Austin bombings could be precursors of terror to come

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  March 19, 2018 at 6:00 AM
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The package bombs exploding in Austin, Texas, were not new forms of terror. But they are a warning as old as Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin understood that contradictions in politics and life were crucial to creating exploitive policies to seize power, increase influence or promote dissension. A most critical contradiction for democracies is one between security and freedom. Benjamin Franklin eloquently described this tension. In pursuing the former at the expense of the latter, both will be lost.

Consider how to exploit contradictions in the West and the United States, especially in light of Lenin's other dictum. The purpose of terror is to terrorize. The aim is to generate overreaction and exacerbate divisions to disrupt, weaken and destroy political cohesion. This is not limited to governments. Individuals are also quite capable.

In 1919 and 1920, two dozen letter bombs panicked the nation. While only one person was killed -- an unlucky night watchman -- bombs were mailed to banking titan J.P. Morgan, Attorney General J. Mitchell Palmer, an associate Supreme Court justice and others notables across the breadth of the nation.

Overreaction was swift. Many tens of thousands were arrested summarily under the 1917 Espionage Act without due process and a significant number deported. The precursor of the FBI -- the Intelligence Bureau under a 20-something J. Edgar Hoover -- made no arrests and not a single indictment was issued. However, the nation was terrorized over this handful of incidents.

For two decades beginning in the 1970s, the Unabomber wrought fear with his explosive mailings. A decade and a half ago, white powder was sent to a number of federal office buildings, including Congress. About the same time, two snipers spewed fear throughout the Washington, D.C.-Virginia-Maryland region.

Before September 11th, Osama bin Laden had no idea how much his planned attacks would prove disruptive. He did not anticipate the Twin Towers collapsing, instead thinking both would remain derelict reminders of the attack. He did not predict world stock markets would lose trillions before recovering. Nor did he expect the onslaught from the United States and the trillions it would spend on the war on terror.

The Islamic State and fellow radical groups are not ignorant of the leverage of exploiting contradictions with terror to disrupt the West and the United States. The Internet and social media are ripe for orchestrating these effects. Crowd-sourcing, propaganda and false news are among the new means for disruption.

How would we react if terrorists generated panic by spreading false alarms -- Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast or more recently, the erroneous report of incoming missiles in Hawaii? Or suppose that air-traffic control was disrupted or just threatened. And if the Internet was filled with news of poisoned water supplies or food products, what would government do? The contaminated Tylenol episode decades ago could be a precursor.

From a state perspective, Russia has demonstrated by its active measures how easy it is to interfere in elections from the United States to Brexit to attempting to break NATO cohesion. False allegations of personal misconduct are easy to assert. And stock markets are not immune from electronically manipulating prices to disrupt and create panic. This is not new. So-called "short sellers" and other predators have used conventional means to rig stock prices. And affecting votes and ballot boxes is not beyond comprehension.

Because many of these means to exploit contradictions to terrorize and catalyze overreactions and disruptions are non-attributable, responses and preventions are difficult to create. Based on the past, overreaction is almost certain. Imagine the equivalent of airport security searches now writ large throughout society. Our adversaries surely win if that were to happen.

For those out to advance agendas and interests through these means, this low-cost, highly effective avenue is to seed disruption through attacking societal contradictions. Worse, we are still oblivious to this line of attack. We worry about cyber, terror and the changing military balance that is not in our favor. Yet, exploiting these contradictions in the information age to exacerbate the security and freedom dichotomy can have powerful negative effects on democracy.

If you were a former intelligence operative trained in seeking maximum political effects of disruption, misdirection, misinformation and deception, what might be your intent? Lenin had it right. But will we understand and act on that knowledge?

Harlan Ullman served as senior adviser for Supreme Allied Commander Europe for 12 years, is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and chairman of two private companies. His newest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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