Movie-Plot Threat Contest Winner

I can tell you one thing, you guys are really imaginative. The response to my Movie-Plot Threat Contest was more than I could imagine: 892 comments. I printed them all out — 195 pages, double sided — and spiral bound them, so I could read them more easily. The cover read: “The Big Book of Terrorist Plots.” I tried not to wave it around too much in airports.

I almost didn’t want to pick a winner, because the real point is the enormous list of them all. And because it’s hard to choose. But after careful deliberation (see selection criteria here), the winning entry is by Tom Grant. Although planes filled with explosives is already cliche, destroying the Grand Coulee Dam is inspired. Here it is:

Mission: Terrorize Americans. Neutralize American economy, make America feel completely vulnerable, and all Americans unsafe.

Scene 1: A rented van drives from Spokane, WA, to a remote setting in Idaho and loads up with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers and a couple of people dressed in fatigues.

Scene 2: Terrorists dressed in “delivery man” garb take over the UPS cargo depot at the Spokane, WA, airport. A van full of explosives is unloaded at the depot.

Scene 3: Terrorists dressed in “delivery man” garb take over the UPS cargo depot at the Kamloops, BC, airport. A van full of explosives is unloaded at the depot.

Scene 4: A van with mercenaries drives through the Idaho forests en route to an unknown destination. Receives cell communiqué that locations Alpha and Bravo are secured.

Scene 5: UPS cargo plane lands in Kamloops and is met at the depot by terrorists who overtake the plane and its crew. Explosives are loaded aboard the aircraft. The same scene plays out in Spokane moments later, and that plane is loaded with explosives. Two pilots board each of the cargo planes and ask for takeoff instructions as night falls across the West.

Scene 6: Two cargo jets go airborne from two separate locations. A van with four terrorists arrives at its destination, parked on an overlook ridge just after nightfall. They use infrared glasses to scope the target. The camera pans down and away from the van, exposing the target. Grand Coulee Dam. The cell phone rings and notification comes to the leader that “Nighthawks alpha and bravo have launched.”

Scene 7: Two radar operators in separate locations note with alarm that UPS cargo jets they have been tracking have dropped off the radar and may have crashed. Aboard each craft the pilots have turned off navigational radios and are flying on “manual” at low altitude. One heading South, one heading North.

Scene 8: Planes are closing in on the “target” and the rocket launcher crew goes to work. With precision they strike lookout and defense positions on the dam, then target the office structures below. As they finish, a cargo jet approaches from the North at high velocity, slamming into the back side of the dam just above the waterline and exploding, shuddering the earth. A large portion of the center-top of the dam is missing. Within seconds a cargo plane coming from the South slams into the front face of the dam, closer to the base, and explodes in a blinding flash, shuddering the earth. In moments, the dam begins to fail, and a final volley from four rocket launchers on the hill above helps break open the face of the dam. The 40-mile-long Lake Roosevelt begins to pour down the Columbia River Valley, uncontrolled. No warning is given to the dams downriver, other than the generation at G.C. is now offline.

Scene 9: Through the night, the surging wall of water roars down the Columbia waterway, overtopping dam after dam and gaining momentum (and huge amounts of water) along the way. The cities of Wenatchee and Kennewick are inundated and largely swept away. A van of renegades retreats to Northern Idaho to hide.

Scene 10: As day breaks in the West, there is no power from Seattle to Los Angeles. The Western power grid has failed. Commerce has ground to a halt west of the Rocky Mountains. Water is sweeping down the Columbia River gorge, threatening to overtop Bonneville dam and wipe out the large metro area of Portland, OR.

Scene 11: Bin Laden releases a video on Al Jazeera that claims victory over the Americans.

Scene 12: Pandemonium, as water sweeps into a panicked Portland, Oregon, washing all away in its path, and surging water well up the Willamette valley.

Scene 13: Washington situation room…little input is coming in from the West. Some military bases have emergency power and sat phones, and are reporting that the devastation of the dam infrastructure is complete. Seven major and five minor dams have been destroyed. Re-powering the West coast will take months, as connections from the Eastern grid will have to be made through the New Mexico Mountains.

Scene 14: Worst U.S. market crash in history. America’s GNP drops from the top of the charts to 20th worldwide. Exports and imports cease on the West coast. Martial law fails to control mass exodus from Seattle, San Francisco, and L.A. as millions flee to the east. Gas shortages and vigilante mentality take their toll on the panicked populace. The West is “wild” once more. The East is overrun with millions seeking homes and employment.

