Malevolent Threat Mass Terrorism

Our society, our way of life, and our liberty face serious current challenges beyond the infrastructure fragility exacerbated by climate change. The most salient is attack by terrorist groups or an enemy state, or a combination thereof, aimed at massive damage and massive casualties. These are not unintentional "malignant" results of our habitual behavior but are rather "malevolent" and planned carefully by those who want to do far more than many terrorist groups in the past: namely, to destroy our entire civilization and way of life.

Oil presents a panoply of opportunities for highly destructive terrorism. Our transportation is fueled over 96 percent by petroleum products. Consequently oil has a transportation monopoly in much the same way that, until around the end of the nineteenth century, salt had a monopoly on the preservation of meat. Oil's monopoly creates a litany of vulnerabilities for our society.

Since around two-thirds of the world's proven reserves of conventionally produced oil are in the Persian Gulf region, together with much of oil's international infrastructure, the world's supplies are vulnerable to terrorist attacks such as two already attempted by al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and emphasized in al Qaeda's doctrine. Some oil states' governments (Iran) are quite hostile today; others (Saudi Arabia) could become so with a change of ruler. A nuclear arms race appears to be beginning between Iran and six Sunni states that have announced nuclear programs "for electricity generation." The United States borrows more than a billion dollars a day at today's prices to import oil, substantially weakening the dollar. The Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia profits massively from oil income and, according to Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, covers "90 percent of the expenses of the entire faith, overriding other traditions of Islam."26 Wahhabi teachings are murderous with respect to Shi'ite Muslims, Jews, homosexuals, and apostates; are hideously repressive of women; and are mirrored by the views of al Qaeda and similar groups except with respect to their allegiance to the Saudi state. And finally, as Bernard Lewis puts it, "There should be no taxation without representation but it should also be noted that there is no representation without taxation." Extremely wealthy oil-exporting states are thus often dictatorships and autocratic kingdoms without institutions that check and balance the ruler.

The other major energy sector of our economy, electricity generation and distribution, is also highly vulnerable to attack by terrorists and rogue states. In 2002 the National Research Council published its report on the use of science and technology to combat terrorism. It stated: "The most insidious and economically harmful attack would be one that exploits the vulnerabilities of an integrated electric power grid. 'A chain is only as strong as its weakest link' applies here. Simultaneous attacks on a few critical components of the grid could result in a widespread and extended blackout. Conceivably, they could also cause the grid to collapse, with cascading failures in equipment far from the attacks, leading to an even larger long-term blackout."27

As of 2008 very little has been done to implement the council's seventeen detailed recommendations to deal with this, particularly with regard to improving the security of, or even stockpiling spares for, the large transformers at grid substations or effectively protecting the grid's Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) control systems from destructive hacking. Additionally, the electricity grid has a major vulnerability to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). In 1962 both Soviet and American atmospheric nuclear tests revealed a troubling phenomenon: three types of electromagnetic pulses generated at high altitude by nuclear detonations could seriously damage or destroy electronic and electrical systems at as much as 1,610 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the blast. The 2004 report of the U.S. Electromagnetic Pulse Commission pointed out that the detonation of a single nuclear warhead between 40 and 400 kilometers (25 and 250 miles) above the Earth could cause "unprecedented cascading failures of our major infrastructures," primarily "through our electric power infrastructure" crippling "telecommunications ... the financial system ... means of getting food, water, and medical care to the citizenry ... trade ... and production of goods and services." The commission noted that states such as North Korea and Iran, possibly working through terrorist groups, might not be deterred from attack (say using a relatively small ship carrying a simple SCUD missile) in the same way as were our adversaries in the cold war.28

The commission concluded that detonation of a single nuclear warhead at these altitudes could "encompass and degrade at least 70 percent of the Nation's electrical service, all in one instant." It also notes that, as a result of fire safety and environmental concerns, locally stored fuel for emergency power supplies such as diesel for generators is often limited to about a seventy-two hours' supply.29 Food available in supermarkets generally supplies about one to three days of requirements for customers, and regional food warehouses usually stock enough for a multicounty area to last about one month.30

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