Re: Nanotech Restrictions (was: RE: Transparency Debate)

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Tue Apr 25 2000 - 07:25:02 MDT

On Wed, Apr 05, 2000 at 12:20:22PM -0700, Zero Powers wrote:
> >What about terrorists, mail bombers, and general nutcases? Retaliation
> >isn't a big issue for them - they already face death if caught, and it is
> >hard to imagine a bigger manhunt than the ones they already trigger with
> >spectacular conventional attacks.
> Right. Which leads me to believe that your average terrorists, mail
> bombers, and general nutcases do not have access to this technology.
> Otherwise they'd use it.

'Fraid I disagree. Case in point: the history of Northern Irish republican
groups prior to the current (rather tenuous, but prolonged) cease-fire.

In 1991-94, the Provisional IRA demonstrated that if it wanted to it
could inflict massive economic damage on the British mainland. A single
active service unit (four committed guerillas) took out a bridge at the
interesection of the M1 motorway and the North Circular, causing massive
traffic disruption in London. They then went on and critically damaged
an office block in the City. Combined effect of these explosions was a
repair bill in excess of UKP 1Bn (about $1.5Bn). In a related train of
incidents they distributed cigarrette-sized incendiary bombs, stuffed
into cracks in the seats of tube and commuter trains. Using code-words
and phoned messages they amplified the impact of this campaign so that
there were 10 false alarms for each actual incident. (Even living outside
London and not using the tube for commuting, I got caught in about three
evacuations during the 18-month period of that campaign.)

Note that these are _conventional_ terrorists with _conventional_ weapons
(i.e. home-made bombs).

Now for the scary bit: virtually nobody was killed or injured in that
campaign. But the pIRA have traditionally been pretty trigger-happy and
willing to shed blood. My analysis is that if they had WANTED to they
could have killed tens of thousands of people. Certainly, the US World
Trade Centre bombing -- although amateurish and botched -- was an attempt
to do just that; if they'd brought down the towers, the death toll would
have been as high as or higher than a suitcase A-bomb. The pIRA were at
least as skilled as that bunch; if they'd decided to take out Canary
Wharf, the death toll would have been in the 20,000-60,000 range. And
I'm fairly certain they could have done it. (Once you pack enough people
into a small enough area, you don't _need_ weapons of mass destruction;
that's why a single loony with a revolver can kill 200 people -- _if_
they're on board an airliner in flight, and the loony doesn't mind dying
in the process. As has happened ...)

The REASON the pIRA stuck to bombs, M-16's, and cordless drills applied
to kneecaps, is that causing megadeath would have been a major own goal.
Their political goal was small-scale -- intimidate the fuck out of the
Unionists (to the point of causing a Kosovo-style exodus, if possible),
bludgeon the British government into reinstituting local rule on terms
favourable to them, and ultimately achieving union with the South
(which wanted union with the North like it wanted a hole in the head --
"what the hell will we do with Ian Paisley?").

These were concrete political goals, and in principle achievable --
but only IF the pIRA could convince people that (despite the thing about
kneecaps and protestants) the pIRA had a program, and giving in on some
key points would get them to hang up the Armalites.

Going mad-dog bull-goose crazy and nuking London would _not_ convince
anyone (let alone the hard-core Unionists) that the pIRA should be
negotiated with. Demonstrating the _capability_ to nuke London, then
pointedly saying "but we aren't going to do that -- now let's negotiate",
is another matter.

Now, despite the political spin and what you read in the newspapers, most
so-called terrorists _do_ have a rational framework, however misguided their
starting assumptions may be. Most of them aren't in all-out war with the
powers that be; they want to obtain concessions, and it's a lot easier
to obtain concessions by showing the stick, and demanding to negotiate,
than by using the stick (which tends to induce an understandable desire
for immediate retalliation on the part of those on the receiving end of it).

There are exceptions, of course. The INLA splintered off the pIRA in
the early 1970's. They didn't get much funding from NORAID, so they
decided to supplement their income by selling hard drugs. The pIRA had
effectively driven the RUC (the police) out of large chunks of Belfast,
and therefore ended up administering their own brand of vigilante
justice; the resulting gang wars coincided with the bloodiest period of
the Troubles and ended with the INLA being effectively wiped out. By the
end, the INLA (originally the Maoist wing of the pIRA) had turned into
just another drugs gang -- with heavy weapons and a sideline in terrorism.

Then there are those whose rational frameworks _look_ crazy from the
outside. Bin Laden's is based on (a) a fundamentalist interpretation of
Islam, and (b) a very paranoid conspiracy world-view in which the USA is
actively oppressing the Islamic world and intends to impose Christianity
onit -- he's still thinking in terms of the Crusades, and given the way
_every_ US politician I've ever seen uses religious rhetoric these days,
I can't blame him for that. Someone who adopts this world-view isn't nuts
if they carry out a suicide bombing; they're just uploading themselves
into paradise.

Or take the Aum Shinriko sect. (Immanetising the Eschaton -- with sarin.)
_If_ you buy their religious axioms, what they do makes perfect sense
(after a fashion). And those guys _would_ have used nukes if they could
gotten their hands on them.

Summary: before you can predict whether terrorists will use nano, you
need to step outside your preconceptions and work out what motivates
the terrorists (who, from their own perspective, may have good reasons
for _not_ using nano).

-- Charlie

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