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Nuclear Terrorism

[ 37 ] September 15, 2011 |

Thomas Schelling, via Erik Voeten:

In 1982 I published an article that began, “Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.”

I hedged about the 80’s but sounded pretty firm about the 90’s. It’s now the 2010’s, twenty-nine years later, and there has been no nuclear terrorism nor any acquisition of such weapons by any terrorist organization that we know of; and I think we’d know by now. I don’t know of anyone—and I knew many colleagues knowledgeable on the subject—who thought my expectations outlandish. Something needs to be explained!

Schelling then goes through what amounts to the Mueller treatment, detailing all of the steps that would have to take place for terrorists to acquire fissile material and develop a nuclear weapon, which goes some distance to explaining why terrorists have not yet done so.

However, I think that the epistemology of the claim is more interesting than the claim itself.  What Schelling doesn’t explain is why none of the knowledgeable people in 1982 could have come up with the same set of difficulties that we can understand with relative clarity today. The claim seems plausible on its face; if I were a nuclear weapons expert in 1982, I can’t imagine that it would have surprised me, whatever quibbling there might have been with the timing. There’s a certain similarity with claims about the imminence of the nuclear weapons development of Iraq/Iran/Burma et al, but without the same degree of institutional interest that we find in, say, the Israeli intelligence services. As the timing for an Iranian nuclear test keeps getting pushed back, we begin to reexamine our assumptions about the interest that Iran has in nukes and its capability to produce them, questions that should have occurred to us at the beginning but didn’t. In the latter case the timeline has been developed in a deliberately misleading way in order to suggest a much greater threat than actually exists; I don’t really see that in the case of Schelling’s terrorism claim, however.

It would be nice to think that there was some kind of “democratization of expertise” phenomenon happening, in which a closed group of “experts” had been replaced with a much broader social network community, but I’m not sure that’s the case, either. Again, the single best account of why terrorists haven’t acquired nuclear weapons comes from John Mueller, who by most accounts was, in fact, alive and conscious in 1982.

Comments (37)

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  1. greylocks says:

    I can think of at least three good reasons why real experts on nuclear terrorism (as opposed to say, economists) don’t speak out more on this issue:

    (1) It’s not in their professional self-interest to do so. If you’re a counter-terrorism expert or an intelligence analyst, your stock is a lot higher if everyone else believes in suitcase nukes.

    (2) A lot of the real experts have high security clearance. They have to get everything they publish reviewed. They have to get advance approval for speeches and interviews. It’s probably more trouble than it’s worth to them.

    (3) The Hurricane Warning Syndrome. No one wants to say, “Nuclear terrorism isn’t a major threat”, then be tragically proven wrong.

  2. Furious Jorge says:

    John Mueller really holds the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies?

    There really is such a thing?

    • elm says:

      Well, now you’ve done it. You’ve all but summoned Berube to post in this thread!

      • c u n d gulag says:

        I thought you were kidding about the Woody Hayes Chair. But then I read his bio.

        I suppose it makes some sense.

        In this age of threats of proliferation, and quick-delivery systems, Woody Hayes would have believed in the slow and steady “Three yards, and a cloud of atomic dust.”

        Much easier to defend against than bomb throwers and missiles.

    • NonyNony says:

      Hayes’s family organized fund-raising for an endowed chair after he died. IIRC, Hayes was very interested in military history and his friends were looking for a tribute that could help OSU but wasn’t all about football, so they figured out a way to endow an academic chair in his name sometime around ’99 or 2000 (I think?). I vaguely recall a fundraising push and a big news story about it back then at least.

      (You don’t spend a decade and a half in Columbus and not pick up vague information about Woody Hayes. It’s just unpossible.)

    • Bill Murray says:

      When some other country intercepts are signals, one job of the Woody Hayes Chair is to go punch the person that did the intercepting. Particularly if said interceptors name is Bauman

  3. mpowell says:

    Do we really know how close this has come to happening? Also, if we look at this as a poisson process with an assumption of an expectation of 15 years to the first event, 30 years with no nuclear terrorism does not disprove the hypothesis, though it makes it less likely. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried.

    • S Physicist says:

      Fair enough, but wouldn’t the experience of the past ten years’ suggest you can get similar benefits more cheaply? Bin Laden pretty well achieved his aim of bleeding the U.S. without so much as a dirty bomb (not that he didn’t want the real deal). Why spend a boatload of cash and risk detection if you can, say, prompt the U.S. to blow several billion on x-raying every airline passenger at the mere cost of a small bomb and a walk-in volunteer who probably provided the concealing underwear gratis? And that wasn’t even a successful attack!

      • greylocks says:

        I don’t think terrorists are rational enough to do cost-benefit analyses. The cost of entry to the nuclear club is obviously a disincentive for them to try (even stealing a weapon has high costs and major technological hurdles) and in itself will steer them into making simpler, less costly choices. But if you’re implying that they’re sitting around discussing how to best allocate this year’s bomb-making budget, I don’t see them doing that. They respond to symbolism, not reason.

