The Cold War’s Lesson for Nuclear Terrorism

If the United States is worried about nuclear terrorism, it holds that Israel – embroiled as it is in multiple protracted conflicts with Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorists and situated as it is next to nuclear aspirant, terror-sponsoring Iran – should be doubly worried about nuclear terrorism.

This is Chuck Freilich’s starting assumption. A former Israeli Deputy National Security Advisor for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Freilich is currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. In a recent op-ed  in Israel’s leading daily paper, Haaretz (based on a policy brief he wrote for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies) he dubiously suggests nuclear terrorism poses “two unique problems in terms of deterrence” for Israel.

First, he explains that terrorists who aspire to use nukes against Israel “are nihilist in nature” and irrational as a result, and second, he writes that because these groups are stateless they have no return “address” for Israel to target, threaten, and retaliate against. In a nutshell, deterrence only works if your adversary calculates the costs and benefits of its actions (i.e. it acts rationally) and if you can credibly threaten to punish and/or destroy something it values if and when it decides to attack. The latter process, by threatening punishment, raises the costs of a given action, which theoretically deters and influences a rational actor.

Freilich’s position is that Israel’s current adversaries are either purely “nihilistic” (in the case of al Qaeda and its supporters) or will become irrational once they develop nuclear capabilities (in the case of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, whose “ability to employ nuclear terrorism is liable to change” their current “patterns” of rational behavior). He also assumes that Israeli threats of conventional and/or nuclear retaliation might work to dissuade Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran (all of whom have territory and assets that Israel can target) but that “it is very doubtful” these threats will “influence al Qaeda”. His solution to the latter case – one he describes as “repugnant” – is to explore whether threatening to destroy “population centers and sites of symbolic and religious importance to Islam” might be sufficient to deter al Qaeda.

Setting aside the debates over the likelihood of nuclear terrorism (it’s not likely in my opinion) and al Qaeda’s supposed irrationality, I want to further explore two of Freilich’s assumptions.

First, why would nuclear capability make Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran less rational and less cautious? Surely if these actors currently appreciate the costs of engaging in warfare with Israel, as Freilich writes, than they will appreciate the costs of attacking Israel if and when they develop or obtain nuclear weapons. In fact, they may be more sensitive to Israeli capabilities. Iran certainly could expect an unprecedented Israeli onslaught for organizing a nuclear attack on Israel (trading Tel Aviv for Tehran and all other major Iranian cities). Instead of acting carelessly, a nuclear Iran might caution against geo-political situations and conflicts that could spiral out of control. Nobody, not even Iran, wants to slip accidently into a costly nuclear exchange. The same goes for Hamas and Hezbollah. Both groups could expect an end to their affairs for facilitating a nuclear attack on Israel, at the expense of massive causalities in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Syria. If discussing untold human suffering seems unnerving – it’s meant to. Let’s not forget, that during the Cold War, Canada and its NATO allies held millions of Eastern Europeans hostage in exchange for the lives of Western Europeans and North Americans in its deterrent dealings with the USSR and the Soviet Bloc. Let’s also recall that as soon as everybody understood the costs of engaging in nuclear warfare, behavior become more (not less) cautious.

Second, while it is true that al Qaeda (especially since its routing from Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2007/8) is ostensibly ‘stateless’ and lacks territorial assets and a population base that can be threatened, the organization does value other things. Freilich’s (controversial) call for investigating the deterrent effect of targeting Islamic holy sites and population centers is an old one. The strategy is not all that convincing, either. What Freilich fails to illustrate, however, is that there are other assets non-state terrorist organizations like al Qaeda value. Strategic and tactical terrorist leaders, for instance, can be located, tracked, and killed or captured. The expertise these individuals bring to the table is of value to al Qaeda, so their removal and/or elimination represent a potential cost to organizing terrorism. Other individuals who facilitate terrorism (legitimizes, donors, recruiters, logisticians, and so on), can be threatened with capture, fines, jail time, extradition, and so on. That these individuals are rarely suicidal suggests their behavior can be influenced in various ways, to the overall determinant of their organization.

Finally, deterrence theory posits that behavior is dictated by costs and benefits. But Freilich limits his investigation to the effects of raising the costs of an action (in terms of tacking on punishments). There’s another side to the calculus, however: an adversary’s behavior can be manipulated by lowering the benefits it can expect to achieve with a particular action. That is, by denying the expected benefits associated with an action, we make it less likely it will be held in positive light. By doing that, we make the action less attractive and manipulate the cost/benefit calculus associated with taking it. Israel, the United States and others can deny nuclear terrorism by blocking access to nuclear materials and expertise (which the April 2010 Summit in Washington sought to do), by complicating the trade, transfer, and shipment of nuclear materials (by honing abilities to locate, track, and intercept hidden nuclear devices), and by hardening access to desired target states (with better land, air, and sea border controls). Each denial process manipulates an actor’s behavior by underscoring that a particular action is simply too difficult to pursue and that its expected benefits are too uncertain to merit much effort.

In thinking about combating nuclear terrorism, we should investigate the theory, logic, and practice of deterrence. It served us well in the Cold War. Let’s see if it can help us out today.