Imagine you are working in a building, perhaps in a bank or other facility with extensive phone, data, and network connections. It is a normal business day, with no indications of any threat or danger having been announced. Suddenly, just before lunch, a low “whomp” is heard, and a small shudder goes through the building. Instantly, everything in the building powered by electricity turns off. The backup power systems fail to activate, security systems go offline, and even smartphones go dark. However, nobody in the building has been harmed in any way, though everyone is now scared, and asking the same question, “What just happened to us?”
The answer might well be an Improvised Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Device (IEMPD).
EMP, which first was noticed in the testing of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, has the ability to disrupt or destroy electronic systems and circuitry. By 1962, both the U.S. (Starfish Prime) and Soviet Union (the “K” Project) had performed high-altitude thermonuclear tests, proving not only that EMP was a genuine threat to modern electronics, but that it could also be weaponized.
During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union developed both nuclear EMP weapons and non-nuclear high-power microwave (HPM) systems to use against enemy command and control systems. These weapons were designed to damage or destroy semiconductor components, which are found in all computerized equipment and devices that use radio waves. As technology becomes more sophisticated, militaries and states become more vulnerable to EMP attacks. States have therefore started showing increased interest in the development of EMP weapons for operational and tactical uses in modern warfare.
EMP weapons are also becoming more attractive because of their non-lethal nature. Inflicting casualties is becoming increasingly unpopular amongst the public worldwide, which increases the political costs of military action for national governments. Fatalities can be greatly reduced in certain kinds of military strikes, since EMP weapons give a military force the ability to neutralize the enemy’s weapon systems, communications, and command and control.
Discussions on EMP weapons tend to emphasize state-run programs and how nations can use them to their advantage, whereas little to no emphasis is placed on how non-state (terrorist, criminal, etc.) actors can acquire and use them. In the popular feature film Ocean’s Eleven, a team of thieves use an EMP device deployed in a van to shut off all electrical power to Las Vegas. Naturally the film’s scenario is unrealistic, since such a small device would never be able to shut down an entire city. However, it could destroy or damage electronic devices in a building. In addition, contrary to the film, the power would never be back on in 30 seconds with all electronic devices undamaged. It would take much longer to restore all devices to normal, because many, if not most, electronic devices would have to be replaced. However, had the characters set the device off outside the target casino, “frying” all electronics within the device’s radius, the scene would have reflected a realistic scenario in which non-state actors use an IEMPD.
Why would non-state actors be interested in using EMPs? First, because everything from major infrastructure to household appliances runs on systems that are dependent on semiconductor components, making virtually everyone in a developed society vulnerable to EMP attacks. Second, terrorist organizations, especially domestic groups, are trying to gain support for their cause in an environment where causing deaths and injuries is increasingly unpopular. This means that causing mass casualties often backfires, causing a loss of public support for the movement rather than increasing support. And while groups like Al Qaeda aim to cause as many Western deaths as possible, that particular organization might still go after stock markets using EMP and/or cyber attacks.
Finally, it is possible to link “electromagnetic energy” terrorism (or EME terrorism) to cyberterrorism, since cyberterrorism aims to “(1) disrupt equipment and hardware reliability, (2) change processing logic, or (3) steal or corrupt data.” Using EMP weapons could be a “step up” in disrupting equipment and hardware reliability if malicious code or bot networks (also called botnets), are not effective. Some argue that cyberterrorism attacks are unlikely to cause as much disruption, panic, and damage as using explosives or chemical or biological weapons. They argue that recovery from a cyber attack would not take a significant amount of time and that is why terrorists have not conducted a cyberterrorism attack (that has been publically revealed) so far (although such an attack might have gone unnoticed.)
Operationally, a combination of cyber and EMP attacks could be used to overcome that problem and to attack multiple sites simultaneously. For example, an IEMPD weapon could be set off in two or more airports (e.g. John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.) and moments afterwards cyber attacks carried out on the air traffic control systems at nearby airports. Such an attack would cause major disruptions and even serious accidents when the airports that were not attacked on the East Coast had to deal with the added load of having to reroute air traffic to and from the attacked airports.
Non-state actors are becoming savvier in using technology to conduct business. It is therefore very important not to underestimate the possibility of EMP terrorism. Another real concern is the potential use of IEMPDs by organized criminal concerns, and even in industrial espionage/sabotage operations. To presume that the electromagnetic spectrum is the province of only military or terrorist forces is not only naive, but also potentially deadly.