The Implausibility of Nuclear Terrorism

The worst eventuality is one that will likely never happen.

Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in February 2008.

"Death tugs at my ear and says, 'Live, I am coming.'" Were Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. alive today, he might ascribe that line not to death but to nuclear terrorism.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have had to live with the knowledge that the next time the terrorists strike, it could be not with airplanes capable of killing thousands but atomic bombs capable of killing hundreds of thousands.

The prospect has created a sense of profound vulnerability. It has shaped our view of government policies aimed at combating terrorism (filtered through Jack Bauer). It helped mobilize support for the Iraq war.

Why are we worried? Bomb designs can be found on the Internet. Fissile material may be smuggled out of Russia. Iran, a longtime sponsor of terrorist groups, is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. A layperson may figure it's only a matter of time before the unimaginable comes to pass. Harvard's Graham Allison, in his book "Nuclear Terrorism," concludes, "On the current course, nuclear terrorism is inevitable."

But remember: After Sept. 11, 2001, we all thought more attacks were a certainty. Yet al-Qaida and its ideological kin have proved unable to mount a second strike.

Given their inability to do something simple—say, shoot up a shopping mall or set off a truck bomb—it's reasonable to ask whether they have a chance at something much more ambitious. Far from being plausible, argued Ohio State University professor John Mueller in a presentation at the University of Chicago, "the likelihood that a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small."

The events required to make that happen comprise a multitude of Herculean tasks. First, a terrorist group has to get a bomb or fissile material, perhaps from Russia's inventory of decommissioned warheads. If that were easy, one would have already gone missing.

Besides, those devices are probably no longer a danger, since weapons that are not scrupulously maintained (as those have not been) quickly become what one expert calls "radioactive scrap metal." If terrorists were able to steal a Pakistani bomb, they would still have to defeat the arming codes and other safeguards designed to prevent unauthorized use.

As for Iran, no nuclear state has ever given a bomb to an ally—for reasons even the Iranians can grasp.

Stealing some 100 pounds of bomb fuel would require help from rogue individuals inside some government who are prepared to jeopardize their own lives. The terrorists, notes Mueller, would then have to spirit it "hundreds of miles out of the country over unfamiliar terrain, and probably while being pursued by security forces."

Then comes the task of building a bomb. It's not something you can gin up with spare parts and power tools in your garage. It requires millions of dollars, a safe haven and advanced equipment—plus people with specialized skills, lots of time and a willingness to die for the cause. And if al-Qaida could make a prototype, another obstacle would emerge: There is no guarantee it would work, and there is no way to test it.

Assuming the jihadists vault over those Himalayas, they would have to deliver the weapon onto American soil. Sure, drug smugglers bring in contraband all the time - but seeking their help would confront the plotters with possible exposure or extortion. This, like every other step in the entire process, means expanding the circle of people who know what's going on, multiplying the chance someone will blab, back out or screw up.

Mueller recalls that after the Irish Republican Army failed in an attempt to blow up British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it said, "We only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always." Al-Qaida, he says, faces a very different challenge: For it to carry out a nuclear attack, everything has to go right. For us to escape, only one thing has to go wrong.

That has heartening implications. If al-Qaida embarks on the project, it has only a minuscule chance of seeing it bear fruit. Given the formidable odds, it probably won't bother.

None of this means we should stop trying to minimize the risk by securing nuclear stockpiles, monitoring terrorist communications and improving port screening. But it offers good reason to think that in this war, it appears, the worst eventuality is one that will never happen.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.

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  • John||

    Terrorists don't, but nations do. You could never obtain a nuclear weapon let alone get it into the country without the support of a nation state. If however a nation state wanted to slip a weapon on a ship and run it into a US harbor suicide style, it could probably do it.

    The question would be what would it get them? We are big country. If New York blew up, Dallas and Los Angeles would hardly notice other then the news coverage. The idea I guess would be to nuke us and keep just enough deniabilty to keep the US from making them into a parking lot.

    But even if they could, then what? They got a city. Okay, what next? We would still be here and we would rebuild. Japan had two cities nukes and all of its other cities burned down and they came back. So what is the long term goal? The only way you could really take the US out as a world power would be to hit us with nine or ten nukes. And that is pretty hard to do and not have us be able to know who did it and who to retaliate against.

    Places like Iran want nukes not to nuke the US. They want nukes so they can terrorize their own people and neighbors without worries of us interfering.

