Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts From MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) to MUD (Multilateral Unconstrained Disruption): Dealing with the New Terrorism

From MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) to MUD (Multilateral Unconstrained Disruption): Dealing with the New Terrorism

Al Qaeda’s actions on September 11, 2001, demonstrated the use of a new form of warfare, requiring relatively modest resources and aimed at achieving maximum disruption of the morale and the economic core of Western society. Unlike the attacks Cold War strategists feared and planned for, however, these actions do not envision mass destruction. Rather, the terrorists’ targets are Western society’s economic foundations and its supporting political infrastructure (the nation’s “commons”). Security in this new age will not be achieved by a policy that seeks to safeguard an almost infinite number of individual targets at all times. Instead, we must protect these foundations by developing public and, equally important, private-sector measures that deny the terrorists the leverage they seek in disrupting our societies.

Risk Management and Security

Virtually every current method of risk management begins with the assumption that individual assets (e.g., buildings, aircraft, people) are the proper focus for investments in security. Even where the characteristics of an asset (or of its environment) are dynamic-for example, a presidential motorcade-risk management focuses on the methods for protecting against threats such as theft or destruction. Indeed, both our legal system and insurance (and reinsurance) industries-the institutional foundations of risk management in Western society-base their policies and procedures on calculations of the risk-adjusted value of specific identified assets.

In the face of the potential for ongoing terrorist attacks from al Qaeda (and potentially others), the objective of risk management must now be shifted to a focus on protection from the leverage that attacks on assets can achieve with respect to the continued functioning of our society. Assets of any type may be the specific targets-they are the concrete focus of terrorist actions that provide the leverage needed to cause “unconstrained disruption”-but it is the ability of Western society to continue to rely on the vitality and utility of these functions and systems that is really in al Qaeda’s sights.

Al Qaeda’s actions on September 11 were certainly horrific, but they were not catastrophic. The destruction of what risk managers would regard as the targeted assets-the four airplanes, the passengers and crew, the three major buildings, the occupants of the buildings, and so on-was the source of the horror. But even the number of deaths (exceeding the strike on Pearl Harbor), the destruction of the World Trade Center and airplanes, and the damage to the Pentagon were not catastrophic for the nation or for the West. And as difficult as it is for us to comprehend, the death and destruction were, in fact, incidental to the terrorists’ goals. Al Qaeda’s objective was simply to use the attacks on those assets as the means to gain the leverage needed to disrupt and destabilize the governments, economies, and social structure of the West. Aside from al Qaeda’s interest in retribution through death and destruction, the assets employed and destroyed were merely the means to pursue the broader goal of neutralizing the West.

Osama bin Laden has been extraordinarily clear about the goals of al Qaeda: restructuring-and purifying-Islam and creating a modern version of a caliphate. To achieve this goal, al Qaeda’s leadership recognizes that the West must be neutralized in the role it plays in the world-and the Middle East in particular. Or, in bin Laden’s words (from his 1998 fatwah):

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies— civilians and military— is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.”

Seen through this new lens, the actions on September 11 were only marginal tactical successes. As was the case after the failure of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, however, al Qaeda has not changed its ultimate goals. The leadership and member cells of al Qaeda may bide their time before initiating new major attacks, but they certainly have not been eliminated as a threat. We must therefore begin to work on protecting the West and our global partners from the potential threat to the “commons”-to society’s commonly held assets-by redirecting the focus of risk management so that it can, in fact, offer standards and guidelines in the face of the this new form of terrorism. Rather than focusing on the management of risks to specific assets, we must now ask “How can we restructure risk management (and counterterrorism and homeland security) procedures, standards, and methods to account for leverage protection? How can the methods of risk management be extended to supply estimates of the relative value of security investments aimed at mitigating the effects of the leverage provided by attacks on assets?” Put another way, the assets that are the focus of virtually all current risk management methods are, in effect, simply a means to an end with respect to terrorism. The real targets of the type of terrorism that we face today are the derivative values of these assets: the systems of production and government, the means of economic exchange, and the vitality of and confidence in our social organizations and institutions.

