U.S. Report: Major terror attack by 2013

In stark and certain terms, a Congress-mandated commission Tuesday warned that the world's nations face the threat of a major terrorism attack using biological and nuclear weapons by 2013. The commission's report, titled "The World at Risk," skips over the threat of cyberattacks and focuses almost exclusively on nuclear and biological weapons.

"[Terrorists] are more likely to unleash an aerosol can filled with pathogens than to strike with a nuclear weapon," the report warns.

The 132-page report did not dwell on network security issues and pointedly says that anyone with an Internet connection could "easily obtain designs for building a nuclear bomb". But bomb builders don't have easy access to materials. However, biosciences is a little different: There are concerns that without proper controls, advances in bioscience research could become threats.

The report warns that the life sciences community has not secured access to deadly biological pathogens and does not have sufficient means to combat them. It has no mushroom cloud in its past to illustrate how much damage is possible - "it has never experienced a comparable iconic event," according to the report.

The commission that prepared the report, headed by Bob Graham and Jim Talent, said that "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013".

Terrorism and technology

The report's message for the technology industry must be read between the lines. Some of its recommendations will likely require new tech capabilities and coordination with the government. But its warnings - especially its focus on Pakistan - may only serve to increase concerns outsourcing firms may have about India in the wake of last week's terror attacks in Mumbai.

In regard to new tech capabilities, the report broadly calls for "a new blueprint to prevent biological weapons proliferation and bioterrorism", which includes surveillance and better security and intelligence capabilities, and suggests things such as use of commercial supply chains to develop a speedy response if attacked.

In the event of an attack, "quick access to information can save untold lives" and all avenues of information distribution have to be considered, including digital social networks, the report said.

The future of outsourcing

Another issue for the tech industry will be the level of risk U.S. businesses that outsource to India face.

"Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan", the report said. Pakistan has the nuclear weapons, history of instability, and given the country's "tense relationship with India, its build-up of nuclear weapons is exacerbating the prospect of a dangerous nuclear arms race in South Asia that could lead to a nuclear conflict."

"Pakistan is an ally, but there is a grave danger it could also be an unwitting source of a terrorist attack on the United States - possibly with weapons of mass destruction," the report said.

This warning comes at the same time some U.S. firms may reexamine how they are using India as an IT services location.

Eugene Kublanov, CEO of NeoIT, an outsourcing management consulting group in San Ramon, California, said two of his employees were in Mumbai during the attack. The employees were in a hotel that wasn't hit by the terrorists, but had barricaded themselves in the room as a precaution and were not harmed.

Kublanov believes the terrorist attacks will prompt firms to redefine the political risks associated with India. "Today, it's probably been considered one of the safer or safest outsourcing locations."

For those companies that already have an existing relationship in India, Kublanov doubts that it will prompt many changes, but he does expect firms will be even more interested in ensuring that their work isn't concentrated in one city or country.

Eric Simonson, managing principal at the Everest Research Institute in Dallas, said India's terrorist attack may prompt companies new to outsourcing to pause and recheck their strategy with senior management. If these firms were hesitant at all, they may see it as a excuse to halt outsourcing plans.

Simonson agrees that location diversification will get more attention from experienced firms, but he said his final assessment will be based on how India and Pakistan address the current crisis following the Mumbai attacks. "If it escalates, I think people will be much more cautious about India."

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Patrick Thibodeau

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