Congratulations, Tom. I’m still trying to figure out what you win.

There’s a more coherent essay about this on, but I didn’t reprint it here because it contained too much that I’ve already posted on this blog.

Posted on June 15, 2006 at 2:37 PM59 Comments


A Strutzenberg June 15, 2006 3:23 PM

What would be cool would be to either put the postings up for people to peruse or maybe see about having them published to a for print book 🙂

Jarrod June 15, 2006 3:32 PM

Amazingly well thought out.

Of course, Bruce Willis wasn’t mentioned at all. Had he been, the plan would have been foiled just in the nick of time. 🙂

noamt June 15, 2006 3:36 PM

I think you should organize all the plots in an easy-to-read web format (hint: the post’s html page is 1,358,386 bytes long!).

Something simple like a list of on-line summaries that link to the entry will do, IMHO.

Guerin June 15, 2006 3:46 PM

There are several places where that would work. Destroying the Hartwell Dam would overflow the Richard B. Russell Dam, the Clark’s Hill Dam (Strom Thurmond Dam) and flood everything downstream on the Savannah River. That would include the Savannah River Site, a DOD nuclear processing facility which stores liquid radioactive waste. Maybe not as large a population hit, but the hysteria over potential nuclear contamination downstream of the plant, including Savannah and Charleston would result.

MLS June 15, 2006 3:57 PM

In my opinion quite stupid.

Why not just get to the heart of it?

Counterfeit Money is the surest way to create massive unrest among ordinary citizens, and the political cronies as well. There is nothing like a good ol’ hyperinflation to bring in a dictator that will surely ruin the lives of all the citizens.

“The West is “wild” once more. ”

The west was never “wild”. In fact it was really tame. It became wild once state law intervened.

Destroying domestic power stations is a good means to enrich Canadian & Mexian power plant owners. And so, the effects of all this is temporary at best.

“America’s GNP drops from the top of the charts to 20th worldwide.”

America’s GNP drops dramatically once the miraculous fraud that is Imputation is removed from the compilation, along with many other aggragative hedonically manipulated artifacts.

“The East is overrun with millions seeking homes and employment.”

And this is bad for the Easterners how?

MLS has lost the plot June 15, 2006 4:25 PM

@MLS – I think a lot of people would agree that as a “movie plot threat” (keeping in mind what Bruce was after) this was a good one. It’s easy to criticise something on different criteria to the original request, if you had a better plot perhaps you should have submitted it. (or perhaps you did, and it didnt ‘win’ 😉 )

Roger June 15, 2006 4:50 PM

@MLS has lost the plot:

I think a lot of people would agree that as a “movie plot threat” (keeping in mind what Bruce was after) …

I think Bruce’s phrase “movie plot threats” is a little unfortunate, because many people think he is talking about hype or implausibility.

In fact he refers to narrow focus or excessive specificity when a broad analysis is called for. See the following link for his essay where he introduced the term:

The purpose of the contest, as I understand it, was to highlight the folly of running around reacting to scenario after scenario, because there is an unlimited number of them. As such, the movie plot must at least be workable or peoples’ repsonses will just be “Huh? That’s silly.”

Anonymous June 15, 2006 5:23 PM

This couldn’t happen. Jack Bauer and Chuch Norris would easily foil this attack.

Roger June 15, 2006 5:59 PM

It is, I suppose, too late to influence your choice, but I’m not particularly happy with it. It makes a fine movie plot in the literal sense, but as an example of Bruce Schneier “movie plot”, it is quite weak.

First and worst, it is basically a combination of two scenarios which have already been discussed ad nauseum: using a plane as a missile, and attacking major dams. If you present this in a public forum, the response will simply be “What’s your point? We are already making efforts to protect our planes, and we are already making efforts to protect our dams. Do you just want more funding or something?”

Secondly and still quite serious, to achieve the “mission” of destroying the US economy, this plot relies on a deus ex machina. The plot explains how it intends to destroy Grand Coulee Dam, and makes a reasonable claim that this will destroy all dams and several towns on the Columbia River. But then it just leaps ahead and claims that this will cut off all power to the entire West Coast for months — erm, how, exactly? (I don’t know exactly how many power stations there are on the US West Coast, but it’s at least dozens, most of which are thermal — coal, oil or gas burners, and 4 nuclear plants.)

