High School Teacher Assigns Movie-Plot Threat Contest Problem

In Australia:

A high school teacher who assigned her class to plan a terrorist attack that would kill as many innocent people as possible had no intent to promote terrorism, the school principal said yesterday.

The Year-10 students at Kalgoorlie-Boulder Community High School were asked to pretend they were terrorists making a political statement by releasing a chemical or biological agent on “an unsuspecting Australian community”.

The task included choosing the best time to attack and explaining their choice of victims and what effects the attack would have on a human body.

“Your goal is to kill the MOST innocent civilians,” the assignment read.

Principal Terry Martino said he withdrew the assignment for the class on contemporary conflict and terrorism as soon as he heard of it. He said the teacher was “relatively inexperienced” and it was a “well-intentioned but misguided attempt to engage the students”.

Sounds like me:

It is in this spirit I announce the (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.

For the record, 1) I have no interest in promoting terrorism—I’m not even sure how I could promote terrorism without actually engaging in terrorism, 2) I’m pretty experienced, and 3) my movie-plot threat contests are not misguided. You can’t understand security defense without also understanding attack.

Australian police are claiming the assignment was illegal, so Australians who enter my movie-plot threat contests should think twice. Also anyone writing a thriller novel about terrorism, perhaps.

An AFP spokeswoman said it was an offence to collect or make documents preparing for or assisting a terrorist attack.

It was also illegal to be “reckless as to whether these documents may assist or prepare for a terrorist attack”.

Posted on August 31, 2010 at 6:42 AM73 Comments


Solstate August 31, 2010 6:57 AM

We in Australia are in fact parenoid, secretive and officious in government. Our image of a laid-back “I’m alright, Jack” attitude is purely a smoke screen for our leaders to hide behind. They are very concerned that we must not divulge any information at all, and we must not have fun.

Samsam August 31, 2010 7:12 AM

While in college (late 70s, early 80s), I remember there were a couple of occaisions where myself and a group of my electrical engineering buddies sat around designing un-defusable suitcase bombs. I guess such devices had appeared in TV and movies of the era; we had no reason to do this other than geeky entertainment. These were paper exercises only.

We employed accelerometers/tilt switches, metal detectors, sound level triggers, temperature sensors, etc. Interestingly, I don’t remember anyone considering RF interference, and we certainly didn’t consider the water cannons that are used today to destroy bombs.

It was a fun way to play with the knowledge we were learning. Had we been intending to cause damage, there would have been far simpler ways to do so.


Daniel Wood August 31, 2010 7:15 AM

Back when I was finishing my degree in Criminal Justice and was studying terrorism and counter-terrorism, my professor had assigned me a hypothetical terrorist attack plan that covered all aspects of organizing an attack (physical surveillance, exit strategy, funding, recruiting, method of attack, impact, etc) for my thesis.

He stressed many times that this was an educational exercise that would help with learning how terrorists think, plan and work. At the time he was the chief security officer for the DS (Diplomatic Security) with State Dept. My research if you will, focused on an attack using the public transportation system (Metro) in Washington D.C.

An alternative assignment was offered if one chose to do so. Physical surveillance had to be cleared with the professor as well (as I’m sure he didn’t want to answer tough questions from…certain….Agencies if we were caught while in surveillance mode).

As far as legality goes, nothing indicates that the assignment was illegal, perhaps there was some gray areas involved when it came to researching attack methods and gathering research materials – but in my opinion nothing was illegal and the assignment was not misguided. Everyone was professional about it and maintained due diligence throughout the course of the operations.

frankx August 31, 2010 7:18 AM

The times square bomber with firecrackers and propane tanks was touted by police as having made a “huge bomb” with massive brisance, in fact he did not even make a credible fougasse, but the police discriptions of what it could do were definately from some bruce willis script.

Clive Robinson August 31, 2010 7:23 AM

Guess what we have similar laws in the UK including “glorifying terrorism” (which I guess is a bit like promoting but more so) for which we have already convicted a young Muslim woman who wrote poetry…

Which instantly made her a flag rallyer name for the terrorists…

It is a rather silly and backwards idea really and should never have become law. This type of thing has it’s roots in Orwellian “information control”. Which in turn had it’s roots in the <oly Roman Empire (Roman Catholic Church) with it’s inquisitions.

As has been noted countles times over atleast 4 millennia “you have to know your enemy” to defeat them, otherwise you end up fighting yourself and your own weaknesses not theirs.

This involves immersing yourself in their way of living and thinking.

Thus the laws are. not just silly but conter productive at many many levels.

shadowfirebird August 31, 2010 7:38 AM

While I agree that laws against this sort of homework are both silly and draconian, at the same time it was insensitive and inappropriate to make it an assignment in the first place.

What exactly did he hope to teach? That we’re all in terrible danger from terrorists?

