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Engineering and Terrorism: Their Interrelationships

Dr. Michael C. Clarke, CPEng, FIEAust. MAusIMM, RPEQ
CEO, M.E.T.T.S. Pty. Ltd.
Consulting Engineers, Resource Management and Infrastructure Development
Gold Coast, QLD, Australia
Email: metts[at]metts.com.au

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September 11th 2001 was probably the first instance of a concerted attack on iconic infrastructure and a civilian population that had members of the engineering profession as primary perpetrators. Those engineers used engineering methods and techniques from project management to achieve their destructive ends.

Recently the key Australian engineering institution, the Institute of Engineers, Australia, has produced a report on securing critical built infrastructure. This report although very useful and thorough, does not take into account the threat to the environment from terrorism, or the use of the environment as a terrorist weapon.


Cause driven terrorism is not new. Terrorist acts were carried out by those involved in such causes and organisations as, anarchism, syndicalism, International Workers of the World (IWW), the Women's' Suffrage Movement, and Zionism. The study of countering terrorism however has been given impetus following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York. The study has taken many paths. These include looking at: the sociology/ psychology of the terrorist or terrorist group, the understanding of underlying themes of terrorist organisations, the use of risk management techniques to identify targets that may be of interest to terrorists, the design of security infrastructure (barriers) to counter or ward off terrorism, the consideration of how the built infrastructure/ environment may be strengthened to mitigate the effects of terrorism and recovery strategies following terrorism.

In the case on September 11, the terrorist attack was on an icon of the built environment in a city that is in itself an icon to a way of life. Terrorism can also effect the natural environment. It can attack the environment directly, indirectly or use the environment as a weapon. The result of an attack may be temporary or permanent alterations to the natural environment and changes to human society that is part of the environment.

Terrorism: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Terrorism can be defined as, a criminal act that has planning, the use of a technology and a socio/political cause, and is designed to foster fear and dread outside the immediate impact area. Terrorism is a tool to create terror in some population. It creates a very human response that may include: fear, dread, hate, disorientation, confusion, disillusionment and finally apathy. It may also inspire in part of the population the desire and resolve for: counter action, retribution and restitution. It may be designed to create a cycle of hatred that will be self-perpetuating and will mimic the continual improvement concept of total quality management and human betterment with continual destruction and human degradation.

When terrorism is most effective it will cause: dislocation of infrastructure, the non-productive use of resources and infrastructure, economic and market distress (often lasting far after all physical damage has been repaired), strategic dislocation (from the reassigning of resources and the disorientation of government and business) and operational disorientation (for example the loss of focus on a national, corporate or organisational goal).

Technology, Engineering and Terrorism.

The events of 11th September 2001 showed how terrorism did use technology and project management to achieve a very serious outcome. The fact that some of the perpetrators of that attack were engineers, or other technocrats, (Engineers Australia, 2003, 14/15) shows how an understanding of technology, project management and the psychology of fear and dread can be used together to create a continuing market instability, and in the case of the airline and tourism industries, on-going disruption and losses.

That engineers partake in terrorism action should not be surprising. In the definition of terrorism provided above, the combination of a technology, project planning and a socio/political cause includes two key areas in which engineers excel. Engineers that come from societies that are in themselves under threat from internal and external influences, and where alternate (and legal) means of expression are either banned or methodically suppressed will have the third terrorism necessity, a socio/political cause, and will be recruited by (or be found offering their services to) terrorist organisations.

With the third essential requirement for terrorism being a socio/political cause, university education in a radicalised part of the World and/or amongst radical students will expose engineering students to the realities of inequality, corruption and governmental ineptitude. In societies where engineering attracts students with superior abilities (and in many cases strong financial resources), the combination of cause, technological ability, and management training will make a serious combination, as is (was) the case with the engineer, Osama Bin Laden.

Engineers with their understanding of technology, risk management and project management will be a serious threat, since they will be looking to analytically and efficiently use the reverse of what an engineer is trained to do (that being to change the physical world to the betterment of mankind) to destroy what has been created. In particularly they will use risk management tools, such as consequence analysis to select targets, plan their projects and maximise the physical and psychological harm of their actions.

The countering of the attractiveness of terrorism to disillusioned and angry engineers will be awkward. The use of risk management tools to try and identify possible extremists amongst the ranks of engineers seeking entry into a country or region, or who are undergoing some other security or skills check, may be of some use. The Risk Management (RM) tools that would be used would include an analysis of: the country (and ethnicity) of origin, the university and educational majors, current employment and work history, political and social orientation, an age/sex profile and resources used to migrate and/or travel and reside in new destinations. The tools may identify some potential or actual terrorists but a high correlation of results obtained from using such tools and a significant reduction in the terrorist threat appears unlikely and would be very difficult to verify.

