Outside the Box

Foreign Policy just ran an article on “The World’s Most Bizarre Terror Threats.” A collection of five ‘wacky’, ‘zany’ (note: those are not actual quotes), potential terrorist threats, they’re pretty roundly dismissed by Kayvan Farzaneh. Unfortunately, a quick ruling-out of these threat vectors is not something to be taken lightly. It was said that 9/11 was “unimaginable” and that the use of commercial airliners to strike American landmarks was an inconceivable event.

Yet, Tom Clancy described such a scenario in the Jack Ryan novel Debt of Honor – which he wrote in 1994. It must have seemed pretty crazy at the time. After the conclusion of a shooting war between Japan and the United States, a disgruntled JAL pilot – whose brothers were killed during the war – crashes his 747 into the Capitol Building during a full joint session of Congress, decapitating the federal government in one fell swoop.

A decapitation strike is obviously something that has been prepared for, hence the advent of a designated survivor. Yet the means by which this, or many other attacks could be carried out remain the “unknown unknown.” I wouldn’t lay some sort of universal blame at the feet of any one individual or agency, but there is definitely a culture of thinking within a box. Sometimes that box changes – see the US Army’s switch to a COIN-based system, and within that to a population-centric one. But the real problem is the existence of any box at all.

I don’t know what the solution to all this is – hire screenwriters? Novelists? You can only game what you know the variables for. But in the spirit of that, I’d like to take these “bizarre terror threats” and point out where they’ve been anticipated before.


The ploy: Navigate into the center of a city by paraglider and attack crowds from above.

It’s absolutely been thought of, though as executed by ‘our team’. Watch the opening scene from Air Force One (starting around 2:20), where an American paramilitary team glides to the rooftop of the Kazakh Presidential Palace and captures the Kazakh premier. The only difference between this and what a terrorist group could do is the presence of an extraction helicopter. But who needs an exit strategy if the goal is execution?

Insect Swarms

The ploy: Launch a bioterrorist attack using swarms of insects infected with a deadly disease

The question has to be asked: why bother with bugs? Farzaneh claims that one problem with them is their propensity to attack the delivery system (i.e., the guy with the briefcase), but in the case of a suicidal terrorist, that’s of no concern. It’s a bit of a stretch (and again, perpetrated by the American government), but the film version of The X-Files features bees as the means of delivery, infected with smallpox. A little more sophisticated, maybe, but not outside the human imagination.


These are just the ones that immediately come to mind. I suppose the fact that they’re being discussed at all is ‘comforting’ to a point, but perhaps exploring and projecting their utility further out would be a useful project. What we need are fewer unknown unknowns, and more known unknowns. New ways of thinking without resorting to an entirely new paradigm.

3 thoughts on “Outside the Box

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