Thomas August 31, 2010 7:40 AM

Ou… ehm… what about australian novelle writers? Are they now suspected to commit a terrorist attack when they were writing a thriller dealing with this topic? .. or authors from foreign countries writing thrillers? Are they not allowed to enter australia because of their fantasies???

Bruce Schneier August 31, 2010 7:58 AM

“What exactly did he hope to teach? That we’re all in terrible danger from terrorists?”

That is a good question.

I could easily see giving the assignment in a security class — even a computer security class — to teach about attacks vs countermeasures. It’s why I started the Movie Plot Threat Contest in the first place, to stimulate discussion about defenses and how they focus on specific tactics and targets. But in a general high school class, I don’t know.

Clive Robinson August 31, 2010 7:59 AM

@ Bruce,

In the (UK) lunchtime news is a story about two men flying from the US to Europe and being arrested on terrorism charges.

The details are to put it mildly a bit wierd.

The basic facts are two Americans of Yemeni descent where arrested after ariving in Amsterdam on a United Airlines flight from Chicago.

Apparently their luggage contained suspicious items and officials think it might have been a “fry run”.

However the items as detailed by various sources are somewhat bizar…


The Underdoug August 31, 2010 8:00 AM

Did Chris Morris fall foul of any laws when he promoted his film “Four Lions” in Australia?

Clive Robinson August 31, 2010 8:02 AM


That should be “dry run” not “fry run”

Tis but a simple keyboard slip not a Fraudian thought (or atleast I hope not 😉

Dan Taylor August 31, 2010 8:11 AM

‘It was also illegal to be “reckless as to whether these documents may assist or prepare for a terrorist attack”‘

What does that even mean?

COD August 31, 2010 8:14 AM

This was a class titled Contemporary Conflict and Terrorism, right? I can see that assignment being out of bounds in English 101, but it seems to be right on point for this class.

When thinking is outlawed, only outlaws will think?

wilbur August 31, 2010 8:21 AM

@Dan Taylor
It’s a legal formulation that reduces the intention that must be demonstrated. It means the prosecutor need not prove intention, just that you were didn’t display any care to preventing your work being misused. For example, an act of murder is a reckless indifference to whether your act may result in death.

A lower standard again is negligence. (Not tortious negligence, to be clear).

EU Member August 31, 2010 8:21 AM

I am from Europe, sorry if this hurts someone 8)

Balance on earth joke

Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Heaven, God went missing for Six days. Eventually, Michael the Archangel found him, resting on the seventh day. He inquired of God, “Where have you been?”

God sighed a deep sigh of satisfaction and proudly pointed downwards through the clouds, “Look Michael, look what I’ve made.” Archangel Michael looked puzzled and said, “What is it?”

“It’s a planet, replied God, “and I’ve put LIFE on it. I’m going to call it Earth and it’s going to be a great place of balance”.

“Balance?” inquired Michael, still confused.

God explained, pointing to different parts of Earth.

“For example, Northern Europe will be a place of great opportunity and wealth while Southern Europe is going to be poor; the Middle East over there will be a hot spot.”

“Over there I’ve placed a continent of white people and over there is a continent of black people” God continued, pointing to different countries. “And over there, I call this place America.

North America will be rich and powerful and cold, while South America will be poor, and hot and friendly. And the little spot in the middle is Central America which is a Hot spot. Can you see the balance?”

“Yes” said the Archangel, impressed by Gods work, then he pointed to a smallish land mass and asked, “What’s that one?”

“Ah” said God. “That’s New Zealand, the most glorious place on Earth. There are beautiful mountains, rainforests, rivers, streams and an exquisite coast line. The people are good looking, intelligent and humorous and they’re going to be found traveling the world. They’ll be extremely sociable, hard-working and high-achieving, and they will be known throughout the world as diplomats and carriers of peace. I’m also going to give them super- human, undefeatable, strong in character citizens who will be admired and feared by all who come across them”.

Michael gasped in wonder and admiration but then exclaimed, “You said there will be BALANCE!”

God replied wisely. “Wait until you see the buggers I’m putting next to them”

Romeo Vitelli August 31, 2010 8:24 AM

That assignment does seem a tad inappropriate. I remember back in my high school days (sometime in the Jurassic era) we were given an assignment to plan a takeover of the school but there was no mention of casualties and, I think, none of the plans were especially violent.

Beta August 31, 2010 8:30 AM

@Dan Taylor: “For example, an act of murder is a reckless indifference to whether your act may result in death.”

Really? I thought an act of murder, by definition, involved a strong preference about whether it would result in death.

IntelVet August 31, 2010 8:35 AM

What a bunch of hooey.