The Response of the Engineering Profession to Terrorism.

In February 2003, The Institution of Engineers, Australia (IEAust. 2003), announced its response to global events that have drastically changed Australia's security environment by initiating a project called "Engineering a Safer Australia" (Engineers Australia, 2003). The project consists of:

· A Policy Report: Maximising the contribution of engineering to national security Report:(June 2003),

·An Engineering practice guideline: Secure infrastructure & built environment engineering design: (June 2003) and

·A Homeland Security Edition of the Multi-Disciplinary Transactions: (October 2003).

From a detailed study of the Policy Report, the immediate theme is to provide guidance on securing critical (built) infrastructure. The report begins with definitions of critical infrastructure and the challenges to it, and then goes onto examine: should be the response of the Australian Government, the required response from industry and professional bodies, and the ethical and professional responsibilities of engineers who are concerned with securing infrastructure.

There are also occasions for specific branches of the engineering profession to respond to terrorism. A paper delivered at the Asia Pacific Confederation of Chemical Engineers (Viswanath, 2002) discussed the response of the chemical engineering profession in the United States to the terrorist threat, with specific reference to weapons of mass destruction. Another area of specific interest in counter terrorism is the question of aircraft engineering and the terrorist threat. The securing of access to flight-decks, and improved detection devices at airports have been to examples of the use of engineering to prevent another September 11.

On Friday 23rd May, 2003, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, announced, in a news cast carried by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC 2003), that there would be formed a new division in his department to oversee defence, security, intelligence and border protection. The division would be less than a Department of Homeland Security (eg the USA approach). Further, in March the National Counter-Terrorism Committee, a committee made up of representatives of the Australian security services, was promulgated to 'undertake the nationally accepted roles, responsibilities and definitions of critical infrastructure'. The Government has gone on to create a National Infrastructure Advisory Council, on which engineers and other technocrats will have seats, and thus be able to have an 'engineering input' into security and counter terrorism measures.

The above activities of the Australian Federal Government point to a strong move towards developing a national/Federal response to the 'chronic' terrorism threat, with considerable emphasis on securing critical infrastructure. This new venture into Federal involvement in security comes in the light of the Bali bombings with references made by PM in his announcements of departmental changes to those bombings. The Bali incident obviously having a major impact on the Government and its response to the 'acute' terrorist threat.

The IEAust (and its individual members) is and should offer its assistance to the Australian Federal Government in its efforts to counter terrorism. The Institution should however be aware that a knee-jerk reaction only lasts for as long as the press is interested and politicians are feeling the heat of public opinion, and that an on-going measured response is required in the long-term.

As the fear and dread of terrorism become less 'acute' and more 'chronic' the response of engineers will go from seeking immediate solutions to infrastructure protection to a measured cost to benefit analysis of terrorism counter measures, as is practiced in risk management applied other hazards. That measured response should include an element of preserving human capital, in that if terrorism acts do occur, then the minimisation of human loss should be a priority.

Planning for the preserving of human life (capital) is part of emergency management. The use of consequence analysis to identify hazards subsequent to an initial event, and then put in place secondary loss prevention plus response and recovery strategies, is well understood and is part of emergency management. The planning involved in emergency management should take into account the possibility of terrorism, vandalism and other criminal activity as well as natural and other man-made hazards.

The Institution of Engineer's Code of Ethics states 'that the primary responsibility of engineers is to the community.' Specifically, its first tenet is that, 'members shall at all times place their responsibility for the welfare, health and safety of the community before their responsibility to sectional or private interests, or to other members'. By that very basic tenet, engineers should not participate in terrorism, and further should actively assist in countering terrorism.

A corollary to this tenet is that they should also participate in informing the community of risks. Given that weaknesses in infrastructure (in terms of the terrorist risk) will often be readily apparent to engineers, then the question is, should engineers actively inform the community of those risks even at the chance of causing community anguish or panic? Questions of the appropriateness and timing of whistle-blowing could be raised here.

The Place of the Terrorism Threat in Organisational Risk Management.

In 2000, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO 2000) produced the Business Continuity Management Guide, see Figure Risk Classification Framework. The guide categorised risks under two main groupings, these being External and Internal. In 2003, the Institution of Engineers Australia requested submissions for their SafeAustralia programme. In their draft report they utilised the ANAO's categorisation of risks, and placed the terrorist risk firmly in the External/Technological category. On reflection, terrorism should be placed in each sub-category of external and internal risk. The reasoning for the inclusion of terrorism all categories outside the strict technological risk focus, goes back to the very nature of terrorism and its differentiation from other criminal activities. Terrorism can be found both outside an organisation and within, and in both cases it can affect the working of that organisation.