The Tragedy of the Commons, Redux

Although often forgotten in the face of its message about the disastrous condition of the world’s rivers and air, Garrett Hardin’s now classic call-to-arms for the environmental movement, The Tragedy of the Commons, opens with a quotation from Wiesner and York on the dilemma of national security in the nuclear age:

Both sides in the arms race are … confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation. (Wiesner and York [1] in Hardin [2])

Both Hardin’s analogy and his conclusions about the need for a better means for making choices where there are common critical interests have been given new life by changes in international terrorism. Hardin’s “commons,” a shared town pasture used by all farmers to graze their livestock, but owned and cared for by no one, finds its analogue in our shared infrastructure and the core critical functions necessary to the operation of Western society. In most cases, such commons-the electric grid, water systems, transportation networks-are privately owned and geographically dispersed, but are nonetheless essential to our ability to function as a society.

In Hardin’s example, with an openly available common asset and an absence of institutional measures to ensure that there is a focus of responsibility for the maintenance of that asset, the result is the destruction of the commons. Our commons, our systems of production and government, the means of economic exchange, and our social organizations and institutions, while not a single physical asset, are nonetheless commonly held and valuable property without a proprietor, with the potential to be ruined by terrorist actions.

In the face of terrorist threats, traditional risk management seems counterproductive in much the same way as would be a letter to each of the farmers who use Hardin’s commons requesting that they reduce the size of their herds. From the perspective of the individual farmers who use the field for grazing, the objective is simply to get the best source of feed at the lowest possible price and, short of some sort of regulatory constraints and/or externally imposed fee structure aimed at preserving the value of the common asset, there is simply no reason for any individual to do other than that which is personally best. Similarly, in the case of the potential targets of terrorism, there is no rationale for any individual or organization to make investments in security measures that benefit the U.S. economy and society as a whole (the “commons”)-at least in the short-term. And clearly this type of approach to risk management creates problems in a world where terrorists have the reach and capabilities of al Qaeda.

Attacks on specific assets, as horrific as they may be, are in fact interchangeable from the perspective of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that are seeking to disrupt and defeat the U.S. and the West. Seen in this light, the problem of protecting the electrical grid, for example, from a devastating attack is not a risk management problem for the electric utility industry alone-although the utilities and independent system operators would undoubtedly be involved in the design and implementation of the protective measures. However, it is an attack that would ultimately result in the destruction of the “commons.” Similarly, managing the risks to the nation’s rail system is not solely a problem for the various railroad companies. Rail transport provides the mission-critical links in the nation’s manufacturing and distribution processes and is therefore at the core of our ability to maintain the “commons.”

Private companies-even individuals-may own these critical assets, but the management of the risks must ultimately account for the value-and even the relative value-of these “commons” to the U.S. and our global partners.

Environmental Risk Management and Homeland Security

Our methods for management of risks from threats to the environment provide an example of one way to manage homeland security. Although often seen as more of a political bludgeon than a management tool, the most effective technique for protecting our environmental commons has proven to be requiring (and setting standards and priorities for) a full accounting of actions-private and public-that would affect the environment. If, for example, a factory is free to pollute a river and that pollution will have adverse consequences such as destroying fisheries or reducing tourism, the account of the full range of expected economic losses caused by the pollution provides the basis for society’s determination of the relative value of investments in preventing pollution. When all the current and future costs and benefits of the actions affecting the commons are tallied up, a large social cost may prompt society to pass laws and regulations aimed at reducing or eliminating pollution. In other cases, the cost/benefit balance may result in the opposite conclusion: given the cost of, say, measures to control effluents and the projected benefits of pollution control, the proposed project may fail to meet the standards of economic viability. In effect, it is the use of clear assessments of the costs and benefits to society that is at the heart of a democracy’s determination of the value of its investments in protecting and securing its commonly held assets.