        Some lunatic somewhere would love to nuke someone, but he hasn’t because he can’t, not because there are more cost-effective alternatives.

        • elm says:

          I don’t think terrorists are rational enough to do cost-benefit analyses.

          A whole lot of political science work has started from the assumption of that terrorist groups are just as rational as states and has been quite successful in explaining such things as terrorist recruiting strategies, responses to counter-terrorism strategies, funding, and targeting. Assuming that terrorists are crazy will impair our ability to understand them, both academically and in the policy world.

          Besides, there’s no reason why symbolism cannot be included in rational cost-benefit calculations.

          • Njorl says:

            I agree. There is a cost/benefit analysis that explains a hesitancy to even pursue nuclear terrorism.

            Terrorists intentionally provoke responses which will make the target country spend money, and enact measures which annoy its citizens and its allies.

            Nuclear terrorism could provoke a reaction which goes beyond that. If instead of jets, a nuclear bomb had been detonated in lower Manhatten, we might have instituted a draft, price-controls, and rationing and dedicated a quarter of GDP to the war effort. Instead of attempting to minimize civilian casualties, we’d slaughter indiscriminantly. We’d set up concentration camps across the Muslim world, wherever we wanted to pursue terrorists. Torture would not be news. Famine, rather than being an unforunate byproduct of war, would become a weapon. Every non-muslim country with a score to settle would take advantage of the situation. Countries with unpopular Muslim minorities would use the opportunity to ignore human rights and crack down on them.

            People think the Russian occupation of Afghanistan was harsh, but they eventually wanted to install a friendly government to maintain Afghanistan as a satellite. They had some modicum of limits. Now imagine what an occupier would do if they did not give a damn about what anybody thought, and had no use whatsoever for the country in the long term.

            We would become monsters in a world where we were the only superpower, and where the other major powers would just look the other way.

            • Njorl says:

              I meant to add, some terrorists might not foresee this, and some might not fear it, so vigilence is still required, but I think there is more at work here than just good security practices.

          • S Physicist says:

            Not only do I agree, but I’d like to amplify: you have to be reasonably rational to be a terrorist. We disagree with their goals, of course, but if they were actually crazy or dumb they would get themselves killed or captured before they did anything. This is why terrorist leaders tend to be well-educated. Moreover, if they recruited low-quality guys, there’d be a good chance that said guys would muck things up and expose the operations to the police/defense forces. There’s a fair amount of literature of how hate crime and terrorism tend to be positively correlated to education; for a popular account related to suicide bombers, you might look at Nasra Hassan’s article in the New Yorker (seems to be reproduced here: http://www.bintjbeil.com/articles/en/011119_hassan.html).

            The symbolism of a nuke is strong, but symbols are still benefits to be weighed against costs. Same as Apartheid South Africa abandoning their program, or Mao not setting off nuclear war after making noises about it (pretty sure I saw that discussion in this blog some time ago…some related discussion near the end of http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2008/07/sunday-book-review-the-sino-soviet-split). Or, for that matter, buying a Prius or installing solar panels on your roof in New England.

      • mpowell says:

        I pretty much agree with you, I’m just pointing out that the mere fact that we haven’t had a nuclear terrorist in 30 years shouldn’t make us complacent.

        Or in other words, these guys were wrong in 1982 and now they’ve changed their minds for the wrong reasons. And the explanations they’re offering constitute a just-so story.

        We need better experts!

  4. wengler says:

    For anyone that wants to look up a very novel attempt at a non-state entity acquiring fissile material, I recommend you google Aum Shinrikyo.

    There was a break-in at a nuclear facility in South Africa not that long ago that was worrying. I suppose it’s a very good thing that nuclear terrorism isn’t a reality, though that might be more luck than anything else.

  5. Jason says:

    Also see Brian Jenkins “Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?” for a great discussion on this same topic. Bottom line, yes, it’s possible, but not probable, and if you’re a responsible government official, you need to think about what threat you put that next billion dollars against.

    • Ed Marshall says:

      or towards. In all the long term fiscal discussion, no one has noticed that the US cost of maintaining a nuclear deterrent against…no one is $1 trillion dollars a decade.

      Plug for Global Zero, I’m attending the summit in Los Angeles next month.

    • greylocks says:

      It would seem reasonable to assume that the same intelligence methods that detect and avert conventional attacks would also detect and avert nuclear terrorism, and that we’re almost certainly talking about the same groups. In other words, there shouldn’t need to be an enormous additional outlay of money and manpower to chase “nuclear” terrorists.

      • Njorl says:

        I think it would be even easier.

        When there’s a thousand drug dealers out there, one narc selling isn’t going to deter buyers. But if there are 1000 narcs for every dealer, drug traffic would dry up.

        That’s not feasible for drugs, but it is feasible for nuclear materials and expertise. For every genuine seller or purchaser of nuclear material or expertise, there can be 100 stings by intelligence agencies.

