In an age where ‘globalisation’ has become an overused word, al-Qa’ida is perhaps the first terrorist organisation to achieve global reach. Traditionally it has been possible to place terrorist groups into categories based loosely upon their stated aims. The most common of these are groups focusing on social revolution, such as Shining Path, which created widespread havoc in Peru, and the various European Red Brigades.
There are also the nationalist separatist groups such as the IRA, operating in Northern Ireland and England, and the Basque group ETA, operating in Spain.
For the most part such groups have been generally conservative, their operations relying on ‘conventional’ weapons and tactics. Although murderous and destructive, they have maintained certain restraints. Al-Qa’ida clearly, however, does not fit into these or any other established category. Instead it appears almost unique, a ‘trans-national terrorist group’. As such it is much harder to attempt to define the specific aims of its approach other than that it generally seeks to attack targets with a high symbolic value, attract mass media and international attention, generate widespread fear and chaos, pursue its aims to the extent of sacrificing their its members’ lives and, where possible, inflict mass casualties.
Put more simply, it seeks to wage a conflict without specific boundaries and without tacit rules and restraints. This is because a more conventional approach does not arouse the level of shock and fear al-Qa’ida appears to believe it needs to achieve its goals.
The real question, therefore, pursued in intelligence circles around the world, has become identifying the next target. Various terrorism experts, in considering this, have focused their attention on obvious areas, notably energy and information networks. This is because these clearly underpin modern economies and are also, in many cases, based around ‘nodes’ – critical, often poorly protected junctures that could be destroyed, creating a catastrophic cascade effect (such as substations or ‘routers’ that direct Internet traffic). Soft infrastructure targets have also been highlighted – oil pipelines and chemical plants. The next attacks will no doubt be, as much as anything, aimed at demonstrating to the faithful that the organisation continues to operate and is still able to challenge the US and its allies. With the situation in Iraq, the danger grows still greater.
It is important to understand that the September 11 attacks were not low-technology affairs as has been widely argued. Low-technology weapons allowed the terrorists to gain control of a number of aircraft. Once this was achieved these aircraft were then converted into precision-guided missiles, high-technology weapons of mass destruction, able to deliver a kiloton of explosive power into the World Trade Center with deadly accuracy. There was nothing random about this. The attack was extremely well planned, prepared and executed. Turning a low-technology threat into a high-technology one, so effective last September, would therefore appear to be important. Al-Qa’ida consistently seeks to keep its enemies guessing and has an ability to think laterally. In the Western World we have become very accepting of what has become commonplace to us and rarely question its vulnerability. Few would have thought of a suicide boat crashed into the side of a warship, for example. No idea can be readily dismissed. In our trying to counter the various possibilities, one of the terrorist’s goals is achieved – the disruption of ordinary life. Those responsible for managing the security of airports, seaports, nuclear and chemical plants, stadiums, large commercial buildings and monuments and other icons must think about and assess all possible threats, even those that might previously have seemed very far-fetched possibilities. Engineers have traditionally been builders, whether of physical infrastructure or information and communication networks, seeking to enhance the convenience of life and development of society. They must now turn their talents to ways in which society and its modern infrastructure can be protected against this new and radically different attack.
Peter Varnish OBE FREng
Peter Varnish spent 32 years in the Ministry of Defence, working on stealth techniques, radar, and electronic warfare. He recently joined Definition International as Chairman. He is also a Director of Sparks Technology Inc, S3T Ltd, cmb Ltd, and International Geopolitical Solutions. He is Chairman of the Programme Committee of the forthcoming international conference on Global Security in London in July.