Thinking like a terrorist

Experts imagine what comes next.

WHEN HARBORVIEW emergency services chief Mike Copass spoke at an anti-terrorism conference here recently, encouraging people to "think a little more creatively" about combating terrorism, little did he know he'd be attacked himself. A neurologist and co-founder of Medic One, America's first paramedic unit, Copass laid out a plan whereby he, as a terrorist, would smash a tanker truck of hydrogen sulfide into Husky Stadium at game time. "I could take out nearly everyone in the stadium," he said, according to a quote in the P-I.

This candid speech got limited approval from other officials. "We agree with Dr. Copass," says John Urquhart, spokesman for King County Sheriff Dave Reichert. "You have to think, brainstorm, plan, and talk about the unusual and/or unexpected." However, Urquhart says, "The best place to do all that is among ourselves, not publicly—and certainly not where our brainstorming will be reported by the press."

Copass may have gotten that message from others as well. An office spokesperson says he was flooded with phone calls the day after his speech and is now "too busy" to speak to the press. (Apparently unrelated, Copass, 63, suffered a heart attack a few days later and is now recovering.)

Some of those whose daily business is security and terrorism, however, had a lot to say. They think Copass was on the right track. There's a war happening, an anthrax panic spreading, and we're getting few survival tips from our leaders. We're left to improvise daily. Attending a baseball game is considered an act of bravery, while going to the mall is like establishing a new front. The attorney general issues regular alerts on pending terrorist acts without telling the country what they might be (last week John Ashcroft asked Americans to "participate with patience" against terrorism, which seems to suggest they act by doing nothing). At least Gov. Gray Davis told Californians that it was one of the state's bridges that might be threatened somehow, sometime in the next week. The country, frightened at the sight of baby talc, gropes for answers, literally: A topless dancer speaking on a Seattle radio talk show last week said she's worried that Middle Eastern men might sprinkle her with powder during a lap dance. Well, who's to tell her different?

Our experts, perhaps. We asked them what are the real threats we face from terrorists, foreign and domestic. As Dr. Copass suggested, let's air a few scenarios that might help us prepare for attacks. Lord knows, the government has apparently run out of ideas: The Pentagon recently issued a press release to all comers, including Hollywood screenwriters, seeking "Ideas on Combating Terrorism," such as conducting protracted operations in remote arenas and developing countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction. The Army asked scenario writers to "Get yourself in the head of the bad guys."

All right then, "Think like a terrorist," we urged our experts. They started with a few guidelines:

First, terrorism isn't necessarily rocket science or, for that matter, rockets.

"The best ways," says Daniel Cohen of the Israeli Special Forces, "are the simple ones," like a compact homemade weapon unloosed in an enclosed space.

Second, terrorism isn't necessarily the work of unstoppable suicidal bombers. "Most terrorists opt for missions with lower risk to themselves, along with some possibility of escape," says James O. Ellis III, an Oklahoma City counterterrorism expert.

Third, forget "masterminds"—terrorism is the art of winging it. "In my business," says Gary Stubblefield, an ex-Navy SEAL and now a D.C. security specialist, "we were taught to think out of the box."

Fourth, keep a balanced perspective on terrorists. They're not behind every rock, just every headline. Imagine if cable TV gave this kind of overwrought blanket coverage to automobile accidents, which kill more than 41,000 annually (but think what that would do for gridlock).

So what could terrorists do?

Something different, for starters. "I would stop placing anthrax in letters and follow the government's simulated biological attacks from the '60s or earlier," says Ellis. "In those tests, the military found that biological simulants placed in light bulbs and left to be crushed on subway tracks would perpetually whip up the agent, thus contaminating the entire subway line. This re-aerosolization in a closed system would make decontamination a nightmare and further the opportunity for economic as well as psychological and physical fallout."

We're already quietly preparing for such disasters as an intentional oil-tanker spill in Elliott Bay, a bomb at the base of the Space Needle, or an underground explosion at the Hanford nuclear reservation. But the experts warn that terrorists usually think small and hope large: witness anthrax in America—the work, possibly, of one homegrown terrorist.

