Initially Published 23 April, 2018
Terrorist action (not necessarily Islamist)
Post-9/11 just about everybody is aware of the danger and potential consequences of terrorist action. Make no mistake that the terrorist threat is real and that there are in fact terrorists that will do whatever they can to harm Westerners and the West in whatever way possible. However, terrorist action alone is not likely to precipitate a collapse absent some quantum leap forward in terrorist capability. Despite the material and human cost of the attacks on 9/11 more damage was done by the economic aftershock than the actual attacks themselves.
First, let us define terrorism. Ironically enough, the US department of Homeland Security (DHS) nowhere nails down a specific definition of terrorism, instead they weasel around it but never precisely define it. If I were inclined to believe in conspiracy theories my NWO detectors would be pinging off the scale at that because the lack of a definition allows DHS to call whatever they want terrorism. The US Code of Federal Regulations however, does define it. In 28 CFR 0.85 terrorism is defined as:
The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.
I would define terrorism as: deliberate action, violent or otherwise, by an individual or group designed to cause destruction, disruption, and/or with the primary purpose being to sow fear into the minds of the target population.
That is a very broad definition, and deliberately so. The revolutionaries of 1776 could in some respects be considered terrorists under this definition, but then again, so could the British. Sowing terror among the enemy is in fact a legitimate action by belligerents in war. Normal run of the mill terrorism does not pose an existential threat to society as a whole in the short-term or probably even in the long-term. The possibility exists however, that a terrorist actor or group could obtain the means to deliver such an existential blow.
I actually peg the likelihood of terrorist activity causing societal collapse as being fairly low. Not because I don’t think some terrorist groups don’t want that but because I think the means available to them are not capable of it. Don’t mistake me, there are terrorists that would love nothing more than to reduce the West to a state of pre-technological savagery. They are not all Islamic groups that want to impose a caliphate either, some of them walk among us and were born and raised in the West and have no religion that we would recognize.
Terrorists are not just Muslims, think about it for a minute. Before you can decide who a terrorist is, you have to define terrorism. The official and my own definitions include many more groups and individuals than just religiously motivated Muslims. This includes radicals of all stripes be they environmentalists, libertarians, progressives, conservatives, homosexual rights activists, animal rights activists, communists, and yes, just plain freedom lovers. Terrorism is determined by the goal of the action taken, not the details of the action itself, or even the political/ideological motivation of those committing the action. The whole raison d’être of terrorism is to make people afraid and induce political leaders and the society as a whole to make concessions. Think of it as political blackmail taken to its logical extreme.
An argument can even be made that despite the lack of mass casualty acts by terrorists of the progressive/left liberal bent, they are actually even more dangerous from a collapse point of view. Muslim terrorists may want to destroy the West, but they generally don’t want to kill every human being either. Killing everybody is a stated goal of some leftist environmental groups. How else do you explain the voluntarily human extinction movement? There are also the anti-technology lefty groups of the Gaia type that think modern technology is killing Mother Earth and the worst thing that ever happened was humans crawling out of the trees and learning to walk and make tools. These types are actually scarier than Islamists because they have the technological know-how to wreak some serious damage.
I can conceive of three types of terrorist attack that could precipitate a societal collapse in the West and one type that would cause massive mayhem:
- Large-scale unrest
- Spectacular attack
Of the three, I consider economic warfare to be the biggest threat, if only because it is the easiest to implement and most widely felt. A biological threat is potentially the most damaging, with large-scale unrest coming in second. Both are less easily accomplished than an economic strike though. A spectacular attack is not likely to cause collapse by itself but could precipitate second and third order effects that make a collapse more likely or easy to facilitate. The biggest worry with this type of action is a terrorist group that manages to combine two or more of these types of attacks thus increasing the potential effects exponentially.
Economic Attack. If you don’t think that an attack on Western economies can be devastating think about the Great Recession caused by the 2008 housing/economic crash and consider for a second that it was caused by risks inherent in the financial system compounded by stupid individuals and companies being greedy and trying to get something for nothing. Now imagine that the crash had been engineered and was therefore ten to twenty times more severe than it was. The Crash of 2008 pales in comparison to the Crash of 1929 and there were still financiers that killed themselves in both crashes because they were so sudden and unexpected.
The financial system of today is even more vulnerable to a crash than it was in 1929 mainly because everything happens over computers. The complexity and speed with which financial movement takes place was the subject of Michael Lewis’s 2014 bestseller Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. Flash Boys details how smart geeks figured out that using computers they can set up automated trading systems that make split second decisions on what stocks and other securities to buy and thereby make millions. Now imagine if those same systems were sued to send massive amounts of sell orders while at the same time the systems of the NYSE, NASDAQ, the FED, major banks and investment houses, Credit Card Clearance agents, and the US Treasury were hacked. Literally trillions of dollars could go up in smoke in minutes. Panic buying could set in and force the markets to close, which is almost as devastating as a sell-off. Losses could force banks to call in loans early to try and recover capital to maintain liquidity, deposits could be frozen, and the average Joe could discover that the ATM no longer works and his credit cards are no longer accepted.
How many people have enough cash to keep them going for a few weeks, even better, how many people have enough food to keep them going because cash is essentially toilet paper, and our electronic payment methods either no longer work or are unreliable. Think of the panic that could cause.
That is why I think an economic attack is potentially the most devastating. The modern world sails along on a sea of electronic money and if that sea dries up then panic could and probably would ensue.
Biological Attack. A biological strike has the potential to kill the most people and at the same time cause an almost instant societal collapse if the right disease is engineered to both spread easily and kill a large percentage of those infected. The saving grace for this scenario is that it is very difficult to weaponize a disease and that most terrorist groups would not use a disease because once released a disease infects and kills victims indiscriminately.
