Blogs > Liberty and Power > Al Qaeda's EMP "Threat"

Aug 2, 2005 9:59 am

Al Qaeda's EMP "Threat"

Following up on threat assessment ace Frank Gaffney, I see that he gave a speech two months ago which dealt, among other things, with the possibility of Osama Bin Laden frying our collective circuitry with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. Now, an EMP weapon, as I understand it, is a nuke that you set off in the upper atmosphere. So to start with OBL would have to have a ballistic missile, which is a step up from the dog poisoning technology and castor-bean weapons they've developed so far. But leave that aside. Can't Gaffney come up with a doomsday scenario that's remotely plausible? He quotes a blue ribbon commission set up by Congress to study the EMP threat to the effect that:"'some potential sources of EMP threats are difficult to deter.' This is particularly true of 'terrorist groups that have no state identity, have only one or a few weapons, and are motivated to attack the U.S. without regard for their own safety.'" But if Al Qaeda gets a nuke--and a missile to launch it with--I'd say the prospect of them knocking out our internet access is the least of our worries. (Oh, and by the way, it would be nice if we were doing much of anything to ensure that AQ never gets a nuke). But this EMP scenario is the most ridiculous thing I've heard of since the idea that Iraq was going to put its "UAVs" on merchant ships, get them close enough to the US mainland, and then rain chemical death down on American cities. But you never know what people are going to be dumb enough to buy, I guess.

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Brian Radzinsky - 8/2/2005

I don't think anyone doubts the possibility of terrorists acquiring and using these weapons. But such threats lack any plausibility. Yes Belize may one day acquire a nuke and threaten neighbor Guatemala. It's possible for sure. But what Gaffney, Boot, and others are doing is identifying threats to American security they've pulled out of their ears without substantiating it with data on the availability and likelihood of these weapons and their use.

Dennis W. St George - 8/2/2005

Any terrorist threat is remote, and this one does not warrant much in the way of precautions. What if AQ got hold of some of those tripod killing machines like in War of the Worlds? Not only do they generate EMPs, they kill people while leaving their clothing intact. What are we doing about this potential threat?

Grant Gould - 8/2/2005

While it is true that the original and biggest theoretical EMP source is a high-altitude nuclear blast, smaller devices for generating electromagnetic pulses can and have been built. You can seriously damage a single building's electronics with an easily built device made from old television parts (I've often thought that it would make a good high-school physics demo). More powerful EMP weapons, using large inductors suddenly crushed by explosives, ought to be possible, though I don't know if anyone plays about with that sort of thing these days.

With time and money for experimentation, there's no reason in theory that clever people couldn't build a backpack-sized EMP device capable of damaging an area of a couple of city blocks.

None of which is to say that these are serious dangers to be defended against. For a given dollar's investment, an al Quaeda is still going to get more bang from bullets or bombs. We should _hope_ that terrorists are stupid enough to spend their resources on expensive and inefficient weapons like EMP -- and poisons, and non-communicable diseases -- rather than cheap, efficient, and time-tested killing technology like guns and bombs.