The Next Nasty

– Zachary Curtis


“Attack your enemy where he is unprepared.  Appear where you are not expected.” [i]

– Sun Tzu, 500 B.C.

The guessing game began as soon as the shock wore off.

As F-15s traced the Manhattan skyline in the days after September 11th, 2001, once-imposing skyscrapers looked like dominoes set for the toppling.  Buses and trains appeared as moving land mines with tripwires yet to be toed.  People seemed pawns to be played and slayed by the world’s movers, shakers and life-takers.  You got the feeling that if you looked out of a New York window and waited long enough, you just might see an airplane fly smack into a building.

The world watched as the FDNY and NYPD rummaged through the rubble and superpower America came to grips with its vulnerability.  Osama Bin Laden emerged as an international super-villain and terrorist mastermind at the head of Al Qaeda, a global network that suddenly seemed capable of attacking anywhere at anytime.  The question: where next?

Act I, Scene 1

“The general who wins a battle makes many calculations

in his temple ere the battle is fought.”[ii]

– Sun Tzu

Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have calculated, ambitious goals – contrary to the reactive say-so of Henry Kissinger, who hastily concluded of 9/11: “This is not aimed at our policies; this is aimed at our existence.”[iii] That is incorrect.  Al Qaeda’s fatwahs of 1996 and 1998 articulate clearly that the group seeks the evacuation of American forces from the lands of Islam, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia.  Further, it seeks an end to the American-Israeli alliance that consists of US aid to Israel to the tune of nearly $3 billion per year.[iv] As a movement of Salifi jihad, Al Qaeda seeks the establishment of a pan-Islamic state of superpower status.[v] Bin Laden’s declared that Al Qaeda seeks the “bleeding (of) America to the point of bankruptcy” à la the USSR’s collapse following its capitulation to mujahedeen in 1989 Afghanistan.[vi]

To achieve its goals, Al Qaeda must spare no expense in executing spectacular attacks that maximize economic damage and human losses.  The “long war” strategy of small-scale attacks employed by the likes of the Irish Republican Army will not suffice in the face of Americans’ vast law enforcement infrastructure and collective jadedness toward even heinous criminality.  Al Qaeda’s success depends on over-the-top demonstrations of lethality that bewilder and humiliate the highest levels of government.  Small-scale attacks would diminish Al Qaeda’s prestige and signify a waning of their deadliness and power.  Small-scale attacks would downgrade Al Qaeda to almost criminal status, a fate unacceptable to a man of Bin Laden’s current worldwide infamy.

Scene 2

“All warfare is deception.”[vii]

– Sun Tzu

“Grand symbolic gestures create the aura of power.”[viii]

– Robert Greene

9/11 epitomizes these principles.

Al Qaeda – an unsteady band of outgunned, ardent fanatics – thrives on projecting the image of a worthy opponent to the most powerful military in the history of the world.  In reality, Al Qaeda’s strategic limitations include a comparatively paltry supply of weapons and soldiers in addition to unstable, makeshift operations bases that must be ever-ready to pack up and go.  Since Bin Laden’s group is no match for US forces in theaters of direct confrontation, it used 9/11 to target colossal symbols of power in a breathtaking destructive display that gives the impression of vast potency and strike-anywhere capability.

Beyond the simplicity of Al Qaeda’s means – little more than box cutters and strong will on 9/11 – lies its ingenuity in turning products of America’s affluence against itself.  Americans themselves invented the tools most crucial to 9/11’s success: the airplane and the television.[ix] 19 men armed with box-cutters – box-cutters – destroyed a superpower’s towers that emblematized its supposed invincibility and unmatched prosperity.

That destruction solidified Al Qaeda’s position as the world leader of militant jihad.  This distinction dictates a modus operandi of humiliating the US government to the utmost.  To further its strategic goals, to boost its status as the preeminent shepherd of offensive jihad, and to inspire fence-sitting Muslims worldwide to take up its cause, Al Qaeda now faces the challenge of pulling off a second act more daring and impressive than its first.  It must not succumb to a sophomore slump.

