The Evolving Scourge of Global Terrorism: Avoiding a Multi-City Mumbai

The Evolving Scourge of Global Terrorism: Avoiding a Multi-City Mumbai

These new terrorist operations will be built on several rapidly evolving and proliferating technologies.

A world featuring a wide range of commercial robotic systems will also be hackable and automated cars and trucks may be turned against us, much like our commercial airliners were during the 9-11 attacks. The devastating impact of the attacks in Nice, France may be replicated many times over with the widespread introduction of self-driving automobiles.

Robotics built by 3D printer foundries in a city will allow terrorist to avoid open confrontation with fielded U.S. forces and increase the lethality and persistence of their operations in the homeland. The robotic terrorist will also be capable of generating firepower at the tactical level that could overwhelm local police and SWAT units, allowing them to conduct small unit, distributed attacks and raiding over wide areas before they can be stopped. The future may present lethal terrorist attacks that range across many parts of a single city, or even over two or more cities over hours, days, or weeks.

Preparing for the Advanced Terrorist Threat

Each of these technologies have troubling implications for the future of terrorism by themselves. Together, they present the possibility of real strategic surprise when assembled into an operational terrorist plan. The cumulative effect of these developments means a future environment in which many adversaries are capable of fielding active terrorist or other irregular forces operating within the United States. These forces will be used to deter, dissuade, or compel the U.S. from taking action in the world through direct attacks on its citizens or through the precise coercion of its decision makers through threats of violence.

Encryption, additive manufacturing, small UAVs and robots and small robotics may provide new means by which adversaries can deliver catastrophic damage to the U.S. homeland.  Collectively, these operations may serve to distract the U.S. and prevent it from engaging overseas.  A terrorist’s “arsenal of disruption” will take advantage of distributed, collaborative design over encrypted communications will allow for the rapid prototyping, development and sharing of sensors and weapons and collaboration on operational and tactical plans.

The advanced terrorist threat will severely complicate the military’s homeland defense mission, as a number of adversary states may adopt this approach to deter or dissuade the United States from engagement overseas. As in the past, terrorist attacks operations will continue to be coupled with information warfare and propaganda effort. However, in the future they will be more focused through video livestreaming and an increasing focus on targeting individual citizens, decision-makers, or service members within the U.S. itself as adversaries improve their ability to match online personas with physical locations.

These new operational capabilities – if not examined early and countered – may increase the coercive or deterrent effect of terrorist and Special Forces capabilities against the United States – not to mention kill and terrorize a great many Americans. Enabled by a variety of small, smart, cheap and autonomous technologies, future adversaries are likely to launch more complex, novel, and lethal attacks against the U.S. homeland.

The answer to these technologies and operational approaches is not to control or stop these technologies from coming to market. Each has vast positive potential, and will have significant positive implications for the U.S. economy and national security as well.  However, the U.S. military as well as local police forces must be mentally prepared to disrupt advanced global networks and their ability to generate complex, military-style attacks within the United States if we are to avoid a future security environment in which Northern Command is an active and violent operational theater of war.

Jeff Becker is President of Context LLC, a defense consultancy in Virginia, The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the policy or position of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.

Image: ROKAF via Wikimedia