July 22, 2005

What It Would Take -- A Simple Scenario

[Republished from 2004, now that we seem to have folks playing around with the London transportation system on a regular basis.]

It's no secret, when you got me jumping up and down
It's no secret, cause my heart is chained and bound

-- Jefferson Airplane

AN EMAIL ASKS WHAT IT MIGHT TAKE for Islamic terrorists to move to the next level in the United States. It wouldn't, as most of us realize, take all that much. Here's one approach, but only one. There are many.

The Elements:
One City: New York
Three Locations: The Brooklyn Bridge, Union Square, Penn Station
Terrorists: 4

The Equipment:
Plastique explosives ( 10-15 pounds) of good quality, preferably military, from one of the stashes hidden years ago around Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Backpacks: 2
Ten penny nails and ball bearings: 4 pounds
Anthrax: 2 Liters from the New Jersey stash
Machine Guns: 4 (Small) with 2 extra clips each

The Time:
Late September to Early March when the weather makes wearing coats common.

Intellectual Equipment:
An understanding of the New York subway and bridge system, an understanding of symbolism in America, a willingness to die.

The Method:

For over a year after the Eleventh, I used to think about the nature of the Brooklyn Bridge, and how easy it would be to damage this 19th century structure every time I

walked across it -- which was often.

On the Eleventh I stood at the Brooklyn end of the bridge handing out water bottles to the ash-shrouded ghosts that had fled across it in endless droves.

After the 11th the Brooklyn Bridge was closed except for emergency vehicles for weeks on end. After that the bridge was guarded and vehicles vetted on a random schedule for months. Sometimes the "security" went so far as to park a police car at the Brooklyn entrance.

For all I know this goes on today.

The Bridge and what it represents and, more importantly, what it controls in the way of access to and from NYC, makes for an exquisite lynchpin for a memorable workday morning in New York City. The way to work this little terrorist scenario is as follows:

Four dedicated homicide terrorists decide on a date certain to carry out something they have only rehearsed before. (Surely we've still got four sleeping somewhere near the Brooklyn mosque on Atlantic avenue about a half a mile from the bridge. After all, this is America where we hold all forms of religious expression sacred.)

Because they are religious in nature and not given to alcohol or drug abuse, they've all held jobs in Manhattan for years and their morning ritual is nothing unusual. If there are any guards or surveillance people at any of the points these men pass through they've been seen thousands of times already. Always at about the same time. They've taken care, over the years, to always dress the same and always carry backpacks or briefcases. They are nothing unusual. They are routine.

One gets up and takes the A train to Penn Station at about six in the morning on, say, a Tuesday. Gets there and pops out of the entrance at 7th avenue and 31st street, turns right and walks about a half a block to the Starbucks, orders a latte and sits down to read the Times. Backpack/bookbag on the chair beside him. As usual.

The second one takes an express under the river and gets off at 14th Street/Union Square on the East Side with his off-brand little naughahyde attache. It usually contains his lunch and a selection of papers. Today it contains a couple of modified fire extinguishers -- the kind you can pick up at the local hardware store or, say, the Costco along the Brooklyn waterfront about three miles from the Atlantic Avenue mosque. Just a little something he's bringing to the office in case of fire. Youd have to look carefully to note the seals have been broken.

He comes out of the subway and bides his time at the McDonalds on Union Square with a fine little Egg McMuffin.

The third man stops by an apartment building along Atlantic avenue to hook-up with his friend. They always walk together to work across the Brooklyn Bridge. They have for years. His backpack usually has some workout clothes for the gym. Today it contains a small Uzi and extra clips. The fourth has a similar backpack that usually also has some workout clothes. Today, before he leaves the apartment, the fourth man places a sequence of shaped plastique charges with either a cell phone detonator or a dead-man switch into his backpack He's probably armed as well.

All four have cell phones. All four have set up the speed dial numbers long ago.

When the last two have reached the stairs that lead up to the pedestrian walkway on the Brooklyn side of the Bridge at, say 7:30, the 3rd man phones the first two and gives them the 10 minute warning.

The man at Union Square goes down into the Union Square station and stands in the crowds on the platform near the uptown / downtown platforms. The trains have to stop along a curve here and the loading and unloading is always slower. If you stand to the end of the platform you can cover two lines at once. You tend to fade into the crowds coming and going as the morning rush begins to build.

The man at the 7th Avenue Starbucks goes into the bathroom stall upstairs and, opening his backpack, inserts the detonators into his explosive vest packed with a couple of layers of nails and ball bearings. Checking to make sure it is armed and good to go, he makes his way back to Penn Station. He gets in the back of the long lines waiting to buy rail tickers or subway passes in the midst of hundreds of people milling about.

The two on the bridge stroll past the security folks that may or may not be at the pedestrian entrance of the bridge. They walk about 150 yards out onto the span to where the cable is just a short little walk across the metal struts from the walkway. Pausing, one takes out his cell phone and gets the other two conferenced in while the other takes the shaped plastique charges from his backpack.

Now are, at about 7:40 Tuesday morning, all dressed up and with a lot of things to do in a very small amount of time.

