Terror In Extremis

Terror In Extremis

Brian Michael Jenkins, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008), 457 pp., $26.95.


BRIAN JENKINS does not think we, as a nation, should ignore the risks associated with a nuclear terrorist attack. He does not believe the consequences would be trivial. He thinks we ought to take specific steps to reduce the likelihood of such an event occurring. But he also thinks that the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack is lower than "expert" estimates, that these estimates create an atmosphere of terror, that deterrence is still a useful defense against the threat, that by planning we can reduce the effects of an attack if it occurs, that we should stop hyping the threat and putting our civil liberties at risk, and that, in general, we ought to be less hysterical in our approach to nuclear terrorism.

In short, he sounds like the experienced field operative turned cold, calculating analyst of terrorism that he is. Jenkins seeks to overturn the emerging conventional wisdom of what constitutes the greatest threat to American security, and his arguments cannot be dismissed. But to what extent they ought to be embraced and genuinely cause us to revise our risk assessment about nuclear terrorism is a fair and important question of national security. Or, as President Bush is supposed to have asked simply, "How real is this nuclear terrorism thing?"

Jenkins's major complaint in his new book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?, is that experts, government officials and the media together have made Americans the victim of nuclear fears by exaggerating the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist event occurring, overstating the impact such an event would have, and injecting emotion and hysteria into the national-security discourse on the subject. He quotes academics, respected national-security experts and senior government officials who have pointed to nuclear terrorism as the greatest threat facing the nation in the post-9/11 world. He refers to popular television shows and movies that moved from dramatizing a superpower nuclear exchange during the cold war to plots involving stolen or improvised nuclear devices during the war on terror. After discussing former-CIA Director George Tenet's deep concern about a nuclear terrorist attack, described in a book Tenet wrote after leaving office, Jenkins quotes Vice President Dick Cheney in an interview on Face the Nation last year: "The threat to the United States now of . . . a nuclear weapon in the middle of one of our own cities is the greatest threat we face. . . . It's something we have to worry about and defeat every single day."

The net effect of all the hype, Jenkins argues, is that al-Qaeda is "the world's first terrorist nuclear power without, insofar as we know, possessing a single nuclear weapon," and Americans are the victims of nuclear terror without ever having experienced any act of nuclear terrorism.

What we want to know, of course, is whether the author has it right. Jenkins, who has been studying and writing about terrorists and terrorism for more than thirty years, knows what he is talking about when he dissects the motives of and self-imposed constraints on terrorists. His chapters on terrorists are extremely well-written and informative surveys aimed at placing the nuclear terrorist act in the proper context. He has good and bad news for us. The good news is that at least some terrorist groups who might try to get their hands on a nuclear weapon would not want to detonate it, making a calculation similar to that of a national government: better to have and to hold for deterrence. The bad news is that terrorist groups whose motivation is not so secular, and is better described as divine or apocalyptic-think Aum Shinrikyo or al-Qaeda-would not be satisfied with mere possession and would likely aim to use a bomb in order to commit mass murder. The principal bit of comfort he has to offer about that prospect is that the technical and organizational capability to carry out all the complex steps involved in acquiring, delivering and detonating a nuclear weapon seem least likely to be present in those groups who actually want to cause mass civilian casualties. While an interesting insight, it is not one that we are advised to depend on: things change.

Most of Jenkins's argument rests on the difficulty of actually acquiring a nuclear device, and on the limited destructive force of an improvised weapon built by terrorists. On the latter point, he writes:

From the 1990s on, and especially since 9/11, the discussion of nuclear terrorism has been taken over by policy makers, most of whom possess little knowledge of technical matters. They are backed up by a press that tends to be somewhat ignorant of science, and by what one critic called the "terrorism industry."

Here the author seeks to explain why the threat, typically characterized by scientists in the 1970s as the detonation of a device with a yield of a few tenths of a kiloton, was upgraded to an explosion-one-hundred-times greater-of a Hiroshima-sized, ten-kiloton bomb in the 1990s. This is the difference between bringing down a skyscraper with the equivalent of one hundred tons of TNT and obliterating a large portion of a city with the equivalent of ten thousand tons of TNT. To underline his point, he notes that a couple of years ago the North Koreans could manage only to detonate a half-kiloton-yield device.

Ultimately, though, the size observation is not really reassuring. There are just too many variables involved, and ignorance on the part of the current generation of analysts is not the most important one. It is certainly arguable that if terrorists manage to get their hands on enough highly enriched uranium, rather than plutonium, and the overall size of the whole bomb package was not limited by the requirements of the method of delivery, there is enough information available these days for a terrorist organization to make a bomb of the simple "gun type" design and yield used at Hiroshima. If true, this would make the higher-yield city-buster quite plausible, even assuming no special knowledge of nuclear-explosive design. However, it would require some expertise in nuclear engineering, high explosives and metallurgy. Moreover, drawing conclusions from first attempts at nuclear explosions using plutonium and the more technically demanding "implosion" design, whether by India or North Korea, may not be particularly relevant, especially when we are uncertain about those governments' intent, or "design yield."

Having said that, the crux of the matter is neither yield nor motive, but if we really should be so worried about a terrorist building or otherwise acquiring a nuclear weapon. Those of us who have spent a good portion of our professional lives-more than Jenkins would think appropriate-worrying about this threat tend to view any scenario involving the acquisition of a fabricated nuclear weapon as far less likely than one that has the terrorists acquiring fissile material and building one. (No one, for good reason, thinks terrorists will be able to produce their own fissile material.) While the acquisition of a fabricated weapon cannot be excluded as a possibility and is featured in the plots of movies and novels, governments are, in fact, less likely to "lose" one of their weapons from an arsenal than they are some kilograms of fissile material from their research, energy or weapons establishments. They are also less likely to contemplate transferring a fabricated weapon to a terrorist group, because it could more easily be traced back to them than could fissile material, whose origins, our best efforts at nuclear forensics notwithstanding, might be hard to determine with any certainty.

So, much of what is at issue here comes down to the plausibility of terrorists acquiring the necessary fissile material and building a true nuclear weapon. This is because delivery-while not a trivial matter for a package expected to be large and heavy, of substantial mass, with some radioactive signature-is usually not singled out as a comparable obstacle, at least not by those at all familiar with the challenges of securing America's borders.

The fissile material would have to be acquired by transfer from a country whose government had approved its movement, or as the result of theft from a country whose government had not authorized its movement. Jenkins disparages the former, state-sponsored nuclear terrorism and, indeed, this would seem the less likely scenario. However, current concerns that North Korea and Iran might do just that should not be dismissed too rapidly. The regime in Pyongyang has a record of transferring extended-range-ballistic-missile technology, equipment and more to the Middle East and South Asia, creating a medium-range-ballistic-missile threat for the delivery of nuclear weapons in countries where one did not exist before. North Korea is the only country on earth still in this business. Moreover, the best information currently available suggests that the North Koreans built a plutonium-production reactor in Syria, a well-known sponsor of terrorism, that would be providing that country with a shortcut to nuclear weapons were it not for Israel's concept of nonproliferation. As for Iran, while it now has no source of fissile material, it is busy building facilities that will give it the capability to produce both highly enriched uranium and plutonium. From the American perspective, Iran is now the world's most active supplier of advanced conventional weapons to terrorist groups operating in the Middle East. So, assuming that Tehran will act responsibly if it acquires fissile material would seem to involve more optimism than is justified by experience.

Essay Types: Book Review