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Mass-casualty terrorism and terrorism involving unconventional weapons have received extensive academic and policy attention, yet few academics have considered the broader question of whether such behaviours could pose a plausible risk to humanity’s survival or continued flourishing. Despite several terrorist and other violent non-state actors having evinced an interest in causing existential harm to humanity, their ambition has historically vastly outweighed their capability. Nonetheless, three pathways to existential harm exist: existential attack, existential spoilers and systemic harm. Each pathway varies in its risk dynamics considerably. Although an existential attack is plausible, it would require extraordinary levels of terrorist capability. Conversely, modest terrorist capabilities might be sufficient to spoil risk mitigation measures or cause systemic harm, but such actions would only result in existential harm under highly contingent circumstances. Overall, we conclude that the likelihood of terrorism causing existential harm is extremely low, at least in the near to medium term, but it is theoretically possible for terrorists to intentionally destroy humanity.
While the opioid epidemic engulfing the United States and the globe is well-documented, the potential use of powerful fentanyl derivatives as a weapon of terror is increasingly a concern. Carfentanyl, a powerful and deadly fentanyl derivative, is seeing a surge in popularity as an illegal street drug, and there is increasing congressional interest surrounding the classification of opioid derivatives under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) given their potential to cause harm. The combination of the potency of opioid derivatives along with the ease of accessibility poses a potential risk of the use of these deadly agents as chemical weapons, particularly by terrorist organizations. Disaster Medicine specialists in recent years have established a sub-specialty in Counter-Terrorism Medicine (CTM) to address and research the unique terrorism-related issues relating to mitigation, preparedness, and response measures to asymmetric, multi-modality terrorist attacks.
The mass proliferation and increasing affordability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in recent years has given rise to weaponized UAV use by terrorists, leading to mounting and credible concerns this attack methodology will be the next terrorism modus operandi. Counter-Terrorism Medicine (CTM) specialists need to consider how UAVs alter or create new mass-casualty scenarios that can further exploit existing medical preparedness vulnerabilities. With an opportunity to be proactive in disaster prevention, mitigation, and preparedness, it is imperative this gathering storm be acknowledged and stakeholders explore how best to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate the consequences of UAV incidents.
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