The List

The World’s Most Bizarre Terror Threats

Underpants may be the least of our worries.


The ploy: Navigate into the center of a city by paraglider and attack crowds from above

This scenario was suggested in the Indian media this week after intelligence experts found that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) -- the Pakistani group believed to have orchestrated the devastating attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people in 2008 -- had purchased 50 paraglider kits for, supposedly, a new attack plan.

The likelihood: Sure, suicide bombers deftly gliding into a crowded city sounds terrifying, but in reality such an attack would be incredibly difficult to pull off. First of all, paragliders must take off from a high point, meaning that an attack would either have to be launched from close hills or buildings (with a strategic location and in perfect weather conditions) or the suicide bombers would have to be towed by a car or boat -- which would be fairly difficult in the middle of a city. Second, paragliders can't just fly in any direction. Your choices of flight direction are typically governed by how the wind is blowing and by nearby obstructions. Finally, they tend to fly quite slowly (at an average of 15 mph for maximum control) and would be further slowed by weighty suicide belts or guns. If a suicide paraglider ever made it close to a crowded area, most people would be able to simply run away and authorities could easily shoot the would-be attacker down.

LeT is a dangerous terrorist organization that should not be underestimated, but unless the group manages to recruit some professional paragliders or Mumbai sprouts some bigger hills, this one should not be given too much weight.


The ploy: Launch a bioterrorist attack using swarms of insects infected with a deadly disease

Entomological warfare has been around for a long time. Our Paleolithic ancestors were known to launch beehives at their enemies, Apaches used to stake prisoners onto anthills, and medieval Europeans would catapult dead bodies coated by infected insects as a siege warfare tactic.

Throughout the 20th century, countries such as the United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union also attempted to build entomological warfare programs, but reports about such programs ever being used successfully are scarce. Still, the idea continues to have potential in the minds of many. Jeffrey Lockwood, professor of entomology and author of Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War told the BBC last year that an insect-based weapon would be easy for a small terrorist cell to develop and that the insects could be transported into a target country in a suitcase.

The likelihood: There are several problems with using insects for bioterrorism. Although insects are easy to breed and transport, infecting them with a biological agent is not only difficult but the attacker runs a high risk of infecting himself in the process. Also, insects can hardly be contained or directed to a certain area, so an attack on a specific target would be difficult. Even if the insects are successfully contained, infestations can usually be controlled through the use of modern pesticides.


The ploy: Fashion a dirty bomb using a radioactive chemical commonly found in smoke detectors, infecting all those in the blast's vicinity with radiation sickness

This one was actually tried by an Islamist terrorist cell led by Indian emigrant Dhiren Barot in London back in 2004 as part of a larger plot to wreak havoc in New York City, Newark, and Britain. Raids following a yearlong covert surveillance operation turned up a suspiciously large supply of smoke detectors in one of the cell's safe houses. Law enforcement agencies believed the group was planning to either harvest a man-made radioactive chemical found in the smoke detectors called Americium-241 and use it to create a dirty bomb or to just blow up a large cache of smoke detectors to have the same effect.

The likelihood: In reality, the plot was pretty laughable. Americium-241, though radioactive, has to be present in large quantities to make anyone sick -- let alone kill them. For example, the group would have had to harvest Americium from 10,000 smoke detectors to cause 500 people to get radiation sickness. Even then, the amount of released radiation would be manageable by authorities and unlikely to cause fatalities. There's a reason there have never been warnings about disposing of your household smoke detectors; even if they are found in large quantities in the landfill, they would have a negligible impact.


The ploy: Use online games and communities like World of Warcraft to plan terrorist attacks

The issue was first raised in a 2008 Pentagon presentation on how terrorists could use virtual worlds -- such as World of Warcraft -- to plan out their next attack by using games as training grounds. Potential terrorists would use in-game jargon as analogies for specific tasks while game maps could be used to describe real locations. The cyberjihadis would practice their plot by creating scenarios with other players. In this way, terrorists would be very difficult to distinguish from normal gamers.

The likelihood: Virtual worlds would be a poor substitute for real-world training, and communicating in these programs isn't fundamentally different from using telephones or email. And terrorists would still need to prepare in real life by scouting locations, buying weapons and equipment, and meeting in person.


The ployInfect the food supply with raw botulinum

The Botox procedures used by many to fight wrinkes are very safe. But they do involve a minuscule amount of toxin called botulinum, a nerve agent, the most poisonous toxin on earth. Until now, procuring dangerous amounts of pure botulinum has always been incredibly expensive. Recently, investigators have discovered that illegal labs in countries such as Russia and China have been producing large quantities of cheap, unregulated botulinum for Botox, which terrorists could easily acquire on the black market. If used effectively, an engineered attack could be devastating.

The likelihood: Botulinum has been around for a while and it is still notoriously difficult to use. First, the bacteria are tricky to convert into a biological weapon because the heat from a missile or bomb quickly degrades the toxin, rendering it harmless. It's also very hard to turn it into aerosol form. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo -- responsible for the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway -- failed completely in an attempt to do so. And an attack through the water supply isn't likely since botulinum is naturally inactivated in fresh water within three to six days.

Still, botulinum is a more realistic threat than the other entries on this list. The most effective attack would be on a country's food supply. Scientists have calculated that 1 gram of botulinum toxin in commercially distributed milk could infect and possibly kill as many as 100,000 people. Luckily, the likelihood of a successful attack can be heavily mitigated through strong regulations and testing by large-scale food distributors -- something that already happens anyway.

DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images; SEYLLOU DIALLO/AFP/Getty Images; Tim Boyle/Getty Images; THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images; Win McNamee/Getty Images

The List

Wrong Address

Five points Obama should -- and won't -- make in his State of the Union address.

