United States may also find itself the victim of suicide bombers and truck bombs (as indeed it was in the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in April 1995).

Terrorists possess some advantages, despite their small numbers. First, their actions are largely unpredictable, since their objectives, at least those of ideological terrorists such as al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, are largely idiosyncratic and obscure.4 Second, the terrorists must be assumed to have some part of their number in covert residence within the societies they plan to attack. Third, terrorists appear to be very patient. They decide when they will strike. As a result, those defending against terrorism must be alert at all times, despite the apparent absence of visible terrorist activity. Finally, terrorists may have international bases of operations, and quite possibly enjoy the sponsorship and assistance of a rogue state. This combination of stateless terrorists who infiltrate target societies, supported by the resources of an irresponsible but technically competent foreign government, is a particularly dangerous combination. The U.S. government identified the Taliban government of Afghanistan as such a state. The U.S. administration was obviously concerned that the Baathist government of Iraq might also represent such a state, although there is no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the September 11, 2001 attack.5

Notwithstanding the terrorist threat, modern industrial societies have some offsetting advantages. Their global intelligence services and military presence, especially when they cooperate with one another, may keep the terror networks off balance, and may be able to damage some of them and interfere with their communications and money flows. Military action, or the threat of it, may discourage rogue states from supporting the terrorists. Nevertheless, highly efficient economies also acquire vulnerabilities and reduced resilience from the private sector’s reluctance to sacrifice efficiency to reduce catastrophic risks whose likelihood is difficult to estimate.6

One area in which both India and the United States enjoy impressive capability is research and innovation. Through the application of available or new technologies, states can make targets less vulnerable, thus less attractive. They can limit the damage that may result from an attack, increase the speed of recovery, and provide forensic tools to identify the perpetrators. However, terrorist networks such as al Qaeda are led by well-educated and well-financed people who may also enjoy advanced technical skills. If supported by a government whose military establishment has developed weapons of mass destruction, these skills may be greatly amplified. Any technical strategy for responding to the threat of catastrophic terrorism must address this fact.


Politically motivated terrorists, such as the Irish Republican Army, may have a specific goal, which, if achieved, might bring an end to their attacks. We can imagine an attempt to negotiate an end to their terrorism. This is not the case for the al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the September 11, 2001 attack on New York City and Washington, D.C.


Gerald Holton anticipates just such a combination of individual terrorists supported by a rogue government in a paper presented at a terrorism conference at the Hoover Institution in 1976 and published at that time in Terrorism, an international journal. He called this threat Type III Terrorism. See, Holton, Gerald. 2002. “Reflections on Modern Terrorism,” Edge. Available online at http://www.edge.org/3rs_culture/holton/holton_print.html.


Auerswald, Philip, Lewis M. Branscomb, Todd LaPorte and Erwann Michel-Kerjan. 2006. Seeds of Disaster, Roots of Response: How Private Actions can Reduce Public Vulnerability, Cambridge University Press, New York.

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