Underpants may be the least of our worries.
- By Kayvan FarzanehKayvan Farzaneh is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
The ploy: Navigate into the center of a city by paraglider and attack crowds from above
This scenario was suggested in the Indian media this week after intelligence experts found that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) — the Pakistani group believed to have orchestrated the devastating attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people in 2008 — had purchased 50 paraglider kits for, supposedly, a new attack plan.
The likelihood: Sure, suicide bombers deftly gliding into a crowded city sounds terrifying, but in reality such an attack would be incredibly difficult to pull off. First of all, paragliders must take off from a high point, meaning that an attack would either have to be launched from close hills or buildings (with a strategic location and in perfect weather conditions) or the suicide bombers would have to be towed by a car or boat — which would be fairly difficult in the middle of a city. Second, paragliders can’t just fly in any direction. Your choices of flight direction are typically governed by how the wind is blowing and by nearby obstructions. Finally, they tend to fly quite slowly (at an average of 15 mph for maximum control) and would be further slowed by weighty suicide belts or guns. If a suicide paraglider ever made it close to a crowded area, most people would be able to simply run away and authorities could easily shoot the would-be attacker down.
LeT is a dangerous terrorist organization that should not be underestimated, but unless the group manages to recruit some professional paragliders or Mumbai sprouts some bigger hills, this one should not be given too much weight.
The ploy: Launch a bioterrorist attack using swarms of insects infected with a deadly disease
Entomological warfare has been around for a long time. Our Paleolithic ancestors were known to launch beehives at their enemies, Apaches used to stake prisoners onto anthills, and medieval Europeans would catapult dead bodies coated by infected insects as a siege warfare tactic.
Throughout the 20th century, countries such as the United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union also attempted to build entomological warfare programs, but reports about such programs ever being used successfully are scarce. Still, the idea continues to have potential in the minds of many. Jeffrey Lockwood, professor of entomology and author of Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War told the BBC last year that an insect-based weapon would be easy for a small terrorist cell to develop and that the insects could be transported into a target country in a suitcase.
The likelihood: There are several problems with using insects for bioterrorism. Although insects are easy to breed and transport, infecting them with a biological agent is not only difficult but the attacker runs a high risk of infecting himself in the process. Also, insects can hardly be contained or directed to a certain area, so an attack on a specific target would be difficult. Even if the insects are successfully contained, infestations can usually be controlled through the use of modern pesticides.
The ploy: Fashion a dirty bomb using a radioactive chemical commonly found in smoke detectors, infecting all those in the blast’s vicinity with radiation sickness
This one was actually tried by an Islamist terrorist cell led by Indian emigrant Dhiren Barot in London back in 2004 as part of a larger plot to wreak havoc in New York City, Newark, and Britain. Raids following a yearlong covert surveillance operation turned up a suspiciously large supply of smoke detectors in one of the cell’s safe houses. Law enforcement agencies believed the group was planning to either harvest a man-made radioactive chemical found in the smoke detectors called Americium-241 and use it to create a dirty bomb or to just blow up a large cache of smoke detectors to have the same effect.
The likelihood: In reality, the plot was pretty laughable. Americium-241, though radioactive, has to be present in large quantities to make anyone sick — let alone kill them. For example, the group would have had to harvest Americium from 10,000 smoke detectors to cause 500 people to get radiation sickness. Even then, the amount of released radiation would be manageable by authorities and unlikely to cause fatalities. There’s a reason there have never been warnings about disposing of your household smoke detectors; even if they are found in large quantities in the landfill, they would have a negligible impact.
WORLD OF WARCRAFT
The ploy: Use online games and communities like World of Warcraft to plan terrorist attacks
The issue was first raised in a 2008 Pentagon presentation on how terrorists could use virtual worlds — such as World of Warcraft — to plan out their next attack by using games as training grounds. Potential terrorists would use in-game jargon as analogies for specific tasks while game maps could be used to describe real locations. The cyberjihadis would practice their plot by creating scenarios with other players. In this way, terrorists would be very difficult to distinguish from normal gamers.
The likelihood: Virtual worlds would be a poor substitute for real-world training, and communicating in these programs isn’t fundamentally different from using telephones or email. And terrorists would still need to prepare in real life by scouting locations, buying weapons and equipment, and meeting in person.
The ploy: Infect the food supply with raw botulinum
The Botox procedures used by many to fight wrinkes are very safe. But they do involve a minuscule amount of toxin called botulinum, a nerve agent, the most poisonous toxin on earth. Until now, procuring dangerous amounts of pure botulinum has always been incredibly expensive. Recently, investigators have discovered that illegal labs in countries such as Russia and China have been producing large quantities of cheap, unregulated botulinum for Botox, which terrorists could easily acquire on the black market. If used effectively, an engineered attack could be devastating.
The likelihood: Botulinum has been around for a while and it is still notoriously difficult to use. First, the bacteria are tricky to convert into a biological weapon because the heat from a missile or bomb quickly degrades the toxin, rendering it harmless. It’s also very hard to turn it into aerosol form. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo — responsible for the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway — failed completely in an attempt to do so. And an attack through the water supply isn’t likely since botulinum is naturally inactivated in fresh water within three to six days.
Still, botulinum is a more realistic threat than the other entries on this list. The most effective attack would be on a country’s food supply. Scientists have calculated that 1 gram of botulinum toxin in commercially distributed milk could infect and possibly kill as many as 100,000 people. Luckily, the likelihood of a successful attack can be heavily mitigated through strong regulations and testing by large-scale food distributors — something that already happens anyway.