July 8, 2013

The Prospect of Nuclear Terrorism

In order to justify various activities which have undermined some of the Constitutional protections Americans once enjoyed, certain elements of the political establishment (notably Dick Cheney) have raised the terrifying prospect the nuclear terrorism. Since no one in the media, left or right, has adequately addressed the likelihood of such an event, in seems well worth a look.

Let’s begin by allowing that there are terrorists who would certainly be willing to use a nuclear weapon if they had one. I see no reason to think, given the nature of Al Qaida’s various actions of a smaller scale, that the zealots of that movement would have any qualms about destroying a city in the name of their cause. Less fanatical sovereign governments have been willing to bomb and incinerate civilians by the tens of thousands, as the citizens of London, Hamburg and Tokyo discovered seventy years ago – thus, it would be deeply na├»ve to believe that Islamic extremists would show moral restraint in this regard. The restraint the nuclear powers have shown over the last seven decades has had more to do with self preservation than morality. The doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) has worked. The nuclear powers have understood that starting a nuclear war is likely to bring about their own demise. It is not clear that stateless terrorists, scattered across the globe, willing, in many cases, to die for their cause are deterred by anything. So, we can dispense with the question of willingness and proceed to the question of capability.

A scenario often cited or implied is one in which a rogue nuclear state – Iran, or more imaginatively, North Korea – might supply a terrorist organization with a bomb. While this might make an interesting movie plot, there are reasons to believe it would not be likely. Consider, to begin with, that nuclear weapons are a hard-won technology that states develop at enormous expense. Not only is there a huge material and financial cost, but the diplomatic and physical hardship of possible economic sanctions. At the end of the long development process, middle-tier nations take years to produce even a small stockpile of bombs, perhaps sufficient to survive an enemy airstrike and thus provide a viable deterrent. Is it plausible that a nation, having suffered much to attain such weapons, would turn any number of them over to a vaguely sympathetic organization of fanatics over which that nation exercises little control? While it is at least conceivable that a council of radical mullahs in Iran or the “dear leader” of North Korea might decide to employ a bomb to please Allah or fulfill some twisted notion of personal destiny, it is very unlikely they would turn the matter over to some even more unstable middle men. If a bomb explodes in Tel Aviv or New York, it isn’t likely the originator of the device will go long without suffering retaliation in kind. The origin of these devices can be deduced with some considerable technical accuracy, and even if they couldn’t there would be an enormous impulse on the part of the victim to lash out at the most likely suspects. Thus, while Iran might conceivably use a bomb, handing one over to Hamas would gain them nothing. Doing so would also entail secondary risk. He who has the bomb has power, and there is always the risk a nuclear-equipped terrorist might turn that power against his own benefactors. It is notable that, in the entire history of the atomic age, every nation has produced its own weapons – and even such close allies as the US and the UK have shared the actual weapon technology only very sparingly and reluctantly.

A more plausible scenario in which stateless terrorists acquire the bomb, or the fissionable uranium to make a bomb, is based on the collapse of an existing nuclear power. This happened when the Soviet Union collapsed, and could happen if Pakistan disintegrates in civil war. In the former case, while no whole weapons went missing (as far as open sources can tell us), a considerable amount of fissionable material was smuggled out, and only some of it has been retrieved. What will happen in Pakistan in the next few years is anybody’s guess. One can only hope they manage to hold their shaky state together somehow. Still, as real as such possible threats might be, it is far from obvious that they are substantially mitigated by dismantling the civil rights of Americans within the borders of the United States. If 100 kilos of marijuana can be smuggled into the country by sea, smuggling a bomb across the border should be only slightly more difficult. Once here, no further communication traffic of the kind the NSA routinely intercepts would be required. In other words, while the threat is plausible, the efficacy of the intelligence countermeasures deemed necessary for our safety is marginal. Surely, a focus on intelligence gathering closer to the sources of the fissionable material would do more good.

In the final analysis, it is true that an utterly closed police state would be all but immune to terrorism – nuclear or otherwise. The Soviet Union, throughout its illustrious history, had little to fear from even the most dedicated groups of foreign radicals. A xenophobic police state is, however, a very high price to pay for security.

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