Authorities don’t want the hoi-paloi to think, because then the public might actually see through the authority’s narrative.

wilbur August 31, 2010 8:37 AM


I will use an Australian example, to suit the post 🙂

From the Crimes Act NSW:

Murder shall be taken to have been committed where the act of the accused, or thing by him or her omitted to be done, causing the death charged, was done or omitted with reckless indifference to human life, or with intent to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm upon some person… [etc]

BF Skinner August 31, 2010 8:37 AM

@Bruce “I’m not even sure how I could promote terrorism…”

You could publish a call to arms telling us here that ‘they’ plan to
take away ‘our’ internet and all our tech. OR ‘prove’ to the unenlightened
the insecurity of their systems by proof of the deed.

Give ‘us’ jusitification and there’s bound to be a wingnut who would act.

Though, again, if there are so many terrorists running around why hasn’t it
happened already?

Steve August 31, 2010 8:49 AM

It might sound cynical, but all is now so politically incorrect that you cannot do anything without running afoul of some absurd idea. (Which are of course based on the lowest possible standards.)
My immediate urge when I see this illogic is to try to break as many of these politically incorrect ideas as possible, which of course is not only silly and dumb but would not at all have the effect I’m interested in, namely some review and denouncement of said ideas.
Education is apparently the only realistic chance of changing anyone’s mind. Force does not work, other than what you can directly control, and even that is questionable.
Unfortunately the masses are very much like lambs being led to the slaughter house. It would be politically incorrect to “make a stir” while lined up for a close encounter with a sharp blade or whatever is used these days. Someone would be upset, and that makes it better to simply quietly take that final walk.
Even more unfortunate is that we must find ways to enlighten people as we can’t exactly get out of this “boat” and leave them to their hard earned fate.
I’m glad you are a voice for common sense Bruce! We need to point out these outpoints!

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey August 31, 2010 9:21 AM

I have a movie plot:

Teacher assigns students to come up with movie-plot threats.

One student gets outstanding marks.

Somewhat later, student learns that terrorists are actually putting her plan into action.

Student must stop the plan before the terrifying climax dooms everyone.

J.D. Bertron August 31, 2010 9:55 AM

It’s basically becoming more and more illegal to be smart. It’s a symptom of the widening gap between the educated and the under-educated.
Bruce: The answer to your question is easy. The teacher was merely trying to teach critical thinking: the application of prioritizing goals and linking strategies based on their probability of success. The assignment was brilliant, because it was engaging.
It would probably have resulted in promoting critical thinking in several students, while only improbably promoting terrorism in the students.
But authorities, of course, don’t grasp or recognize that concept, because their audience hasn’t graduated from emotional-thinking.

Andrew August 31, 2010 9:57 AM

Every security guard in California has been trained by participating in an adversary tabletop exercise just like the one described. It is part of the mandatory training program for licensed guards.


A master’s degree in anything is not required to participate in such an exercise. Utter hogwash!

If more than a tiny fraction of a country’s population thinks it is morally acceptable to kill large numbers of innocent people, they’re all out of luck anyway. Send in the peacekeepers.

If the people trained are potential future adversaries (as with all soldiers!), participating in such training channels their thought processes into forms of attack readily recognizable by the experts. It’s actually to the benefit of society that as many people be trained in the basics of terrorism as possible — that way, the number of defensive eyes vastly outnumber the bad guys, and even those few bad guys who might benefit now attempt to carry out more predictable forms of attacks.

As for the seriousness of the topic, it’s not as if high school students will be citizens and/or voters who have to make serious decisions, right?

I draw the line at actual explosives training. Going from textbook knowledge to ‘praxis’ or the ability to build bombs should continue to be dangerous, noisy, draw the attention of neighbors and/or cost some fingers. Just my 0.02

Jim A. August 31, 2010 10:25 AM

ISTM that this would be a good group exercise. Even better would be to hand each groups effort to a different group and ask for a report on “how would you prevent this?”

Andy August 31, 2010 10:29 AM

I would have thought the most difficult part of the scenario would be to a determine if the civilians were innocent or not.

Surely a terrorists target should be those who are guilty by their standards e.g. capitalist pigs, hippies, people without blonde hair, non believers etc. Targetting those who are innocent would seem quite illogical.

Andy August 31, 2010 10:32 AM

It’s also not that logical for a terrorist to kill as many people as possible. If they for example killed everyone, who would be left to be terrified?

Clive Robinson August 31, 2010 10:48 AM

@ Andrew,

“I draw the line at actual explosives training.”

I realy don’t know why. Most people with only moderate thought can design and build a black powder pipe bomb. Which is possibly why it’s the number one bomb type made in the US.

Most of the chemicals required for making explosives are available over the counter no questions asked in any town in the US, simply because those selling the chemicals are NOT AWARE they can be used as such.

That is the knowledge “kept secret” actually alows those in the know to get away with buying excessive amounts of “cake making” or “beauty” products without raising suspicion that they are bomb making.

