Friday, December 21, 2007

The Coming Urban Terror

The Coming Urban Terror
John Robb

Systems disruption, networked gangs, and bioweapons

For the first time in history, announced researchers this May, a
majority of the world's population is living in urban environments.
Cities—efficient hubs connecting international flows of people,
energy, communications, and capital—are thriving in our global economy
as never before. However, the same factors that make cities hubs of
globalization also make them vulnerable to small-group terror and

Over the last few years, small groups' ability to conduct terrorism
has shown radical improvements in productivity—their capacity to
inflict economic, physical, and moral damage. These groups, motivated
by everything from gang membership to religious extremism, have taken
advantage of easy access to our global superinfrastructure, revenues
from growing illicit commercial flows, and ubiquitously available new
technologies to cross the threshold necessary to become terrible
threats. September 11, 2001, marked their arrival at that threshold.

Unfortunately, the improvements in lethality that we have already seen
are just the beginning. The arc of productivity growth that lets small
groups terrorize at ever-higher levels of death and disruption
stretches as far as the eye can see. Eventually, one man may even be
able to wield the destructive power that only nation-states possess
today. It is a perverse twist of history that this new threat arrives
at the same moment that wars between states are receding into the
past. Thanks to global interdependence, state-against-state warfare is
far less likely than it used to be, and viable only against
disconnected or powerless states. But the underlying processes of
globalization have made us exceedingly vulnerable to nonstate enemies.
The mechanisms of power and control that states once exerted will
continue to weaken as global interconnectivity increases. Small groups
of terrorists can already attack deep within any state, riding on the
highways of interconnectivity, unconcerned about our porous borders
and our nation-state militaries. These terrorists' likeliest point of
origin, and their likeliest destination, is the city.

Cities played a vital defensive role in the last major evolution of
conventional state-versus-state warfare. Between the world wars, the
refinement of technologies—particularly the combustion engine, when
combined with armor—made it possible for armies to move at much higher
speeds than in the past, so new methods of warfare emphasized armored
motorized maneuver as a way to pierce the opposition's solid defensive
lines and range deep into soft, undefended rear areas. These
incursions, the armored thrusts of blitzkrieg, turned an army's size
against itself: even the smallest armored vanguard could easily
disrupt the supply of ammunition, fuel, and rations necessary to
maintain the huge armies of the twentieth century in the field.

To defend against these thrusts, the theoretician J. F. C. Fuller
wrote in the 1930s, cities could be used as anchor or pivot points to
engage armored forces in attacks on static positions, bogging down the
offensive. Tanks couldn't move quickly through cities, and if they
bypassed them and struck too deeply into enemy territory, their supply
lines—in particular, of the gasoline they drank greedily—would become
vulnerable. The city, Fuller anticipated, could serve as a vast
fortress, requiring the fast new armor to revert to the ancient tactic
of the siege. That's exactly what happened in practice during World
War II, when the defenses mounted in Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad
played a major role in the Allied victory.

But in the current evolution of warfare, cities are no longer
defensive anchors against armored thrusts ranging through the
countryside. They have become the main targets of offensive action
themselves. Just as the huge militaries of the early twentieth century
were vulnerable to supply and communications disruption, cities are
now so heavily dependent on a constant flow of services from various
centralized systems that even the simplest attacks on those systems
can cause massive disruption.

Most of the networks that we rely on for city life—communications,
electricity, transportation, water—are overused, interdependent, and
extremely complex. They developed organically as what scholars in the
emerging field of network science call "scale-free networks," which
contain large hubs with a plethora of connections to smaller and more
isolated local clusters. Such networks are economically efficient and
resistant to random failure—but they are also extremely vulnerable to
intentional disruptions, as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi shows in his
important book Linked: The New Science of Networks. In practice, this
means that a very small number of attacks on the critical hubs of a
scale-free network can collapse the entire network. Such a collapse
can occasionally happen by accident, when random failure hits a
critical node; think of the huge Northeast blackout of 2003, which
caused $6.4 billion in damage.

Further, the networks of our global superinfrastructure are tightly
"coupled"—so tightly interconnected, that is, that any change in one
has a nearly instantaneous effect on the others. Attacking one network
is like knocking over the first domino in a series: it leads to
cascades of failure through a variety of connected networks, faster
than human managers can respond.

The ongoing attacks on the systems that support Baghdad's 5 million
people illustrate the vulnerability of modern networks. Over the last
four years, guerrilla assaults on electrical systems have reduced
Baghdad's power to an average of four or five hours a day. And the
insurgents have been busily finding new ways to cut power: no longer
do they make simple attacks on single transmission towers. Instead,
they destroy multiple towers in series and remove the copper wire for
resale to fund the operation; they ambush repair crews in order to
slow repairs radically; they attack the natural gas and water
pipelines that feed the power plants. In September 2004, one attack on
an oil pipeline that fed a power plant quickly led to a cascade of
power failures that blacked out electricity throughout Iraq.