Third and less importantly, I strongly suspect this plot goes way over budget on personnel, equipment and skills. It requires not 1 but 2 pilots who can fly cargo jets in nap-of-the-earth flight, in the mountains, at night, without instruments. This is a very exotic skill (oh, and they also have to be suicidal 8^). It requires ~8 “rockets” able to hit and destroy massive structures at ranges of about 2,000 metres, in the dark; that means no simple RPGs, they need ATGMs with thermal sights, which are much more expensive and much harder to obtain. And they require sufficient combat-trained personnel to take and hold two separate large facilities, undetected, whilst launching an attack on a third, remote location.

Fourthly and quite incidentally: as a plan this, sucks; it has too many moving parts, any of which could jam the others. For example, assuming the rocket launchers are actually required at all (does Grand Coulee Dam have air defences?!?), then a simple breakdown in van no. 3 turns the entire plan to clag.

Fifthly, and least important, Tom has picked the wrong dam. Grand Coulee Dam is a gravity dam, not an arch dam. That means it is of massive construction, not delicately balanced forces. The thinnest part of the crest is 30 feet of solid ferroconcrete, and by the time you get to the waterline, depending how full it is, it is often more than double that. That means it can shrug off an immense amount of explosives (the last time the shape was modified, the blasting took nearly eight years). Further, unlike some gravity dams, Grand Coulee is solid concrete. That means that even if you succeed in creating a breach, the flood will not pull it apart and widen itself; the hole you make is the only one through which water will escape. Even if the terrorists succeeded in making a breach 150 feet wide and deep (about 40,000 tonnes of concrete, which would require a well-placed tactical nuclear weapon), only minor flooding would occur, then the engineers would lower the water level without interrupting operations, and patch it up.

I still vote for Lizardo’s election sniper plot. It’s cheap, simple, uses only half a dozen people with minimal training and co-ordination, and yet could have shocking political impact.

ananda June 15, 2006 7:02 PM

A few years ago a read the novel “Train Man” by P.T. Deutermann which concerns a disgruntled railroad worker blowing up all of the railroad bridges (4 according to the book) that cross the Mississippi River.

That might put a little dent in the economy…

Ralph June 15, 2006 7:23 PM

Well a good base story line I feel. But characterisation is very poor and for good box office appeal a love interest will have to be written in.

Questor June 15, 2006 11:04 PM

And of course the “movie plot” response??? Drain all dams of course – then they can’t be used to overflow other dams in this manner.

Funny thing is that the movie plot response is more than likely to be the real life response given our track record since 9/11.

sb June 16, 2006 1:50 AM

For those people saying that a few dams wouldn’t knock out power to the entire west coast… Do you actually 1996, when a single (admittedly large) powerline failed and knocked out power for nine states due to cascading overloads? As coincidence would have it, the line in question was responsible (among other things) for bringing hydropower into Los Angeles from the Columbia River. And in case you are wondering, the 5 largest dams alone on the Columbia are rated at over 14,000 MW, so this really isn’t a drop in the bucket we are talking about here. You can’t just “buy power from Mexico and Canada” because the grid can’t handle sudden shifts in power loads.

Devin Binger June 16, 2006 2:46 AM


I don’t think the claim was that it wouldn’t or couldn’t knock out power, just that in the (fairly likely) event that it did, that outage would last days, not months. You’re absolutely correct on the short term scale that you seem to be talking about, but on the longer scale that it would take to cripple the economy and depopulate the West, the grid could handle the shifts and other power sources could pick up enough of the slack.

RandomOlderPerson June 16, 2006 2:49 AM

“A few years ago a read the novel “Train Man” by P.T. Deutermann which concerns a disgruntled railroad worker blowing up all of the railroad bridges (4 according to the book) that cross the Mississippi River.”

Only four bridges across the Mississippi River? What universe is this book set in? There are at least four bridges within the city of Minneapolis alone that cross the Mississippi (without counting the ones that have been converted to pedestrial use).

Vincent June 16, 2006 3:29 AM

Bruce, I’m afraid I agree with most of Roger’s criticism. But I would probably agree with another person’s equally valid criticisms of whatever other plot you chose. I doubt any plot is perfect. Even 9/11 didn’t go off as planned.

