- - Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Three vitally important lessons are immediately apparent in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks:

First, the Islamic State, or ISIS, is planning more attacks against Europe and also the United States. ISIS-affiliated websites threaten that Washington, London and Rome will be attacked next and that their preference is “to taste American blood.”

Second, ISIS is adept at waging asymmetric warfare. Their goal is to leverage their limited resources and get the “biggest bang for the buck” by spectacular acts of terror that will psychologically demoralize the civilized world. The victims of Paris are not only the 129 killed and 352 injured, but millions worldwide who were witnesses through mass media.

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Third, the combined intelligence resources of the United States and Europe, and police and security forces even when on heightened alert as they were in Paris, cannot prevent every act of spectacular terrorism. ISIS, al Qaeda or other terrorist groups will, sooner or later, achieve another surprise attack.

Therefore, one of the most important parts of U.S. counterterrorism strategy must be to anticipate and protect our nation’s greatest vulnerabilities in order to defeat terrorism’s strategy of asymmetric warfare.

For example, the United States gives high priority to preventing proliferation of nuclear materials because terrorists armed with a nuclear weapon, detonated in New York or Washington, could kill several hundred thousand people — a spectacular asymmetric threat.

However, the Department of Homeland Security has neglected to protect the United States from an even graver threat posed by the vulnerability of the national electric grid.

America is an electronic civilization. Electricity sustains the economy and the lives of more than 300 million people. A terror attack that collapses the electric grid would black out all the life-sustaining critical infrastructures — communications, transportation, business and finance, food and water — in effect, hitting the “off switch” for the entire nation.

No less than two congressional commissions, the EMP Commission (2008) and the Strategic Posture Commission (2009), and numerous independent studies, including the recent books “Lights Out” and “Blackout Wars,” warn that an attack on the grid that causes a protracted blackout could kill millions. It would be the ultimate asymmetric threat.

Terrorists armed with rifles could cause a protracted blackout of the North American electric grid. According to a study by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a terror attack on just nine key transformer substations could black out the nation for 18 months.

Terrorists already know about and have exploited grid vulnerability in attacks on other nations.

The Knights Templars drug cartel used explosives to temporarily black out Michoacan in Mexico, plunging 420,000 people into the dark so they could execute local leaders opposed to the drug trade on Oct. 27, 2013. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula temporarily blacked out the entire nation of Yemen, 16 cities and 27 million people, on June 9, 2014. Terrorists blacked out most of Pakistan — a nuclear weapons state — on Jan. 25.

Terrorists might be able to black out the grid with cyberattacks. Turkey experienced a highly disruptive temporary blackout, reportedly from an Iranian cyberattack, on March 31.

The worst threat to the grid would be from a high-altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which would cause the most widespread and deepest damage to the critical infrastructures. The EMP Commission warned that terrorists armed with a single primitive nuclear weapon and short-range missile, or even a high-lift balloon, could inflict an EMP catastrophe.

North Korea apparently practiced a nuclear EMP attack in April 2013, orbiting its KSM-3 satellite on the optimum trajectory and altitude to evade U.S. national missile defenses and place an EMP field (if the satellite were a nuclear warhead) over the 48 contiguous United States. The KSM-3 still passes over the United States every few days.

The good news is that the grid can be protected against even the worst threat, nuclear EMP attack, for about $2 billion — and this would mitigate all the lesser threats, including from sabotage, cyberwarfare and severe weather.

Awaiting passage in the House is the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (H.R. 1073), a bill to protect the electric grid, sponsored by Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has introduced a similar bill (S. 1846).

In the aftermath of Paris, isn’t it time to protect the grid?

Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and served in the Congressional EMP Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA.

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