What It Would Take to Kill New York -- A Simple Scenario from March, 2004

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