I think you should post the top 3. (Maybe a new friday thing, I dunno).

miw June 16, 2006 4:12 AM

It would be nice if we could read Bruce’s assessment on how the number one meets his criteria for a ‘movie plot threat’.

Cassandra June 16, 2006 4:35 AM


I think it’s four bridges carrying railways across the Mississippi – not bridges in general.


Olaf T Hairy June 16, 2006 5:16 AM

Congratulations Tom Grant,

You do know you’ll never fly again don’t you?

Nancy Lebovitz June 16, 2006 5:30 AM

I suspect it’s a lot harder to take over a UPS depot (let alone two UPS depots) without word getting out than it sounds.

How many people would be working there? How many have phones?

marc June 16, 2006 5:31 AM

I think that the attack as already begun.
– Some times ago, Mr Schneier launched a “movie plot theatre contest??? on his blog, teasing an enormous amount of security related experts.
– Those experts detain a high level of knowledge and skills on several technical secrets: hacking, freaking, key lock bumping, squid cooking, chemical use of explosive materials a.s.o.
– Those very same experts wrote several highly realistic scenarii for free, putting the Union of Scripwriters from Hollywood Main Area and Independent Linguistics (USHMAIL) in a dramatic situation.
– Two weeks later, the MPAA collapsed, incapable of producing a viable alternative solution to financially counterfight this invasion of low cost movie produced by images hackers and open source production associations.
– The GNFA (Gnfa is Not a Film Association) decided to impose his own distribution network, using peer to peer softwares and file repositories held by people offering freely their own storage capacities. Encryption of streaming contends and blocking the circulation of any entertainment contain is declared illegal.
– After the crack of the movie industry, the Theatre Network Association is reduced to silence. Major TV Networks and other diffusers of soap TV series (Fox, CNN, Bloomberg TV) collapsed the same way. 40 % of the US economy as disappeared in less than six monthes, the Nyse is forced to sell back the Euronext Trade Place to Saudi investors.
– Mr Schneier is elected President of the United States, every citizen is equipped with a Counterpane Appliance, the Hair Dresser Union of the Bay Area gained 37 point at the Nasdaq Index, after the launching of the “Bruce Almighty “Hair ribbon.
– The US general economy is whipped one month later, as the President is probably one of the best cryptanalyst on earth, but the worst specialist in political economy since the beginning.

No blood, no explosive, no biohazard…. Reality is sometimes worst than fiction.

Ale June 16, 2006 6:38 AM

I was kind of fond of the chemical/biological boogeymen, and I thought the sniper scenarios were the most realistic. However, this one brings back images of flooding and FEMA ineptitude that are still fresh in the general subconscious from hurricane Katrina, sot I guess it would be effective.

I do not think that the actual consequences would be as far ranging as described, though.

bob June 16, 2006 8:07 AM

dont bother criticizing it – ITS A MOVIE-PLOT THREAT! The whole point is to be spectaular and wild and not quite right on details.

@Pete: They didnt just ATTEMPT it – they DID it. BUT (now I’ll criticize, ignoring my own post) in the process they discovered that the amount of explosives required to take out a dam from the dry side to be unbelievable, so I suspect the winning plot wouldnt work on that point.

oily June 16, 2006 9:46 AM

what about another “Movie Plot” threat?
but now something closer to our reality.


Who are the countries that produce oil? Saudi Arabia, Iran and a few more “People Loving” countries.
If Iran will decide to stop the oil flow to the west (and it is quite considerable flow) the shortage will result in a steep climb of oil price.
Expensive oil ==> expensive transport & electricity, which means everything else’s price climbs fast.
Add to that a radical goverment in Saudi Arabia, that woke up on their bad side – oops, no more fuel for you! go back lightyears!
Without fuel or power, the west will lose all of his so-called “power”.

And this threat cannot be solved simply by administering a better security measures – we need to solve our energy crisis, now.

bob June 16, 2006 10:29 AM

@Dave: I saw the movie, and have often read the book by Paul Brickhill that it was based upon. Was unaware of the documentary, may have to check that out. Some of my family was flooded out when the dam broke so I am particularly interested in the subject. Plus I just find it to have been a fascinating and extremely effective weapon.

Mat June 16, 2006 10:42 AM

Congratulations to Tom. Compare and contrast to what the BBC apparently believes qualifies as a “plot”…

The voice, said to be Mr Khyam’s, says: “Imagine you’ve got a plane, 300 people in it, you buy tickets for 30 brothers in there.