The scary part is that a disease could mutate and become very deadly and contagious on its own without any help from terrorists. Just look at what is happening with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa right now. Ebola kills anywhere from 50% to 90% of its victims but generally around 60-70%. Luckily, for now it can only be transmitted thorough contact with bodily fluids but if it mutates to spread like the flu, welcome to the Black Death Part II and this time society would have a hard time functioning when 60-70% of the general population and a upwards of 90% of the health workers die.
Fortunately, it is difficult to weaponize a disease and it requires both highly specialized knowledge and boat loads of expensive and easily tracked specialized equipment. Another good thing is that it would be stupid in the extreme for a terrorist to release a bioweapon that the attacker does not have a defense or cure for. This puts most terror groups off the list of potential bioweapon users except for Islamists and leftist ecoterrorists.
Large-Scale Unrest. The last and probably easiest scenario to put in place is inciting large-scale unrest. This is actually easier in the modern world than it was even 20 years ago. Social media and the internet have made it much easier to connect with people over a large area and thus easier to stir the pot. The idea here is a terrorist inspired flash mob consisting of actual terrorist or even better from the terrorist point of view, normal people spooked by an elaborate hoax. The so-called Arab Spring was largely coordinated and instigated over social media such as Facebook, twitter, and other social platforms to include cell phones. Is it not odd that the cell phones kept working even when the hard lines went down in Libya, Egypt, and Syria?
The August, 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri after the Michael Brown shooting were also largely engineered and coordinated by social media. There was nothing spontaneous about the rioting that occurred in the weeks following the incident. That was all coordinated and organized by leftist activist using social media to stir up existing societal prejudices and fears among the black community both I Ferguson and among the people from around the country that converged on Ferguson to join the party. The truth of what happened was not as important as the known fact that a white cop killed a black teenager.
All you need to stir-up unrest is a good message that resonates with lots of people. You get enough folks pissed off about anything and they provoke a reaction from government it is actually not terribly difficult to gradually escalate disturbance into civil war as in Libya and Syria. If civil war is not a collapse situation then I do not know what is.
Spectacular Attacks. Last, there is the spectacular attack. Think 9/11 or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing here. I don’t necessarily think that this kind of attack is limited to Islamic terror either. I think Islamists are the most likely to pull it off just because they have years of experience and won’t stop trying but I can see some of the various lefty groups or even some far right groups trying a spectacular attack to bring notice to their cause or because they are desperate to bring on the calamity they preach is going to happen.
Another thing is that spectacular attacks are difficult to predict. They take lots of planning and lots of resources. Even though 9/11 took years to plan and execute and upwards of a million dollars to pull off, it was still executed with only 19 guys who had no trouble keeping a low profile while they used Western freedoms to attack us. That makes such attacks rare but all the more shocking because of that rarity. I actually think the lack of a huge attack on the West since 9/11 has less to do with better security in the homeland and more to do with the strategic distraction of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Islamic preparations to one-up 9/11.
I think Islamists would love to get their hands on a nuke and that when they do, they will use it, probably on a minor port city in the US or Western Europe. My bets would be on the ports of Seattle, WA, Savannah, GA, Plymouth, England, or Bremerhaven, Germany. The perfect target is not one of the major ports but not one of the smaller ones either and one that is backed by a substantial city. The damage even a small nuke would cause if detonated on the surface is unreal. The blast would not be the killer, rather it would be the tons of radioactive fallout from a surface burst that would be devastating.
Eco-terrorists and right wing terrorists are more likely to go the route of poisoning a city’s water supply or conducting a Mumbai style attack than to use a nuke although I could envision an eco-group using an EMP device if they could get their hands on one.
There will be another spectacular attack, the only question is when and where. The likelihood that such an attack could trigger a collapse is very low as regardless of how devastating such an attack could be, it would still only have immediate local effects. If 9/11, Katrina, and Sandy did not cause a societal collapse then neither would the vaporization of most American cities. Spectacular attacks are more likely to bring society together in a quest for vengeance than to tear it apart.
Given that I think the likelihood of a collapse inducing attack is low here are my probabilities.
Short-term-the next 5 years –
- Economic – 20%
- Biological – 5%
- Large-scale unrest – I put this at a 5% probability in the Western world and 10-25% somewhere in the developing world
- Spectacular attack – 15%
Medium-term-in 5-15 years –
- Economic – 25%
- Biological – 10%
- Large-scale unrest – I put this at a 10% probability in the Western world and 30-40% somewhere in the developing world
- Spectacular attack – 20%
Long-term-more than 15 years from now –
- Economic – 25%
- Biological – 15%
- Large-scale unrest – I put this at a 15% probability in the Western world and 30-45% in the developing world
- Spectacular attack – this approaches 100%. Over a sufficiently long timespan the likelihood of a spectacular attack approaches certainty. That being said, such attacks are almost black swan events because when and where they will occur is difficult, if not impossible to predict. The minor spectacular attacks since 9/11 and the diverse means and locations of such attacks shows that even the best intelligence apparatus is essentially unable to stop all attacks and while they have prevented a massive attack thus far, that is no guarantee that they will continue to do so. Western intelligence has to be right 100% of the time and terrorists only have to succeed once, sounds like a cliché but it is true.
I think that eventually terrorists will get their hands on a nuke and when they do they will use it or at least attempt to use it. Of course, terrorist use of a nuke would possibly be the dumbest thing they could do as the retaliation would be swift and devastating to not only the terrorists but to the population that hides and supports them.