An article, "The Outlaw," in the May 16, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, about the late, unlamented Osama bin Laden, got my attention with one sentence. Author Steve Coll wrote: "In the September 11th conspiracy, through Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, [Osama] used satellite telephones and e-mail to plan an attack in which [Al Qaeda] converted hijacked airliners into cruise missiles, without ever purchasing a weapon more sophisticated than a box cutter."
Americans dream of complicated plots. After 9/11 Hollywood was invited to give the government scenarios of how future terrorist acts might happen. But even without Hollywood screen writers to give them ideas, the bin Laden bunch came up with its own plots, and with them some low cost methods. Sure, Al Qaeda had to finance the hijackers for a time in the U.S., even sending some to flight school ("I don't need to learn how to land or take-off, just to fly an airliner, that's OK, isn't it?" "Sure, just sign on the dotted line, hand me a check and we'll start the lessons!") In terms of more bang for the buck, the 9/11 attacks had to be the best ratio of money spent for maximum damage ever.
On a smaller scale, but demoralizing and terrifying in terms of damage was the fertilizer-and-diesel bomb home-grown American terrorist Timothy McVeigh used on the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 people. A sexy scenario Hollywood writers made up, like what I saw on one season of the TV show 24, utilized nuclear dirty bombs dispersing radiation. But really, why use a nuke when a truck load of fertilizer and diesel fuel will do so much damage? Better yet, line up six trucks and blow them at once!
A scenario I would come up with would have terrorists knocking out electrical in coordinated attacks across the U.S., disrupting everything we do in this country, communications, banking, etc. No one would need a nuclear attack to accomplish that. Even Mother Nature does a pretty good job herself. Every winter due to storms power goes out for thousands of people across the country. It's because we're still getting our power delivered the same way we did 100 years ago, but that's soapbox oratory I use every winter when I hear of downed power lines.
Another place where terrorists hold the upper hand is in our system of airport security. We concentrate on that to the exclusion of other modes of transportation. Just bypass airports. Terrorists could rent Ryder trucks and drive them to their destinations with their deadly cargo. No one would look twice.
As we found out on September 11, 2001, it doesn't take a complicated plot to wreak havoc against a whole country. It just takes a bit of ingenuity.