Because Al Qaeda’s continued success calls for a raising of the stakes, its next gamble will build on 9/11’s unmitigated success.  That success derives from beating America on its own terms.  9/11 achieved the paradigm articulated by the American strategists Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade in their 1996 manifesto Shock and Awe.  They wrote that the “basis for Rapid Dominance rests in the ability to affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary through imposing sufficient Shock and Awe . . .”[x] The post-9/11 world has come to appreciate that Al Qaeda’s power lies in its demonstrated ability to strike shock and awe into the hearts of those who run most of the world.  With that in mind, small-scale tactical operations will not do the trick.  Al Qaeda must trump 9/11.  Al Qaeda must blow 9/11 out of the water.  Al Qaeda must go nuclear.

Act II, Scene 1

“More is lost through stopping halfway than through total annihilation: The enemy will recover, and will seek revenge.  Crush him, not only in body but in spirit.”[xi]

– Robert Greene

The execution of a nuclear attack on the United States poses two logistical hurdles for any non-state entity.  First, that entity must obtain and arm a nuclear weapon.  Al Qaeda may have achieved this already.  Second, that entity must deliver and detonate the nuke.  Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, obtaining and arming a nuclear weapon presented significant challenges to non-state groups.  The downfall of the Soviets has been a windfall for terrorists and black-market arms dealers.  General Aleksandr Lebed, who sat on former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s Security Council, claimed that “most of the atomic demolition munitions or ‘suitcase bombs’ in the former Soviet arsenal are unaccounted for.”[xii] In 1997, Lebed stated that 84 such atomic suitcases were missing.[xiii]

Shortly after 9/11, Bin Laden claimed to possess weapons of mass destruction in an interview with Hamid Mir, the editor of the Pakistani newspaper Ausaf.  Asked whether there was truth to the reports that Al Qaeda had chemical and nuclear weapons, Bin Laden said: “we have the weapons as deterrent.”[xiv]

The head of the Congressional Task Force on Non-Conventional Terrorism, Yossef Bodansky, confirmed Bin Laden’s claim.  Bodansky stated that “there is no longer much doubt that Bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs.” [xv] Bodansky believes that bin Laden paid $30 million in cash plus two tons of Afghan heroin worth some $70 million to Chechen Muslim sympathizers in exchange for nuclear suitcases.[xvi] Bin Laden intimated that he possessed suitcase nukes in November 2001, saying that “if you have contacts in Russia and with other militant groups… [suitcase nukes] are available for $10 million and $20 million.”[xvii] Russian intelligence estimates that Bin Laden has “a few” such suitcase bombs.  Other intelligence services put that figure closer to 20.[xviii] Of course, just one will do the trick.

If Al Qaeda has indeed acquired nuclear weapons, its next step is the delivery of bombs to targets.  With airplane security vigilant in the wake of 9/11, comparatively penetrable shipping container security presents Al Qaeda with a viable alternative.  To reduce this risk, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge announced in 2003 that officials would begin inspecting all high-risk vessels inbound to America from the busiest 20 ports in the world, plus vessels from areas of the Middle East, Turkey and Malaysia.  Secretary Ridge said:

Through information sharing with our international partners; several different levels of inspection; review of intelligence information on the crew, cargo and vessel long before they reach our shores; state-of-the-art technology; and, of course, vigilance at every turn, we are able to screen and board 100 percent of high-risk vessels coming into our ports.[xix]

The Container Security Initiative outlined above included $170 million in port security grants and $58 million in funding for Operation Safe Commerce to further bolster container security.  These funds fall well short of the estimated $2 billion needed to secure US ports.[xx]

Theoretically, Operation Safe Commerce uses its money to coordinate port, local, state, and federal officials with private businesses in an effort to spur research and development for emerging technology.  This technology aims to monitor and safeguard containers as ships transport them around the world.

Operation Safe Commerce gave the lion’s share of its grant money to Energy Group, Inc.  Energy Group provides consulting services to companies looking to streamline and securitize their shipping business.  Chairman and CEO Kendall Chen reported that Energy Group recently offered its services to the receiver of the greatest volume of container shipments on the East Coast.  The receiver declined to retain Energy Group because securitizing the container shipments would have been too costly.  Mr. Chen believes that “security does not sell itself.  Better business management does.”  In view of this, “Energy Group tries to get companies to see that integrated security systems – including comprehensive manifests of all inventory – will allow companies to do better business.  Heightened security will come as a byproduct of [higher profitability].”[xxi]