Climate Change

The situation: The prospects for getting a cap-and-trade bill aimed at cutting U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases passed through the Senate this year dropped to almost zero with the election of Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts seat. Sen. John Kerry is trying to pull together a bipartisan compromise bill combining cap and trade with expanded domestic oil drilling. But the Senate is more likely to tack clean-energy measures onto a job-creation package. Regardless, it appears unlikely that President Obama will be able to deliver on the emissions pledges he made at December's Copenhagen summit. Plus, a showdown is brewing with the Environmental Protection Agency, which has threatened to impose its own tight emissions regulations if Congress fails to act.

What he won't say: That stopping climate change is a major concern. In a Pew Research Center poll released this week, the U.S. public ranked global warming last out of 28 priorities for the administration. So while you're likely to hear some talk of "green jobs" and "investments in renewable energy" in the State of the Union address, don't expect to hear the phrase "cap and trade." Obama might have the rhetorical gifts to frame the issue as an appeal to national greatness -- keeping the planet's temperature from rising another 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 is a more practical goal than putting a man on the moon in 10 years -- but with larger administration priorities such as health-care reform also in jeopardy, it's doubtful he'll spend much political capital on it.

David McNew/Getty Images

Immigration Reform

The situation: Immigration reform, which the administration quixotically hoped to take up last summer, is another important and likely doomed initiative. Some Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham and John McCain, support changing the United States' unsustainable policies, and a majority of Americans support creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who pay fines and taxes and pass background checks. But immigration reform is a campaign-year bête noire. Few moderate Democrats, particularly in southern and western states, will touch it this year. Under the most optimistic scenario, the White House will take up the issue in late 2010, after the midterm elections -- but there's no guarantee of any bipartisan compromise even then.

What he won't say: That pursuing immigration reform is the right thing to do. If Obama discusses immigration at all, he, like his predecessor, is likely to emphasize "securing our borders." That's understandable, but Obama should also make the point that even the tallest fence won't stop an influx of people seeking economic opportunity. Obama should challenge the logic of those who argue that it makes sense to expel 12 million workers from the country. Finally, Obama should explicitly speak to Hispanic Americans, the country's fastest growing ethnic group and a crucial political bloc in swing states like Florida and Arizona, letting them know the administration hasn't forgotten the priority.

David New/Getty Images

Senate Reform

The situation: On issues ranging from the very big (extending health insurance to 30 million Americans) to the relatively small (confirming ambassadors), the Senate has been the enemy of Obama's agenda in his first year. It has failed to take up the House's cap-and-trade bill. It has left more than 150 key administration appointees unconfirmed. And Republicans and moderates have filibustered more this year than any other, threatening to prevent a vote for more than 70 percent of major bills, a nine-fold increase over the past 40 years. This is not just a story about partisanship in Washington; it also raises deep and troubling questions about whether the United States can still solve its most pressing problems.

What he won't say: That the Senate's obstructionism has become intolerable. The gridlock has risen to excessive heights, with the minority having the ability and incentive to quash every majority-party initiative. Vice President Joe Biden has led a call to analyze and reform Senate rules to stop obstructionism. Obama should second it. Moreover, he should stress that procedural problems in the upper chamber -- many due to tradition, some due to rules -- are a problem for both parties. Reducing the number of votes needed to end a filibuster as debate goes on, as Sen. Tom Harkin has suggested, would be a start. So would courting Republican support for changing Senate rules by promising to make the changes six or eight years from now, when either party might be in power.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trade and Currency Imbalances

The situation: Prominent economic commentators such as Martin Wolf, Luigi Zingales, and Mervyn King have cited global trade and currency imbalances as the tinderbox and the financial crisis as the match; the two together produced the conflagration of the recent global recession. The United States, which borrows tremendous sums from countries like China, fueling overconsumption and debt, lies at the heart of this problem. Many economists believe the underlying factors that led to the crash haven't changed. The U.S. trade deficit accrues billions a week, and the country's debt will reach $13 trillion this year.

What he won't say: That the good times are over. The State of the Union is a chance for Obama to move beyond the short-term debate on his controversial domestic discretionary spending freeze and address larger concerns. At some point, the United States does need to stop taking on debt, encourage Americans to save, and further pressure the Chinese to let the yuan rise. Time for some tough love.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

A Shifting War on Terror

The situation: In 2009, focus shifted from the traditional fronts on the war on terror -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- to emerging threats like Yemen, with the rise of piracy in its coastal waters, increased murder and kidnapping of foreigners in the country, the failed terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 by the Christmas Day "pants bomber," and the northern insurgency all commanding public attention. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen and headed by a former Guantánamo detainee, came onto the U.S. radar screen; the United States revealed it has been helping the Yemeni government strike al Qaeda targets for the past year.

And Yemen wasn't all. Across the Gulf of Aden, Somalia, with the government failing and violence spreading, became a major concern to U.S. counterterrorism and security experts as well. The two countries, along with weak states like Nigeria, became a new source of worry for counterterrorism officials who increasingly view them as epicenters of terrorism, instability, and poverty.

What he won't say: That it's not time to panic. Yes, these countries and other unstable states pose serious security and diplomacy questions for the United States. And yes, Obama should make the point that weak countries like Somalia and Yemen can often pose larger and more difficult security challenges than traditionally hostile regimes like North Korea or Iran. But no, there is no need to put boots on the ground or to become bellicose. Obama should stress in his speech that the United States needs smart, long-term strategies -- including much-maligned "law enforcement approaches" -- to combat terrorism and bolster these countries before crises occur rather than panicking when they finally erupt.