The two listen in on the cell phone as the man on the bridge goes to work while the other stands ready.

Step one: Remove automatic weapon from backpack and empty a clip or two into the pedestrians, the bike riders and also into the cars below.

The resulting dead bodies and carnage from the accidents on the roadway below essentially bring the bridge to a halt and give his partner some working room.

Step two: Walk across metal struts to cable with the plastique explosive belt from backpack and sort of loop it around the cable. If your explosives technicians know what they are doing, this is a shaped charge that will, at the very least, damage a main cable if not sever it.

Step three: Say your prayers to Allah and trigger the device.

When the cell phone connection to the men on the bridge goes dead, the fellow at 14th Street probably shoots a few people near him to give him some working room, takes the modified fire extinguishers out of his case and unloads a large cloud of anthrax or some other chemical or biological agent into the uptown and downtown tunnels at Union Square. The vast amounts of air pushed by the trains will disperse it quite nicely up and down the line, and via the vents above the tunnels into the streets as well.

The third man at Penn Station decides he doesn't need a subway pass for the next few instances of eternity, puts the cell phone away, gets to the center of the crowd and triggers his explosive vest. At about quarter to eight in the morning the immediate result is hundreds of shredded, dead, and wounded New Yorkers who never saw it coming.

Four men. Three cell phones. Ten to fifteen pounds of plastique and a couple of liters of anthrax. That's all it would take. New York would, in a moment, come to a complete halt and stay that way for some time.

Political result? Hard to say, but it would create a political climate in the United States where the nuclear option would become very, very real. New targeting instructions would be passed to the submarines and the land based missiles within three hours if they were not already there. Policies that avoid racial and religious profiling would seem quaint overnight. Muslim round-ups would ramp up into the stratosphere. Voices urging restraint and respect for individual freedoms will be steamrolled into silence.

So, as you can see, the understanding of American symbolism is not lost on our enemies. They love this sort of thing. One might even say "They're just dying to do it."

Then again, since our security is now first rate, the best that billions can buy, it can't happen here. Can it?

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Posted by Vanderleun at July 22, 2005 1:41 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

In all likelihood it is even easier than you indicate. A chilling thought. The truth is that no defense could ever be successful enough, only a strong offense to squash the ideology at its origin will suffice.

Posted by: Final Historian at July 22, 2005 2:04 PM

Open societies are vulnerable. It would take even less effort and coordination than you propose here to kill far more people, for one who had sufficient knowledge of bearing structures and could gain access to the maintenance level of the Empire State Building. Which is why we must take the war to the enemy and wage it without mercy.

Ah, but where is the enemy? Good question! I'll get back to you on that.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at July 22, 2005 3:06 PM

Chilling. Elements of your hypothetical scenario have been played out already. Surely it will happen somehow something like what you say. Both of my children live in NYC. Gasp! The political results in the US will be enormous and last as long as the consequences of the Civil War, a generation at least. But what?

Posted by: Iam Doubt at July 22, 2005 6:03 PM

Frightening, but very possible. Right after 9/11, I thought that symbolic horror could be pretty easily created by one guy in a car on the DC Beltway feigning a flat tire in the middle lane during rush hour (a guaranteed 10 or 20 mile backup) ... once the Beltway comes to a halt, guy #2 flies overhead in a crop duster spreading chemical/anthrax terror

Posted by: frightening at July 22, 2005 8:35 PM

To Mr. Porretto, the enemy is preaching in the mosques. Under the guise of religious freedom, terror and sedition are being preached continuously. The parallel is the Communist party in the last century, which under the guise of political freedom, advocated violent overthrow of the government. They were successfully prosecuted for that. The First Amendment does not protect political speech that advocates doing away with political speech. The same should be for religious freedom. Islam sees the state as a tool of the religion. It advocates overthrowing the state and should not be protected.

The scenarios you described and others like them probably keep working security officers in nightmares continuously, while politicians tie their hands. I agree that one more really severe attack on American soil, and the entire war against terrorism will escalate beyond anything most people imagine. It will be time for vengeance, pure and simple, and God or Allah help those caught in it.

My biggest fear is the "Sum of All Fears" scenario, the book not the movie. (And already built devices are probably potentially available.) The resultant reprisals will not be like the book, and will give our culture collective guilt for generations.

Posted by: Bill at July 23, 2005 10:08 AM

The only reason this hasn't happened yet, I feel, is that the terrorists haven't moved everything they want across our borders for the step after that.

Thunder Pig

Posted by: Thunder Pig at July 24, 2005 3:03 AM

Can it happen. Right now, probably. Could we change our homeland defense strategy to fix that? Yes. But not with any number of more billions of dollars. There is just too much to guard in New York to guard it all with dedicated security forces. What would make such attacks much harder to pull off wouldn't cost the gov't practically any money at all. New York just has to become a "shall issue" state for concealed weapons. There are enough American cities in states where civilian carry is common that we know it doesn't turn urban areas into the "wild west". It won't make terrorism in NYC impossible, but it would add another large complicating factor to the terrorist's planning that would reduce the number of attacks they are likely to try. This one, which requires keeping 2 sets of crowds at bay while a weapon is set up, is one that would become unlikely to succeed or would suddenly require a lot more resources to have the same chances or working. Even if just 2% of New Yorkers carried pistols, that is over 150,000 new unpaid security guards distributed around the population. Some will be worse than others, but a terrorist could never be sure where they were or what their schedules or weaknesses would be.