  • o3||

    "The question would be what would it get them?"
    _
    there would be global financial chaos if the NYC financial district was rendered a radioactive desert by a dirty bomb.

  • John||

    For a bit. But I would imagine the world financial sector is a bit more robust than that. And even if they built a really high end Nagasaki fat man bomb, the actual damage it would do to New York would be less than you think.

  • Rasilio||

    Not really.

    If Wall Street went up in smoke it would trigger a collapse of pretty much every global market of significance and a global depression as the wreckage was sorted out.

    Course the same is true of Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Berlin, and probably a few other financial centers I'm not thinking of off the top of my head

  • T||

    Not anymore. There was a serious panic about that after 9/11. Quietly, there's been a fair amount of redundancy put in place to avoid exactly that. A lot of the single point failures in terms of hardware and other things have been replicated outside of Manhattan. The biggest loss would be the human capital.

  • HawkinsBeulah||

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  • goneGalt||

    What T said about redundancy.

    Also, before the fallout had even started to fall, every financial entity worldwide would be on a government mandated "holiday" with everyone's positions frozen.

  • sarcasmic||

    They want nukes so they can terrorize their own people and neighbors without worries of us interfering.

    They want nukes because there is legitimate reason to believe that our government will make shit up (WMDs, mobile bio labs, etc) in order to gin up popular support for an invasion.

    If they could credibly threaten to use a nuclear weapon against such an invasion, then it is unlikely that it would occur.

    As for terrorizing their own people and neighbors, that's their own people's and neighbors' concern, not ours.

  • John||

    We know sarcasmic. The US just radomly invades countries. I mean it is just a matter of time before we invade Canada or Belgium.

    Yes, all of the evil in the world is directly attributable to the United States. We get it Mr. Rothbard.

  • sarcasmic||

    Nice straw man, Tony. Go suck its dick.

  • Just Dropping By||

    Wait, John is Tony? I'm confused.

  • sarcasmic||

    If he's going to fellate fallacies he might as well be.

  • ||

    Certainly all the evil is the world is not directly attributable to the US. But I don't think it's unreasonable to consider that Iran might be looking at the situation with Iraq, where we basically just made some demands, and then attacked them when they didn't comply, as being a blueprint for what we'd like to do to them.

  • ||

    That is Mary levels of stupid John.

    Of course the US isn't responsible for all of the evil in the world, but you're a damn fool if you don't think that Iran took one look at our justifications for invading Iraq and said "Fuck me, we need to be able to deter that shit!".

  • jacob the barbarian||

    I think Steve C. is knocking down a straw man here. Al Qaeda is not about to start building a bomb. But, would they want to purchase, steal, or get one as a gift, and THEN use it on one the their great Satan's i.e. the US or Israel? More than likely, if they could -- they would. Actually, that sounds like a Jihadists wet dream.

    A cargo ship with a small nuke on board is the likely scenario here. NY harbor, a cty full of Joos, would do - or Tel Aviv. A ballistic missile with a nuke is the Hollywood BS - the country from which such a missile is launched would become a sheet of class the that day.

    Just my two cents.

  • John||

    Israel is not a large country.

  • Tommy_Grand||

    I don't think that would be very classy at all.

  • goneGalt||

    Israel is not a large country.

    Agreed, but this can work to Israel's benefit. Any Islam-aligned group needs to make DAMN SURE they don't lay a finger on the Dome of the Rock. Third holiest site and all.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    What worries me is not Nuclear Terrorism. What worries me is much lower tech; a fuel-air bomb or a dust initiator, or something of that order. I expect such an attack to be aimed at a city where there has been substantial breakdown of the social structure. I wouldn't spend time in Detroit if you paid me.

    And what really concerns me is less an attack that kills 100,000 or more, but our likely reaction to such an attack. I spent the Bush years listening to my Liberal friends schweeming about Bush being a Fascist, but if there is that big an attack on the U.S. the Usual Whiners will get to contemplate the difference from inside jail cells.

  • Rasilio||

    Fuel Air explosives if large sizes are actually fairly difficult to make too. You want to blow up a building with one? Not so hard, blowing up a few city blocks on the other hand is almost as technically demanding as making a Nuke, not to mention having a bomb that is the size of a tank and needs to be airdropped to work properly.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I dimly remember reading somewhere that while building a nuclear bomb does not, in fact, require access to special high-tech tools, building one without dying of radiation exposure does. I imagine a fuel-air bomb wouldn't have such a problem. But who knows, I may be totally off base.