A solo terrorist's domestic sortie can be something as elementary as a few tainted products on your pharmacy shelf—remember the nationwide Tylenol scare?—or a solution, harmless even, dumped into your local reservoir. In this nervous climate, panic does the rest.

To that end, "I would perpetuate a hoax or credible threat that the nation's flu vaccines and influenza medications had been laced or contaminated with some lethal or toxic agent," says expert Ellis, tossing off an example of "terrorist think." "By causing fear about these treatments, many people would shy away from taking them. This could promote an overwhelming spike in the number of influenza cases, which our nation's overtaxed health care system cannot easily accommodate even in good years."

"I have a great fear of our electric grid in our Pacific Northwest being disrupted," says Stubblefield, "I can see many ways using conventional explosives to perform that. I can also see blowing some dams in the spring, during runoff, when the water would surge downstream and flood and kill the population below the dams."

To Israeli terrorism specialist Cohen, the preferred terror attack is the ignition of small explosives "in confined places, where the blast waves return. The ideal targets are buses and subways. Just go in and blow," he says.

As for biological sneakfare, "Frankly," says Bob Adams, executive director of the Global Development Center, a disaster-prevention agency in the D.C. area, "I'm afraid I have to say that the next step is rather obvious." Imagining himself the possibly lone anthrax terrorist, he theorizes that, "Having tested my anthrax approach on U.S. opinion makers—thus assuring plenty of publicity . . . I would move on to the general public.

"I would fill two dozen envelopes with the deadliest inhalation form of anthrax. I would make out the envelopes to look as innocent as possible, given what I had learned on TV to be the signs of an infected letter. I would send them to average people in towns and cities in various parts of America. I would sit back and wait. As people with no connection to anything related to the war on terrorism began to die in towns from Maine to Idaho, I would watch as millions of Americans finally gave up and refused to accept mail of any kind." (Days after he gave us his scenario, anthrax killed a New York hospital worker, spurring just these kinds of concerns.)

The point of such exercises, the experts reiterate, is not to terrify the public but to get us thinking how to prevent or stop an attack—the terrorism equivalent of football practice.

Counterterrorism specialist Ellis so strongly believes in mentally practicing terrorism to defend against it that he drew up an elaborate list. Depending on his objectives as a terrorist, he says, he would choose some of the following methods.

For mass panic: "I would use a mortar—conventional or chemical—to lob some shells into an open-air football or baseball stadium during a televised game. I wouldn't have to kill very many people, because the crowd would trample each other on the way out. The TV coverage helps me perpetuate the panic and fear. . . . Without blanketing a city with security, there is little or no way to defend against this type of attack.

Mass casualties: "I would follow the example of the Rajneeshees in Oregon by poisoning nonheated salad bars and buffet items at multiple restaurants. Rather than using Salmonella typhimurium, I would rely on Clostridium botulinum, the pathogen for botulism. The toxin or the bacteria itself is much easier to obtain than anthrax and could be very deadly."

Massive economic damage: "I would smuggle foot and mouth disease or a potent swine flu into the country. FMD is a particularly pernicious viral threat that can easily spread throughout a broad area. Aiming this agent at the 2 percent of cattle feedlots which process over 70 percent of the nation's beef, I could decimate large sectors of the nation's agribusiness."

And a variation on the Copass scenario: "Rather than crashing a hydrogen sulfide truck into a football stadium—an open-air environment—I would aim the truck at a busy mall during the Christmas shopping season. . . . Since the mall is a closed air environment, I would be able to contaminate more people. . . ."

Provocative ideas, but nothing new to a terrorist with a grudge and an internet connection, Ellis insists. "The sophistication of a terrorist attack," he says, "is merely a product of the imagination, time, and luck of a potential attacker."

"You know," adds fellow expert Stubblefield, "I have so many scenarios that I have come up with over the years that it's frightening." But then, that's the point

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow