.

The third category consists of low-tech attacks that go on and on. Several people imagined a version of the DC sniper scenario, but with multiple teams. The teams would slowly move around the country, perhaps each team starting up after the previous one was captured or killed. Other people suggested a variant of this with small bombs in random public locations around the country.

(There's a fourth category: actual movie plots. Some entries are comical, unrealistic, have science fiction premises, etc. I'm not even considering those.)

The better ideas tap directly into public fears. In my book, Beyond Fear, I discusse five different tendencies people have to exaggerate risks: to believe that something is more risky than it actually is.

  1. People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
  2. People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
  3. Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  4. People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can't control.
  5. People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.

The best plot ideas leverage one or more of those tendencies. Big-ticket attacks leverage the first. Infrastructure and low-tech attacks leverage the fourth. And every attack tries to leverage the fifth, especially those attacks that go on and on. I'm willing to bet that when I find a winner, it will be the plot that leverages the greatest number of those tendencies to the best possible advantage.

I also got a bunch of e-mails from people with ideas they thought too terrifying to post publicly. Some of them wouldn't even tell them to me. I also received e-mails from people accusing me of helping the terrorists by giving them ideas.

But if there's one thing this contest demonstrates, it's that good terrorist ideas are a dime a dozen. Anyone can figure out how to cause terror. The hard part is execution.

Some of the submitted plots require minimal skill and equipment. Twenty guys with cars and guns -- that sort of thing. Reading through them, you have to wonder why there have been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. I don't believe the "flypaper theory," that the terrorists are all in Iraq instead of in the U.S. And despite all the ineffectual security we've put in place since 9/11, I'm sure we have had some successes in intelligence and investigation -- and have made it harder for terrorists to operate both in the U.S. and abroad.

But mostly, I think terrorist attacks are much harder than most of us think. It's harder to find willing recruits than we think. It's harder to coordinate plans. It's harder to execute those plans. Terrorism is rare, and for all we've heard about 9/11 changing the world, it's still rare.

The submission deadline is the end of this month, so there's still time to submit your entry. And please read through some of the others and comment on them; I'm curious as to what other people think are the most interesting, compelling, realistic, or effective scenarios.

EDITED TO ADD (4/23): The contest made The New York Times.

Posted on April 22, 2006 at 10:14 AM • 76 Comments

Comments

arlApril 22, 2006 11:19 AM

I am not sure I would totaly discount the "flypaper effect" as part of the reason there have been fewer attempts at targets inside the US.

Reduction of available funds along with improvements in security have raised the bar on executing an attack here. Since one of the primary motivators to those who have been most active in these actions has been the presense of non-Muslims in Muslim territory, the problem has moved to their doorstep.

Long range attacks are difficult as the people who would be involved in suicide attacks need a lot of attention otherwise they tend to change their mind.

Bruce SchneierApril 22, 2006 11:27 AM

"How can you be really sure that you're not giving ideas to terrorists?"

I can't be, of course. But ideas are dime-a-dozen; there's no shortage of them.

AlanApril 22, 2006 11:48 AM

The real reason terrorist attacks are rare (IMHO) is that there is no clear benefit for the prospective terrorists. It doesn't do anything to improve their quality of life.

Lee MorrisApril 22, 2006 12:21 PM

Yes I can just see a terrorist sitting reading the post, jotting down notes for the al-quaeda suggestion box *cough*. "Blow up the superbowl...why didn't we think of this earlier!" ... seriously though, im guessing terrorists spend alot of time thinking of things like this, and would be unlikely to find something in this competition that they have not already considered. As bruce said, the problem is in the execution.

Haiku JohnsonApril 22, 2006 1:13 PM

I think Abu Nidal, Al-Qaeda, and the Macheteros (In Puerto Rico) have already set into motion an effective terrorist plot, one that not even Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise can stop... They have helped in the re-election of a nimrod who prays for divine inspiration for each decision (This is what happens when you run the country with a bible instead of with your head... Theocracy anyone?) while he chokes on pretzels, whether it be to scratch the first dog on the belly or to send fighter jets into Iraq...

No, but seriously... we ourselves are creating a terrorist scenario the likes of which no security agency can predict or intercede or intercept... it's called the Environment (and the movie "Day After Tomorrow" was a little crappy, campy and over the top, but...)... Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, were caused because of warm ocean water (The vapors rise to the atmosphere and bada-bing! you've got a tropical storm. The more steam and vapors... do the math...) There are people who have been warning us about this, and we handed them little colored hats with propellors on them. Maybe we shouldn't be dismissing them so quickly! I mean, people have been dismissing Chomsky for a while but...
Just something to dwell on while you drive that Cadillac Escalade (Or the Hummer, pick a version...) sitting on 22's (rims, for those not up on the street lingo)

JamesApril 22, 2006 1:35 PM

I'm struck by the extent to which U.S. terror attacks/ mass murders have relied on buildings being difficult to get out of and either combustible or collapsable. The Happyland Social club arson, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the WTC attack all share this trait.

It's interesting to contemplate how much energy has gone into the gravitational potential of tall buildings. When we think of stored energy, how many of us think of the energy stored in the high floors of tall buildings?

Arson, bombing or otherwise destroying such buildings seems to me to be a proven pattern of terrorist attacks. Such buildings are probably hard to modify so as to eliminate this risk. So if I had to guess how future terror attacks might be achieved, I'd guess that more large or medium-sized buildings would be targeted.

DanApril 22, 2006 3:51 PM

There is a sci-fi short story about using a group of 20 people, with to cripple a government.

Granted, in the short story, which I believe was written by Harlan Ellison, some of the people have skills not found in most ordinary people, like snipers, explosives, electronics... but most of the skills are not all that difficult to acquire to a moderate degree.

Unfortunately, the Bush government is not interested in catching terrorists, or providing security to the citizens of the United States, but in expanding and consolidating power for itself and its corporate and social allies.

royApril 22, 2006 7:49 PM

Discussing potential threats in public allows people -- the government and the populace -- to avoid being caught flatfooted. They can take precautions against the attacks that involve them. And simply thinking about them heightens and focuses their attention, so that they have a better chance of putting the clues together when they meet them, tipping them off ahead of an attack. As any fool can plainly see, forewarned is forearmed.

DHS keeps all the planning and thinking secret, even hurricane, flood relief, and evacuation plans. They thus prevent millions of thinking people from examining their work and helpfully pointing out their mistakes. Secrecy in the conduct of the public business is inherently bad for the public.

This is why we have -- or, used to have -- public trials, public hearings, public discussions, and such.

SebastianApril 22, 2006 8:47 PM

To second-guess why there hasn't been a follow-up to 9/11, I think the motivation needs to be taken into account.

Firstly, I think the so-called 'flypaper effect' can be mostly discounted. Why attack in your own country, when you can attack that of your invader? We're discussing terrorists here, not people fighting for their homes. Not directly, anyway. And personally, if I had those resources and that kind of motivation, I'd be giving my invader cause to pull his resources out and redeploy them in his own country. I'd listen to Sun Tzu and attack where he's soft, not where he's hard.

Despite much of the rhetoric from both the USA and the Australian governments, terrorists aren't like, say, electricians. I find it ever-so-slightly unlikely that people adopt the vocation of 'terrorist' and then go looking for somewhere to practise it. The motivation, surely, must come first.

Now, what was the intended effect of 9/11? The official statement, as far as I can recall, was 'revenge.' OK, fine. But was that attack the means, or the end? Were they happy with killing a few thousand people, and scaring a few million more out of their false sense of security? Or was that the firecracker that set the rabbit jumping in the right direction? From an ocean or so away, it looks an awful lot like the USA is shutting itself down in response, and that response is still going strong half a decade later. Personally, I can't think of anything that would motivate me to visit the country; it isn't terrorists I'm concerned about, it's the government's actions.