You often hear “experts” say the difficult part is the “detonator”… Well again anybody who has a modicum of intellect can think their way through that issue and various chemistry books in libraries or specialist book shops will answer all of the questions that are likley to arise.

With regards,

“Going from textbook knowledge to ‘praxis’ or the ability to build bombs should continue to be dangerous, noisy, draw the attention of neighbors and/or cost some fingers.”

Hmm perhaps not.

There is the issue of “forbiden fruits”.

Youngsters will know something “exciting” is possible simply because we see it all the time with the likes of fireworks and documentries on television.

Some will want to have a go out of natural curiosity. If you stymie that curiosity as a “forbiden fruit” history shows us they will go and find out for themselves anyway.

It is one of the reasons youngsters steal cars and go joy riding to everybody elses danger, especialy the less bold but as easily excitable hangers on.

Various studies around the world have shown that the simplest way to stop joy riding is to encorage “at risk youngsters” with obvious curiosity how to build and race a go cart or stock car etc. It has the secondary advantage of teaching them a couple of practical life skills (mechanics, and driving within ability) and also often a tertiary benift of encoraging accademic study.

Similar has been shown with shooting and other activities with more than a marginal risk to not only those who are going to experiment but to those unfortunate enough to be bystanders when they enevitable experiment happens.

Some times the best way to stop harmfull curiosity is to encorage it in a controled way so that the individual learns to respect not only the danger involved but their own limits as well.

A case in point is myself, when young I enjoyed climbing up what at the time where considered very dangerous cliff faces (lose sandstone etc) with no equipment. Thankfully somebody who knew me managed to divert my abilities to more solid faces and introduce me to equipment that had the dual advantage of making the climbs safer but also faster and thus more physicaly chalenging.

paul August 31, 2010 10:57 AM

To match the murder example, a conviction for reckless disregard in collection of terrorism-related project information would have to include someone somewhere using that information to commit an act of terrorism.

There’s an interesting double-think going on for “reckless disregard” here. On the one hand, high school students aren’t trained in document security and don’t have the resources to implement same. On the other hand, any sensible definition of the information to be protected has to be information that’s not otherwise easily available. And if high school students can find it or think it up, you’re going to have a hard time claiming that evildoers couldn’t to likewise.

Joe August 31, 2010 11:03 AM

@BF Skinner

“@Bruce “I’m not even sure how I could promote terrorism…”

You could publish a call to arms telling us here that ‘they’ plan to
take away ‘our’ internet and all our tech. OR ‘prove’ to the unenlightened
the insecurity of their systems by proof of the deed.

Give ‘us’ jusitification and there’s bound to be a wingnut who would act.”

Sounds like what a lot of high-profile extremists on the right are doing in the US.

Brian August 31, 2010 11:23 AM

“reckless as to whether these documents may assist or prepare for a terrorist attack”.

Thats just gold right there. Assuming Grade 10 students are more skilled then the average actual terrorist. Is it reckless to teach geometry too, so that a grade 10 student will overthrow the “ivory tower” of the math “institution”!? I think I just made a watch list for that sentence…

Christian August 31, 2010 11:24 AM

Ok simple plot:

Lets take a high speed train … put a bomb on it … let it explode in a tunnel… at best when another train comes in the other direction the same time!

2 speedy trains in one tunnel … large explosion.
Could be 100+ dead…
And best thing is: for entering a train there are no security measures like a full body scanner or what ever.

Just protecting airplanes is such a joke to make you feel more secure.

Whats best about the plan: One person is enough .. no communication that can be spied upon … nothing you can do to rectifie any ammount of public surveilance (except total surveilance with an AI in any persons neck watching [in future that could be possible])

shadowfirebird August 31, 2010 11:33 AM

If I were a terrorist I would only be interested in making people afraid. They can’t be afraid if they are dead. And it seems to me that it’s a much easier option, too.

I don’t think that I understand the psychology of terrorists.

bob August 31, 2010 11:34 AM

“What exactly did he hope to teach? That we’re all in terrible danger from terrorists?”

I suspect that he hoped to teach exactly the opposite.

shadowfirebird August 31, 2010 11:48 AM


I hope that he planned to teach exactly the opposite. I suspect otherwise. Call me a pessimist.

r cox August 31, 2010 12:57 PM

I believe that people don’t want to know what is possible, and when people tell them they get mad. The reason is that if you don’t know then it is not your fault. If one don’t know physics, then one can drive recklessly on the road, and when an accident occurs, it has to be others fault. Ignorance is bliss, and knowledge simply degrades the pleasure of life.

These exercises conceivably make the world safer, but have the affect of making people feel less safe. Therefore, as most government are in the business of making people feel safe, such exercises must be outlawed.

