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Prepare for strategic terrorism

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By Nathan Myhrvold
Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Several powerful trends have aligned to profoundly change the way the world works. Technology allows stateless groups to organize, recruit and fund themselves in an unprecedented fashion. That, coupled with the difficulty of finding and punishing a stateless group, means that such groups are positioned to be lead players on the world stage.

Meanwhile, technology trends mean that small numbers of people can obtain incredibly lethal power. Throughout history, the lethality of weapons technology has inexorably increased. Bronze weapons were better than those made of stone; steel outdid bronze; guns replaced bows. Each new generation of weapons technology was more lethal than its predecessor.

Yet a general rule prevailed: Successively more lethal weapons required successively larger investments and industrial bases. Making a bronze sword involved mining, smelting and casting. Steel required forced-air furnaces and forging techniques to shape the blade. A single nuclear device could destroy an entire city, but it also cost as much as a city and was far more difficult to build.

For the first time in human history, the curve of lethality and cost has been turned on its head. Biological weapons can be incredibly dangerous, but they can also be cheap to produce and deploy. Another path to cheap lethality is simple theft: A terror group could steal a nuclear bomb. A small group can now execute a strategic terror attack that could kill millions of people.

An attack of that magnitude differs in a fundamental way from the typical, tactical-level suicide bombings. The body count and total harm from tactical terrorism is limited. In contrast, a single nuclear or bio-terror attack could kill more people than all previous terrorist attacks put together.

Our defense establishment was shaped to address what was, for a long time, the only strategic threat our nation faced: Soviet or Chinese missiles. So far, strategic terrorism has received relatively little attention in defense agencies, and the efforts that have been launched to combat this existential threat seem fragmented.

That's a natural human reaction — nothing like this has happened yet, so it is hard for people to take it seriously. That is exactly the sort of complacency that preceded Sept. 11, Pearl Harbor and other great defense disasters.

History suggests that the only thing that shakes the United States out of complacency is a direct threat from a determined adversary that confronts us with our shortcomings by repeatedly attacking us or hectoring us for decades. The Cold War is an excellent example; the defense establishment we built in response largely worked and nuclear war was avoided.

Unfortunately, current and future foes are unlikely to follow this playbook. Instead, they wait patiently between attacks. For now, they are satisfied with tactical terrorism, but at some point they will have the means, opportunity and motive to turn to strategic terror weapons.

The most likely scenario is that the United States will continue to lumber along. Terrorists will launch their next attack. With luck, we will detect it in time to prevent a major disaster, but it's possible that a strategic terror attack in the next decade or so will kill 100,000 to 1 million Americans. Surely, we then will get serious about strategic terrorism.

Or we could start now.

Nathan Myhrvold is chief executive and founder of Intellectual Ventures and a former chief technology officer at Microsoft.

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