So there really isn't much need for another attack just yet. The kind of mind that can come up with such an ingenious scheme is the kind that can appreciate return on effort, and there's no need to expend more effort right now. If the intent is to damage the country as a whole, I'd expect the next attack to come once everybody's calmed down and decided that the threat's gone away. Give it another two years, or even five. They'll jump so much further, the next time.

AndrewApril 22, 2006 9:02 PM

@ Roy.

Hear, hear!

Secrecy breeds incompetence. Incompetence breeds contempt. Contempt leads to disregard.

The story of DHS and especially FEMA.

xfroschApril 22, 2006 10:21 PM

James: I find it stunning how insistent we are on refusing to learn the most obvious lesson of September 11 - don't build skyscrapers.

EricApril 22, 2006 11:24 PM

I think it's great that you're trying to get people to start thinking and talking about terrorism and what it really takes to actually pull something off. It irritates me to no end that the government is spending millions protecting airports when any terrorist with half a brain would pinpoint something else. That's what it's called terrorism. It's about doing something unexpected at an unexpected time (and most likely in an unexpected place). If homeland security spent more time thinking about the possibilities in this fashion, maybe they might be able to come up with reusable security, useful for more than just airports.

The Surveillance-Industrial complexApril 23, 2006 6:38 AM

Neo-conservatism

Put in a number of paranoid and power-mongering nationalists who will do anything to create fear in the american people to hand over unlimited powers to the centralists.

Attack any security initiaties that do not build in backdoors. Ensure all transaction and communication systems are weakened to the point that no security makes sense and thereby those with the strongets powers can bully anybody.

Initiate an international campaign through international civil bodies like ICAO etc. to build in surveilance and centralism in the root foundations of infrastructure and blackmail the democracies of the world to accept this imposed surveillance.

And then - with fairly cheap and lasting means - you have conducted successfully the to date most successfull and devastating attack on democracy.

The scary part - is has aldready happened and the most brilliant part is that the terrorists managed to disquise it as "anti-terror".

Kick those neo-conservatives out of office and start re-establishing democracy world-wide.

RonKApril 23, 2006 6:51 AM

Kudos to Bruce for getting a sanity slant published in the NYT.

@Eric

"useful for more than just airports" --- do you actually believe that current DHS security measures (as opposed to previous ones) at airports are useful?

John MooreApril 23, 2006 8:29 AM

Frontline had a nice program about Europe being the ideal Islamic terrorist incubator. Basically, the terrorist cells are based on small group dynamics and peer pressure. Europe is easy to immigrate to for Arabs, especially students. Once there, they are marginalized and isolated by the foreign culture which is totally alien to them. They join a mosque to meet and socialize with other Muslims and it's at the mosques where they are indoctrinated and recuited. The Hamburg cell which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks originated from Hamburg, Germany. The key plotters were university students pursuing higher educations. Once they joined Bin Laden's organization, it was decided that they emigrate to the US and learn to be pilots. So, technically, Tim McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski are the only home grown terrorists thus far. The 9/11 terrorists came to this country with intent to harm and used student visas as means to easily enter the country, but they were recruited overseas. I'm not sure if movie plot threats take such details into account. They sure don't take into account the passengers seizing control of the aircraft back from the terroists like Flight 93 did. Usually, passengers are made out to be terrified sheep/victims in the movies with little initiative of their own which is a disservice to their own paying audience.

EricApril 23, 2006 11:01 AM

@ RonK

"do you actually believe that current DHS security measures (as opposed to previous ones) at airports are useful?"

No I don't. My point was that concentrating on just airports doesn't make us any safer with respect to the country's other vulnerabilities (i.e. power plants, food supply, etc.).

JamesApril 23, 2006 12:18 PM

Xfrosch: " I find it stunning how insistent we are on refusing to learn the most obvious lesson of September 11 - don't build skyscrapers."

I'm not sure you're right that's the lesson. After all, of the many thousands of skyscrapers that have been built, only a few of them have been destroyed by terrorists. I have no idea how the cost-benefit ratio breaks down, but it could still be a rational to build skyscrapers despite the risk. Also the Bali bombing, the Happyland social club arson, and various attacks in Israel show that crowded public gathering spots not in skyscrapers can also be prime terror targets.

The common thread here in the most devastating cases is that the targeted buildings were commonly:

not small, not dwellings -- large enough to accomodate at least dozens of people and in some cases hundreds

filled with people

for one reason or another simply impossible or difficult to evacuate quickly enough, or unprepared for evacuation as swiftly as necessary to save dozens of lives

The reasons why these things are true vary. In discos it's the sheer number of strangers packed together and possibly difficulty of finding one's way in an unfamiliar place in low lighting. In the social club case the same applies plus exits were blocked (illegally, I believe). In the world trade center numerous factors were at work, including warnings for people in the second tower to stay put. In Oklahoma City the parking garage was somehow accessible and a big vulnerability. In the case of the World Trade Center, terrorists tried a bomb first and failed to destroy the buildings, so they had to use jets. I imagine such an approach would be extremely difficult or impossible to pull off today, because passengers wouldn't allow it.

I don't know what the answer to all this is, but it does seem to me to imply that looking at having good plans to evacuate buildings and not allowing uninspected trucks to pull right in is a good place to start.

John David GaltApril 23, 2006 8:25 PM

You write: "In my book, Beyond Fear, I discusse five different tendencies people have to exaggerate risks: to believe that something is more risky than it actually is."

A large part of the blame for this belongs to politicians and the media. The most successful members of both these groups have built their careers on the practice of convincing the public that one "crisis" after another exists and therefore we simply must Do Something.

Ted Kennedy recently scorned this practice, calling it the "politics of fear". I agree with him that it's a bad thing -- but the Democrats have been doing it much better than the Republicans for a much longer time, which is why the media are usually perceived as left leaning. (Media reporters always want to point their mikes at the guy who says there's a crisis because that's what sells papers and TV ads.)

The present "terrorism crisis" is the first phony emergency that Republicans have managed to get a majority to believe in. (Their earlier attempts, such as the "drug crisis" and "amorality crisis", all flopped.) Meanwhile, Democrats sold us the "environmental crisis", the "poverty crisis", a whole series of phony health scares (such as the one that still feeds the "organic food" industry), and now the "obesity crisis".

Moral: Don't ever let a politician or media personality convince you there's an emergency just because he says so. Make him state the risk to YOU in numbers and double check the numbers. If he won't or you can't, he's lying.

SanguineApril 23, 2006 10:47 PM

I had a friend once..she did, and still does work for the Air Force as a civilian Employee ( are Civ employess listed on Air force,or other militarypayroll?..it could add a LOT to the cost of war).

She replied to a request, to submitt an idea, in the realm of Science Fiction, to the Pentagon, so that they might gain a better understanding of what the Scientists are going to come up with in the future. She did so, and her novel ( which was very, very good..I saw the rough draft), was imeditely clissafied as a National Security Intertest)..so, she could not make any bit of it..public. It is now classified.

So, your request for terrorist plots, is int and of itself, the best plot to instil terror...because you, who hol forth on the subject of national security...are surely watched by national security..and therefore..anyone who posts anything (yes, that includes me! But Im pretty sure I'm there anyway!) is subject to "scrutiny".

So...hollywood and the "ational Infrastructre" have a long history... and yes, anything any one writes here, is now publoc domain, and therefore "free of charge" to any hollyuwood producer or "White Hous Official" who may be reading this.

Am Ia crackpot?..yeah, probably..but so was Guy Faukes...did he get any royalties?

afroblancoApril 24, 2006 12:17 AM

@arl

The problem with the flypaper theory is that it assumes that terrorists and terrorist capital is zero-sum. It doesn't take into account that you can create new terrorists by doing things like needlessly invading countries.