        That would tend to force an organization to steal the fuel.

  6. Randy Owens says:

    I would have assumed that “acquire” referred to getting their hands on a warhead(s), most likely from the USSR, perhaps from Pakistan (who didn’t have any yet themselves at that time), rather than going through the whole development process, bypassing that whole “Mueller treatment”. It still hasn’t happened, apparently, but it would obviate that particular objection.

    And now I have a little “Who’s Next?” playing in my head.

    • mark f says:

      Yeah, I don’t think I ever heard anyone suggest that al-Qaeda might be building nukes. Seems to me the argument was always that a either a state or a corrupted employee of a state would sell a usable finished product. I’m no scientician, and the many histories of nuclear arms so far remain on my mental “to read” list, but I was under the impression that some serious institutional stability was required to build a bomb.

      • UberMitch says:

        No way! Didn’t Tom Clancy prove that a couple of guys can build a nuke in a like a shed, or something? Also I think we all learned from The Manhattan Project that all it really takes is a precocious 80s teen and his girlfriend.

        • NonyNony says:

          Wait I think I read something about this recently…

          Oh yeah, here it is.

          (And yes, I KNOW it’s a big step to go from “homegrown fission reactor from plans you found on the internet” to “bomb”.)

        • Murc says:

          God help me for responding to this in such detail, but…

          You’re thinking of “Sum of All Fears,” and in it terrorists didn’t so much build a nuke as they found an undetonated Israeli warhead that had been sitting underneath the desert since the fighter/bomber is was attached to was shot down during the Seven Days War.

          Then they tried to re-purpose it into a gun-type bomb using the fissile materiel, and it was more or less a fizzle. It spread a lot of radioactivity around but didn’t go boom, because they were in fact trying to do complicated nuclear engineering inside a dirty and ill-maintained machine shop.

          /pedantry

          • Randy Owens says:

            Actually, the reason that one was a fizzle was because the German they’d brought on board for the engineering had meant to separate the helium byproducts from the deuterium or tritium (I forget which) he happened to have lying around, but they killed him off before he got around to that, and helium had the opposite effect of the heavy hydrogen. It was still much more than a dirty bomb, though; very much a boom.

            Also, he (Clancy) did go out of his way to convey it as being a quite un-dirty and well-maintained machine shop, other than that incident where the grunt opened up the plutonium shavings.

      • greylocks says:

        I don’t see states getting into the nuclear terrorism business. The rich ones with spare nukes lying around just aren’t going to go there, for reasons that shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, and the poor ones like N. Korea aren’t going to suck the economy dry to build a nuke then hand it over to nutjobs. For pretty much the same reasons, nuclear powers are going to maintain high security of their facilities.

        I’m not saying it can’t happen, just that I think the probability is vastly inflated by the usual suspects in the scaremongering business.

        • mark f says:

          Yeah, I didn’t really buy the argument that Saddam Hussein was or was about to be selling off nuclear bombs left and right (not that I actually believed he had or was about to have any). Just saying that’s what I understood the argument to be.

        • Njorl says:

          I think the proposed scenario for such a thing is via corruption. Security could be compromised at a storage facility, or in transportation of bombs for disassembly.

          • DocAmazing says:

            The scenario that always got spun up during the Yeltsin years was that missile base commanders, having gone without pay for months and looking at their hungry children every evening, might just say “yob tvyou mat” and sell to the first high bidder.

            Of course, that scenario is less an argument for increased security and more an argument against government austerity programs.

          • DocAmazing says:

            See also the John Travolta movie Broken Arrow, if you have the need for cheap laughs.

    • Njorl says:

      Building a gun-type bomb isn’t that difficult, provided you have a lot of U235 (enough for severl more sophisticated bombs). Making the fuel is certainly beyond any terrorist organizations ability, though.

      • Ed Marshall says:

        It’s not knocking together a table in the basement, either. When the reaction starts, what wants to happen is that the two halves of the fissile material will try *really hard* to get the hell away from each other. It takes some very complex engineering to get the thing right and hold them together until you get the reaction you want instead of an explosion of radiation and energy that is trying it’s damnedest to throw the two away from each other before it reaches the critical point.

  7. Richard Hershberger says:

    Yes, experts in 1982 should have known this. The problem was that they didn’t read the science fiction magazines. Analog published in 1979 a piece titled “Build Your Own A-Bomb And Wake Up The Neighborhood.” It ostensibly was a how-to guide, but the actual point was how difficult it would actually be to build even a low yield fission device in a fixed location.

  8. Gary Farber says:

    This article by Mueller well outlines his explanations of why the alleged threat of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors is overblown.

  9. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I suspect Iran is trying the Saddam Hussein ploy: not really doing anything illegal while giving every impression of doing so, thereby convincing everyone (well, other regional powers & the mythical “Arab street”) that they are heroically defying the West. Got Saddam preemptively invaded & hung, but the Iranian clerics must think that can’t happen to them.

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