Lack of adequate power is a major reason why economic recovery has
been nearly impossible in Iraq. No wonder that, in account after
account, nearly the first criticism that any Iraqi citizen levels
against the government is its inability to keep the lights on.
Deprived of services, citizens are forced to turn to local groups—many
of them at war with the government—for black-market alternatives. This
money, in turn, fuels further violence, and the government loses

Insurgents have directed such disruptive attacks against nearly all
the services necessary to get a city of 5 million through the day:
water pipes, trucking, and distribution lines for gasoline and
kerosene. And because of these networks' complexity and
interconnectivity, even small attacks, costing in the low thousands of
dollars to carry out, can cause tens of millions and occasionally
hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Iraq is a petri dish for modern conflict, the Spanish Civil War of our
times. It's the place where small groups are learning to fight modern
militaries and modern societies and win. As a result, we can expect to
see systems disruption used again and again in modern
conflict—certainly against megacities in the developing world, and
even against those in the developed West, as we have already seen in
London, Madrid, and Moscow.

Another growing threat to our cities, commonest so far in the
developing world, is gangs challenging government for control. For
three sultry July days in 2006, a gang called PCC (Primeiro Comando da
Capital, "First Command of the Capital") held hostage the 20 million
inhabitants of the greater São Paulo area through a campaign of
violence. Gang members razed police stations, attacked banks, rioted
in prisons, and torched dozens of buses, shutting down a
transportation system serving 2.9 million people a day.

The previous May, a similar series of attacks had terrified the city.
"The attackers moved on foot, and by car and motorbike," wrote William
Langewiesche in Vanity Fair. "They were not rioters, revolutionaries,
or the graduates of terrorist camps. They were anonymous young men and
women, dressed in ordinary clothes, unidentifiable in advance, and
indistinguishable afterward. Wielding pistols, automatic rifles, and
firebombs, they emerged from within the city, struck fast, and
vanished on the spot. Their acts were criminal, but the attackers did
not loot, rob, or steal. They burned buses, banks, and public
buildings, and went hard after the forces of order—gunning down the
police in their neighborhood posts, in their homes, and on the streets."

The violence hasn't been limited to São Paulo. In December 2006, a
copycat campaign by an urban gang called the Comando Vermelho ("Red
Command") shut down Rio de Janeiro, too. In both cases, the gangs
fomenting the violence didn't list demands or send ultimatums to the
government. Rather, they were flexing their muscles, testing their
ability to challenge the government monopoly on violence.

Both gangs had steadily accumulated power for a decade, helped in part
by globalization, which simplifies making connections to the
multitrillion-dollar global black-market economy. With these new
connections, the gangs' profit horizon became limitless, fueling rapid
expansion. New communications technology, particularly cell phones,
played a part, too, making it possible for the gangs to thrive as
loose associations, and allowing a geographical and organizational
dispersion that rendered them nearly invulnerable to attack. The PCC
has been particularly successful, growing from a small prison gang in
the mid-nineties to a group that today controls nearly half of São
Paulo's slums and its millions of inhabitants. An escalating
confrontation between these gangs and the city governments appears

The gangs' rapid rise into challengers to urban authorities is
something that we will see again elsewhere. This dynamic is already at
work in American cities in the rise of MS-13, a rapidly expanding
transnational gang with a loose organizational structure, a propensity
for violence, and access to millions in illicit gains. It already has
an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 members, dispersed over 31 U.S. states
and several Latin American countries, and its proliferation continues
unabated, despite close attention from law enforcement. Like the PCC,
MS-13 or a similar American gang may eventually find that it has
sufficient power to hold a city hostage through disruption.

The final threat that small groups pose to cities is weapons of mass
destruction. Though most of the worry over WMDs has focused on nuclear
weapons, those aren't the real long-term problem. Not only is the vast
manufacturing capability of a nation-state required to produce the
basic nuclear materials, but those materials are difficult to
manipulate, transport, and turn into weapons. Nor is it easy to
assemble a nuke from parts bought on the black market; if it were,
nation-states like Iran, which have far more resources at their
disposal than terrorist groups do, would be doing just that instead of
resorting to internal production.

It's also unlikely that a state would give terrorists a nuclear
weapon. Sovereignty and national prestige are tightly connected to the
production of nukes. Sharing them with terrorists would grant immense
power to a group outside the state's control—the equivalent of giving
Osama bin Laden the keys to the presidential palace. If that isn't
deterrent enough, the likelihood of retaliation is, since states,
unlike terrorist groups, have targets that can be destroyed. The
result of a nuclear explosion in Moscow or New York would very
probably be the annihilation of the country that manufactured the
bomb, once its identity was determined—as it surely would be, since no
plot of that size can remain secret for long.

Even in the very unlikely case that a nuclear weapon did end up in
terrorist hands, it would be a single horrible incident, rather than
an ongoing threat. The same is true of dirty bombs, which disperse
radioactive material through conventional explosives. No, the real
long-term danger from small groups is the use of biotechnology to
build weapons of mass destruction. In contrast with nuclear
technology, biotech's knowledge and tools are already widely
dispersed—and their power is increasing exponentially.