NocturnApril 24, 2006 2:08 AM

@Noam

If this inspires a would-be terrorist, you'd better vote a ban on most action style novells, TV-shows and movies.

Even the A-Team has ideas that can help terrorists and I grew up with that show.

robertApril 24, 2006 2:50 AM

how about strapping roadflares to your chest, storming norad and hitting the doomsday button?

duct tape - five dollars
roadflares (wholesale crate) - one hundred dollars
instigating the end of the world - priceless

AGApril 24, 2006 8:28 AM

Flypaper theory...
All the "Terrorist" are getting recruited by one of the three sides in the Iraqi Civil War.

Suicide bombers are a dime a dozen, as Iraq shows us.

What you don't seem to grasp is these guys want to attack Americans.
Now that Americans are just down the steet we are saving them the trouble of coming here.
They (the angry people becomeing Terrorist) do not see the difference between Army Americans and Civilian Americans.

PhillipApril 24, 2006 9:47 AM

"Looking over the different terrorist plots, they seem to fall into several broad categories. The first category consists of attacks against our infrastructure: the food supply, the water supply, the power infrastructure, the telephone system, etc. The idea is to cripple the country by targeting one of the basic systems that make it work."


A communications disruption can mean only one thing....Invasion.


Sorry, I couldn't help myself with the Star Wars Ep. 1 humor :)

CoreyApril 24, 2006 10:25 AM

The best entries will depend on what point you want to make with the contest. The number and diversity of entries suggest a good point of "attack ideas are a dime a dozen."
However, it seems to me a good point to illustrate would be to show an attack scenario that provokes a very specific counter-measure. Bonus points if the counter-measure doesn't really help and/or gets co-opted.
My example: Terrorists blow up a couple of shopping malls. In response, we get harsh background checks for mall employees, and everyone must show ID to get into a mall (but not into a Target, for example). Stores push for this because they then have lots of data for targeted advertising, to know how good each customer's credit is, etc.
That's not necessarily the best attack for sowing terror - my vote goes to the "random snipers in the suburbs" scenario for that. I wouldn't see that provoking overly-specific/pointless countermeasures, though...

Alun JonesApril 24, 2006 11:05 AM

@XFrosch, James:
I think you're each glossing over the lesson to be learned.
The lesson is that we must enumerate, limit, and _accept_ risk. When we build skyscrapers, we must acknowledge that planes _will_ fly into them (long before a jet hit the WTC, the Empire State Building was hit by a B-25 bomber in 1945), that we can limit the damage that this causes, and that we need to accept that this is a rare, but present, hazard of working in a skyscraper.
My first thought on seeing the WTC tragedy unfold was that a couple of hundred people, on the plane and in the skyscraper, would die, but that this would be the limit, because skyscrapers are designed to survive an impact from a plane.
What followed stunned me, as I realised that something I had been told about skyscraper design evidently hadn't been true, at least in execution. Later review suggests that the problem lay in assumptions (likely unstated) that skyscrapers would be hit by a plane carrying no fuel.

beyondfearApril 24, 2006 11:13 AM

....(There's a fourth category: actual movie plots. Some entries are comical, unrealistic, have science fiction premises, etc. I'm not even considering those.)....

It's a pity you won't consider those. There are a some really crazy and funny ideas that made me laugh out loud. Laughing (and finding something ridiculous) is somehow also a cure against fear...

Can't you make a special category for the funniest contributions - Lost you humor?

Clive RobinsonApril 24, 2006 11:37 AM

@ Alun Jones

"Later review suggests that the problem lay in assumptions "

The WTC was a compleatly new untested design from the ground up, it had to have assumptions built into the design otherwise it would never have been built.

As far as I am aware there where two main factors effecting the design that gave problems,

1, Central core for stacked lift shafts
2, Cross floor tie members from internal core to external walls

The design did not assume that a jet of the times would be flown directly into the building, and certainly not a modern jet. It was therefore remarkable to see the buildings remaining standing after such a masive impact. This sugests that the design in that respect was conservative in nature.

Where the design failed was that the main strength of the building was derived from hanging the floors between the internal core and external walls via tie members. These tie members where unlikley to have been thermaly insulated to todays standard and it has been sugested that the impact shock may well have caused it fail. Again it was surprising how long the structure with stood the effects. When the building did fail the outer wall pealed back like a banana skin, it has been suggested that if structural strengthening bands developed to deal with earth quakes had been fitted then the buildings would probably not have colapsed.

Even so few modern practical structures would be capable of withistanding a large body jet flying in at two thirds of their height and having several tones of burning flamable liquid injected directly into their core.

All things considered I think it was fairly remarkable that the buildings did stay up the way they did which significantly reduced the death toll

RecruiterApril 24, 2006 11:51 AM

I think the recruitment angle is a big part of it.

Recruiting dangerous terrorists in a war zone would be far easier if they think they can make lives better for themselves or their families by blowing themselves up.

Here in the states, there still is opportunity -- without learning english, you could still work, feed yourself, and send money to your relatives.

What recruitments or inducements could cause someone to be a terrorist? Would they still be operative once you get your recruit into the USA with an untracable car & pile of cash?

lconklinApril 24, 2006 12:24 PM

Entrants are invited to submit the most unlikely, yet still plausible, terrorist attack scenarios they can come up with.

Ok here is mine.

Nationwide our supply of cattle/chicken feed is comtimated with a dormant virus or bacterial organism.
This biological organism is harmless to cows and chickens. It can also stay alive in cooked meat. Once eaten by humans it becomes active either making the person extremely ill or possible death in young and old people.

Can you image the impact to our economy if no one is willing to go to ChickAFilet or MacDonald’s?

MooCowApril 24, 2006 1:31 PM

lconklin: They already did that with prions of Mad Cow; the government is just covering it up for stability.

PeterApril 24, 2006 3:07 PM

@lconklin, perhaps you might like to listen to a recent "science friday" episode.
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?...
The E. Coli infections that cause so many tons of meat to be recalled annually could be prevented by switching cattle from feedlot-chow to grass for the last 5 days before slaughter. That isn't done because it is "inconvenient" for the beef industry: it is less "inconvenient" to have hundreds of people become ill enough for hospitalization each and every year (and some do die) than to prevent it from happening in the first place.

The salmonella infections *inside* eggs are a result of a similar process.

>if no one is willing to go to ChickAFilet...
Ack. If that happened, where would I be able to go to oogle MILFs?

Josh PetersApril 24, 2006 5:03 PM

I personally just think that terrorists are just waiting for June 6, 2006 to do something, in order to take advantage of the Christian-apocolyptic fear of 6/6/6. Either that, or by being constantly in the news and consequently on the minds of Americans, they accomplished their goals already.

avantgameApril 24, 2006 8:26 PM

I second beyondfear's comment... why not call out the best actual movie plot or comic idea? I agree, they have made for some excellent reading. Also, they say that comedy is just tragedy in hindsight...

NocturnApril 25, 2006 2:23 AM

About the attack on 9/11, maybe there is are alternative lessons to be learned.

The first one is that such huge buildings are death-traps and "easy" targets. So not stacking people up like sardines might be a good idea in any case, be it a natural disaster or an attack.

Secondly, it highlights the effects of a foreign policy that led to these attacks and that may lead to even more deaths if it continues (not that I think they were justified, I'm anti-war, be it against Iraq or the US).

NocturnApril 25, 2006 4:44 AM

My movie plot has a nice twist to it in that it does have a big impact but without causing many physical casualties.

The assault focusses on a multi-vector attack on two primary targets, ammended by some decoys (to divert attention).

