After all the incidents of recent weeks in Europe and the USA, I suspect we're in for a long period of such disruptions. Some will be relatively small, using knives or firearms. Others will be much worse, using explosives or arson. Following questions from readers as to what to expect, I'm going to discuss a few likely possibilities here. In case you're worried about it, I'm not saying anything new. Wannabe terrorists have openly discussed these and other ideas on the Internet for years.
First of all, I think we can expect small-scale 'lone wolf' attacks in ever-increasing numbers. Individuals or small groups will use firearms, home-made explosives or arson (fueled by gasoline or whatever they can lay their hands on) to attack night clubs, churches, cafes, festivals, etc. Such attacks are almost impossible to defend against in advance, because the perpetrators will seldom need to talk to others about them. Little or no co-ordination will be necessary. The armed citizen has a decent chance of disrupting or stopping such attacks if he or she is prepared, alert and ready to act. I hope and trust most of my readers will be that kind of person.
On a larger scale, I've been warning for years (as regular readers of this blog will know) that I expect one or more Beslan-style attacks on US schools. It would be relatively simple for groups of terrorists to sneak across our porous southern border, congregate in two or three or four towns and cities where they could blend into already-resettled populations of Middle Eastern refugees, scope out local schools, obtain firearms and fuel such as LP gas cylinders and gasoline, manufacture home-made explosives, and prepare for co-ordinated attacks with other groups. It's a nightmare scenario, but I have no doubt whatsoever that it's in the minds of terrorists right now. Our schools are almost completely unprepared for such attacks.
Another likely possibility is the use of LP gas tanks, either stand-alone units, or gas cylinders on trucks, or actual LP gas tankers (road, rail or ship-borne), as blast and incendiary bombs. They can be absolutely terrifying in the destruction they cause. For a start, in case you've never heard of a BLEVE (Boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion), here's a video explaining it.
The force of such an explosion depends, of course, on the amount of fuel available. For example, here's a road accident in Russia that caused several consecutive explosions of individual gas cylinders. Each explosion is relatively small, but is still big enough to devastate a single shop or dwelling or passing vehicle, and kill people nearby with flying fragments of the cylinder(s).
An entire tanker truck filled with liquid natural gas or propane would be far more dangerous. Consider the disaster at Los Alfaques in Spain in 1978, which killed over 200 people and injured as many again. There have been many others. Here are three that were caught on camera.
Now, imagine that one of those explosions took place in an urban area - a built-up residential or commercial district. Think of it in the business or shopping districts of New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. Think of the casualties it would cause, and the carnage as the entire area became clogged with people trying to escape, others trying to get closer to gawk, and emergency services trying to get in and out. It would be catastrophic.
I'm not saying this because I like being alarmist. I lived in an environment of terrorism for many years, and I've seen at first hand the sort of things these people can and will do. I've seen rocket attacks on oil and gasoline storage tanks from a nearby road; bombs planted in restaurants; gun and knife attacks on innocent civilians; mob violence directed against anyone and everyone who did not agree or sympathize with one side or another; and so on. Those were all relatively unsophisticated. In our urbanized, highly concentrated western cities, something like a gas tanker attack would be far more dangerous. Even more so would be an attack on a LNG carrier like the one illustrated below.
Such a ship, in harbor, would be an extraordinarily attractive target, provided terrorists could be found with sufficient knowledge and expertise to board her and plant their explosives in the right places. It would cause immense damage and many casualties. Needless to say, extraordinary precautions are taken to stop that happening.
LP gas isn't the only threat, of course. A gasoline tanker could be hijacked, driven into a transportation tunnel (say, the Holland Tunnel or the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City), stopped halfway through it, its valves opened to empty its cargo into the road, and an incendiary device used to ignite it. The resulting fire would almost certainly kill a lot of people in the tunnel, cause so much damage that the structure might become unsafe for future use, and disrupt traffic (and emergency responders) for days, or weeks, or months. (Even a minor fire can do a lot of harm, as happened in 1949.) Multiple co-ordinated attacks of that sort might bring an entire city to a standstill, causing immense economic disruption. (Yes, I know trucks and hazardous materials are banned from such tunnels. Do you think such a ban is going to deter or stop a terrorist? Even physical barriers might not be enough, particularly if he and/or his accomplices can shoot or grenade their way past defending officers to open the barriers.)
The same sorts of attacks could be launched on individual buildings. The World Trade Center was attacked with vehicle-borne bombs in its basement in 1993. Regulations and precautions notwithstanding, it's not at all impossible for similar attacks to be launched in future, particularly if security grows lax (or can be suborned . . . how many security personnel have been recruited from population groups that might be sympathetic to, or susceptible to intimidation by, terrorists?). Tanker trucks would obviously not fit into basements or parking garages, but smaller vehicles could carry drums or cylinders of fuel, or bombs.
I'd say those are the most likely forms of terrorist attack we have to anticipate. I've no idea how likely they are in the short term, but I know terrorists have discussed them on their bulletin boards and in messages. The authorities are well aware of it. One hopes adequate precautions have been taken, but the powers that be simply can't guard every tanker truck, or every LNG rail car, or every piece of critical infrastructure such as tunnels or bridges. Such attacks will be attempted, as sure as I'm sitting here. We'd better all be hoping and praying that the authorities foil them before it's too late. We can help by being alert, reporting suspicious behavior, and most of all being prepared to stop perpetrators ourselves if at all possible.
We live in an age of terrorism now. It's a fact of life. We'd better get used to it, and conduct ourselves accordingly.