the Technology Interface / Fall 1997

Overview of Emerging Threats to the United States


Mary Lynn Garcia
Sandia National Laboratories

Good security system design requires that the objectives of the protection system be defined prior to any design activities. These objectives include characterization of the facility, installation, or enterprise, target identification and threat definition (1). Facility characterization includes all details about the site including existing security measures, operations, processes, operating conditions (such as day vs. night), materials and equipment present in the facility, number, location and responsibilities of employees, infrastructure, drawings, policies and procedures, training, corporate strategic and financial goals, and any other available information. Once collected this information will help focus attention on the likely targets of an adversary.

Consideration of targets, however, cannot be complete without a corresponding look at the specific threat. This threat may be defined through the use of information relating to the motivation, number, capabilities, tactics and goals of the adversary. These goals may differ depending on the nature of the threat, so for each facility there may be several credible threats, depending on the target. For example, a manufacturing facility may expect a higher threat from insiders taking product or information than from outside criminals stealing computers, money, or cars from the parking lot. In either event, a thorough review of the facility and identification of targets, along with a threat profile, is a necessary first step to protect the assets of the enterprise.

The top emerging threats acknowledged by national security experts today fall into five broad categories:

Deterrence, while successful in the political arena and useful by focusing attention on unacceptable behavior, is difficult to measure. If we depend too much on deterrence, how will we know how effective existing security measures are if we have no data on when we were attacked, by whom, and what the goal of the attack was? Traditionally, deterrence has relied on disruption of terrorist activity, arrest and punishment of terrorists as criminals, application of U.S. laws and legislation to prevent terrorist groups from operating in the US and use of extraterritorial statutes to counter criminal or terrorist acts, apprehend these individuals outside the US and return them to answer in our courts.(5).

Executive Order No. 12938, signed by President Clinton on November 14, 1994 declared a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction pose to the national security, foreign interest, and economy of the US. This order was continued in November, 1995. Despite international efforts to control the spread of WMD, there is consensus among scholars and policy makers that WMD proliferation is the top security threat our nation faces today (6).

The FBI has been given the lead role in managing the process and resources needed to prevent or respond to an actual or potential terrorist threat. International terrorism, as defined by the FBI, is that which is foreign based and/or directed by countries or groups outside the United States, or whose activities transcend national boundaries (7). Today we face a spectrum of threats from more than two dozen countries developing or acquiring the same kinds of devastating weapons we feared during the cold war. The major impediment to a nation committed to acquiring a nuclear capability is obtaining fissile material. Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union are no longer the only potential sources of nuclear weapons and materials (3). China, India, and Pakistan are the most notable of this group (3).

Nuclear weapons, however, are not the only worry in this area. Approximately 20 countries, among them Iran, Libya, and Syria, have or are actively developing chemical and biological weapons. We are increasingly seeing terrorist groups looking into the feasibility and effectiveness of chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. As demonstrated by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist incident in the Tokyo subway, no country is invulnerable to the possibility of massive civilian casualties from terrorist use (3).

The current international terrorist threats to the United States government, people and interest fall into three major categories: (1) State sponsors, (2) formalized terrorist groups, and (3) loosely-affiliated international Islamic extremists (7). In addition to the state sponsors mentioned above, this group also includes Iraq, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea. Formalized extremist groups such as Lebanese Hizballah, the Egyptian al-Gamut al-Islamiyya, and the Palestinian Hamas have placed supporters in the US who could be used to aid an act of terrorism here. Loosely-affiliated extremists may pose the most urgent terrorist threat to the US at this time since they are relatively unknown to law enforcement. They have the ability to travel freely, obtain a variety of identities, and recruit sympathizers from various countries or factions (7).

There appears now to be an emergence of the “post-modern” terrorist in the world today. Where traditional terrorists use the event to gain access to a forum to air their grievances, these “silent terrorists” send a silent message creating a superordinary sense of overwhelming fear and vulnerability. This change in tactics may be indicative of a new era, in which the “constrained “ terrorist is supplanted by the ultra-violent “post-modern” terrorist who uses advanced technology, and anonymity, to conduct destructive acts viewed as disproportionate to desired ends. This change seems to have two causes (6).

One cause may be religious revivalism. Ultra-violent terrorist acts rooted in religious imperatives can be seen in Sri Lanka (Tamil Hindus), India and Pakistan (Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims), Israel (radical Palestinians and Israelis) and Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. The second cause is related to the removal of constraints imposed by the Cold War and the subsequent disintegration of a bipolar world order. A new world disorder seems to have emerged in which the legitimacy of many states is being challenged from within by increasing non-state calls for self-determination (6).

The preceding discussion has focused on the international terrorist threat, which does not address the threat from domestic terrorism. This threat has remained significant over the past several years and spans the full political spectrum, as well as social issues and concerns. The current domestic terrorist threat primarily comes from right-wing extremist groups, militia groups, Puerto Rican terrorist groups and special interest groups (such as animal rights activists) (7). Assessing the capabilities of international and domestic terrorist groups to inflict harm on American citizens or the US government is critical to developing the capabilities and strategies needed to counter these threats.

Shifting now to narcotics and international crime, narcotics production continues to meet rising worldwide demand for both cocaine and heroine, traffickers are developing new shipment routes and methods, and trafficking networks are increasingly sophisticated in their operations. In spite of some significant blows by counternarcotics operations to drug trafficking organizations, the international narcotics trade remains a formidable threat. Powerful drug traffickers in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico manipulate the political and legal systems in these countries (3).