The primary targets are both the national bank and the stock market. As decoys, 2 major US banks are selected. Two teams of 5 people get fake credentials that allow them to penetrate the infrastructure of the decoy targets (the banks). The real target is their IT infrastructure, so there may be a backdoor to get them in through external IT suppliers or management/backup firms. We do not need to hit these very hard as the target is to grab attention.
The infiltration attempts to gain enough access to nock out the bank computers for at least 1 day, a nice bonus is to get their ATM systems down too.

For the primary targets, a lot of preparation and recon is needed. The objective is to disable or at least permanently cripple them.
Each target is assigned a team of 10 people, a good proportion of funding is used in providing them with fake backgrounds, IT and financial training and in selecting and hiring black hat hackers and rogue financial consultants and to purchase information.

After the initial recon and armed with technical details about the working of the IT infrastructure, our infiltrants start to penetrate both organisations. Secondly, a team of our people and hired blackhats start working on a very specific computer virus to attack our targets digitally.

Subteams for the primary targets find out information about the physical layout of the computer infrastructure for the targets, including datacenter location and backup centers. They infiltrate as far as possible to get access to them, or at least get near to them.

On the big day, very early in the morning (think 05:00 or 06:00), the decoys get attacked knocking most of the bank infrastructure offline. This can be by physically blowing up power relays or networking hubs or electronicly or a combination of both. The objective is to disrupt, not to destroy.

In the subsequent (still mild) chaos, a digital attack (our virus) targets the stock market shortly after opening and the national bank. This will disrupt financial transactions quite quickly.
When the chaos of both previous events is coming into effect, the infiltration teams start their work targetting in parallel the datacenters and their backups of the primary targets. The idea here is no longer to cause disruptions, but to actually destroy the equipment beyond repair. They more damage, the better for the attack scenario.

Though this attack causes little physical damage compared to other, more spectacular attacks, it will have a profound effect on a country like the US that is dependent on its corporations and corporations work largely based on the stock market and the financial market.
By striking both at once, trading will at least come to a temporary halt and maybe even permanently. With all this data lost or at least inaccessible for a long time, a lot of corporations will fail, resulting in a cascading failure on the economy.

BrianApril 25, 2006 5:55 AM

The Floating Dirty Bomb

Nuclear waste is transported regularly on the high seas. Many shipments contain enough nuclear waste to manufacture numerous nuclear bombs. However, our terrorists are not interested in nuclear bombs; rather they are looking to make a statement that will shock the world. Our 30 terrorists are highly motivated, highly trained and are prepared to die for their cause.

Ships carrying nuclear waste present a tempting target as they are often not given any military or naval escorts and depends on the 20-30 trained police officers onboard the vessel.

Our terrorists can attack such a target in a number of ways;
(a) Firstly a night raid on the ship when not all police officers are on duty will result in the ship being hijacked. Once in control, our terrorists plant explosive devices in the ship's holds containing the waste and open all hatches to allow the waste to vent into the sea/atmosphere when the ship explodes. No matter what happens next the terrorists know they will have a desired outcome to their attack. Either the ship will be attacked and sunk by security forces to prevent it reaching a populated area, which will result in the ship contaminating the sea/atmosphere, or our terrorists sail the ship to their preferred target. At high speed the ship is driven into the intended target where the explosives are detonated resulting in a large dirty bomb. Preferred targets could include, New York Harbour for the impact on the city, the Panama canal to disrupt a major shipping route for decades or a coastal nuclear plant such as Sellafield in the United Kingdom. A target like Sellafield which also has it’s own nuclear storage facilities on site could increase the potential for damage as the effects of the hijack ship are magnified.

(b) Alternatively, our terrorists prepare a number of small vessels with high explosives and ram the nuclear ship as it nears port similar to the ramming of the USS Cole. Greenpeace activists protesting against the shipment of nuclear waste have been able to get quite close to these ships in rigid inflatable crafts. A group of terrorists using modified fishing boats or pleasure craft disguised as part of a protestors’ flotilla should be able to reach their target with minimum problems. A successful attack will result in a highly radioactive mass blocking blocking a commercial port. The resulting security measures to protect all ships carrying hazardous waste, be that nuclear, chemical or biological will increase shipping costs and drive up overall costs and hit developed economies world wide.

Of course for our movie our action hero, after being left to die slowly by the evil terrorist leader and escaping, will manage to stop the ship from ramming into the port with seconds to spare!

John OrdoverApril 25, 2006 6:40 AM

"There is a sci-fi short story about using a group of 20 people, with to cripple a government. "

The story is "The Oracle" by Robert Bloch, and it's only science fiction in the sense that it's a computer that comes up with the scheme, which involves an attack on L.A. by a small group of people who use precision to take down the entire city - shooting one or two drivers on many highways, shooting first responders, and blowing up just a few bridges and overpasses, then setting fires.

That it was published in 1971 and has never been put into action by anyone kind of shows that this site isn't giving terrorists any useful ideas.

Clive RobinsonApril 25, 2006 6:58 AM

@John Ordover

Many years ago I was taught that there where three types of military shooting

1, Shoot to scare (covering fire)
2, Shoot to injure (Conventional fire)
3, Shoot to kill (Sniper fire)

It was pointed out to me that the third type was done either to remove a designated target (a radio operator, a staff officer, etc) or more importantly as a terror wepon to hold troops down in a given area.

The example given of the later was to "shoot the balls of a cook when he was taking a shit" in a rear area as it stops logistics.

It was then pointed out by the instructor that troops to nervous to take a shit in the right place where going to become tired and sick, oh and why the poor cook well every body knows him and why his balls, so he will scream loudly for quite a while. The rear troops then do not perform well, which seriously effects the front line troops ability to perform.

As a soldier your bigest fear is the lone sniper in the rest area, when there is one in your area you get a strange malaise known as "long gun sickness". Because you your mates and everybody else think it's their turn next, you cannot relax or think beyond the next bit of cover.

Because of this when caught snipers generally don't make it home.

Christoph ZurniedenApril 25, 2006 11:48 AM

"[...] have made it harder for terrorists to operate both in the U.S. and abroad."

As live is harder for the american citizen now it is harder for the terrorist too, yes, but it made it much easier abroad as shown in Iraq. Externalities of course, I know.

"But mostly, I think terrorist attacks are much harder than most of us think."

Some of the proposals in http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/04/... need only the knowledge and physical ability of a 6th-grade, that's nothing I would call "hard".

"It's harder to find willing recruits than we think."

Al Quaeda gets five times more offers of willing groups than needed. (a lot of sources state that in teh range of 2 up to 10 times. The number 5 is based on a BBC documentation)

"It's harder to coordinate plans."

In these times with cheap internet connections, cell- and sattelite-phones, good calender software, free cryptography and what else you might need?

"It's harder to execute those plans."

That's also a hard to believe assumption. OK, I must admit, the plan to hijack a couple of planes with boxcutters and crash them in famous buildings at prime time will be harder to execute.

But all of that doesn't even matter:
"Terrorism is rare, and for all we've heard about 9/11 changing the world, it's still rare."

It is so rare in the USA that 9/11 itself lowered the statistical chance of another big attack in the next 50 or so years. Please do yourself and us the favor and stop fighting imaginary threats and start fighting the goal of the terrorists: fear.
I'm old enough to remember the attacks of the RAF ("Rote Armee Fraktion", Red Army Fraction) here in Germany and the following hysterical and mostly senseless actionism. Now I must helplessly watch you repeating all of the errors we made and a lot of new ones too--populi impetrata venia et iniussu populi!--that's not very funny.
At least follow Horaces advice:"Audiet pugnas vitio parentum rara iuventus" [Quintius Horatius Flacus, Carmina I, 2, 23-24] and listen.