In the figure below, threats may arise from both external sources and internally. These threats may include terrorism, with the internal terrorism coming for staff or management who have an agenda originating outside that of the organisation.

In the small table below, extracted from Table of Risks, (Engineers Australia, 2003, No. 9) there is the representation of how terrorism fits into the taxonomy of risks in the narrow technological sense.

Table: Extract of External Risks (Engineers Australia, 2003, No. 9)

External risks to an organisation Technological, eg Telecommunications failure; computer and systems hacking; explosion; marine pollution; hazardous substance incidents; food / water supply contamination; vandalism; and terrorism.

In the broader sense, the Figure represents how terrorism can effect or be part all parts of an organisation. (NB. To examine the full range of terrorist risk threats in terms of the figure would require the development of a Lexicon of Terrorism.) Some terrorist threats and risks in the order provided in the above Figure are:


  • Threats and actions against key personnel

  • Actions against law enforcement bodies


  • The use of bushfire (wildfire) as a terrorist weapon

  • The release of exotic pests and diseases

  • Acts against natural levees and watercourses


  • Corporate terrorism

  • State terrorism (as purposeful market disruption of another state)


  • Maritime terrorist actions

  • The use of aircraft in suicide terrorist attacks

  • The use of aircraft to spread bio-aerosols


  • The reassigning of resources to non-productive activities (eg
security and excessive over-engineering of infrastructure to lessen
vulnerability to terrorist attack )


  • The loss of focus by key personnel on a corporate or organisation goal

  • The use of resources to non-productive activities (eg security)

  • Excessive government regulation that causes public resentment

That the Institution of Engineers, Australia, is placing emphasis on the external/technological aspects of terrorism is understandable, since engineers are technocrats who understand plant, structures and systems. They can also (and should appreciate) the human aspect of terrorism and counter terrorism. Although Risk Analysis (RA) is at best a 'sloppy science', and Risk Management (RM) by its very nature requires the understanding of such factors as Human Reliability Analysis, Human Error Response and Human Reliability Quantification, engineers use RA and RM. The use and adaptation (Clarke, 2003) of these tools is part of the training of many engineers and hence should be included in the IEAust's response to the questions of how engineers can be involved in countering terrorism.

In an editorial in US Journal, 'The Bridge' 1998, George Bugliarello examines the Engineering response to terrorism. He states that engineers can put terrorism into perspective. He advocates that engineers assist in avoiding over-reaction, and that engineers should help in placing the terrorist threat in context in terms of other threats such as natural hazards and accidents at home and on the highways. Bugliarello goes on to recommend that engineers have a place in counter-terrorism in detecting threats and in the improvement in the design of structures. He further goes onto to recommend that the detection methods (sensors) and infrastructure design improvements be part of the general move to improve safety from all threats, and that the public be encouraged to 'intelligently assess issues of cost versus risk'.

The Ever Expanding Terrorist Threat

A recently recognised threat to infrastructure, and the built and natural environments is from maritime terrorism. Direct threats, such as the suicide attack on the USS Cole (Oct. 2000) are spectacular, but probably not of global importance. The use of a ship as the vector in a terrorist attack, where the ship is the weapon of mass destruction (WMD) is quite possible if not likely. Such a possibility has been recognised by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO 1, 2003), the US Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 ("Act, 2002") and in International Code for the Security of Ships and Port Facilities. Existing ships must comply with this requirement by the first scheduled dry-docking after July 1, 2004, and 'newbuilds' by July 1, 2004 (IMO 2, 2003).

The terrorist threat from the use of shipping as a WMD is great. The weapon could take many forms, including nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological. It could be delivered with relative ease (and security to the perpetrators) to many parts of the World, including inland cities and industrial complexes by waterways, canals and rivers. It could destroy cities, industrial complexes and seriously damage the environment by destroying ecology and habitat.

The accidental cyanide spill at Baia Mare gold re-treatment plant in Romania, January 2000, where the cyanide contaminant travelled via tributaries into the rivers Somes, Tisza and finally into the Danube before reaching the Black Sea (UNEP 2000) showed how the ecology of a vast stretch of a river system was seriously damaged by the release of a toxin. Such a poisoning could be perpetrated by terrorists by destroying a cyanide delivery barge on any one of numerous river systems that are transport links to the gold mining industry.

