Ten Years Later

"Then the second wave of al-Qaeda attacks hit America." A leading expert on counterterrorism imagines the future history of the war on terror. A frightening picture of a country still at war in 2011

By dawn on the third day of the coup the surviving members of the House of Saud had fled or were in prison, the oil fields were in the hands of troops loyal to the ruling clerics, and all foreigners were being rounded up and escorted to the airports or the borders. Iraq was the first country to acknowledge the new government. Other Gulf states soon followed.

Had the United States welcomed the new government, which we now know as Islamiyah, the effect on the world oil market might have been different. Instead we cut off the flow of spare parts needed to maintain the billions of dollars' worth of high-tech arms we had sold to the Saudis throughout the 1980s and 1990s; we also withdrew the U.S. contractors who knew how to make the systems work. Naturally, the new regime responded by canceling all oil contracts between U.S. firms and Saudi Arabia's national oil company. The company made up much of what it had lost in dumping the U.S. contracts by signing new long-term deals with China; recent economic growth had raised China's demand for overseas oil to about the level of America's, which had been depressed by economic stagnation.37 The dislocation in the world oil supply was short-lived, but it was a cold winter in the northern United States that year.

The real economic effect of the oil-price increase didn't hit until the last quarter of the year. Still, 2007 ended with U.S. unemployment at 15 percent and GDP down again. The "good news," as the president pointed out in his Christmas message, was that because rail and air travel had been so heavily curtailed, and because fewer people were hanging out at shopping malls, and because many "destination venues" remained closed, Americans were spending more time together as families.

2008: Election Year and Virtual War

Iran's hostile reaction to the U.S. bombing continued into 2008 and made use of Hizbollah allies. (Hizbollah, although composed largely of Palestinians and Lebanese, was created in the 1980s by Iran, which closely controlled it for more than twenty years.) Iran also employed its Qods Force, the covert arm of its Revolutionary Guards. American counterterrorism specialists had always feared Hizbollah and the Qods Force, because their "tradescraft" was so superior to that of other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and its many progeny. Diplomats and military leaders had for years used numerous back channels to keep both groups on the sidelines while we engaged in counterterrorist warfare. Our overt attack on Iran brought their full power to bear on our citizenry, with tragic results.

Working with the remnants of al-Qaeda, the Iranians staged a significant cyberattack in the United States during the 2008 election year. Reliance on cyberspace for retail had, of course, increased significantly after the many mall closings. More important, America had been using cyberspace to control its critical infrastructure since the late 1990s. Electrical-power grids, gas pipelines, train networks, and banking and financial markets all depended on computer-controlled systems connected to the Internet. President Bill Clinton had acknowledged this dependence and vulnerability in a 1998 presidential directive. President Bush had articulated the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace in 2003, but he had done little to implement it.38 Meanwhile, many nations created information-warfare units and did surveillance on U.S. networks.39 Iran was one of those nations.

The cyberattack began with a "Zero Day worm," a piece of self-propagating software that exploited a hitherto unknown vulnerability in a widely used computer operating system.40 The worm bypassed computer firewalls and placed applets on companies' networks. The applets sent back covert messages describing what kind of network they had penetrated. Then, all at once, the worms erased the operating systems on key computers throughout the United States, and in their place installed a program that caused the computers to repeatedly reboot whenever they were turned on. Freight trains stopped. Nuclear-power plants shut down. Banks and brokerage houses froze. In some cities the emergency-call systems crashed; in others traffic lights shut off.41

Then, as cybersecurity teams were attempting to figure out what had happened, a second worm penetrated the operating system of the most widely used routers on U.S. computer networks. Once inside, the worm found the routing tables, called border gateway protocols, that told Internet traffic where to go. It scrambled the tables so that packets were lost in cyberspace. Confused by the traffic errors, many of the routers exceeded their processing capabilities and collapsed.

The stock market closed, as did the commodities markets. Major hospitals canceled all but emergency surgeries and procedures. Three major power grids experienced brownouts. Police and state militia units were ordered into the cities to maintain order and minimize looting. Millions of Americans, now staring at blank computer screens, were sent home from work.

The already reeling economy took another hit. The U.S. software industry was hurt the most. As a result open-source software, which had already spread widely in Europe and Asia, now dominates U.S. servers, routers, and desktops. The "free" software movement badly hurt revenues at several U.S. firms. Intervention by the new Federal Cyber Security Service, through its monitoring of all Internet traffic, has since somewhat reduced the prevalence of worms and viruses. Although some Americans complained about loss of privacy, others noted the benefits, such as a significant reduction in the volume of spam e-mail.

State and local police forces, state militias, Homeland Security Department personnel, and private guards now protected airports, the neighborhoods around them, train stations, the tracks connecting them, shopping malls, and U.S. borders. By the middle of 2008 there were 220,000 more such security officers than there had been in 2000. The armed forces had grown by 215,000 during the same period. Yet these new jobs hardly put a dent in unemployment, which hovered at 16 percent as the election approached.

During the campaign the two major parties had attempted to outdo each other in their anti-terror fervor. The similarity of their hawkish strategies helped give rise to an influential third party, the American Liberty Party, which challenged the Patriot Acts. San Francisco's mayor, a Chinese-American woman, surprised the experts by garnering 12 percent of the popular vote for the presidency on a platform built almost exclusively on shoring up civil liberties. Two new governors were elected on the American Liberty ticket, as were fourteen congressmen, who became a vocal minority in the new Congress.

2009: "Nuke Squads" and the New Draft

The Homeland Protection and Service Act of 2009 could not have been introduced in an election year. It was controversial when the president proposed it, in his 2009 State of the Union address, and, frankly, remains so today. Had he proposed it in 2008, it is likely that the American Liberty Party would have roused even more support than it did. The "new draft," as its opponents have labeled it, is different in important respects from earlier conscriptions in U.S. history. Conscripts are randomly selected and may serve any two consecutive years, as long as their service begins before age twenty-two. Most draftees are given monitoring or first-responder jobs here at home; few are required to go through weapons training. Despite these differences from Vietnam-era conscription, draft dodging and AWOLs have already become such a large problem that the U.S. Marshals have created special squads to hunt down recalcitrants and force them back into service.

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