CZ

PS:
"[...]Such a foe
Is rising, who intends to erect his throne
Equal to ours, throughout the spacious north"
[Jon Milton, "Paradise Lost",Book V, 724ff]
Sorry, but I couldn't resist; must've read too much J. Swift lately I guess, but it fits so perfectly for _both_ of the sides.

CZ

Andrew2April 25, 2006 12:23 PM

"With all this [financial] data lost or at least inaccessible for a long time, a lot of corporations will fail, resulting in a cascading failure on the economy."

I'm not convinced even a prolonged outage in the stock markets would cause most corporations to fail. Sure, things would get interesting for a while, but corporations not directly involved in financy don't really buy or sell stock that often. The biggest disruption would be to retirement plans and investment vehicles.

Despite what CNBC might think, life can go on for quite a while without the stock market.

afroblancoApril 25, 2006 1:59 PM

@AG:

"What you don't seem to grasp is these guys want to attack Americans.
Now that Americans are just down the steet we are saving them the trouble of coming here."

Except they can do far more damage by attacking us here then attacking us in Iraq. Terrorist blows himself up in a pizza parlor in Chicago, it scares the crap out of the entire country. Terrorist blows himself up in Iraq, how many people in the US will even know about it?

@Recruiter :

"What recruitments or inducements could cause someone to be a terrorist? Would they still be operative once you get your recruit into the USA with an untracable car & pile of cash?"

You're assuming that terrorists think rationally. Isn't the whole idea behind AQ that they're on a Mission From God?

Tom GrantApril 25, 2006 4:00 PM

There are some very interesting scenario's posted on the contest site.

The "squad of DC sniper clones" is a pretty chilling thought. Imagine most major metro areas beseiged by that sort of attack. Huge fear generator.

Spreading disease through airports is an interesting approach...make the "hub" system work for you. Difficult for CDC to combat that. Shades of S. King's "The Stand" come to mind.

The mortar attack on stadium idea was also interesting. Fear of gathering would be spread across the country in short order.

As for the humorous bit...the snakes on airplanes almost put pop out my nose. Good one!

RabotaApril 25, 2006 8:52 PM

The weapon is anthrax-or ricin-or a similar toxin ground to be easily aerosoled. The necessary machines can be purchased on eBay. One cell buys the machinery and sets up the lab. The necessary toxin is either acquired here or smuggled in from abroad. Six teams consisting of one man (to provide guidance and protection) and two women are given purse sized pump bottles containing the toxin mixed with alcohol and a pleasant light scent. They begin in six cities. Inside department stores, the women spray the toxin inside the front of pullover sweaters or blouses so that women who try them on will inhale the toxin. They should start with high end stores to get better press coverage. They treat no more than two garments in each store and move on. Suppose it takes an average of 3 days for the toxin to be inhaled by someone. Two weeks incubation time. If the attack is launched in flu season, misdiagnosis is likely. After discovering the attack, the authorities will probably not find the source for several weeks more, especially if the victims only tried on the blouse and didn't buy it. As soon as the method of the attack is discovered and publicized, the teams disburse and send a notice claiming credit. By this time they will have hit stores in most cities in the country. People will stop shopping, and not just the women. Since the teams are not caught, the public will always fear that they could strike again. It is likely that one or more of the terrorist women (who are actually handling the toxin) will also sicken. The sick ones will be killed and buried to maintain the fiction of having escaped. The U.S. is a consumer society and an attack like this will grind it to a halt for several months. The damage to the economy and to the psychology of ordinary citizens will be lasting.

Mario Anthony MoctezumaApril 26, 2006 7:27 AM

Contamination of Starbuck's or "Synonimous Company's" Coffee Bean's. Here is an actual excerpt from Starbucks.com "Coffee is a huge business. In fact, coffee is the second most valuable commodity after oil." Which means this could easily be an act of terriorism.

For the film you wouldn't actually use Starbuck's but a made up company that is near the size of starbucks. They serve 300 million customers/beverages a day. It would have to be a tasteless, odorless slow releasing toxin so that the taste testers at the factory would not show immediate effects. Due to the amount of people that drink the coffee it would take a couple of days to realize that it was the coffee beans, by that time Millions would be dead or dying.

Think about that next time you order a latte from America's favorite coffee shop.

RecruiterApril 26, 2006 9:47 AM

@afroblanco -- "You're assuming that terrorists think rationally. Isn't the whole idea behind AQ that they're on a Mission From God?"

That might be in AQ's press releases, but we haven't seen Osama hijacking any planes. AQ is taking advantage of those they can convince somehow to be a terrorist. If they were acting irrationally, they'd be more of a danger to themselves and their companions rather than their targets.

Bruce made the point that there aren't many attacks here and many in Iraq. One explanation is that it seems more like an effective option in a war zone -- If you think your life will be wasted by a perceived enemy, why not choose the time and place and take some of them with you? That perception evaporates in a free and open society with opportunities. If AQ offers potential terrorists a ticket to America and $2000 in exchange for a promise to turn sniper in DC, what is going to keep them from dissappearing with the money? Threats against their families? Trying to coerce people already willing to die is asking for betrayal.

Turning terrorist is rational in the minds of those who turn terrorist. Bruce's observation that we haven't seen terrorists strike here says something about the irrationality of terrorism: for some reason, AQ seems unable to recruit people to come here and kill. I think it is because once here they could instead become a cabbie and send money back home and make more of a difference in their family's lives than if they snuffed it.

markApril 26, 2006 5:05 PM

Rather than submit a plot, I'd like to suggest another criterion to consider when selecting a winner: who benefits by attempts to prevent this plot. In the real world, many of these plots are silly, but protecting us from these unlikely risks manages to line someone's pockets nicely.

SargeApril 26, 2006 8:34 PM

The power of terrorism is in the fear of the unknown. Because of this fear, we must be ever vigilant at every point for one never knows what is next. Any means to kill or maim is preferred. Economic results/events are never prime targets. The White House, Pentagon, and congress were casualty inflictors while the WTC was a strike at Jews/Israel and the Symbol of Zion. The IRA created massive havoc by hitting store fronts and transportation while Palestinians have attacked busses and barracks. Intimidation and fear and death to the infidel.

Watch for activity via private aircraft in the future. Easily obtained, simple to fly and capable of handling a variety of explosives.

Please remember this current fight started long before 9/11.

Bruce SchneierApril 27, 2006 3:43 AM

"Rather than submit a plot, I'd like to suggest another criterion to consider when selecting a winner: who benefits by attempts to prevent this plot. In the real world, many of these plots are silly, but protecting us from these unlikely risks manages to line someone's pockets nicely."

Definitely an important point.

afroblancoApril 30, 2006 11:27 AM

@Recruiter:

Once again, back to my main point - you're assuming that terrorists and terrorist capital is zero-sum.

Think of it as a Venn diagram :

You have Group A, a bunch of people who are so upset (for whatever reason) that they are willing to blow themselves and others up in order to effect world events. They are willing to come to the US, take flying lessons, do whatever they have to do in order to carry out their missions. Granted, these people are rare (as Bruce points out), but they do exist. The 9-11 attacks (and other attacks) couldn't have happened without them.

Now, you also have Group B - people who are upset about world events, and are willing to blow up themselves and others to make a point, but *only* if the battle is brought to their doorstep.

However, what you (and every other defender of the flypaper theory) have failed to point out is why a member of Group A would become a member of Group B. I would argue that there is little overlap between Groups A and B. For further proof of this, see the Wikipedia article that Bruce links to :

"According to a report from the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), foreign fighters comprise only about 4 to 10 percent of the estimated 30,000 insurgents in Iraq."

I would say that there are certain things that we can do (such as needlessly invading countries) to make both Groups A and B grow in size. Likewise, there are things we can do (such as more sensible foreign policy) to cause both Groups A and B to shrink.

