With the recent terrorist attacks, war came to America's mainland for first time in 136 years. This is a new type of battle, one with the future potential to inflict irreparable damage to the United States on its soil. To tackle it, the U.S. government will have to dramatically reconsider its threat assessment.
The horrifying success of unprecedented terrorist attacks in the United States Sept. 11 demonstrated that the U.S. government's threat assessment was wrong. Indeed, in planning how to deal with enemies overseas the Pentagon turned out to be totally unprepared to defend its own headquarters.
The attacks demonstrated that America is not ready for a new type of war, one conducted on its territory by an enemy that is hard to detect and defeat. Though some U.S. structures, including the World Trade Center in 1993, were occasionally terrorist targets, previous and current administrations assigned a low priority to such a threat.
But as the recent attacks show, the United States has an enemy that perceives America as its main menace, and is determined to continue bringing large-scale terror to the country. With all its financial and military might, the United States will still have little chance to repulse future terrorist attacks on its soil if the government continues to give priority to tackling other, much les pressing, threats.
The Bush administration will have to dramatically reconsider its threat assessment since, short of global nuclear conflict, only a terrorist war against the United States within its own borders has a real potential to inflict irreparable damage to the country. Understanding this will help the nation better prepare for new terrorist attacks in America.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, and despite the rise of China, the United States has not had a significant global enemy for the past 10 years, leading to a sense of invulnerability. Even threats and isolated terrorist attacks on U.S. territory during that time have not awakened American leadership.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is seeking to expand the country's perceived invulnerability by developing National Missile Defense. The government also increased efforts to neutralize terrorist attacks inside the country. But as the terrorists' success in this week's attacks demonstrated, both efforts failed to protect the nation.
The attackers did not use missiles, nor did they intend to do so since no possible state sponsor has missiles capable of reaching the United States now or in the foreseeable future. Among so-called rogue nations North Korea is the most advanced, but it is unlikely to hit the American mainland in years to come. It is also doubtful that Iran and Iraq will ever be able to reach U.S. territory with missiles as well.
The governments of rogue countries would also not risk their destruction by U.S. retaliatory strikes just for the sake of hitting America with a few missiles. By building national missile defense despite an unlikely missile threat, the Bush administration failed to address the real threat of terrorist war.
Other homeland defense measures, such as increasing control over explosives smuggling, protecting strategic nuclear assets on U.S. territory and defending against cyberwar, missed the point too. By simple logic the terrorists got the most from hitting much less protected targets. The World Trade Center towers had no protection at all, while the boldness of the attackers surpassed the imagination of those responsible for protecting the Pentagon.
The main threat to the United States will come from technology-savvy, but not technology-dependant, terrorist organizations. Intelligence from American, Israeli, Russian and Indian sources suggests the following terror techniques, associated with likely radical Islamic perpetrators, may be used.
First, the terrorists will attempt to attack the most vulnerable civilian targets, where the deadliest results could be reached with minimal effort. The targets will also be symbolic, with the goal to produce a demoralizing effect on America.
The terrorists know they cannot seriously undermine U.S. military capabilities on American territory. Heavily guarded facilities will thus be avoided at an initial stage. When U.S. authorities switch their main attention to protecting civilian targets, the terrorists will strike at strategic objects, such as nuclear power stations, government facilities and military bases, as well as chemical plants and refineries.
High-tech attacks on computer and satellite networks cannot be excluded. The latter will not be the goal but rather means to make other targets more vulnerable. To add unpredictability, the same types of targets would not be hit in a row. For example, more aircraft hijackings will not be attempted in the short-term.
Second, explosives and arms will be rarely used, except in car bombings. This will decrease chances to catch the terrorists red handed. The attack this week showed it is possible that three determined men with razor blades and plastic knives can overcome possible resistance from aircraft crew and passengers. U.S. assets -- such as tankers, ships, helicopters, fuel and chemical trucks, aircraft and speed boats -- would be used as weapons instead of bombs or guns.
Third, a large flow of terrorists trying to cross the U.S. border is not expected any time soon, as many already came to the country several years ago. For instance, some of the suspects in this week's attacks received pilot training in the United States for 10 or 18 months before the assault, some American and Russian intelligence experts say.
Hidden terrorist cells would wait for the right time to be activated. Diplomatic cover will be widely used, with the possible collaboration of some foreign diplomats from countries friendly to America. Some terrorist organizations on American soil may also have counterintelligence capability, and in general will work almost the same way as U.S. intelligence services do.
Fourth, bacteriological and chemical attacks are unlikely soon. However, when America hits back at the home countries of suspected terrorists, the likelihood of such attacks will be increased. Rather than taking suitcases with nuclear devices in America, terrorists will try to contaminate large areas with radiation by various means not associated with nuclear explosion. America is in for an exhaustive and unpredictable war with terrorists on its own soil.
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