Terrorism and technology


However convincing the recently released videotape is in proving Osama Bin Laden’s responsibility for the terrorist attacks of 11 September, a case can always be made by whoever is interested in proving the opposite. Already claims are being made that the tape is a fake, that at least part of it was actually taken four years ago on the occasion of a wedding celebration, and that Bin Laden would not have been so naive as to incriminate himself on tape.

The real mystery is how one of the weakest states in the world can be behind a technological feat that humiliated the most powerful state on earth. This puts forward the disquieting question of how modern technology can eventually boost terrorism’s potency.

Terrorism, by definition, involves the killing of innocent people. Contrary to revolutionary ideologies, it stems from a logic of despair, not hope. It plays by the rules of a game in which the central factor is death, not life; revenge, not conflict- resolution. Those who are drawn into its net see themselves as innocent victims condemned to a life that is not worth living. They believe killing or threatening to kill other innocent people is the only bargaining chip they have to improve their lot, the implicit logic being that if others want to ensure their survival, conditions must be created for the terrorist to ensure his survival as well.

Technology is neutral when it comes to enhancing the chances of life and death. The more technology progresses, the greater its power not only to enhance life but also to devise ever more lethal methods of destroying it. This was graphically illustrated by the terrorist attacks of 11 September, where 19 people used apparently benign technology to rain death and destruction on two of the most prominent bastions of corporate and military might in the world, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The tape, which was reportedly shot a few days after the attacks, shows a jubilant Bin Laden describing how the destruction of the Twin Towers exceeded his expectations. It seems he expected them to collapse only down to the level where the aircraft struck, not the total demolition of the two buildings. So terrifyingly effective were the attacks, in fact, that they raise the question of whether high-rise buildings are a thing of the past. Now that commercial aircraft can be used as flying bombs, should we set our sights lower and stop building skyscrapers altogether? Has living in a city with a soaring skyline like New York become a high- risk venture?

The most critical aspect of the 11 September attacks is not the scope of the actual destruction, nor the horrific number of casualties (over 3,000), but the awareness that the terrorist threat is much greater than anybody imagined. This is due to two factors. One is that the loopholes in the world system which terrorists can exploit far exceed the measures taken so far to counter the threat. The second is that opportunities for terrorists to exploit innovations in technology for their own purpose have been greatly underestimated.

This technological dimension is worth probing thoroughly, especially that the worst-case scenario of terrorists hijacking nuclear weapons can no longer be dismissed as a remote possibility. The planning and successful execution of a series of attacks aimed at the very heart of the American establishment, which attest to a mastery of modern technology, and the intricate financial infrastructure of Al-Qa’eda as well as the heavily fortified network of caves and bunkers Bin Laden had the foresight to build inside the Tora Bora mountains, which attest to a high level of organisational skill, make this worst- case scenario a very real possibility. With the secrets of nuclear technology becoming more and more easily accessible, near-nuclear countries are proliferating. This is a breeding ground for nuclear terrorism.

The fact that terrorism has been so successful in surprising the world with the sophistication of its achievements has imbued it with near mystical powers, so that there is now a general tendency to attribute every mishap to a terrorist machination. A case in point is the outbreak of anthrax in the United States, which resulted in a wave of general hysteria. The rush to buy up gas masks established beyond any doubt that microorganisms are remarkably successful as instruments of mass terror. Their potential as weapons of mass destruction, however, is not that clear.

The most remarkable fact about state-sponsored development of germ weapons during the 20th century is that none of these nations ever used biological weapons on the battlefield, the reason being that although organisms are excellent killing machines, they make poor weapons. To begin with, because of the long incubation period of many pathogens, the effects of use are not immediate. Second, the resulting epidemic could be mistaken for a natural outbreak of the disease instead of one caused by the enemy. Third, the effect of biological aerosols is uncertain, depending on chance fluctuations of wind and weather.

For all these reasons, biological weapons are not as dramatic, reliable or overpowering as conventional high explosives. The possibility of retaliation in kind to a biological attack also acts as a restraint, and there is a sense of moral repugnance attached to the idea of intentionally using living organisms to cause disease, disability or death in human beings. Nevertheless, none of those deterrents might apply to terrorists, especially to groups acting outside the bounds of traditional moral standards and whose goals are to disrupt and destabilise a society by sowing fear among the general public.

When it comes to chemical weapons, how realistic is it to use deadly gases? Some experts believe they are just too hard to make and disperse; others, on the contrary, think we should not underestimate the ability and recklessness of terrorists. Theoretically, the component elements of such gases are systematically monitored. In practical terms, it is not impossible to purchase them on the open market. In a recent article, Scientific American recounts the experience of a famous organic chemist who had for long been calling for restricting the purchase of potential chemical weapons ingredients. When his warnings were ignored, he decided to run a test. He placed an order with a reputable chemical supplier and obtained with no difficulty all the chemicals needed to make sarin, the nerve agent used by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in its 1994 and 1995 attacks on the Tokyo subway system. For $130, he got 280 grams of sarin, which, with a sprayer, could kill between a few hundred and tens of thousands of people. Fortunately, the Japanese cult did not use a sprayer and the fatalities were limited to 12 people.

But so far, terrorism’s main field of action has been that of hijacking airliners. What can be done to foil future attempts to turn planes into kamikaze guided missiles? Locking the cockpit door might be all that is needed. The flight deck bulkhead should probably also be reinforced. But the 11 September hijacking elicited various high-tech solutions as well. One idea is to allow a remote operator on the ground to take charge of an airliner in the event terrorists with flight training manage to get into the cockpit. It is already possible to control and land an aircraft automatically without a pilot, although such a step is taken only in cases of zero or near-zero visibility. Most modern aircraft have an autopilot (that is, a computerised system that maintains altitude, speed and direction) that could be reprogrammed to ignore commands from a hijacker and instead take direction from the ground to make a safe automated landing at a nearby airport.

However, pilots and the aviation industry in general have reacted coolly to suggestions that direction of an aircraft be wrested from those in the cockpit because of their innate misgivings about handing controls to a computer. Further, industry experts warn that technology that could override the commands of unauthorised pilots might create greater risks than it eliminates. Anyone capable of commandeering the ground-to-air communications links necessary to perform remote piloting could produce a disaster without having to risk their lives.

A somewhat more feasible approach might be to reprogramme the plane’s flight computers to make it impossible for an aircraft to fly into buildings because the system would direct it automatically to turn away or climb to avoid them. Still, the idea of allowing planes to be piloted by remote control brings up the troubling vulnerability of air traffic control computers to terrorist takeover.

True, technology introduces an ever greater amount of uncertainty as to the reliability of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. But the rule seems to be that technological advances operate more in favour of terrorists than they do in favour of the anti-terrorist drive. This makes it all the more imperative for the anti- terrorist drive to focus on eradicating the root causes of terrorism through an overhaul of the entire world system rather than concentrating efforts exclusively on pursuing a specific group or groups of terrorists.