Mr. Chen contends that in terms of shipping security, “we’re still in a very archaic age” in spite of the Container Security Initiative and Operation Safe Commerce.  “Known shippers are less likely to be inspected,” Mr. Chen explained.  “Methods are not in place at present that permit, allow, and validate what’s inside (a given) box.”  These known security gaps inform “the general belief . . . that the next ‘nasty’ comes in through a container.”[xxii]

This belief has much to do with the graduated heightening of security under the Container Security Initiative.  The second phase of the CSI extends the scope of inspections to include 80 percent of all cargo shipped into the United States.  Even in the unlikely event that the second phase is executed flawlessly 100 hundred percent of the time, 20 percent of incoming containers will go uninspected.

This leaves Bin Laden and Al Qaeda a one-in-five chance of delivering a nuclear suitcase to US soil if they manage to get just one suitcase shipped.  If there is truth to reports that Bin Laden has several nuclear suitcases, much less twenty, then Al Qaeda could hedge its bets by placing several suitcases on several different ships bound for US ports and could count on at least one nuclear bomb reaching US soil surreptitiously.

The effects of only one suitcase bomb would be catastrophic.  Its detonation could yield anywhere from ten tons to 1 kiloton.  This range pales in comparison to Little Boy’s thirteen-kiloton yield that the US visited on Hiroshima.   But any nuclear suitcase dwarfs the power of a conventional bomb of similar yield due to radioactive fallout associated with an atomic blast.  A tiny twenty ton nuclear suitcase produces a one-hundred percent lethal 1350 rem radiation exposure at 300 meters.[xxiii] In other words, an Al Qaeda operative could detonate this portable nuke in Manhattan’s financial district and kill everyone at ground level within a four-block radius, everyone within 300 meters on subways below, and everyone in buildings above as high up as the seventieth story.  Between its fireball, blast, and nuclear fallout, such a bomb like this detonated in an urban area could inflict casualties in the tens of thousands.[xxiv] Retired US Army Colonel David H. Hackworth estimates the blast alone from a 2-kilton nuclear detonation at the Port of New York and New Jersey would kill 15,000 people in a microsecond.  An additional 200,000 people would suffer radioactive poisoning.[xxv]

The economic damage done by such a blast would be devastating.  The Port of New York and New Jersey, which has annual revenues of $3 billion and assets of $28 billion,[xxvi] would be vaporized.  $31 billion worth of initial economic damage caused by the detonation of a nuclear suitcase at the Port of New York and New Jersey is less than half the $83 billion estimated to have been lost in Al Qaeda’s destruction of the World Trade Center.[xxvii] The ensuing economic fallout, however, would be incalculable.  This would likely include the temporary shutdown of all US ports and grinding worldwide shipping commerce to a halt.  The attack would constitute a massive supply shock since no less than ninety-five percent of all international commerce enters the United States through its ports.  “Severely damaging one (port) would not only cause deaths, injuries and property damage, but could also disrupt the flow of many basic goods into and out of the country,” according to port officials.[xxviii] This is an extreme understatement.  Kendall Chen emphasizes that “few Americans realize that their Wal-Marts, Kmarts, and Home Depots, the only goods that are produced domestically are foodstuffs, if those are carried at all.”[xxix] The economic damage of an attack facilitated by worldwide shipping would dwarf that caused by 9/11.  Initial supply shortages in the ensuing months and years would drive prices of many basic goods through the roof.  Furthermore, worldwide shipping would grind to a virtual standstill as ports around the world confront the reality that suddenly, “every container looks like a potential Hiroshima.”[xxx]

Scene 2

“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped . .  .If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.”[xxxi]

– Sun Tzu

The United States’ response to 9/11 has played right into Al Qaeda’s hand.  America finds itself knee-deep in an Iraqi quagmire with no end in sight.  Like a Chinese finger trap, Muslim insurgency there has strengthened – not weakened – as the US has tightened its grip.  If America fails to derail the next nasty and the US reacts to the second act like it did to the first, it is headed for a train wreck.


