Looking Ahead: Terrorist Implications of a Blackout
Aug 14, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


Statements by U.S. federal and local officials indicate that terrorism was not a factor in a major power outage on Aug. 14 in parts of the northern United States and southeastern Canada. However, that does not mean that groups like al Qaeda have not noticed.


At approximately 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, a massive electricity blackout cascaded across much of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. Within minutes, electricity deliveries stopped in cities as far-flung as New York, New Jersey, Albany, Niagara Falls, Detroit, Erie, Connecticut, Toledo, Cleveland, Ottawa and Toronto. Hospitals went without power, airports shut down and diplomats at the United Nations found themselves glaring not at their adversaries, but at darkness.

At this point, information is still sketchy and often contradictory. We can logically ascertain that the cause of the power outage occurred somewhere within the affected area. And, considering the degree to which telecommunications today depend upon electricity, it will be several hours at least before regular communications can be re-established and firm answers brought to light. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he expects the power to be back on later tonight.

According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the power outage began in the vicinity of Ottawa, Canada. The specific cause has yet to be determined -- or at least disseminated -- but any of a number of reasons, including foul play, are possible.

From there, the story becomes clearer. The U.S. and Canadian power grids are closely integrated; the two countries often ship power across the border as weather permits. In today's case -- one of the hottest days in the year so far in that region -- a great deal of current was flowing south into the United States. When the power went out in Ottawa, those exports ceased.

That is most likely what led to brownouts across the U.S. northeast. In order to keep overexertion from causing damage to the power generation and transmission infrastructure, most grids adjacent to now-blacked-out sections automatically shut themselves off. This set up a brief cascade as grids snapped off all the way down to New Jersey.

Despite some initial confusion, it is likely that the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee's initial call that the New York City blackout occurred locally was technically correct. Consolidated Edison power plants were the first to brown out, and when it became apparent that they could not support demand in the city, they shut down.

So, barring an attack on some point near Ottawa, this incident appears to be exactly what the Department of Homeland Security says it is: an unfortunate development, not a terrorist attack.

However, the implications of the blackout are not quite so simple. It is now stunningly apparent that the United States -- despite massive upgrades in its power distribution network since the blackouts of the 1960s -- has not overcome all of its infrastructure flaws. When al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center, they did not expect it to shut down the country for a week and the air network n for a month or in general to cripple the just-beginning economic recovery.

Al Qaeda no doubt is watching for any opportune U.S. flaws that they might someday exploit. Now it has become obvious that if one hits the U.S. -- or Canadian -- power grid in the right spot at the right time, the heart of the American economy -- including Wall Street -- can be hurled into the dark.