Lawrence EatonMay 1, 2006 3:13 PM

Ah...too bad it's May 1st and I just came across this. I did actually write a motion picture screenplay that would fit the bill.

uair01May 5, 2006 1:42 PM

*** Unscrewing transmission line towers ***

As you will notice transmisson line towers are attached to their foundation by bolts. These are standard size.

See here:
http://i39.photobucket.com/albums/e182/uair01/...

Since many transmission line towers are in unfrequented sites a group of terrorists at night can manipulate them without being noticed.

See here:
http://i39.photobucket.com/albums/e182/uair01/...

It is easy to buy a wrench with the proper gauge to unscrew the bolts. It might take some power, but torque can be amplified by using a long steel tube to increase the leverage.

As you see - no suspect materials or tools are necessary. Just some time and muscular power.

Imagine that several pylons are toppled at the same time. The resulting power outages could take (at least) several days to repair and would have a demoralizing effect.

And it is impossible to guard all electricity pylons in the whole country.

I think this would be a great movie plot for a Monty Python style terrorist movie.

PatrickMay 11, 2006 9:00 PM


Dear Mr. Schneier,

I apologize for not submitting my comments below during your contest window. I hope my comments may still be relevant.

I have subscribed to your newsletter for a couple of years, and have read "Secrets and Lies" and "Beyond Fear". I also recommend your books and your newsletters to non-technical colleagues, as I believe they provide excellent insight into the reasons we provide security and increasing their understanding ultimately leads to their support for improved information security. I believe your writings are usually insightful, relevant, and meaningful. I am grateful for your work, and have great respect for you as a professional. I think you are brilliant.

I have read several of your insights into "Movie Plot Terrorism��?, and agree whole-heartedly with your point that designing security around specific threats is unproductive. However, I gave pause to your recent contest, as it reflects a change in your role from commentator on absurd plots to their sponsor. I applaud your ability to remain light hearted about serious subjects and your creativity. However, I sometimes lament about your ability to dissociate yourself personally in your writings from very real, very personal threats, treating events that touch lives as academic objects. In your personal life you are probably as deeply concerned about the personal well being of people as the next person. However, as you well know, people frequently come off different in their writing than they do personally, and when writings are generated by a respected figure such as yourself, the weight that your writings carry may have unintended consequences. As an illustration, I believe that this concept in itself could be used as an absurd movie plot, which I will describe below.

-----
Begin Movie Plot
-----

Background:

A "club" of 5 discontented teenagers meet regularly to discuss their dissatisfaction with life. They talk about how they will make the world regret how they have been treated, will do something big with their lives, etc. However, they lack direction, they lack resources, they lack commitment, and they lack intellect. There are thousands of ways they could wreak havoc on people's lives on a large scale, but collectively they can't think of one.

At the same time, a world renowned security guru sponsors a contest to come up with an elegant (or absurd) terrorist "movie-plot" that may be committed by a handful of untrained people and limited financial resources. His intent is to point out the folly of security design around terrorist plots, and to demonstrate this concept through theater of the absurd. He distributes invitations to his contest to a group of highly intelligent, well informed security professionals who understand both his goal and his point. They also understand his sense of humor.

A brilliant security analyst, working in a cubicle for a large nameless firm, writes fiction in his spare time. He sees the contest, and submits his own idea. It outlines a clever way that five people with the collective intellect of a brick and $500 of materials readily available to teenagers may walk up to the front of an elementary school without even entering the campus, and simultaneously kill every child, every employee, and themselves.

The plot is posted on the contest web site, and comments come in praising it for its cleverness, its devastation, how it is unpreventable, and how it will go down in history as an epic event on a scale of 9/11. The renowned security expert comments on its cleverness, and how it demonstrates the futility of planning against specific attacks. He chooses it as the winner.

When the winner of the contest is chosen, contest results appear in security blogs and websites all over the Internet. Wired magazine reports on it. A link to it appears on
Google News. One of the students works on a parent's computer that has this site as a home page. He sees the article and shares it with his club. They read that a world renowned security expert waxed on about its elegance and simplicity. They see blog posts of other intelligent people discussing its devastating impact, and its lasting effect on our culture. They now have direction, they have resources, and they have borrowed intellect from geniuses. They lack the intellectual ability to rationalize that the point of the contest was to demonstrate an academic point; they take it at face value. They generate commitment.

Unlike other action movies, there is no happy ending. The five teenagers pool their resources, go to home depot and buy the supplies and the next day walk up to a school and execute the plan successfully.

The world-renown security guru is swamped by the media, who dwell on how the plot was taken from his contest. He knows his goal, and he knows that the event is not his fault. However, unlike others he is in a profession that demands thick skin. He is able to dissociate himself from the personal devastation. He sleeps well as he not only knows it is not his fault, he can internalize that it is not his fault.

The security analyst is also a genius. He knows it is not his fault. However, unlike the security guru, he is unable to internalize it. He goes to bed every night to nightmares of the dying children, believing that he is personally responsible for their tragic deaths. He has these nightmares for the rest of his life.

The administrators of the school district are subject to intense scrutiny from the community, the national media, and the families of the dead. A world renowned security guru said that the attack was clever and practically unpreventable, but this has no meaning anymore. They live in a personal and professional hell. No matter how little they had to do with the incident, or how difficult it was to secure against, they have the same nightmares as the author, for the rest of heir lives. In public they blame the security guru, but in their own minds they blame themselves. (I have first hand awareness of how they feel. I was once a classroom teacher, and once had to conduct class while the students were staring out the window watching another student die. I wasn't on supervision duty during the break when the attack happened, I didn't design campus security, and I was unaware of the attack until the paramedics were there. Still, it took me many nights to put to rest thoughts that somehow I could have prevented it.)

The families of the dead require no epilog. Perhaps they file a class action lawsuit against the security expert. While he is eventually exonerated, he exhausts his resources defending himself.

-----
End Movie Plot
-----

I don't believe my movie plot merits consideration in your contest, as even I find it unentertaining. However, I felt compelled to share. The chances of this scenario happening are 1 in 100,000,000. I believe that one of my shortcomings as a security professional is that my skin just isn't thick enough. I couldn't sponsor a contest of this nature, because to me the odds are too high. In any case, I think that as security professionals we have enough to do combating senseless security without making up new scenarios. At best, it provides mild distraction. At worst, it dehumanizes what we do.

I appreciate your time to read my thoughts, and hope that you recognize that it is the great esteem with which I hold you that compelled me to share them.


DDMay 15, 2006 5:21 AM

Okay - I don't believe we are ever going to increase security anywhere in this country unless we are willing to do a little bit of 'racial profiling' when it comes to Muslims. I have done quit a bit of reading and studying of Muslim history and religion - and I sincerely believe that most Muslims feel absolutely justified in using terrorism, murder, and any other violent means to further their political or religious cause – and it does not matter how many innocents die in their attacks.

Please don’t lambaste me on my point of view – UNLESS you really know what you are talking about. I would not appreciate half-baked, half-informed responses to such a complex issue. Read the Koran if you doubt me (I have), and tell me how many references you find to justifiable murder and mayhem there.

Check out these pro and contra web sites on the Muslim religion – it should really open your eyes up to the reality of the situation.

www.religionofpeace.com (pro)
www.thereligionofpeace.com (con)


WarrenMay 15, 2006 1:28 PM

Since trees growing under powerlines caused not only New York state, but also Northern Italy to get blacked out, my "ecologically sound" terrorist attack involves going round the country with a back-pack full of acorns, planting them under powerlines. All I need to do then, is wait for one hundred, a hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred years while God does "the Devils work", and the whole country will be brought to it's knees. And the best part is, I will be dead, so they can't convict me!