Clive Robinson August 31, 2010 1:28 PM

@ Bruce,

A little more on the two suspect terrorists pulled over in Schiphol Airport Amsterdam (AMS).

Apparently their lugage was searched and the Pepto-Bismol bottle with the watches taped around it and the cellphones and bateries taped together where found in their lugage prior to their original flight to Chicago.

Apparently they where supposed to fly to washington to change to another flight to the Yemen.

However for some reason although their bagage took this route they did not instead for some reason that is not clear the route they where going to take was AMS and then change to a flight to the Yemen.

Apparently when this change happened they where not pulled of the flight even though this change raised alarm bells with those supposadly watching them. Thus they went to AMS where they where arrested by the Dutch Police.

So the story is gvetting more bizar by the moment…

After all if they where being watched (as claimed by US authorities) and the change of flight raised alarms why where they not pulled before the flight left.

Also how come the flight with their now “unatended lugage” was allowed to procead, this is against Aviation regulations and the flight should have been stopped and the lugage removed…

I have a feeling that this story is just stretching it’s legs and is now going to run and run possibly as a marathon event.

David Cornwell August 31, 2010 3:37 PM

Movie Plot Scenario: Two men load their luggage with 100 lbs of Pepto Bismol bottles. They wrap the P-B bottles in tape and attach a cell phone with a battery that has been recalled because it catches fire and also lots of paper.

They leave the cell phone ON. Just after take off they call the cell phone in the plane’s hold from their seat just above it and cause the cell phone to catch fire together with the paper. The fire melts the P-B bottles plastic. The plane explodes right over the White House and the huge amount of Pink P-B covers the White House and converts it into a Pink House. The plane’s parts and people are scattered over the Mall in Washington DC.

The American people are up in arms about the Pink House. All tourism to the washington DC area comes to a halt as noone can stand looking at a Pink House, nor can they stand the smell of Pepto Bismol.

Andrew August 31, 2010 4:28 PM


All of the chemicals required for making explosives are available over the counter in any supermarket, WalMart, druggist’s, you name it, in both the US and the UK. Large purchases of certain items are discreetly tracked, but buying enough to make a small device has never been difficult.

Black powder pipe bombs are also the #1 killer of bomb technicians. I can buy black powder over the counter as such in many places, neither ID nor background check required.

We simply have a different attitude towards risk and freedom here in the USA. If you want to shoot black powder firearms, have at it. If you want to put black powder in pipes and risk other people’s lives with it, here’s a multi-year stay at the Graybar Hotel.

You underestimate the difficulty of going from textbook to live device. An amateur moron can build a device just good enough to kill people, whether themselves or the public or a bomb disposal technician becoming more a matter of luck than skill.

Fireworks are readily available here, on Indian reservations if nowhere else. Despite their “dangers” this is how many American youth get it out of their system. Later on, it is actually fairly easy for a law-abiding person to work with a person who has a license for commercial fireworks, and once they gain experience get their own license. This leaves out the military of course, but most military explosives work is with very stable and simple materials.

As for shooting, you are very much preaching to the choir. Young people who become comfortable and familiar with firearms in a safe environment learn gun safety lessons that stick with them for a lifetime.

The difference with explosives is that amateurish messing around with them tends to have severe consequences, not only for the builder but for the general public. There are plenty of somewhat dangerous ways to play with fire (literally, see Burning Man and especially the “Flamethrower Shooting Range” for a great example) without adding a boom to the mix.

Imperfect Citizen August 31, 2010 6:52 PM


Common sense has nothing to do with domestic terror watch lists. The Maryland State Police put Roman Catholic nuns on those lists in Maryland. Elderly nuns.

Severin August 31, 2010 6:53 PM

I would have split the classroom in 2 halves.
1 with this assignment and the other assigned to come up with a plan to protect their community.
Homework: how is blind protection efficient compared to eavesdropping 😉

maelorin August 31, 2010 7:28 PM

Australia has some important differences from the USA.

We have no ‘right’ to ‘free speech’ (at best a limited, inferred, constitutionally-protected capacity to discuss political matters). This means it is possible for our governments to curtail our speech in ways unthinkable in the USA.

Following the events of 2001, and more recent events, Federal laws were amended – providing potentially wide-ranging powers to intelligence and law enforcement authorities to investigate ‘terrorist’ activities. They also established broad offences.

These are so broadly worded that later amendments added explicit exclusions for “advocacy, protest, dissent or industrial action” and acts not intended to cause harm, death or endanger public safety. Note, the original wording was not reframed – explicit exceptions were added to clarify the scope of the provisions.

“Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth)
s100.1 Definitions

         (1)  In this Part: 

terrorist act means an action or threat of action where:

                 (a)  the action falls within subsection (2) and does not fall within subsection (3); and

                 (b)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause; and

                 (c)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of:

                          (i)  coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or of part of a State, Territory or foreign country; or

                         (ii)  intimidating the public or a section of the public. "

It appears that the reaction is more emotional than rational (where have we heard that before?).