A ship or a ship container is the most likely (albeit highly improbable in any specific location) delivery system for a (sub-national) terrorist nuclear weapon, given that such a weapon would be cumbersome and large (from using non-weapons grade fissile material or weapons grade material that had been degraded/contaminated with time). It would need a considerable amount of conventional explosive for detonation (greater than that used for the Nagasaki bomb), a large tamper, and be of a size and weight that would require a small ship, of say a few thousand tonnes for delivery, containment and self destruction. The 'bomb' could be a fizzer as a nuclear weapon (i.e. not achieving a completely sustainable chain-reaction), but would be a sizeable radiological weapon in any case. It would create great terror in the communities immediately affected, and in the World at large.

Engineering and Maritime Counter-Terrorism.

The IMO has recognised the threat of a maritime terrorist attack, and has utilised engineering solutions to counter it. These include the compulsory inclusion of a ship identification beacon on all shipping, the use of satellite tracking, port to ship monitoring systems and the use of electronic data management for manifest, destination and port of origin checking. This is a good example of putting in place engineering (technological) barriers and systems to counter a terrorist threat.

For Australia, with respect to in-bound shipping, what would be needed to put the IMO's shipping security project into place would be an efficient and very extensive Coastguard. That service would need to approach, challenge, board and check any ship, at a safe distance from shore, that is detected either not having a beacon, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time as determined through the interception of the beacon signal and after reference to itineraries and manifests. The implication for Australia, with its very extensive and sparsely populated coastline, would be a very costly redirection of more resources into security. Engineers involved in shipping, ports, defence and communications would be needed in significant numbers for this project good for engineers but not necessarily good for the community.

The difficulties and costs to Australia in complying with the new IMO edicts for out-bound shipping to the US have recently been discussed in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 3, 2003. The present challenge is to meet the July 2004 deadline for 'to meet stringent new security arrangements for ports and container shipping. After that, vessels sailing from ports, that have not complied with the new code may be liable to be turned away from United States ports'.
On a world-wide basis the IMO's initiative will however offer good security against the collective threat of maritime terrorism in time. As the provisions for ship monitoring come into effect and given the ever growing capacity for computer aided data analysis, the movements of suspect vessels would become more obvious and thus interdiction of sea-going terrorists become more likely.

(Of note is that President Jacques Chirac has indicated in an article by Philip Webster, Charles Bremmer and Roland Wilson, of Evian Agencies in The Australian, Tuesday, June 3, 2003 that France does not like the idea of the US having the right to police the World's shipping lanes and seize suspicious vessels at will. In this case the engineering may be appropriate but the politics of national sovereignty needs to be worked on!)

Terrorism and the Environment

Terrorists can use the environment in delivering and developing a terrorist threat. Three examples mentioned previously were: the use of bushfire as a terrorist tool, the release of exotic pests and diseases, and releasing the stored energy of a river system following attacks against natural levees and watercourses.

The bushfire (wildfire) threat can apply to many parts of the world. In recent times bushfires have ravished parts of Australia, the Western parts of the United States and Southern France. The bushfire/ wildfire threat is a threat to, human life, the economy and the environment (flora, fauna, the atmosphere and water). Economic terrorism through the use of wildfire could include the loss of: plantation and old growth timber, cereal crops, national icons (eg national parks of California and Oregon ) and areas of tourist interest. The effects of environmental terrorism using wildfire could include: the loss of biodiversity in the areas burnt, soil erosion enhancement, the loss of water quality in creeks and rivers by contamination from ash and partially burnt material and the destruction of environmental amenity.

The introduction and spread of exotic diseases and pests to unaffected flora and fauna is a major threat that could be used by terrorists. This form of terrorism could be employed by foreign national agencies as an extreme form on economic terrorism. The release of a plant virus, such as the wheat streak mosaic virus, could be used by one nation (that has the virus in its cereal crops) to counter the competitive advantage of another nation that does not have the virus. The threat of the purposeful release of foot and mouth disease in the feral pig populations of Australia and New Zealand would have wide and serious economic consequences, with the collapse of meat and livestock exports to most developed countries being a certainty.

Australia has either by accident or by design imported exotic pests that have caused or have the potential to cause great environmental damage. Three specific pests of interest have been/are: prickly pear (imported by the First Fleet, 1788), cane toads (1935) and S. American fire-ants (late 1990s). There are still many pests waiting for a chance to enter Australia or New Zealand, and what better way than in the pocket of an economic terrorist (they would be undetectable by airport scanners!).