Posted by: JRA at July 24, 2005 11:43 AM

A few questions - I don't get the point behind the arbitrary suicide bomber.

Past that, parsing attack scenarios, I've been looking at how I might approach this from a conventional warfighting mode. Far as I can tell, there are something on the order of 10 main links between Manhattan and the mainland. Four of these are bridges, three of which are suspension bridges.

I would think that the suspension bridges would be the easiest to tackle. But far as it goes, what my primary inclination would be is to make trucks into either Fuel-Air-Explosives (LNG tankers), or into large shaped charges. If unable to obtain the several tons of plastique (likely), copper lining with a traditional diesel and fertilized mix might have enough oomph to do the trick for a directed charge.

Trucks, panel trucks, or even vans kitted out with side-directed shape charges should be enough to snap at least one cable on each bridge. Upwards facing charges wuold have a shot at breaching tunnel roofs. In concert with LNG tankers in the tunnels, at least a sufficiently large fire to make the tunnel unusable (due to obstruction and wreckage) for a while.

The whole objective being - rather than something simply terror oriented, but to mess up logistics lines. The rationale behind that would be to complement certainly mass anthrax dispersal (as mentioned above), and whatever other radiological/biological/chemical attacks one might be inclined to indulge in. As far as it goes, the trick would be to add a strongly virulent, infective attack, such as a smallpox, plague (or even something tamer).

As far as the anthrax blooms go, I would probably go with dispersal from abandoned subway platforms, so that the timing wouldn't be nearly as critical and could be done hours beforehand allowing these guys being used elsewhere.

The objective would be to create an unacceptable logistical strain for treatment of a mass casualty event. This would be further compounded by the injection of something highly contageous (with a bit higher latency), so that the logistical bottlenecks which would result from the first or second order effects, would be become incubation grounds for the spread of an infectious vector.

Oh, one thing I have to give you some credit for with the anthrax subway attack is the consequence for decontamination. It wouldn't be an unreasonable bet to assume that it would result in the complete closure and sealing of the subway system (posssibly require it to be filled with concrete) and require an entirely new network to be built.

At the end of it all, this is simply one of a number of nightmare scenarios. But much like nightmare scenarios during the Cold War, we can't effectively patch all the holes, we can only rely on deterrence, forward deterrence, compellance, and the entire litany of other strategic approaches to head off armageddon.

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at July 24, 2005 10:00 PM

Trying to 'defend' America from dedicated, ruthless terrorists willing to die in the attempt would be like trying to catch bullets with our teeth.

Samurai warriors had a philosophy, 'ken tai i-chi' or attack and defend are the same thing. It is the highest form of defense to cut down your enemy before he launches his attack. Many schools of swordsmanship, particularly Jigen Ryu, had no defensive techniques in their curriculum.

Posted by: nobody important at July 25, 2005 12:44 PM

What would be even more effective, from the terrorists' standpoint, would be to cause death and destruction at a half dozen large shopping malls throughout the country. For all the horror it would cause, devastation in New York or Washington probably wouldn't trigger the ultimate rage or fear -- lots of people can't stand those places anyway. (I'm only half joking.)

But imagine if no one anywhere in the country felt safe in pursuing Americans' favorite activity, spending money. (Making money is only the second-favorite.) The economy would collapse overnight.

Possibly some readers think we're all mad to give terrorists ideas, but I think they're wrong. First, there is probably no scenario suggested on this site that the enemy hasn't already considered; the only issue is what they can put into practice. But even that's not the important point, which is to show that there is such a variety of terrorist tactics available that no amount of defense can cork all of them, not even if we tripled the amount of money spent on "homeland security."

Our best hope is to re-activate a "Cold War" mentality and make sure that everyone knows that a major Islamofascist attack will be met with unthinkable consequences for any country or political group that abets or enables it. A terrible thought? Of course. Mutual assured destruction was a terrible thought in the days of the Soviet Union; but despite the assurance of Bertrand Russell that as long as either side had nuclear weapons it would be inevitable that they would be used, the rationality that he was so proud of turned out to be wrong, and the "madness" of nuclear deterrence worked.

We are facing a different kind of enemy now, it's true, but I really don't think that the vast majority of the Islamist world is ready to face total obliteration for the sake of helping the fanatics in their midst.

Posted by: Rick Darby at July 25, 2005 2:59 PM

From today's Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger:

"An anonymous tip about possible terrorist activity led police and federal agents to a Newark apartment, where they found six Egyptian nationals, camcorder videos of New York City and subway maps with extensive markings on them, officials said yesterday."

They also found $8,000 in cash. The apartment in question is in Newark's Ironbound section and about 3 blocks from Newark's Penn Station, one of the major rail hubs in the Northeast corridor.

The scary part is that the police only found these guys through an anonymous tip. How many other cells are out there?

Posted by: Philomathean at July 27, 2005 10:27 AM
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