There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel.  The United States of America remains the most powerful global hegemon ever.  It possesses resources and infrastructure of staggering capabilities.  America’s vast power has led to extraordinary hubris.  History suggests that the American state is often at its strongest when it refrains from taking action in the spheres of war-making and business.  America’s strength moving forward lies in the ingenuity of private enterprises like Energy Group that seek to meld interests of international security with profit motives around the world without the ham-handed assistance efforts of government.  America’s strength moving forward lies in retreating from foreign entanglements and consolidating power within the state rather than outside of it.

[i] Sun Tzu, “The Art of War,” trans. Lionel Giles, 1910, accessed 9 November 2005 <http://www. chinapage.com/sunzi-e.html>.

[ii] Sun Tzu, I, 26.

[iii] Mark Danner, “Taking Stock of the Forever War,” The New York Times Magazine, 11 September 2005,  accessed 9 November 9, 2005 <http://www.markdanner.com/nyt/091105_taking.htm&gt;.

[iv] Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri et al, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” August 1996 Al Quds Al Arabi, 8 November 8, 2005 < http://www. pbs.org/newshour/terrorism/international/fatwa_1996.html>.

[v] Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004)1.

[vi] Osama Bin Laden in videotape broadcasted 1 November 2004 by Al Jazeera, 8 November 2005 <http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/meast/11/01/binladen.tape/&gt;.

[vii] Sun Tzu, I, 18.

[viii] Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 309 [italics mine].

[ix] <http://www.markdanner.com/nyt/091105_taking.htm>.

[x] Ullman, Harlan K. and James P. Wade.  Chapter 2.  Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance.  1996.  ShockandAwe.com.  1 December 2005 <http://www.shockandawe.com/shockch2.html&gt;

[xi] Greene, xi.

[xii] Jessica Stern, “Getting and Using the Weapons,” Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Understanding the New Security Environment, ed. Colonel Ryssell D. Howard and Major Reid L. Sawyer (Guilford, CT: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2004) 189.

[xiii] Alexander Zaitchik, review of  Graham Allison’s “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe,” accessed via web 10 November 2005 http://www.nuclearterror.org/nypress.html.>

[xiv] Hamid Mir, “Usama bin Laden: Interview,” Ausaf 9 November 2001, accessed 5 November 2005 < http://www. robert-fisk.com/usama_interview_hamid_mir_ausaf.htm>.

[xv] Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (New York: Random House, 2001) 330.

[xvi] Bodansky, 330.

[xvii] Zaitchik.

[xviii] “Bin Laden Has Several Nuclear Suitcases,” The Israel Report 25 October 1999, The Jerusalem Report 5 November 2005 <http://www.cdn-friends-icej.ca/isreport/septoct99/binladen.html>.

[xix] “Homeland Security Dept. Enhances Port Security Measures,” 12 June 2003, United States Embassy, Japan, 5 November 2005 <http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/p/tp-20030616b8.html.>

[xx] Frank Rich, “What Al Qaeda Learned in D.C.” The New York Times 26 October 2002, accessed 5 November 2005 <http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20811FF35580C758EDDA90994 DA404482>.

[xxi] Kendall Chen, personal interview, 5 November 2005.

[xxii] Chen.

[xxiii] Carey Sublette, “Are Suitcase Bombs Possible?” Nuclear Weapon Archive 18 May 2002, accessed 5 November 2005 <http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/News/DoSuitcaseNukesExist.html&gt;.

[xxiv] Roland Watson, “The Destructive Effects of a Nuclear Suitcase Bomb,” LewRockwell.com, 5 November 2005 <http://www.lewrockwell.com/watson/watson27.html.>

[xxv] Col. David H. Hackworth, “The Second Wave,” Maxim March 2005: 122.

[xxvi] “Financial Statements and Appended Notes Year 2004,” panynj.gov, 25 February 2005, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 6 November 2005 < http://www.panynj.gov/ AboutthePortAuthority/InvestorRelations/FinancialStatements/pdfs/2004_Financial_Statements.pdf>.

[xxvii] “Review of Studies of Economic Impact of the September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks on the World Trade Center,” United States General Accounting Office 29 May 2002, Washington, DC, 6 November 2005 <http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02700r.pdf>, 2.

[xxviii] Eric Lipton, “Audit Faults U.S. For its Spending on Port Defense,” The New York Times, Sunday, 20 February 2005, A1.

[xxix] Chen interview.

[xxx] Hackworth, 122.

[xxxi] Sun Tzu, II, 3.


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