Last fall some of my associates and I undertook a Red Cell terrorist exercise; that is, we assumed the role of the enemy and discussed ways they might bring the war to the United States. We devised a campaign plan comprised of a series of attacks designed to spread the maximum amount of chaos at the minimum cost, and taking into account limited personnel and a heightened security environment. The opening salvo was to mount a series of attacks on the utility lines near Buffalo, N.Y., a critical nexus in the electrical grid, to start a chain reaction that would ultimately cause blackout conditions in New York City. The attack would come on a hot summer day just prior to rush hour. The combination of bottled-up commuters, intense heat, and darkness would set the stage for a night of 1977-style looting and chaos. So when I learned about the magnitude of the power outage on Thursday afternoon I flashed back to our Red Cell exercise and feared the worst. In our scheme the blackout was only the first phase of the attack, which created the conditions for the follow-on strikes later. (I’ll leave out the details for obvious reasons — no need to give the bad guys ideas.)
Yet it soon became clear that Thursday’s blackout was not an obvious act of terrorism — no detonated transmission lines, no burning power plants, no apparent exploitation of the crisis — but neither was it clear what caused it. It was only a matter of time before al Qaeda sought to exploit the ambiguity and take credit, which they did Monday in the London daily Al-Quds al-Arabi and on various radical websites. The terrorists claim that a group called the Abu Hafs al-Misri Brigades hit two electrical generators on the East Coast, inflicting $10 billion in economic losses for the mere cost of $7,000. They chose not to explain how they accomplished the attack, “in case the mujahids might need to use the same innovative method again soon.” But they declared a significant victory. “The Americans lived one black day that they will never forget. The lived a day of terror, alarm, and fear…Cities endured a state of chaos and tumult. There was looting and theft. Cities were robbed just as Baghdad, the capital of the Caliphs, was robbed.” (The reference is apparently to the Abbasid Caliphate, destroyed in Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, a comparison al Qaeda has made before.) Nevertheless this was not the “big one” they keep promising — “the gift of the Shaykh of the Mujahids, Osama bin Ladin, is on its way to the White House.…when and where will it come?? Wait to see the answer!!”
Claiming credit for what appears to have been the product of a fluke equipment failure in Ohio is a sensible move for al Qaeda. The communiqué is a psyop, aimed at the United States to some extent, but more importantly, at the faithful abroad. Al Qaeda needs to show that it is still relevant and can mount significant attacks on the Crusaders, and claiming credit for the largest power outage in U.S. history is as good a way to demonstrate puissance as any. The claim can be counted on to resonate with Iraqis who have been missing their own electricity recently, a pointless parallel the U.S. media picked up on long before the al Qaeda announcement. Iraq is the center of al Qaeda’s attentions these days, the place in the world where it is most feasible to mount attacks against Western military forces, and where the struggle for hearts and minds is most pronounced. The announcement is an easy way to attempt to sow doubt and fear in this country as well, especially with the promise of greater attacks in the future, a threat al Qaeda has consistently made for more than a year and a half.
But suppose terrorists had managed to bring down the power grid — what were the effects? It was not a day of terror, alarm, and fear, as al Qaeda claimed. New Yorkers dealt with the outage with a degree of aplomb. Some journalists offered stranded commuters the opportunity to lose their tempers on national TV, but I didn’t see anyone seriously complaining. The most critical people seemed to be politicians and newsmen seeking to render blame or push policy agendas. The contrast with the expected chaos was notable — though as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart observed, New Yorkers should not get a gold star simply for resisting the urge to kill each other during a brief power outage. In 1977, there were 4,000 arrests in New York for looting and other crimes during the blackout. This time there were just over three hundred arrests, a below average rate for a summer night. There were only six break-ins that evening in Detroit, despite media hype to the contrary. The most serious looting was reported in Ottawa, and even it was only serious by Canadian standards, which is to say a few places were robbed. I was driving through New Jersey just across the George Washington Bridge when the power went out, and experienced spontaneous order that would warm an anarchist’s heart. There were no signs of panic, drivers were taking turns at intersections, and traffic was flowing fairly smoothly. Even had the outage been the achievement of the Abu Hafs al-Misri Brigades (not to digress, but why are these platoon-sized terror subgroups always called “brigades”?), it did not result in anything like the harm they claimed in the announcement. What it shows us is that the terrorists have failed at their most basic objective, namely to terrorize. This is not a country on a knife-edge of tension, ready to dissolve at the first disruption of daily life. If there is a lesson al Qaeda can draw from this event, it is that they will have to do something a lot more spectacular than even this massive power outage to get the country’s attention. 9/11 is a hard act to follow.