Attacks on natural and man-made levees have occurred in the past. The Nationalist Chinese Army blew the levees on the Yellow River to prevent the Japanese advance in 1938 (Gleik, 2000). During periods of flooding many levees become sodden and are often close to being topped. In this situation only a small charge of conventional explosive would be required for starting a levee rupture that could have very serious economic and environmental effects. In times of high rainfall many towns in United States, Europe and Australia could be under threat from a terrorist attack on town levees and dykes.

Terrorist attacks using natural hazards will take patience, knowledge and planning to succeed, as did the attacks on the built environment of the World Trade Centre. A terrorist cell would need to monitor the natural environment to know when and where to light a fire, release a pest or dynamite a levee. The reward to the terrorist is that their attacks using natural hazards could produce more widespread and devastating results than attacks on urban and industrial infrastructure. (NB: The use of wildfire as a weapon of war was attempted by the Japanese in World War II. They launched over 9,000 'fire-balloons' against the United States and Canada (Canadian War Museum). The results were not spectacular; a death toll of six with few fires. Unfortunately (for the Japanese) the best wind conditions for balloon carriage only existed in the winter months when forests were too wet to burn or snow covered.


Engineers have a role in countering terrorism. Their knowledge and skills in carrying out Risk Assessments and in applying Risk Management to countering the terrorism threat will be valuable. They will be able to advise on security orientated infrastructure projects, as well as devising physical barriers to ward off terrorism from infrastructure in some cases. For threats to the environment they will be able to devise prevention, control and recovery strategies for many terrorist incidents.

As the immediate fear and loathing of terrorism becomes blunted for the great majority of the community, engineers will have a role in providing wise counsel to the community on how to live with terrorism and the terrorist threat. They will be able to provide good and honest advice on how to avoid, minimise and recover from terrorism. They will also have a role in putting the terrorist threat into perspective and help ensure that resources are not wasted on chasing phantoms.

Lastly in a recent class exercise presented to budding final-year environmental engineering students, the security of the great Australian icon, The Sydney Opera House, was raised. The consensus for providing near total security for the structure took the following form:

  • Remove the concrete sails and use the crushed concrete and recovered reinforcing bar to provide a thick shield over the forecourt and theatres,

  • Paint the newly created shield in camouflage paint, and plant a few gum trees in flowerbeds on the top for environmental amenity,

  • Install new exits facing the adjacent unattractive rockface,

  • Ban all ferries, ships and dinghies from coming within fifty metres (on pain of being obliterated by constantly manned hidden machineguns and guided missiles just like the US White House and its anti-aircraft measures),

  • Provide for multiple levels of security on the doors (including full body searches) and

  • Rename the structure, the Sydney Opera Bunker.

May we counter terrorism with planning, common sense and technology, without having to live, work and play in a bunker.


ABC 2003. Television Interview with the Prime Minister of Australia, Hon. John Howard. Kim Landers, Stateline, ABC, May 23.

Act 2003. US Maritime Law Changes, republished by Lloyds. http://www.lr.org/market_sector/marine/maritime-security

Bugliarello, George, 1998. The Bridge. 28, 3.

Business Continuity Management Guide, The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), 2000 http://www.anao.gov.au/WebSite.nsf/Publications/4A256AE90015F69B4A2568EE0010062B

Canadian War Museum. The Japanese Fire Balloons, Accessed June 2003. http://www.friends-amis.org/fact20.html

Clarke, Michael C, 2003. Terrorism: methods and motivations, lessons for the future. Terrorism and Political Violence, In Press.

Engineers Australia (The Institution of Engineers, Australia). 2003. Engineering a Safer Australia: Securing Critical Infrastructure and the Built Environment.

IMO 1, 2003 International Code for the Security of Ships and Port Facilities -ISPS CODE (Part), republished by Lloyds. http://www.lr.org/market_sector/marine/maritime-security/index.htm

IMO 2, 2003 IMO adopts new maritime security requirements, Statutory Alert. Lloyd's Register, Classification News, No. 4, February 24, 2003. http://www.lr.org/market_sector/marine/maritime-security

Institution of Engineers, Australia. May 2003. http://www.ieaust.org.au/SafeAustralia/report.html

Gleik, P. H 2000. The World's Water Water Conflict Chronology. Accessed June 2003. http://www.worldwater.org/conflict.htm

UNEP / Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, Spill of liquid and suspended waste at the Aurul s.a. re-treatment plant in Baia Mare. United Nations Environment Programme, Assessment Mission to Romania, Hungary, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
23 February - 6 March 2000

Viswanath D. S. et al. Role of Chemical Engineering in Counter Terrorism, Paper # 174, 9th APCChE Congress and CHEMECA 2002, 29 September-3 October 2002, Christchurch, NZ

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