“They’re massive brothers, you just crash the plane.
“You could do it easy.

The voice said to be Mr Akbar’s then says: “To find 30 brothers willing to commit suicide is a big thing.”

Describing the plot as a “good idea” the first voice then adds: “If you spoke to some serious brothers, to the right people, you’d probably get it, bro’… whether they were from abroad, you’d get it.

“Thirty brothers on a British Airways flight… as soon as an air marshal gets up and shoots one the others just jump him.”

Aieee! I’ll never fly again!

Jeff June 16, 2006 11:13 AM

Now, won’t you feel like a royal $hit when this actually happens next month?

(yes, that’s sarcasm folks!)

Roger Williams June 16, 2006 2:47 PM

Bruce, it struck me how your Terrorist Plot contest outcome was a
perfect example of the concept underpinning James Surowieki’s “The
Wisdom of Crowds”. The outcome of the contest: Probably the largest
single grouping of real plot possibilities anywhere. All are potential
and therefore probable. It is only the degree of potentiality that
would need to be assessed. The crowd, made up of the range from smart
to stupid who responded, has come up with a huge list, and it is
probably a much more detailed list that any such list from the group of
smart functionaries at the Dept of Homeland Security.

Of course (he said, cynically), given the “Not Invented Here”
syndrome, your list will probably never be read by those with the
leverage to do anything about the possibilities. No surveillance based
on such plots will be put in place (unless it is of you, as a possible
perp!). And funding will never follow such harebrained schemes in any
case. After all, who would ever turn a stolen plane into a missile?
Couldn’t possibly happen, not today….

And yes, I did have to consider writing this note at all. The damage
you contemplate in this newsletter has already been done.

Alamaine, IVe June 16, 2006 5:42 PM

I realise this is a little late in the game as far as “movie-base plots”
are concerned but there is still the issue of what inspires people to
respond to events that may involve some sabba-tooging or the creation of
unsettled states of mind in various nefariosities using whatever ways and
means. “Terror” is something that can change according to circumstances
and specific events. Earthquakes, high-rise fires, airplane disasters,
tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and all sorts of other “normal” or “Godly
act” situations might affect peoples’ range of emotions from
hypersensitivity to insensitivity.

Perhaps a lot depends on what is thrilling, what triggers a person’s
trip. People have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area under the threat
of another “Big One” for about a hundred years. People still live in
places where dams are built upstream from their homes. The Gulf Coast is
not in any danger of being depopulated any time soon. Nevertheless, many
of the same people will find that some eery movie that is filled with
imaginary issues and images to be petrifying. It comes down to some sort
of fascination with the “what-if” rather than the “what-is” reactions and
responses. The pharmaceutical and psyche shrinkers are making a mint off
of people and panic attacks, many of which have no foundation in reality
but remain an accepted fact.

I have long considered movies along the lines of “Die Hard” and “Lethal
Weapon” (and their knock-offs and collective iterations) to be
provocative in the sense that they inspire and incite the inner sanctums,
making them more dangerous than anything “real” could ever be. We see
situations in which the protagonists find themselves, blowing things up
and shooting people, their “star power” blown up as the scenes are shot.
But we don’t see a lot of this in reality, no one like a “John McClane”
or a “Martin Riggs” as seen in very many of the situations they depict on
the big and little screens, especially saving building captures or
dinette table surfing down some California highway. There are even
websites and other resources devoted to the very best car-chase scenes
provided by wHollyweird^, and, as we’ve seen on the cop shows, the real
things are much, much more boring.

The conclusion drawn is there are very many things in life that seek to
satisfy through reality many things that have previously only been
available through literature or other media. Much of what passed for
fantasy has now come to pass with aerospace travel, moon landings, very
small communications devices, and various other technological advances.
So it is with the movies, bringing to peoples’ live scenarioes that
provide them with opportunities to engage in conjecture and consideration
of the aspects of various plot lines. Your site has done this as well.