Accompanying the expansion of narcotics production and trafficking are money laundering, financial crime, alien smuggling, and criminal involvement in arms trading. Russian, Nigerian, Italian, and ethnic Chinese criminal networks have become worldwide in scope and more sophisticated and multifaceted in their operations (3), prompting law enforcement to crack down on the Italian Mafia, Russian mobs, Japanese Yakuza, Chinese triads and Colombian and Mexican drug lords (2).

The multibillion dollar scope of worldwide money laundering poses a significant threat to countries. The tremendous wealth being legitimized by laundering allows criminal organizations to gain a large amount of economic power fairly quickly. Front companies are the predominant means of laundering funds used by almost all criminal groups. As drug trafficking and other criminal organizations invest more in these businesses, their toehold in the legitimate economy of a country grows, as does the economic, social, and political influence of the criminal leaders (3).

In the area of global conflicts, there are four regional areas of concern: the Middle East, South Asia, Bosnia, and the Aegean. Other areas including China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were discussed above.

The Middle East peace process is still a difficult and contentious proceeding, with issues around the status of Jerusalem, settlements, and the Golan Heights still to be decided. The Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will also test the peace process (3).

In South Asia, relations between India and Pakistan remain poor and there are few signs of improvement. Deterrence has worked for years but it could break down in a crisis and the time available to national leaders and external powers to defuse tensions would be limited. Leaders in both countries face daunting domestic and political challenges at the same time they have to contend with foreign policy issues that require political strength (3).

In Bosnia, the Dayton Accords have had a positive effect but several challenges in the months ahead could disrupt the reconciliation process. Resettlement of refugees, elections, instability in Serbia and the possibility of a change in leadership in Croatia may complicate the reconciliation process. If the cooperation that has been established can be sustained, the next 18 months provide an opportunity to build on economic reconstruction (3).

Long standing animosity between Greece and Turkey, exacerbated by disputes over Cyprus and the Aegean, are fueling growing nationalist sentiments in both countries. In the current political environment of both countries, maneuvering room is limited and prospects for compromise dim. Greece must balance competing views about the approach to the tensions, while Turkey is beset by a host of domestic and foreign challenges. At home, issues of Kurdish separation, structural economic problems, and a growing debate about the role of Islam in Turkey take attention away from the rivalries Turkey sees on its borders (3).

During the past five years conflict within states has far outstripped conflict between them. Currently, more than 34 million people have been unable to return to their homes, more than 20 million are internally displaced, and 14.5 million are refugees. In Liberia and Sierra Leone civil conflicts have created a critical situation. Fighting continues between Hutu insurgents and the government of Burundi, and tensions with Rwanda persist which may be aggravated by the genocide prosecutions now underway. Stability of these countries depends in good measure on the stabilization of the Eastern Zaire border and on their relations with Kinshasa and the rest of Zaire (3). These humanitarian crises do nothing to stabilize these regions or lessen the concerns expressed previously.

Finally, on the information warfare front, there are evolving issues concerning national security. Information warfare can encompass everything from electronic jamming to psychological operations. The focus here, however, is defense against the deliberate exploitation of information systems’ inherent vulnerabilities in a manner that affects national security. Cyberwar requires a small capital investment in computers, can be carried out remotely, and allows for dispersion of operatives around the world. This makes information warfare cheap, effective and well within the reach of any state or well-endowed terrorist organization (4).

Targets threatened by information warfare include domestic infrastructure, such as air traffic control, power plants, banks, and international commerce, funds transfer, transportation, and communications. In addition, information warfare threatens our military forces deployed in peacetime or wartime (8).

Illegal electronic intrusion into computer networks is a rapidly escalating crime and security problem. In addition to terrorists, white-collar criminals, economic espionage agents, organized crime groups, and foreign intelligence agents have been identified as “electronic intruders” for penetration of American computer systems and networks (7).

The tremendous growth in communications technology is shrinking distances and weakening barriers to the flow of information. The CIA is assessing which countries have the potential to penetrate our information systems, including those which appear to have instituted formal information warfare programs. Although the number is not large at this time, it is believed that the problem will grow, given the potential market for criminal groups and the potential for mischief on the part of foreign intelligence services or rogue groups such as terrorist organizations (3).

A brief review of these threats shows that these are complex problems that will not be easily solved, certainly not by the application of technology alone. However, this does not mean that technology has no role. The methods of protection available cover a spectrum of choices - from doing nothing, to relying on deterrence, to better intelligence gathering and predictive capabilities, up through restricting individual rights and freedoms to assure higher levels of security. If we eliminate “do nothing” as a viable alternative, we are left with some choices that have worked in the past but may need to be complemented by new methods, applications, or ideas.

Solutions to this threat spectrum will require totally integrated responses, including the military, local emergency agencies, the medical research community, law enforcement at all levels, and government agencies. A great deal of effort will have to be focused on understanding the origins of these emerging threats and negating them without violence wherever possible. Discovering the existence of real threats is necessary but essential privacy and other civil liberties must not be sacrificed in the attempt (9).

Security professionals everywhere need to remain in touch with the emerging threats, solutions that have worked, and mechanisms to keep adversaries at bay. Reducing the number of targets and hardening these targets to likely and credible threats is a big job and one that requires a technically knowledgeable and competent workforce so that local facilities may be protected at whatever level is suitable for the facility.

Next Issue: Detection, Delay, and Response Components of Physical Security Systems.


1. Sandia National Laboratories, Design and Evaluation Process Outline, Security Systems and Technology Center,

2. , Summer blockbuster: Assessing the real threat, August 20, 1997, AP story, 8/18/97

3. 597.html







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