Nuclear Terror: How Real?


May 13, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on May 13, 2007.

Former CIA Director George Tenet writes in his new book his biggest fear is "the nuclear one." He writes that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda "desperately want" to mount a nuclear terrorist attack because "they understand that... if they manage to set off a mushroom cloud, they will make history."

The history of nuclear terrorism can be summarized: There hasn't been any—yet. But it remains a fantasy of terrorists seeking super-destructive power, and a nightmare for everyone else, with periodic reminders some day it may come true.

Al Qaeda certainly has nuclear ambitions, but is not believed to have nuclear capabilities at this time. But the absence of nuclear terrorism has not prevented nuclear terror. Such is the power of language, that the mere placement of the words "nuclear" and "terrorism" in close proximity produces a fission of fear.

The possibility someone outside government might build a nuclear weapon was contemplated at the very beginning of the atomic age in the 1940s. Nuclear terrorism plots drove suspense novels written in the 1950s and '60s, like James Bond creator Ian Fleming's "Thunderball." Today, it is "24" character Jack Bauer who chases terrorists with nuclear bombs.

But what about reality? I presented my first paper on nuclear terrorism at a conference in Los Alamos, N.M., in 1975. The title: "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" We still ask that question 32 years later.

The debate in the 1970s focused on whether terrorists could build a bomb even if they had the material. Bomb designers tended to argue the principles of nuclear weapons design were by then well known, and therefore terrorists probably would be able to fabricate a crude nuclear weapon. But bomb builders remained skeptical: Building a nuclear bomb involved more than equations on paper.

Having no expertise in design of nuclear weapons, I took a different tack, looking at terrorist motives and intentions. While nuclear terrorism seemed theoretically attractive, even those we labeled terrorists did not do everything they could have done just a few decades ago.

Technological limitations and operational difficulties aside, terrorists seemed to operate within self-imposed constraints in the 1970s. They worried that large-scale indiscriminate violence might tarnish their image, threaten the cohesion of their groups, alienate their perceived constituents, and provoke a backlash that would threaten their survival. But these constraints were not universal or immutable and changed over time.

Beginning in the 1980s, the constraints began to erode and large-scale terrorist violence increased. By the 1990s, my colleagues at the Rand Corp. were writing about the "new terrorism," referring to terrorists increasingly motivated by religious fanaticism and determined to kill in quantity and likely to seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to expand their capacity for mayhem.

Perceptions of the likely terrorist scenario also changed. Prompted by the prevalence of terrorist hostage-taking in the 1970s, analysts scaled up contemporary scenarios and wondered whether terrorists with nuclear weapons might some day hold cities hostage to extort political concessions. At least some terrorists apparently thought along the same lines. This later changed to fears that if terrorists acquired WMD they would attack without warning.

The fall of the Soviet Union and growing concerns about the security of its huge nuclear arsenal deepened fears of nuclear terrorism. Exploratory discussions about how the United States and the Soviet Union might generally cooperate against terrorism, which began in the 1980s, developed into concrete programs aimed at securing Russian weapons and finding employment for Russian weapons designers.

The end of the Cold War also required a thorough rethinking of American national security policy. Two threats dominated attention: escalating terrorism and the proliferation of WMD. The two were easily conflated. Analysts feared that hostile states with nuclear weapons might be tempted to arm terrorists with one. Even without state approval, rogue elements involved in these programs might, for financial gain or ideological reasons, facilitate terrorist acquisition.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks redefined plausibility. Terrorist scenarios previously considered far-fetched suddenly became operative presumptions. Facing the reality of large-scale death and destruction, could America afford to take the chance terrorists might attack again, causing even greater devastation?

The subsequent "global war on terror" (the terms "terror" and "terrorism" initially were used interchangeably) would include not only a campaign against those responsible for September 11, but also a campaign against hostile states suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons. Pre-emption became national policy. Suspicion sufficed and the U.S. invaded Iraq to destroy WMD that turned out not to exist.

There is less uncertainty about North Korea's nuclear arsenal, since the North has already tested a nuclear weapon. There is enough suspicion about Iran's nuclear intentions to fear Iran and North Korea, even if they don't launch suicidal nuclear attacks, will clandestinely provide terrorists with nuclear weapons. If dismantling these programs proves impossible, the world is confronted with the unattractive alternatives of another pre-emptive military attack or accepting the risk.

Some analysts have suggested instead that deterrence strategies, which worked during the Cold War, might be modified and applied to new nuclear weapons states—even to terrorists themselves. But this idea tends to be rejected in official circles from fear deterrence implies acceptance of nuclear weapons and therefore undercuts current efforts aimed at their elimination.

Whether nuclear terrorism will be avoided or is only a matter of time remains in the realm of speculation. Nonetheless, it will continue to be a source of public apprehension and a factor confronting governments around the world.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

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