The performance art events of 11th September 2001 only mirror what has
been previous thunked up by the script writers and producers, reflecting
some sort of need for injecting realism into what has so far passed as
mere two-dimensional (albeit with sensory effects like SurroundSound)
representations. Even those living well beyond New York and Northern
Virginia were treated to something akin to two dimensions with the
vicarious experiences provided by breaking news and other images on their
television screens. Yes, it was reality but, again, only in two
dimensions, with not all of the senses engaged. The terror once again
was provided in projections and imaginings, watching the people covered
with ashes of buildings and their contents and occupants, seeing all
aspects of what happened in real time (or close to it) as what many
thought was compared to a what? A movie?

Are we to suggest that the culture is obsessed with trying to rekindle
those old atavistic fires when there were real bears and rattle snakes
outside, when a thunderstorm caused real fear because of the (then) lack
of grounding and the potential for starting fires, when societies buckled
under the effects of influenza, smallpox, or some other disease
transmitted by anyone, anywhere, any time? What do people find valuable
when their embers are be blown upon by watching movies like “Wolf Creek”
or any of the slasher flix, almost literally dripping in blood, almost
certainly bruising companion movie-goers’ arms or legs? “Jack the
Ripper” remains in the mainstream but why?

There is a certain customer service mentality provided by those who
actually present real events in response to the stated need of the
various societies. Why should the Londoners or the New Yorkers or anyone
vacationing in Bali be bored or unsatisfactorily tantalised by the
flickering images on the screen when, when, when the real thing can be
had? The Twin Towers were built with the idea that some airplance could
be flown into one much like one once did into the Empire State Building.
Skyjackings have been well-known for decades. Airplane crashes have been
an almost routine occurrence since the dawn of flight, or even before
considering all of the failed experiments. Things blow up for any number
of reasons, much more often than a tsunami rolls through the land masses
situated near to or in the Indian Ocean.

Of course, there is the imagination to rely upon in order to provide the
ultimate vehicle for the unknown. I’ve had my nightmares caused by
movies as I am sure many others have had also. But there is a certain
Poe-ish satisfaction when confronting dread. It is part of the psyche.
People somehow know what is necessary in order to keep that little bit of
animal instinct alive, to keep the adrenal glands functioning, to be able
to respond. To what degree have previous opportunites to watch public
punishments or executions, subsequently denied, contributed to the need
for some sort of justified judicial gore or violence perpetrated on
others of the species of humans?

While everyone has become inured to the requirement for automobile travel
and the prospect of having to wait in traffic, they still have become
numb to the reality that the real terror is all around them. Some thirty
thousand or more people die — dead and gone — in car wrecks every year.
Many are sent to the hospitals where hundreds of thousands are
misdiagnosed or given wrong treatments resulting in their demises
annually. How many more are just maimed or otherwise debilitated? And,
how many people really realise that they, too, can “die hard” in that
rolling “lethal weapon?” The real terror is just a drive down the
street, sans vigilante cop or dinette table.

^ e.g.,

Alamaine, IVe
Grand Forks, ND, US of A

bob June 16, 2006 8:17 PM

I have to say as a movie that would work, but I still think my idea is much easier and more potent.

Add a gal. or 2 of LSD to the water supply of say- Washington,DC or better yet Wallstreet.How hard would it be to sneak into a water plant? hint- very easy!

Now think of the chaos it would cause and then think about this simple fact- everything that has come into contact with the tainted water is now contaminated with LSD.

The effects would take a few hrs before people in power figured out the water had been the cause of the problems- ie. massive panic/chaos in every walk of life. Now think of a few million people tripping out of control and effects it would cause on the population at large.

Wallstreet, the market would be crippled after much damage already had been done with wild trading taking place as everybody drinks coffee…

Washington, just think of what could happen as the men in power are tripping and paraniona takes effect, again everybody drinks coffee…
What would happen to all the kids during morning breakfest?
What about pilots? truck drivers? school bus drivers? the list of people who under the effects would be staggering and those people would effect everybody they came across.

LSD is tasteless,colorless/odorless and much easier to make than getting rocket launchers . This plan would take only a few people and alot less money. The water supply would have to be replaced – everything that has come into conact would have to be replaced- what would it cost to repipe a major city? Every worker would have to wear hazmat suits as LSD does transfer into the air very easily. What about every household? again everthing in contact with the water supply would now be contaminated.

This is what I would call KISS- keep it simple & stupid. But the effects would be felt for yrs to come.

