Fact and fiction in nuclear terrorism

One of my favourite movies is The Sum of All Fears, the 2002 blockbuster adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1991 best-selling novel.

The plot centers on a nuclear strike on the city of Baltimore orchestrated by an international, neo-Nazi terrorist organization with aspirations of sparking a Russian-American war to facilitate the rise of a German empire. The arch bad guy, Austrian neo-Nazi Richard Dressler, purchases the device on the black market and smuggles it into the US by cargo ship. The bomb, concealed in a pop machine, is picked up and delivered to its target (the Baltimore football stadium) by an American member of Dressler’s group. It detonates during a football game with the American President in attendance. Post-detonation, it’s up to American academic/CIA analyst/millionaire stockbroker/future American President and all-round wunderkind, Jack Ryan, to unravel the terrorist plot and diffuse global tensions. SPOILER ALERT! The nuclear device is an American product constructed in the 1960s and secretly delivered to Israel to assist its nascent nuclear program. The bomb is lost when the Israeli jet carrying it is shot down over Syria during the Yom Kippur War (1973) and is buried in the desert until it is unearthed and sold by the arms trader decades later.

This past week, President Obama convened the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, with a script pulled right out of Clancy’s book.

Delegates from nearly 50 countries (including roughly 40 heads of state) met to discuss the threat of nuclear terrorism. Obama’s goal was to persuade them to agree on steps that would deny terrorists the materials needed for nuclear attacks (plutonium and/or highly enriched uranium). He called for better protection of nuclear materials within each country and greater multilateral capacity to control nuclear materials globally. Canada did its part by urging others to support its 2002 initiative (the Global Partnership Program) to secure nuclear sites in the former USSR, by agreeing to safeguard and curb its use of weapons-grade uranium in its national research reactors, and by calling on other states to phase out the use of highly enriched uranium in their own research initiatives.

These are all worthy policy goals and deserve our full attention. But reading the news coverage, official transcripts, editorials, and analysis of the summit, you would be excused if you considered the threat of a nuclear “catastrophe” higher today than during the Cold War, if you believed the acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorists was an effortless task, and accepted with near certainty that nuclear terrorism was just around the proverbial corner.

It isn’t that nuclear terrorism isn’t a grave concern or that the Summit didn’t produce some good; it’s just that the nuclear hyperbole flowing from Washington was a little thick.

For instance, Obama’s opening remarks included these warnings:

    * “Nuclear materials that could be sold or stolen and fashioned into a nuclear weapon exist in dozens of nations.”
    * “Just the smallest amount of plutonium – about the size of an apple – could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people.”
    * “Terrorist networks such as al Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeeded, they would surely use it.”
    * “We are drifting towards a catastrophe beyond comparison. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”

Others followed suit.

In the New York Times, former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, Harvard Professor Graham Allison, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo called nuclear terrorism “the biggest potential threat to civilization” adding that “the highly enriched uranium required to make an elementary nuclear bomb could be hidden inside a football.” And Robert Gallucci, a former US nuclear proliferation negotiator, was quoted in The Globe and Mail suggesting that “it is possible, plausible and … probable that a … terrorist group will set off a nuclear blast.” It’s just a matter of time, really, before terror goes nuclear.

But where’s the nuance? With all the squawking going on in Washington the rest of us missed out on the few critical points of contention that should help inform policy.

    * Terrorists cannot develop their own nuclear weapons

Over a period of 60 years, only a handful of states have managed to autonomously develop nuclear weapons. The odds that al Qaeda or another non-state organization will have the dollars, industrial infrastructure, scientific knowhow, resolve, and time to develop their own nukes approaches zero. Brian Michael Jenkins suggests in Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (2008), that it isn’t impossible that terrorists may build nuclear weapons, but it isn’t very likely either. There’s evidence that Osama bin Laden has sought nuclear weapons, but Jenkins presents al Qaeda’s quest as “naïve, poorly informed, and vulnerable to con artists.” Obama knows this, which is why the recent Summit focused on bulking up security of existing nuclear materials (which makes it harder for terrorists to steal what they may want) and strengthening global counterterrorism norms, institutions, and conventions (which further dissuades the very few states who might think about sharing WMD knowhow with non-state actors).

    * States are not likely to share their nuclear arsenals with terrorists

While it is true that some regimes certainly do support international and regional terrorism, sponsoring nuclear terrorism is of a totally different order of magnitude. No state has much to gain by doing so. Concerning Iran, the current patron of terror, Daniel Byman writes that it is “not likely [to] transfer chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons to terrorist groups”, because doing so “offers Iran few tactical advantages”, Tehran has grown “more cautious in its backing of terrorists” since 9/11, and it is “highly aware” that supporting nuclear terrorism would incur unprecedented “U.S. wrath and international condemnation.” Simply put, supporting a WMD terrorist attack is the surest way to regime change and doesn’t make rational sense.

    * Buying a nuclear weapon isn’t that easy

The best thing about black markets is that they can be destabilized and destroyed. The weakest point in a black market system, Thomas Schelling explained at a recent conference in Zurich, is the relationship between a seller and a buyer: each has to trust that the other will produce the goods to be exchanged. One way states can disrupt this system and make it harder for peddlers and purchasers of nuclear material is to actively introduce uncertainty into the buyer-seller relationship. For instance, the US might consider clandestinely entering the nuclear black market as either a buyer or a seller. As a buyer, it can locate those individuals and groups selling materials, track them down and/or eliminate them, or buy the material and destroy it. As a seller, the US can make contact with potential buyers, trade them shoddy goods, and/or capture and eliminate them. By doing both, the US disrupts the market forces, adds uncertainty to the process, and destabilizes the system. The end result is that neither the terrorist nor the criminal would know who to trust.

    * Nuclear possession might not necessarily lead to nuclear use

The assumption that terrorists will detonate nuclear weapons once they acquire them is a prevalent one. The problem with this line of thinking is that it too easily strips away the strategic thought that al Qaeda puts into its violent behaviour. Al Qaeda has a strategy. Jerry Mark Long writes that its “long-term goals have been articulated in a multitude of venues and with remarkable consistency.” It couches its war with the West as a “defensive” and “morally legitimate” one. It acts in accordance with a particular set of religious beliefs and is careful to behave in ways that remain within certain jurisprudential limitations. Al Qaeda is also sensitive to Muslim condemnation. The point is that there is some disagreement within al Qaeda with regards to the legitimacy and strategic utility of using nuclear weapons. One way the West might manipulate these debates is to take steps to heighten al Qaeda’s concern that nuclear use will provoke a backlash among the wider Muslim audience. Doing that rests on spreading existing anti-nuclear norms and taboos among and within states.

In sum, Obama has done the world a service by calling for greater control over nuclear weapons and materials. Let’s just make sure the discussion is built on fact rather than fiction.