From EuropeMay 15, 2006 4:13 PM

First step of terror plot agains a given attacked country:
- Catch 3 tourists in 3 countries, and send the attacked country press and TV neworks information about where to find part of their bodies.
Second step of terror plot - 36 hours after first :
- Catch 5 business people in 5 countries and do the same as for tourists.
Third step of terror plot :
- wait 2 weeks, do nothing
Fourth step of terror plot :
- repeat step 1in 3 other countries and step 2 in 5 other countries, one of the tourist and one of the business people being in a direct neighbour of the attacked country (eg: if the attacked country is Iraq, catch an Iraqi tourist in Syria and an Iraqi businessmen in Iran - ooops , sorry, this may be a bad exemple :-) ).
Fifth step of terror plot :
- wait 1 week, do nothing
Six step of terror plot :
- send press and TV networks a message stating that one will start again the following year/month - by randomly exploding cars used by the attacked country citizen abroad

Roch4dMay 15, 2006 7:28 PM

Terrorists could do nothing...yet. Threat level remains high and resources remain in place for a few years. Terrorists could conduct an annual survey of How terroism affects people. Once terrorism is no longer high enough in publics minds then the terrorists start planning the next attack.

AlanMay 16, 2006 3:00 PM

Who are we the most afraid of? Each other.

Terrorists set up a web site collecting condemnations of people by their neighbors. The hook is simple--talk radio hosts, both right wing and left wing, are convinced that they can use this to "shame" people into changing their behavior. And the web site encourages and abets them in this for a time, which pulls a large volume of submissions.

At some point, energy around this process may start to abate. The terrorists then begin selecting victims from the list at random and traveling around executing them by any expedient means. With ordinary people, this is really easy. It's not hard to structure the information flow in typical terrorist cell fashion.

They wait a few days after each execution, enough to let the trail go cold. Then they announce, via random and various means (email, public library bulletin boards, calls to talk radio, newspaper letters, etc.), that the victim was executed because of denunciation of behavior X by unnamed parties. Care is taken to make sure behavior X spans the spectrum, so everyone is a potential target. And everyone wonders, "am I next?"

There will be a national media feeding frenzy after a half dozen or less of these incidents. Yet with 20 terrorists, they've got at least 10 teams, and not many of them will get caught before they've carried out several missions. Space the killings per team out a month or so apart, and six months of mayhem is in scope.

Halfway into this, once the nation is totally beside itself, and everyone has gone out and bought guns, phase two begins. They begin publishing condemnations, verbatim, hundreds or thousands at a time. Meanwhile the planned executions continue. Now the condemned start going after the condemners, and vice versa. Pretty ugly. It takes a natural disaster or something to pull the country back together.

Alan

PS. A nice advantage of this movie plot is that production (publication) of it tends to disarm any actual threat in that direction.

wkwillisMay 22, 2006 3:39 AM

Patrick
I assume if Schneier receives a way to destroy New York City that is suitable for five nihilist students with 100$ each, he won't publish it.
As for killing everybody in a high school with five people and 500$, the methods are too trivial and easy to be interesting.

wkwillisMay 22, 2006 3:46 AM

uair01
A simpler method was used by the British and Japanese in WWII. They launched balloons with conductive threads attached to them downwind against their targets in Germany and America.
The British and Japanese were successfull but didn't know it because of an information blackout of their targets.
If the Japanese had known they came within 45 minutes of melting down the Hanford (horizontal duct electric fan blown air cooled graphite) plutonium production reactors, they probably would have put more effort into it.

BoboMay 22, 2006 9:50 AM

For this one would need 7 cars and 28 people dressed as clowns. All you need to do it get the 7 cars full of clowns to pull over at 7 different strategic points of a large freeway system at a sycronized time during morning rush hour. Clowns get out. Open the hood. Pull out a sparkplug. Throw them over the embankment.

Then commence to clowning.

One guy looks under the hood, another comes up and kicks him in the behind. The first guys head comes up and hits the underside of the hood. Another guys sprays the kicking guy with a seltzer bottle. Another clown honks a little bicycle horn. That sort of thing.

Meanwhile, this is going on at six other major thoroughfairs in the same metropolitan area. At each of these points, traffic is crawling.

Police arrive. Clowns resist arrest. More mayhem ensues. It would be the worst traffic in history.

snottlebocketMay 22, 2006 11:11 AM

the thing that i noticed most about these sollutions was how short term and inconsequential most are as a terrorist attack.

particularly attacks against people seem to serve no real purpose except to invoke horror.
it's quite awfull when it happens ofcourse but killing 100, 500 or even a 1000 people seems very inconsequential for such a high risk action.
it inflicts emotional damage but people are easily replaced and while their relatives grief the country suffers no lasting damage.

if you look at 9/11 the damage it's done to the actual buildings and people that have died is minor compared to the massive cost and effects on the economy that were the result of tighter national security and the armed conflicts that were a direct result of these attacks.
even america's reputation was severely damaged as decision making resulting from the attacks has grown an increasing anti american sentiment in the world.

attacks against the infrastructure seem more efficient since they do a lot more tangible damage in the sense that they disrupt every day life and the economy.
but since these kind of attacks in the western world usually aren't part of a larger campaign and aren't followed up on or capitalized on, ultimately they are only a economic inconvenience, the damage is repaired and recovered from.

which really leaves me to wonder why potential terrorists don't start thinking more creatively in terms of long term damage that can be inflicted without needing follow up actions to reach it's full potential.
throughout history people have managed to create massive problems simply with bad decision making, replicating these kinds of situations seem to be much safer, cheaper and easier to achieve as high profile attacks like 9/11.

selective introducing of foreign species for example.
look at the cain toad for example, this animal was introduced in australia to combat a destructive species of beetle.
it failed utterly at this though as the caintoad ignored the beetle but has proven to be a nigh impossible to exterminate pest that has a major impact on local wildlife.

even decades later the caintoad causes millions of dollars worth of damage while being impossible to remove from the ecosystem.

it's not very glamorous or high profile but introducing such a destructive species into the american ecosystem in numerous locations chosen for maximum economic damage would cause a long term economic and ecological disaster while costing next to nothing to execute.

biological weapons don't necesarily mean virii and chemical weapons, introducing carefully selected species of animals and plants can cause a lot of long term damage while being easy and cheap to execute.

i'm sure there's many such affordable and low profile options that will never the less cause major damage.
perhaps terrorist chemists could find a way to synthesize a highly addictive, very easy to produce drug and introduce that to american youth.

if the drug is both addictive, cheap and easy to produce i imagine it would quickly find a niche poisoning america's youth with their voluntary participation.
even if the drug is completely save it would still mean resources would have to be devoted to fighting this new drug on the market.

for the cost of one major violent attack on america you could probably launch a dozen major headaches that undermine society, moral and the economy long term.

fuzzbotMay 22, 2006 11:22 AM

It's not: "... the most obvious lesson of September 11 - don't build skyscrapers." but rather that folks who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Brad KnowlesMay 22, 2006 1:05 PM

I know this won't make the deadline, but I'll go ahead and post it here anyway.


My concept is simple -- use man-made explosives to set off a much bigger natural disaster.

For example, we know that the Canary Islands have an active fault line, and that if there is a major earthquake there then about a trillion tons of earth will be dumped into the sea. This will cause a mega-tsunami several miles high to race across the Atlantic Ocean, aimed straight at the US eastern seaboard. This would wipe out pretty much everything up to the Smokey Mountains, so NYC, Boston, Washington D.C., etc... would all be gone.

This is science fact. There have been a couple of mega-tsunami movies that came out of Hollywood, but none of them can hold a candle to what will actually happen when the Canary Islands actually do go. The fault line is already in the process of failing -- the split increases by several feet per year, and we're already so close to failure that the geo-scientists are amazed that it hasn't already gone.