Yeah I had a few beers as the idea came into mind..

pat sutlaw June 16, 2006 8:24 PM

Bruce, well done wading through all those ideas and trying to pick the winner. I bet you won’t do something like this again in a hurry. Just speculating now .. Suppose there was a REALLY ‘GOOD’ IDEA for a terrist attack in all that stuff. Suppose you were tapped on the shoulder .. “Mr Schneier, I’m from the NSA and we don’t like what you’re doing.. Perhaps it would be best if you didn’t pick the best idea Mr Schneier ..” Wild speculation I know but is it possible that your chosen winner wasn’t really the ‘best’? Some cynical readers might say “This guy is a bitter, twisted loser whose idea didn’t win”. You might be right. Regards.

Anti-Bob June 17, 2006 7:06 AM

Folks, if you’re putting ANYTHING in the water supply, observe the following guidelines:

1) It should be inorganic. Chlorine destroys most organic compounds.

2) Bring it in a tanker truck. Most municiple water plants for the larger cities put out anywhere from 60 to more than 200 Million Gallons every day. To reach even one part per million, you’ll need a lot of it.

MathFox June 17, 2006 7:59 AM

Picking LSD as drug to “spice” the water supply makes sense; you only need 50 to 100 microgram per dose (Wikipedia), if you assume that a normal portion of water is 200 ml, 0.25 to 0.5 ppm of LSD in the drinking water would make every water (coffee, tea) drinker trip after a single cup.
Doing the math, 10 kg of LSD would do 20 to 40 Million Liter of water, an hour of water output from a plant. (LSD is broken down by chlorine, it’s unlikely to work in most US cities).

Jungsonn June 17, 2006 7:59 AM


Poisoning drinkingwater isn’t that easy as you say it is. But there are a few chemicals which can be deadly by intake with very little ppm. I can remember a previous post abotu this somewhere in the archives…

Muad'Dib June 17, 2006 2:16 PM

Insufficient explosives to cripple such a massive structure.

May need one of the nuclear bunker-buster bombs, which the military may not release, or actual demolition contractors putting in some serious effort, quite likely to be noticed.

Large structures, such as major bridges, have a small volume/structure ratio and wil take a lot of load they are not designed for (small related to design loads and built-in safety factors)

Even the WTC, with a very high volume/structure ratio, kept on ticking (relatively) after large part of the faces were removed. The earlier (95?) van-bomb didn’t even tickle the column.

As additional example, in events as hurricanes, little old wood houses have taken them repeatedly, while more recent and sophisticated “balloon” type houses take in in the chin and crumple.

Muad'Dib June 17, 2006 2:21 PM

Poisoning reservoirs is tempting but ignores the immense volume of water v inserted poison. It would be less than a homeopathic med.

Although a blob or cloud of water with sufficient lethality would certainly go through, if the stuff is dropped close enough to the intakes.

Jungsonn June 17, 2006 3:56 PM

Yeah well, the thing i think off is wether the chemical would mix through the whole reservoir. Most of the time it just floats in concentrated parts, and not over the whole reservoir unless, mixed_VERY_good.

I think it would be a much more dangerous thing to poisen a local pipe/reservoir of let’s say an important building with for instance cyanide.

Jungsonn June 17, 2006 4:02 PM

Or releasing some virusses or anthrax via the main vent/airco of an important building.

Blowing up a dam seems a good method for Rambo XII, but it’s too logistical to pull off i guess…

wileye June 18, 2006 8:00 AM

I think the best kind of movie plot would involve an attack with weaponized bird flu. If the terrorists developed a human-to-human strain and then infected birds migrating to the U.S. there would be no stopping it. Easy delivery … no way to stop. Chaos would ensue.

Jungsonn June 18, 2006 8:39 AM


“Even the WTC, with a very high volume/structure ratio, kept on ticking (relatively) after large part of the faces were removed. The earlier (95?) van-bomb didn’t even tickle the column.”

Blowing stuff up isn’t easy also, common mistake. One needs a good balance of enough pressure and explosive material, else it would just pop like a firecracker.

And like a suicide bomber in a very crowded packed place will only kill a few people, cause the shells and metals are being stopped by the first line of people around the suicidebomber, to be effective one have to do it in a place where people are more spread over the area so the pieces will blow out every direction with more causulties as results. It’s the same balance of impact one must maintain. Well, Maybe for movieplots it will do: We all like to see explosions instead of an invisible virus.

John Holmes (No, not THAT guy) June 18, 2006 8:56 AM

Sorry but your winner won’t work: the kinetic enegy and the air blast are limited in power against the dead weight of concrete.

