The 9/11 Commission’s report made reference to “failure of imagination” as an intrinsic weakness in the United States’ counterterrorism strategy. That inability to imagine the unimaginable is exactly what continues to this day to undermine efforts to develop an effective system of prevention. Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have proven to be profoundly adaptable against the West’s countermeasures. One only needs to reflect on the evolution of terrorist attacks over the past three decades — from the bomb detonation in the World Trade Center parking garage to the use of a semi-truck as a weapon of mass destruction against a crowd of civilians on the southern coast of France. Counterterrorism efforts should then prioritize imagination, understood as the evolutionary study of threats.

Let’s summarize some points in brief.

Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric in declaring a holy war against the United States turned into the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The first paradigm shift took place in 2000 with the attack against the USS Cole. Despite the ongoing evolution of threats, it was the first manifestation of that which in the 9/11 report would later be defined as the imagination gap. Despite warnings, U.S. intelligence agencies considered the possibility of an airline being turned into a system of intelligent weapons to be completely remote. The CIA was shown to have lost the ability to imagine outwardly unimaginable scenarios, limiting strategic prevention of the al-Qaida trademark. In 2015, the Islamic State group replaced the threat, concentrating on soft targets and emboldening sympathizers worldwide to act on their own. The United States and western Europe will suffer devastating attacks such as the ones in Paris, London, Brussels, Orlando, Nice and Istanbul.

The frequency of motivated and diversified attacks makes it difficult to accurately predict future ones. Nevertheless, the study of popular texts on the al-Qaida and Islamic State group networks can help to determine their future strategy. The propaganda texts have often been considered misleading, but analyzing the proliferation of the attacks, they should be understood as actual training manuals for remote radicalization. Therefore, we’re speaking of the importance of detecting the coded messages inherent in terrorist propaganda, in an attempt to bridge the imagination gap.

Imagining Future Attacks

The first destruction of a commercial drone used by Islamic terrorists dates back to March 20 of last year, on the outskirts of Fallujah. A few months later, the Islamic State group began to equip commercial drones with grenades in kamikaze missions. This natural evolution of field experience could be put into practice against Western targets. In 2013, a drone operated by the German Pirate Party managed to land near German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a sporting event in Dresden. In April 2015, a drone carrying radioactive sand from the Fukushima nuclear power plant was able to land on the roof of the offices of the Japanese prime minister in Tokyo. Because of their particular asymmetric nature that alters today’s standard concept of defense, there are no countermeasures to take against a swarm of commercial drones. The current threat is far more complex than those detected in 2010, due to creative concealment techniques associated with new improvised and non-improvised explosive devices. The improvised air threat, in fact, must not necessarily be understood only as armed, since the implementation of explosives on low-cost devices, in some cases, represents only a detail. The threat to blind airline pilots with high-powered lasers, though it represents a serious risk (guidelines on the network), could be replaced by a potentially more devastating prospect: launching a drone against a turbine of a plane being taxied or taking off. The first known incident between a drone and an airliner happened last year in London. A civilian drone hit a British Airways plane while approaching London’s Heathrow Airport. Although the incident ended without significant damage, the episode showed that the aircraft are designed to withstand the impact of birds but were never tested against drones being hurled at the turbines or the windows. On the terrorists’ channels, information is readily available to make the most of such a technology in order to damage an airliner. In a Virginia Tech CRASH simulation, an eight kilogram quadricopter was sucked up by a rotor that simulated the turbine of a Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 at descent speed. In less than 1/200th of a second, the drone disintegrated, causing the engine to fail. The study aimed to determine the propagation of debris after the collision of a commercial drone with the engine of an airliner. Commercial jet engines are certified up to certain limits against the impact of birds, rain, hail and ice. All airliners have to be able to fly with one engine, but turbines are certified for the ingestion of soft debris and not for the materials that drones are made of. Changing the specifications of airliner turbines would certainly be costly for the airlines. Countermeasures will likely be limited to strict overflight bans on airports.

The Electrical Grid

Electrical power is capable of providing or restoring services during natural disasters. Only during World War I did the electricity industry have to deal with sabotage. International development has changed the threat paradigm to the power infrastructure. Considering that terrorist acts themselves aim to create overbearing psychological effects, economic damage and social disruption, electricity transmission and distribution systems have become primary targets. The remote locations of many electrical transmission lines, substations, communication systems and natural gas supplies allow attackers to perform their operations with little to no risk. The selection of the points of attack and the assessment of consequences are within reach of technically-trained members of the terrorist community. Plants and equipment may be damaged or destroyed by a variety of means, while electrical systems are vulnerable to cyber attacks. Although structured on a back-up asset, the energy sector is not capable of reliable performance in the event that the main components are severely damaged by several targeted attacks. Most industrial control systems used in the power grid are connected to the internet, which makes them vulnerable to a cyber attack. Such access could potentially allow someone to adjust settings remotely. Since the grid is a great system of interconnected networks, one or more users could easily destabilize large areas of it. The ability to rewrite the firmware of an electrical network and potentially interrupt the power supply system could be one of the fastest ways to destroy the economy of a country. Even so, compromising firmware is a technical challenge that requires knowledge of the manufacturer’s source code. Some malware do not need access to the internet and can spread through an air gap. Air gapping is a security practice typically used in nuclear plants.

Our society is based on electricity. Internet, transportation, healthcare, food storage, telephone transmission, etc.: A cyber-attack localized against the main generators of a strategic area would result in an immediate network overload, causing a cascade of minor disruptions. While some areas could recover quickly, others would remain without electricity for weeks. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Lloyd's of London have calculated that a prolonged blackout on the East Coast of the U.S. would leave 93 million people in the dark, result in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and billions of dollars in insurance claims and cause an increase in hospital deaths. The geopolitical fallout could be even worse. Energy suppliers would notice only a quick succession of overloaded transmission lines, similar to the 2003 blackout caused by a bug in the ordinary software.