So schools are allowed to teach ‘T is Baaad’ … so long as the little darlings are not encouraged to think about it too much.

Peter August 31, 2010 8:36 PM

As a possible protest against such stupid Australian laws, someone might compile a list of all Australian authors who have recently written or are currently writing novels in any way involving terrorism and report them all to the police for investigation for collecting information about it. Then when the authorities try to outlaw writing/thinking/talking about terrorism there will hopefully be a backlash and adjustment of the ridiculous laws.

MW August 31, 2010 9:13 PM

It is even easier than that. Why bother with a bomb when all you need is a wedge of metal firmly attached to the railroad track?

Dr. T August 31, 2010 9:43 PM

I believe the teacher had the right idea. I would have found an assignment such as that to be very engaging. Completing the assignment would require a combination of logic, reason, out-of-the-box thinking, imagination (what would frighten us most), and logistical planning. Students’ plans could have been presented and critiqued. Discussions about the impossibility of preventing terrorist attacks could have followed the presentations. Next, ideas on how to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks by minimizing publicity, convincing the public to be stoic (think of the British during the WWII rocket attacks), not turning society on its head in futile efforts to prevent terrorism, etc. could be discussed. This assignment would be appropriate for a current events or civics class.

Gus September 1, 2010 1:08 AM

(Synopsis: several RV’s full of nerve toxin are exploded upwind of the Indy 500.)

The largest annual gathering in the US is the Indy 500. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seating for 257,000 people, and room for about 150,000 more in the infield. With concessions workers, press, security, race teams, etc. the total can be around 500,000 on race day if the event sells out. You could substitute another open-air race with a giant crowd, such as the Daytona 500.

Although security is understandably tight, it could be possible to get an RV (or several) onto the speedway grounds with toxic contents concealed within. The RV’s would be positioned upwind of the crowd, either in regular parking areas, or in the infield, which is always upwind from somebody no matter which way the wind blows.

Once the crowd is in place and the race is underway, the contents of the RV’s would be released. If possible, it would be some type of V-agent nerve toxin. If that’s not possible, then something less potent but more easily obtained could be substituted: the G-agent nerve toxin Sarin (which was used by Aum Shinrikyo in their subway attack), sulfur mustard, and phosgene have all been used successfully in chemical weapon attacks. These liquids would have to be aerosolized and dispersed. Explosives are the obvious choice. Militaries have used artillery shells for the task.

The attack fits within the manpower and cost guidelines, with the main cost and difficulty being the acquisition of a supply of toxin. A fertilizer-and-fuel-oil bomb of the Oklahoma City type would be an adequate explosive. Used RV’s are relatively cheap and plentiful.

Not only does this attack have the potential to kill people on the order of tens or even hundreds of thousands, it would do it on live TV with an audience of millions. Death by nerve toxin is a hideous spectacle, involving vomiting, loss of bladder control, and convulsions. Those in the crowd who see it happen would stampede for the exits, trampling others.

If shock and horror is the ultimate goal of the terrorist, I can not think of a superior attack. I’ve analyzed the crop-duster approach, and it has its drawbacks. Yes, I have seen the movie Black Sunday. Lastly, I want to say that I’m an Indy Car fan, and every time I watch the Indy 500, I think about this, briefly. It worries me. Then I push it out of my mind and enjoy the race.

erica September 1, 2010 2:25 AM

Not that long ago, I attended a (mandatory for me) workshop run by the UK prison service. The subject was conditioning: ie how to avoid being socially engineered by prisoners.

As a workshop exercise, we divided into groups, were told we were prisoners ourselves, and given character profiles of our jailers. The exercise was to design social engineering attacks on those jailers to effect an escape.

I was teamed up with a bunch of chaplains. Turns out they were naturals in such a situation.

Luckily, such an exercise is not illegal under the UK’s 1952 Prison Act.

Sasha van den Heetkamp September 1, 2010 4:38 AM

Security through obscurity, out of sight out of mind? classical conservative security model. Yet, if you look at actual attempts of terrorists, one can conclude, that they would be horrible script writers. If you can take down a airplane with a portable (heat-seeking) grenade launcher from the back of your 4X4 in a rural area next to any airport, why do they go through the hassle of going through screening, scanners, security personnel, counterfeiting documents, paying for a ticket and ultimately board an airliner with air marshals on it and the certainty of losing your life in the event. While your objective was to cause terror. You must be out of your mind. But in the event of you as a terrorist want to cause terror, you probably are out of your mind, ab initio.

yt September 1, 2010 6:04 AM

@Bill Higgins– Beam Jockey

“I have a movie plot: Teacher assigns students to come up with movie-plot threats. … Somewhat later, student learns that terrorists are actually putting her plan into action. Student must stop the plan before the terrifying climax dooms everyone.”