As someone already mentioned, Barnes Wallis did the maths and the experiments during World War 2. Conclusion: a drone won’t hack it, nor will an air-blast.

Hence his ‘bouncing bomb’ to create an underwater contact explosion using 3 tons of torpedo explosive at 30′ depth as used against the Ruhr dams in the Dambusters raid by RAF squadron 617 led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

John Holmes (no, not THAT guy!)

Vlad the Incisor June 18, 2006 3:37 PM

Just how many tons of explosives are needed to blow up a dam of this size?

It seems to me that someone we don’t like just may have enough to get it done:

Though a 767 cargo jet could only deliver a max payload of about 49 tons (each jet). That seems like a pretty big boom to me…no?

And what about targeting the powerhouse section of the dam and not the buttress itself? Give all that water room to flow, and it could just possibly generate enough hydraulics to make this work.

Caveat…I’m no engineering expert. It just seems to me that where there is an evil will there may be an evil way…

Tom Grant June 20, 2006 2:48 PM

@ Mathie

Sorry, but I’ve never heard of Christopher Brookmyre, or read any of his books.

a shot of reality June 21, 2006 6:05 AM

why not just pay north korea to start luanching nuke and promise that you will help them with a large groud invasin afterwards they would be happy to help.

DaveB June 21, 2006 12:24 PM

When I first heard of Bruce’s contest my first thought was very similar. Lots of Americans choose to live in deserts (Phoenix, LA, etc.). Deserts without water and power are not hospitable places.

Achim Beck June 23, 2006 3:16 AM

Concerning the fact that this contest may inspire some bad guys we should keep the following in mind:

  1. Those who really want to carry out a plot don’t need inspiration, they’ll find something that they deem suitable for their evil intentions anyway.
  2. However, those in charge of protecting the society could get inspired by the contest.
    The most difficult part in defending against terroist attacks is, as Bruce mentioned, to detect the hidden activites and links of seemingly unrelated actions before it is too late. Some inspiration from the contest might help to detect this kind of activites and help to link them. If it really does, who knows?

Definitely it doesn’t harm either and I don’t think that it really inspires someone to carry out a terrorist attack because it takes more than just devising a plot.

Rowland Whittet August 26, 2009 4:47 PM

A terrorist plot to destroy the US might be as simple as to get one or more major corporations to lobby Congress and the media to do nothing to stop global warming for the next ten years.

We are already over the tipping point for the release of aproximately three earth atmospheres of methane hydrates which are something like twenty five times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and looking at three or four centuries of consequences we can’t avoid even if we began doing everything we possibly could to mediate the effects now.

Most of our major cities and the state of Florida would soon be underwater. Their Nuke plants would be underwater also and thus impossible to maintain and prevent their going all Chernobel.

With the poles and glaciers melted there would be no more water for most of the western United States. Industrial agriculture would come to a halt, most Americans would starve.

Other effects might include the oceans and rainforests dying, widespread plauge pestilence and oportunistic disease, resource wars for the reaining food, energy, and water and eventually a widespread extinction of species including homo sapiens.

Nils Sens April 2, 2013 3:22 AM

Interesting way of crowd-sourcing security risks!

Especially the in-depth knowledge that became available at-a-glance here through structural engineers and water-supply experts etc. is real value already.

Now I figure you’re not a movie maker or creative writing teacher (although you have what it takes!). You’re professionally ‘into’ security. Is this ‘movie script contest’ then a cover for crowd-sourcing potential real risk, in order to develop better antiterror concepts? Do you earn from such concepts? Or are you actually planning an attack on the US, its allies or, quite interestingly against its ‘enemies’?

Should I put my tinfoil hat back on, or is the real superior plot, a meta-plot the unsuspicious anarchist creative writing / security guru hand-picking ideas for his next big attack?

I am your nemesis now, I have the guts to reveal your sinister scheming in public on your own blog (!) and now the real-life plot starts: you’re of course trying to hunt me down. It will be tricky, because I blended in fairly well here in the Philippines. However you might pose as a patient / dental tourist to visit our clinic here in Quezon City with a concealed gun or anything more imaginative.

That said, I completely agree with Rowland Whittet – except that we don’t even need to wait for global warming etc. The breakdown of constitutionalism and civil liberties has already been initiated pretty successfully.

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