  • Rasilio||

    No there are no special tools required to make a large FAE bomb, but it is still a very tricky demanding task.

    You need a fuel disbursment method that will create just the perfect mixture of fuel and air, a detonator that will go off in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time and will burn at exactly the right temperature.

    Any of those things are off by even a hair and you get a very small boom as the shockwave blows the fuel cloud apart before most of it reacts with the air.

    What is worse is that you need to run through several dozen prototypes to work out the kinks in timing and perfect the thing and even in the middle of the dessert it is kinda hard to hide the results of that number of bombs with multiple Kiloton explosive force going off.

  • Cyto||

    Terrorists do not want to kill very large numbers of people. Nor do they truly want to terrorize large groups - not with real terror that is.

    Small bombs killing tens or even hundreds are shocking and for some reason the terrorists seem to think they are good propaganda. If they really wanted to terrorize and kill they'd take much easier and more deadly action, like attacking the water supply for large municipalities. It shouldn't be all that tough to sufficiently contaminate the New York City water supply with radioactive metals like cesium or other scary-sounding contaminants. You wouldn't even have to contaminate it enough to actually harm anyone, just enough to make people fear the water as unsafe. And to prevent that you'd have to guard the entire watershed. Good luck with that.

    Or attack the power grid or gas and oil supplies. Or contaminate the food supply. There's any number of relatively easy ways to have huge impacts that harm very large numbers of people. Who needs a dirty bomb? Just drive around Manhattan with some cesium from medical devices in open containers.

    It is so easy to imagine these simple scenarios that it is implausible that the real motive is to kill as many people as possible.

  • o3||

    much moar effective would be infecting jihadists w smallpox sending them to walk around locations w alotta people.

  • Aresen||

    The problem with the "Typhoid Ali" attack is that it cannot be confined to a city or even just a country.

    The US, with its advanced medical system, would cope with such an attack far better than the less developed states that the disease would inevitably spread to.

  • DJK||

    Not sure about this. Keep the suiciders in isolation until they start showing symptoms. Then let them out in public to infect a ton of people. As soon as their symptoms were noted, air travel would be shut down worldwide. It might happen fast enough to avoid infection in areas they care about.

  • Rasilio||

    While Steve is absolutely correct with regards to Al Quaeda's ability to carry out a nuclear terrorist attack this is not actually a guarantee that some other future terrorist group would be able to do so.

    Much of the difficulty Al Quaeda has in launching attacks on America is the fact that the overwhelming majority of their recruits are uneducated tribalists better suited to life in the 12th century than the 21st, the handful of really educated volunteers they get are far too valuable to risk on a suicide mission and also less inclined to be willing to die for the cause in such a manner anyway.

    None of this however would prevent a new terrorist group with different goals than Islamic Jihadists and a much more cosmopolitan membership from arising at some point in the future.

  • DJK||

    For instance, Aum Shinrikyo? It was comprised mainly of graduates from elite Japanese universities. Had they planned their attacks better, thousands could have been killed in the Tokyo sarin attacks.

    Of course, synthesizing sarin is orders of magnitude easier than building a nuclear weapon. If for no other reason than that, while you can get precursors to sarin (with difficulty), it's damn hard to enrich uranium.

  • T||

    None of this however would prevent a new terrorist group with different goals than Islamic Jihadists and a much more cosmopolitan membership from arising at some point in the future.

    That's why DHS is watching you, Rasilio. Can't be too careful.

  • Rasilio||

    Lol they are welcome to watch me all they like but I guarantee they will be bored as hell doing so.

    That said the most likely group to ever be able to use a nuke terror weapon would be westerners rebelling against their own governments, and hey, we're all a bunch of anarchists here right? They better just lock us all up now for teh childruns sake!!!!

  • hk||

    I think we're mostly all good people here, and there aren't that many terrorists in the world imo. If there were there would be more attacks in malls, arenas, and such.

    Fear mongering is getting carried to another level by the progs/neo-cons.

  • Dangerdad||

    "inability"? Really?

  • jason||

    Its a big danger in the north aisa right now after the Iran got the nuclear power stations. Just read a news where Israel is start planning to attack iran this is dangerous situation right now.

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