Change a few words and you get the plot for War Games:

Student thinks he’s playing a nuclear war simulation on a computer he hacked into. Somewhat later, student learns that the computer is actually putting his plan into action. Student must stop the plan before the terrifying climax dooms everyone.

yt September 1, 2010 6:26 AM

@Andrew – “We simply have a different attitude towards risk and freedom here in the USA.”

What USA do you live in? I don’t think I’ve ever visited that one.

Idarubicin September 1, 2010 10:25 AM

There was a longer version of a similar story which was linked from Slashdot.


The concern I had there was that the project was to be evaluated based on the “students’ ability to analyze information they had learned on terrorism and chemical and biological warfare and apply it to a real-life scenario”, given that the attack would target “an unsuspecting Australian community” and would “kill the MOST innocent civilians”. Part of the assignment included describing in detail “what effects the attack would have on a human body”.

The assignment prompts students to assume a specific worst-case scenario met with a minimum of preparation, and then to imagine the gruesome outcome a vividly as possible.

I grant that it’s possible this teacher intended to follow up with an enlightened discussion about how visceral responses to low-probability scenarios can lead to irrational application of limited security and counterterrorism resources — but I wouldn’t bet on it. Were the teacher’s actions illegal? Probably not. Poorly judged and worthy of censure? Almost certainly.

Chris September 1, 2010 3:09 PM

The scenario that always got me, even as a kid in the 80’s, simple group of people with Stingers on the parking deck of Logan airport. Even today I could still probably sneak one through the cursory trunk examination they do.

The problem is that stingers and heat-seeking RPGs are A) not cheap, B) hard to acquire covertly.

The attraction of the 9/11 plan was that it required very low tech actions, and a threat that resulted in complete compliance of the passengers and crew.

In effect, the airplane became their guided missile.

Richard Masoner September 1, 2010 5:02 PM

For a college technical writing class, I chose as my topic “Acquiring Weapons of Terror for the Pax Americana Foundation.” The professor said, “This is MADNESS! I love it!” This was in the mid 1980s.

Pseudonym September 1, 2010 9:06 PM

One of the best classes I ever had (in Australia) was in late primary school, where the teacher sat down and read a story from the newspaper on a controversial topic, and asked us briefly what we thought about it. I think it was about a proposal that primary school become non-compusory. There was a brief discussion on it as to what we thought of it.

The teacher then dropped the bombshell: It wasn’t a real story. He wrote it himself.

The next part of the lesson was about why the story sounded so convincing, and in particular, examined some of the techniques that journalists use to shift responsibility from themselves onto their sources. We finished by writing our own fake newspaper reports, on the most outlandish topic we could think of, and were encouraged to include as many weasel phrases as we could.

I think I learned more in that one session than I did for the rest of that year.

At university, I read the classic book How to Lie with Statistics. As Huff pointed out in that book, the purpose was not to brief would-be pirates on the finer point of cutlass work, but to give you the tools that you need to cut through nonsense when you see it.

These are the two memories that I had when I first read this story. By not being allowed to do this assignment, the students missed out on one of the most useful lessons they would ever learn. We would have produced 30 or so people who, when they read about the latest “terror attack” the nett effect of which which is indistinguishable from a minor road accident (e.g. Glasgow airport), would truly understand what that implies and doesn’t imply, and would have the critical tools required to evaluate how sane (or otherwise) the response was.

That’s what we want in our citizenry, no?

Simon September 2, 2010 1:20 AM

Maybe authors of thrillers and conspiracy novels need to avoid Australia too.

I’m surprised the police took it seriously – stupid.

Nick N September 2, 2010 3:09 AM

I think someone needs to explain mens rea to our idiot feds.

IMO the teacher should have approached the assignment from the other direction, ie “You learn of a terrorist plot to bomb X, what type of responses should be considered in order to defend against this attack? What effects could different bomb types have on people nearby?”

markm September 2, 2010 1:42 PM

“Ou… ehm… what about australian novelle writers? Are they now suspected to commit a terrorist attack when they were writing a thriller dealing with this topic? .. or authors from foreign countries writing thrillers? Are they not allowed to enter australia because of their fantasies???”

Posted by: Thomas at August 31, 2010 7:40 AM

There’s precedent here. Frederick Forsyth was accused of using research for his book The Dogs of War as a cover for actually hiring mercenaries to take over a small African nation.


markm September 2, 2010 1:58 PM

As for movie-plot terrorist threats, I keep coming to scenarios similar to this:

  1. Infiltrate the government(s) of target countries.
  2. Disarm the citizens so they cannot defend themselves.
  3. At a point that is especially likely to be a terrorist target, use all the resources of government regulation and propaganda to discourage the citizens from defending themselves without weapons.
  4. When successful attacks have discredited #3 to the point that any terrorist attacking that target will be buried under an angry mob, use those events as an excuse to collect thousands of unarmed people in line at a “security checkpoint”, in an area that is not and cannot be effectively secured.