Of course, where the issues at stake are complex (e.g., large-scale dredging projects, dams, construction of canals) economists and environmentalists have used more sophisticated methods than a mere summing of readily observable costs and benefits. In the case of the use of the pesticide DDT, for instance, one of the limitations of simple economic measures is that, in environmental terms, the benefits of increased agricultural productivity are often easier to quantify than the long-term and often unknown costs of using chemical herbicides and pesticides. As we now know, many environmental costs are extremely difficult to value, due, for example, to the absence of a functioning market to set the value of effects that impact the commons. Valuations are also made more difficult in those many cases where people hold substantially conflicting visions of the desired future.

In order to satisfy the variety of interests in environmental decisions under current U.S. regulations, major actions significantly affecting the quality of the environment may only proceed after preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Under current federal law (see, for example, Sec. 102, National Environmental Policy Act, Public Law 91-190, 1970) this statement must provide a description and assessment of:

  1. The environmental impacts of the proposed action;
  2. Any adverse environmental effects that cannot be avoided should the proposal be implemented;
  3. Alternatives to the proposed action;
  4. The relationship between local short-term uses of the environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long-term productivity; and
  5. The irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources that would be involved in the proposed action should it be implemented.

Of course, an EIS does not legally require federal agencies to take any particular action. An agency may even decide to implement the most environmentally damaging alternative if the agency can demonstrate compelling reasons (e.g., national security)-and has the political will to justify its decision to the nation’s legislators, courts, and public. But the EIS process provides society a means of assessing the value and priorities of alternative environmental actions.

With this in mind, let us examine the objectives of the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). At least as it is currently organized, the Department’s mandate is described largely in terms of improvements in communications among the government agencies having functional responsibilities associated with responses to terrorist attacks. However, while such coordination among first responders is certainly valuable, it does little to help prevent or deter future terrorist acts. The nation would be best served if, in addition to its responsibilities for the coordination among first responders, the DHS focused on security measures that offer “leverage protection.”

We believe that the DHS must focus directly on the management of risks to our commonly held assets. This is a two-part process: (1) the Department should take the lead in setting standards for societal investments in securing our “commons,” and (2) it should work with private sector groups (industry trade associations, standards bodies, financial markets) and other government agencies (the national laboratories, the National Institute for Standards and Technology) to render a full accounting of investment decisions that affect homeland security.

A “Security Impact Statement” (SIS), an analogy to the EIS should serve as the operational heart of the DHS; the SIS should, at a minimum, provide a description and assessment of:

  1. The impacts on security of both the proposed action and the failure to act;
  2. Any adverse security effects that would be avoided should the proposal be implemented, as well as those that are unavoidable;
  3. Alternatives to the proposed action, the expected criteria for decision making, and analysis of why the proposed action is preferred under those criteria;
  4. The costs of the proposed action (including the expected costs to the nation as a whole) of a successful attack, and an estimate of the net present value of the investment required to take the proposed action; and
  5. An estimate of the expenditures involved in implementing the proposed action.

Using the SIS process as its organizational and operational methodology, the DHS will be able to provide both the leadership and coordination necessary for the protection of our “commons” in a manner that is fully consistent with both the core values of our democracy and the prerogatives of ownership in a market economy. More important, the SIS process may permit the Department to act for the common good without resorting to outright federal management of critical infrastructure assets, the likely result in the aftermath of a true catastrophe. And, most important, the Department will thus be able to serve its true purpose-enhancing the security of the U.S. homeland by protecting that which is essential to our national interests rather than by simply coordinating and facilitating post-attack responses in order to minimize the cost in lives and property.

Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons served as the intellectual backbone of a rational approach to environmental protection. Its translation into the management of risks resulting from potential acts of terrorism could well serve as the motivating force for a rational approach to the management of homeland security. Failures in the environmental field led to Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring.[3] It should be our goal to avoid failures in homeland security that lead, tragically, to a “Dark Winter.”[4]


[1] J. B. Wiesner and H. F. York, Scientific American 211 (No. 4) (1964), p. 27.

[2] “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin, Science, 162 (1968), pp. 1243-48 (

[3] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1962).

[4] Peter J. Roman, “The Dark Winter of Biological Terrorism,” Orbis Summer 2002, pp. 469