While the nature of the nuclear threat has drastically changed since the end of the Cold War, that bumper sticker message still rings true.
In contrast to President Obama’s stated belief in nuclear terrorism’s “game changing” nature (made clear in his remarks to Bob Woodward), there have been a number of recent analyses that pushback on the existence of a nuclear terrorist threat. These include the previously blogged about Bruce Hoffman and Peter Bergen report, Bergen by himself in the CTC Sentinel, former CIA and FBI agent Philip Mudd in that same publication, and Al Mauroni on this website (via Homeland Security Affairs). Even Noble Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling appears to have reconsidered his earlier prescient warnings about nuclear terrorism during a recent conference.
I do not suggest that all the authors I mentioned make the same arguments or that what follows is an exhaustive analysis. However, I did want to highlight some of the reoccurring points levied against the risk of nuclear terrorism and provide some small measure of rebuttal (this is a blog posting—not a journal article…).
To be clear, I am not suggesting that a nuclear bomb is more likely to be used by terrorists than conventional bombs (insert target/delivery vehicle here—planes, trains, or automobiles), small arms, or other conventional weapons. However, it seems that the discourse (if not all the official attention) concerning terrorism focuses on certain prevailing memes. Following 9/11, the conventional wisdom held that the next Al Qaeda attack on the homeland had to trump 9/11. Combined with the anthrax mailings, this led to a sense of urgency regarding CBRN. This reasoning was often used to explain the absence of a wave of attacks involving shopping malls and other soft targets. The conventional wisdom began to shift over the years with the lack of subsequent large-scale attacks. Now it seems overwhelming opinion points toward a wave of smaller attacks, likely homegrown, exemplified by the attempted Times Square and cargo plane bombings.
What I wonder is why shouldn’t we consider a range of possible attacks and orient ourselves appropriately to the chaotic nature of terrorism? An innovative bomb maker in Yemen may not pose a nuclear terrorism risk, but it is possible that a compartmentalized nuclear plot is underway far from circling drone aircraft in Pakistan. And what about the threat from terrorists not directed, aligned, or even inspired by Al Qaeda?
To the arguments:
Al Qaeda is under too much pressure or lacks a secure base from which to carry out such a complicated plot.
Or put another way, how can Al Qaeda plan and carry out a nuclear attack when they are too busy avoiding drone attacks?
At first blush, this seems like the proverbial candle stick holder in the library next to the dead body of nuclear terrorism (if you don’t get the Clue reference, please just understand that it is a strong argument).
However, then one remembers 9/11. Did the terrorist pilots learn to fly aircraft in Afghanistan? No, they went to flight school in the U.S. The entire operation was planned in those terror training camps, right? Well….not exactly. It seems Hamburg (why aren’t we engaged in a COIN vs. CT argument about Germany?) and Kuala Lumpur might also have played a role.
My general point is that even the largest of terrorist plots do not require a safe haven in Afghanistan or even Pakistan to be successful.
Too many complicated steps involved—from obtaining the material through delivery to target—making success unlikely.
This is a particularly popular line of reasoning among skeptics who reference Council on Foreign Relation Senior Fellow Michael Levi’s book “On Nuclear Terrorism.” Levi examines each step terrorists might need to successfully take to carry out a nuclear attack. Adding up the probabilities for failure along the way, he concludes a nuclear terrorist attack is possible but not likely.
Yet skeptics should take note before citing him again—he still recommends a range of actions that conform exactly to the steps so-called nuclear terrorism “alarmists” suggest. These include securing weapons-useable material, the deployment of radiation detectors at well-chosen sites, intelligence and law enforcement work, and even public preparedness.
If one takes all the steps required to successfully pull off the 9/11 attacks and considers the probability of failure at each juncture, and then adds them up, it is unlikely such an attack would have been successful.
Yet it was.
Unobtainable technical expertise.
Or, as former Pakistani President Musharraf is alleged to state, “men in caves can’t do that.”
Yet unfortunately they can. If they posses the required fissile material. A simple HEU-fueled bomb was never tested before it was dropped on Hiroshima. It does not take a Manhattan Project to come up with a workable design—while complete plans cannot be found on the Internet, the physics behind the bomb is well known. An exercise, referred to as the Nth Country Experiment, took typical physics graduate students and had them design a working nuclear weapon. And they succeeded (as have a few other publicly known cases). This, supported by technical analysis pointing out the need for a skilled, yet small, team supports the notion that such an attack is possible.
The material required for a nuclear weapon is unobtainable.
In a recent conference, Peter Bergen is reported to have stated, “all of the reported thefts of highly enriched uranium since World War II would add up to only about eight pounds, or roughly a third of the amount needed to construct even the simplest nuclear device, he said, adding that none of the thefts were related to Islamist militants.
So there really isn’t the material let alone the expertise for terrorist groups to create a nuclear weapon.”
Okay. I accept those figures. But all, or at least the vast majority, of that intercepted fissile material was never reported missing in the first place. So either we can rest our hopes on the fact that all the material found in busts does not add up to the amounts required in a nuclear weapon, or we can worry about the potential missing material not reported and not intercepted.
In addition, this is where some point out the lengths that Iran or other countries have gone to in their nuclear ambitions without success. This simply confuses the issue. Nation states seeking nuclear weapons have to master the hardest part—producing the highly enriched uranium or plutonium needed for the bomb. States then would want to build a weapon small enough to be delivered by missile or small aircraft. Terrorists would never be able to produce this material, so they need to acquire it through theft or purchase. Their weapon could be a crude device requiring a small truck to deliver it to target.
No indication of any nuclear aspirations in previous plots.
This is an argument that is difficult to understand. Again, Mr. Bergen: “In a study of all the jihadist terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, about 172 incidents in all, Bergen said, the think tank found that none involved weapons of mass destruction.”
How many terrorist plots in the 1990s involved crashing airplanes into buildings? Or even attacking U.S. warships? So why should we only consider the type of attacks that have already occurred as the only potential threats? Terrorists have expressed interest in nuclear weapons. It is possible, though difficult, for them to acquire nuclear weapons. And the consequences would be almost unimaginable. Simply because they have yet to carry out an attack using a nuclear bomb is not a logical argument that they can’t or won’t.
We should focus on the terrorists instead of the potential weapons.
This is a seemingly sound idea popularized by Bruce Schneier. Except that it is most often used to either argue against security screening measures at airports or any focus on CBRN (strangely, no one uses this reasoning to argue that we should ignore someone with no known terrorist connection living in a large urban area buying hundreds of pounds of fertilizer that could be used in a bomb). In terms of the nuclear terrorism threat, while a focus on the potential actors is vital, what is the guarantee that we will be 100% successful? Without such a success rate, it seems the argument against securing potential bomb making material is rather weak. For example, David Headley was not only involved in scouting out sites for the Mumbai attacks, his activity was brought to the attention of authorities by his wives (yes, plural). This did not lead to the disruption of the operation and the pieces were only put together afterwards. How confident can we be in our ability to disrupt all potential future terrorist plots?
Again, I am not arguing that nuclear terrorism is likely to occur tomorrow. Or that it is more likely than any number of conventional attacks.
I am suggesting that it is a threat worthy of serious policy consideration, especially given the potential consequences. And I welcome comments trying to convince me otherwise.
Rolf-Mowatt Larssen, “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Evolving Forms of the Nuclear Genie.” http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/Evolving%20Forms%20of%20Nuclear%20Genie.pdf
Graham Allison, “Nuclear Terrorism Fact Sheet.”