Really, all this messing around with trying to sneak bomb-like objects onto airplanes is simply proof that terrorists can repeatedly miss the obvious.

Scott September 3, 2010 10:55 AM

A “well-intentioned but misguided attempt to engage the students”.

The Education Department Director and school principal are idiots. So they send yet another generation of clueless sheeples out into the world, oblivious to reality. When the next terrorist attack happens, these kids will be the first to say “Oh my, however did this happen?!”

marcus September 15, 2010 5:27 AM

I can’t believe nobody mentioned Plato’s Allegory of the Cave yet. This is a textbook example of that.

Daniel September 15, 2010 5:44 AM

Well, it all appears fairly straightforward, to me. The people who have been telling us, for years, that, what makes people turn gay is looking or thinking about the gay stuff, have now worked out that the same goes for terrorism.

Jack September 15, 2010 7:30 AM

My work took me to Australia for about a year recently. I enjoyed the stay and still have many Australian friends. But I wouldn’t live there (in fact that became a possibility that I declined). I came away with a sense that something is VERY deeply wrong with that country.

Camel September 15, 2010 9:34 AM

As an Aussie, I resent Jack’s comment ” something is VERY deeply wrong with that country ” – On the contrary, Australia is becoming a shining example of an obedient, non-thinking nation of mindless consumers willing to put up with anything the “Authorities” dish out!

Elliot Wheeler September 15, 2010 10:44 AM

The scenario that truly scares me is also one that, while terrorizing people and governments, may also be the eventual salvation of humanity. Remembering what David Hahn (The Radioactive Boy Scout) did, undetected, by himself, in an upper class neighborhood with just a little bit of knowledge indicates what can be done.

Consider a couple of fairly smart high school seniors or 1st year college students (one male, one female) with an interest in genetics, recombinant biology and each other, and a reasonably remote location where they can set up a small private lab using the $500,000 (a la John Roe O’Neill in Frank Herbert’s “The White Plague”). They extract an egg from her and sperm from him, do successful reproductively stable genetic modifications to create a superhuman baby – (i.e. one that thinks better — per Poul Anderson’s “Brain Wave”), reimplant the fetus and 9 months later have the superbrat. The itch spreads and over less than 50 years, humanity bifurcates into the supersmart and the rest of us (Robert Heinlein, “Gulf”). The ensuing war(s) should provide plenty of action scenes for the movie, and you can have either the stupids or the smarts winning. I personally think the smarts will win when this finally happens, and the rest of us, if we survive, will be reduced to serfs.

In fact, I think we are real close to this technological capability being privately available to some wealthy, amoral, and precocious teens, and then …

OZ_GUY September 16, 2010 12:50 AM

People are making out like this is a purely Australian reaction. I would not have been surprised if this story came out of the US, New Zealand or any other country for that matter. Over reaction and ridiculous governmental decisions are a worldwide phenomenon I am sorry to say.

Miguel Valdespino September 16, 2010 11:59 AM

I have often thought about various terror plots. If it weren’t for my aversion to taking human life, I’d be a menace! Sadly, I wouldn’t have acheived top marks on this assignement as my plans tend to favor a string of smaller actions. Maximum terror for minimum bodies.
My favorite plan is having several teams of snipers (ala the DC snipers), who each target a common type of business one random day a month in different places, the groups always moving. Gas stations one month, supermarkets the next. Movie theaters, playgrounds. The individual teams know nothing about the other teams. The control group knows nothing about the teams’ movments once they start. Several teams are set on standby, not to activate until they hear that X number of teams have been stopped by the authorities. If the police find the schedule, a new schedule can be released steganographically onto a mass-media site like ICanHazCheeseburger.com. If no new schedule comes, teams will keep to their own schedule.
Meanwhile another group is leaking random dates and targets onto the internet. The disinformation group can likely slow or stop their work after the a few months as random griefers begin to take up the slack. If the terror level drops down, they can spread new warnings.

chappo September 19, 2010 5:11 AM

This happened in Western Australia. They were the only ones stupid enough to elect a Liberal Govt – the rest of the Country disowns them.

Gryphonn September 20, 2010 3:43 AM

Terror Plot (I’m not feeling real creative at the moment)?

20-30 unskilled terrorists with transport and explosives could destroy our national road and rail network in a day. Destroying strategic bridges and rail junctions etc could paralyze coal tansport and export, block supply to our coal fired power stations and halt interstate transport and international shipping. Could make for some worrisome times for us Down-Under folk.
Oops, just broke some Australian Law I think…hello AFP and ASIO :o)

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.