All it needs is a little help from mankind to make that be now as opposed to some time in the next hundred years or so. Maybe one of those nukes that used to be owned by the Soviet Union, maybe a more conventional explosive would be enough.


Of course, you could also give the San Andreas a little help, too. Oh, don't forget fault that has the strongest quake in the recent history of the planet -- New Madrid, near Memphis, TN.


You could have three teams, one to take out each of them. That would wipe out the eastern seaboard, the western seaboard, and much of the central US.

Of course, there wouldn't be much left of the country after that, so I don't know how "terrorized" all those dead people would be, or how effective this attack would be in the long-term.

UlaaMay 22, 2006 3:54 PM

[quote]Assume an attacker profile on the order of 9/11: 20 to 30 unskilled people, and about $500,000 with which to buy skills, equipment, etc.[/quote]

All communications between groups are done using laptops with roaming broadband cards and one time cell phones. All communications are encrypted using off the shelf unbreakable encryption software (this type of software is mostly freeware and downloadable from anywhere in the world).

All laptops are equipped with password/disk wipe type software. Get a password wrong and the software begins a military grade wipe of the disks. Any data is unrecoverable.

This isnt rocket science.

1. Organise 10-15 people to be hired as fuel truck drivers for a large fuel delivery company. (Shell, Caltex etc) infiltrate these people over the course of months. Once your people are in place do 1 of 2 things

1. a
Have each truck do its deliverys as normal. During the course of the daily rounds each agent drops an incendiary device into every single fuel bowser that he/she services. These devices are timed to go off similtaneously in one week. All agents quit ove the course of the next week and are out of the country before the bombs go off.

150 fuel bombs going off similtaneously across a major US city is going to cause huge disruption, economic, political and social.

1. b
Each Fuel truck driver maneuvers their truck into a majorly congested area. For example each truck takes a different tunnel into New York city during rush hour in the morning. The trucks dump their fule loads and detonate when in the middle of each tunnel.

2.
Drop a plane onto Disneyland during the summer visitor height.

3.
Take control of a Fuel Tanker. Run it into a harbour (NY, LA) start to dump the fuel a mile out. Pump the fuel out using sprayers to get as much Fuel mixed with air as possible. The object is to create a vast wake of fuel mixed with air, in essence a huge Fuel Air bomb. Detonate the tanker and the FAB just before the tanker would crash into the docks.

4.
Get hold of Nuke/Chem waste. There are thousands of tons of it rotting in unsafe dumping grounds all over the world, mostly Africa. Drop barrells of the stuff into water supplies. Slowly poisoning millions.

5.
Buy 20 large delivery type vans. Paint them with the advertising for standard local companies. (who notices delivery vans?) Modify them to mount standard US army 82 mm mortars inside the van with a slot in the roof.

Drive around and randomly fire off mortar rounds against targets of convenience. During large events (sports events, fairs etc) the vans could converge on a area and all take a shot at once. 20 mortar attacks delivered similtaneously againt a random target.

6.
Get a nuke into a plane. get it as high into the air as you can, over a major city, and set it off. The nuke does no damage, but ALL comms into and out of the city are destroyed by the EMP. Electronic ignitions are destroyed, electronic signalling of all sorts, (trains, planes, road lights, power generation, internet connections, radio, TV etc) is completely destroyed.

Not only can no one communicate but emergency services are effectively on foot and isolated. The insurance costs of replacing the electronics of the inhabitants of a major US city would bankrupt hundreds of Insurance companies. this would cause banks to fail and the banking system to begin to collapse.

This is all on top of the disruption and distruction caused by the EMP itself.

racerxMay 25, 2006 5:04 PM

I've vote for Bobo's clown carnage of death . . . mostly to watch Fox News try to cover it with a straight face.

Also, consider substituting Civil War Re-enactors for clowns.

Cryptogram FanJune 9, 2006 12:24 AM

Positively Evil
Rape, Murder, and Torture Lead to Absolute Terror

30 terrorists divide the nation into 30 regions roughly along population sizes. After basic training, they select a couple attack dates and disperse to their regions. They integrate into their regions over the next 8 months with no future communication.

A list of residences in each region is generated at random. Included is a nice mix of cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Residences with families are more highly favored, but people living alone are also chosen.

Here we go.

April 1, 2007, 2:30 AM EST: Each terrorist enters the first residence and forces all inhabitants into one room. The victims are physically restrained from movement and speech. The terrorist viciously rapes and kill all the women and children. The men are forced to watch. A variety of gruesome rapes and deaths are used: beatings, beheadings, forcing family to hurt/rape/kill each other, forcing children to drink bleach, etc. Use your imagination. The men’s fingers, eyes, ears, and tongues are then removed. The terrorist flees.

April 1, 2007, 4:30 AM EST: The terrorists strike a second target with the same attack.

The news reports the events. Captured terrorists activate suicide bombs. Viewers are glued to the TV like it is 9/11. Mass hysteria.

April 15, 2007, 3:00 AM EST: The terrorists each strike a third target.

The news reports again. Panic ensues that there will continue to be coordinated repeat attacks. Men, women, and children are terrified for nightfall.

Terrorists continue attacks at a rate of one per terrorist per week. Random days and times are selected. Daytime attacks begin occurring. Men stay home from work, afraid to leave their wives home alone. Months pass before all the terrorists are caught.


Benefits:
• Hits all five risk exaggeration areas you list, especially #3, #4, and #5.
• Low-tech
• No communications required after initial meeting. The terrorists don’t even necessarily need to meet each other.
• Nobody feels safe. It doesn’t matter where you live, where you shop, or what you do for a living. You are a potential target.
• Humans are naturally terrified by the personal face-to-face evil that can be committed by others. Nicholas Berg’s horrible beheading captured the attention of our nation. Other U.S. citizens killed in Iraq daily by impersonal bombings barely make the news.


Difficulties:
• Are there really that many twisted terrorists that could do such horrible things to another human?


Other:
• Terrorists add some sort of sinister ritualistic chant or evil action to their procedures to increase the terror.
• Start with a group of 10 terrorists. Once they are eliminated the next group of 5 starts. After that, another group of 5. Then a last group of 10 to finish it off.
• Proximity bombs left behind to kill first responders and delay investigations
• Cell phone jammers to prevent 911 calls
• Ham radios set to monitor police activity, allowing early detection of being spotted

Philippe McIntyreJune 20, 2006 4:34 PM

With all the animal activisim linked with terrorisim, I have the plot for you:

Animal protection groups are found to catch live tuna and injecting them with poissonouse material like lead and mercury, release them back in the ocean to save the dolphins.

For anybody wondering what dolphins have to do with tuna, aledgedly, dolphins get entangled in nets used to fish tuna.

I think this is a good fish story, would Nemo and Disney approve?

Phil.

icur12July 6, 2006 5:57 PM

I, as well, vote for Bobo or Civil War Re-enactors clown carnage of death.
But I guess I'm kinda partial to midget wrestlers.
How about for the next presidential election we rig it so that no matter who runs Ted Kennedy wins and Nancy Pelosi is vice pres ... talk about scary!


ChinfroJuly 11, 2007 10:40 PM

Ok, you have to really go back to basics here... what do the terrorists want to do? Kill us. If we're already dead, we take that option away.

Kill yourself so the terrorists can't. I'ts the only way to be absolutely sure you don't die from terrorism. Take matters into your own hands for a change.

Anthrax in the cokeAugust 29, 2008 3:11 PM

In searching for the title of a classic CBS docudrama done years ago about a terrorist nuclear bomb standoff I came across your question.

It is way too late to enter your contest, but the simplest way to hit America is have the cocaine people in Columbia mix anthrax into each brick of cocaine, That would wipe out millions of type A business people. Most of Wall street would be wiped out. Hollywood would be a ghost town.

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