The biotech field is in the middle of a massive improvement in
productivity through advances in computing power. In fact, the curves
of improvement that we see in biotechnology mirror the rates of
improvement in computing dictated by Moore's Law—the observation,
borne out by decades of experience, that the ratio of performance to
price of computing power doubles every 24 months. This means that
incredible power will soon be in the hands of individuals. University
of Washington engineer Robert Carlson observes that if current trends
in the rate of improvement in DNA sequencing continue, "within a
decade a single person at the lab bench could sequence or synthesize
all the DNA describing all the people on the planet many times over in
an eight-hour day." And with ever tinier, cheaper, and more widely
available tools, a large and decentralized industrial base that is
hiring lab techs at a double-digit growth rate, and the active
transfer of knowledge via the Internet (the blueprints of the entire
smallpox virus now circulate on the Web), biotech is too widely
available for us to contain it.

In less than a decade, then, biotechnology will be ripe for the
widespread development of weapons of mass destruction, and it fits the
requirements of small-group warfare perfectly. It is small,
inexpensive, and easy to manufacture in secret. Also, since dangerous
biotechnology is based primarily on the manipulation of information,
it will make rapid progress through the same kind of amateur tinkering
that currently produces new computer viruses. Terrorists also have a
growing advantage in delivering bioweapons. The increasing porousness
of national borders, size of global megacities, and volume of air
travel all mean that the delivery and percolation of bioweapons will
be fast-moving and widespread—potentially on several continents at once.

It is almost certain that we will see repeated, perhaps incessant,
attempts to deploy bioweapons with new strains of viruses or bacteria.
Picture a Russian biohacker who, a decade from now, designs a new,
deadly form of the common flu virus and sells it on the Internet, just
as computer viruses and worms get sold today. The terrorist group that
buys the design sends it to a recently hired lab tech in Pakistan, who
performs the required modifications with widely available tools. The
product then ships by mail to London, to the awaiting "suicide
vectors"—men who infect themselves and then board airplanes headed to
world destinations, infecting passengers on the planes and in crowded
terminals. The infection spreads quickly, going global in days—long
before anyone detects it.

It's very possible that many cities will fall in the face of such
deadly threats. Megacities in the developing world—which often,
because of their rapid growth, widespread corruption, and illegitimate
governance, aren't able to provide security or basic services for
their citizens—are particularly vulnerable. However, cities in the
developed world that properly appreciate the threats arrayed against
them may devise startlingly innovative solutions.

In almost all cases, cities can defend themselves from their new
enemies through effective decentralization. To counter systems
disruption, decentralized services—the capability of smaller areas
within cities to provide backup services, at least on a temporary
basis—could radically diminish the harmful consequences of
disconnection from the larger global grid. In New York, this would
mean storage or limited production capability of backup electricity,
water, and fuel, with easy connections to the delivery grid—at the
borough level or even smaller. These backups would then provide a
means of restoring central services rapidly after a failure.

Similarly, cities may combat networked gangs by decentralizing their
own security. Cities have long maintained centralized police forces,
but gangs can often overwhelm them. Many governments are responding
with militarized police: China is building a million-man paramilitary
force, for example; and even in the United States, the use of SWAT
teams has increased from 3,000 deployments a year in the 1980s to
50,000 a year in 2006. But militarized police may too easily become an
army of occupation, and, if corrupt, as they are in Brazil, they may
become enemies of the state along with the gangs.

A better solution involves local security forces, either locally
recruited or bought on the marketplace (such as Blackwater), which can
be powerful bulwarks against small-group terrorism. Such forces may
become a vital component in our defense against bioterrorism, too,
since they can enforce local containment—and since large centralized
services, like the ones we have today, might actually accelerate the
propagation of bioweapons. Still, if improperly established, local
forces can also become rogue criminal entities, like the Autodefensas
Unidas de Colombia and the militias in Rio de Janeiro. Governments
need to regulate them carefully.

In the future, we probably won't know exactly how we will be attacked
until it happens. In highly uncertain situations like this,
centralized solutions that emphasize uniform responses will often
collapse. Heterogeneous systems, by contrast, are unlikely to fail
catastrophically. Moreover, local innovation—supplemented by a
marketplace in goods and services that improve security, detection,
monitoring, and so on—is likely to develop responses to threats
quickly and effectively. Other localities will copy those responses
that prove successful.

In June 2007, the FBI and local law enforcement halted a plot to blow
up the John F. Kennedy International Airport's fuel tanks and feeder
pipelines. This was another great example of how police forces, if
used correctly, can defuse threats before they become a menace [see
"On the Front Line in the War on Terrorism"].

However, our current level of safety will not last. The selection of
the target demonstrated clearly that future attackers will take
advantage of our systems' vulnerability to disruption, which will
sharply increase the number of potential targets. It also showed that
these threats can emerge spontaneously from small groups unconnected
to al-Qaida. More and more attempts will come, with higher and higher
rates of success. Our choice is simple: we can rely exclusively on our
current security systems to stop the threats—and suffer the
consequences when they don't—or we can take measures to mitigate the
impact of these threats by exerting local control over essential services.

No comments: