Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action

Lawfare Research Paper No. 2-2013

33 Pages Posted: 6 Jul 2013

Date Written: July 3, 2013


Technology contains no inherent moral directive — it empowers people, whatever their intent, good or evil. This fact, of course, has always been true: when bronze implements supplanted those made of stone, the ancient world got swords and battle-axes as well as scythes and awls. Every technology has violent applications because that is one of the first things we humans ask of our tools.

The novelty of our present situation is that modern technology can provide small groups of people with much greater lethality than ever before. We now have to worry that private parties might gain access to weapons that are as destructive as — or possibly even more destructive than — those held by any nation-state. A handful of people, perhaps even a single individual, now have the ability to kill millions or even billions. Indeed, it is perfectly feasible, from a technological standpoint, to kill every man, woman, and child on earth. The gravity of the situation is so extreme that getting the concept across without seeming silly or alarmist is challenging. Just thinking about the subject with any degree of seriousness numbs the mind.

Worries about the future of the human race are hardly novel. Indeed, the notion that terrorists or others might use weapons of mass destruction is so commonplace as to be almost passé. Spy novels, movies, and television dramas explore this plot frequently. We have become desensitized to this entire genre, in part because James Bond always manages to save the world in the end.

Reality may be different. In my estimation, the U.S. government, although well-meaning, is unable to protect us from the greatest threats we face. The other nations of the world are also utterly unprepared. even obvious and simple steps are not being taken. The gap between what is necessary and what is being contemplated, much less being done, is staggering.

My appraisal of the present situation does not discount the enormous efforts of many brave men and women in law enforcement, intelligence services, and the military. These people are doing what they can, but the resources that we commit to defense and the gathering of intelligence are mostly squandered on problems that are far less dangerous to the American public than the ones we are ignoring.

Addressing the issue in a meaningful way will ultimately require large structural changes in many parts of the government. So far, however, our political leaders have had neither the vision to see the enormity of the problem nor the will to combat it. These weaknesses are not surprising: bureaucracies change only under extreme duress. And despite what some may say, the shocking attacks of September 11, 2001, have not served as a wake-up call to get serious. Given the meager response to that assault, every reason exists to believe that sometime in the next few decades America will be attacked on a scale that will make 9/11 look trivial by comparison.

The goal of this essay is to present the case for making the needed changes before such a catastrophe occurs. The issues described here are too important to ignore.

Keywords: terrorist, terrorism, bio-terrorism, strategic terrorism, United States, policy, national intelligence, national security, military, defense, technology, Myhrvold

Suggested Citation

Myhrvold, Nathan, Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action (July 3, 2013). Lawfare Research Paper No. 2-2013, Available at SSRN: or

Nathan Myhrvold (Contact Author)

Intellectual Ventures ( email )

3150 139th Ave SE
Building 4
Bellevue, WA 98005
United States


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