Is the spectre of nuclear terrorism justified?

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One of the persistent fears in the debate on nuclear proliferation is the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists. Nuclear experts, government officials and journalists often fret that some or other terrorist group would get their hands on one or a few nuclear weapons and then all hell would break loose. In fact, on several occasions former United States (US) president Barack Obama warned that nuclear terrorism constitutes the pre-eminent threat to US national security. Similarly, Robert Gates, a former US Secretary of Defence, contends that every state leader is kept awake by the spectre of a nuclear-armed terrorist group inflicting unimaginable destruction on society. Nuclear experts, for their part, point out that nuclear deterrence – a highly efficacious strategy in the relations between nuclear states – holds little value in deterring terrorists hell-bent on acquiring and detonating nuclear weapons. For deterrence to work, nuclear experts remind us, a return address is required. 

Terrorist groups desiring to go nuclear can pursue one or more of three strategies: One, they can obtain a nuclear weapon from a benevolent state sponsor; two, they can steal or illicitly buy a nuclear weapon; and, three, they can attempt to build their own weapon. The conclusion that is often reached is that nuclear terrorism can be accomplished without much difficulty, and given the simplicity of the task and the unimaginable destruction that would follow, nuclear terrorism constitutes an existential crisis for states in international politics. It is worth mentioning that such fears became all the more plausible after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (hereafter: 9/11). The latter events had the effect of altering everyone’s perceptions of what is plausible – terrorists armed with nuclear weapons and blowing everyone up now became a distinct possibility.

It is against this backdrop that the primary research question of this study emerges: Is the spectre of nuclear terrorism and, concurrently, the depiction of nuclear terrorism as an existential crisis by the media, government officials and nuclear experts, justified? The study is based on a literature study of nuclear weapons (with specific reference to nuclear deterrence), terrorism and nuclear terrorism, coupled with an analysis of data derived from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) for the period 1998–2018. The conclusion reached from this analysis is that the threat of nuclear terrorism is highly exaggerated and, importantly, does not in any meaningful way constitute an existential crisis in international politics. Four key findings buttress this conclusion: Firstly, all terrorist groups – even so-called superterrorists – are pre-eminently motivated by political objectives. Although it is widely believed that superterrorists pursue religious objectives (and thus are unamenable to political constraints), this overly simplistic picture no longer holds water. In fact, research on the parochially defined religious objectives of superterrorists often lacks context. In studying terrorism, consideration of religious, ethnic and technological factors tell us something about how and why individuals resort to the use of force. However, the ultima ratio for the use of asymmetric methods of warfare is to accomplish some or other political objective. The desire to achieve political results remains a pre-eminent factor in decisions to wage irregular warfare.

Secondly, although nuclear deterrence is inefficacious in deterring terrorists, this is a problem only if and where terrorists can easily obtain nuclear weapons. Importantly, all fears about nuclear terrorism – whether in the form of a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) or a lone-wolf terrorist – are premised on prior possession of nuclear weapons. The conclusion reached is simple: No nuclear weapon, no nuclear terrorism.

Thirdly, it is highly unlikely that nuclear states will transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. In the post-9/11 world, fears abounded that so-called rogue regimes would transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists. However, nuclear states are unlikely to be willing to run the risk of being blamed and, more importantly, punished for the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists. Where nuclear states contemplate transferring nuclear weapons to terrorists, nuclear deterrence is likely to continue working its constraining effects. Data from the GTD (covering the period 1998–2018) further indicates that there are no grounds for believing that a terrorist group or a state sponsor of such a group would remain anonymous after an attack with a nuclear weapon. Nuclear forensics provide further constraints against nuclear terror, enabling states to draw connections between nuclear materials and their sources in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

Finally, it is well-nigh impossible for terrorist groups to steal or buy a nuclear weapon and, even more so, to build one on their own. Fretting about terrorist access to nuclear material is nothing new. However, in the post-9/11 world, American intelligence officers were convinced that, provided they could get their hands on enriched uranium, Al Qaeda could build a crude nuclear device. For terrorists to buy a nuclear weapon or to gain access to nuclear material is, however, far more complicated than is widely thought. There exists no evidence that a commercial market (or even any real demand) for nuclear material exists today. At any rate, nuclear states take the safety of their arsenals very seriously, this notwithstanding the exaggerated claims in the media concerning lax nuclear safety standards of some nuclear states. Besides, even if a terrorist group could steal a nuclear weapon, it would surely know that the unauthorised detonation of a nuclear weapon is well-nigh impossible. Nuclear weapons are carefully designed to prevent unauthorised detonation. If it is well-nigh impossible for terrorists to buy or steal a nuclear weapon; to build one from scratch is even more so. Fears of a terrorist group building a nuclear weapon in some or other basement in New York, and subsequently detonating the weapon, are more typical of a Hollywood-type script than reality. All terrorist groups lack the knowledge, infrastructure and technical expertise to design nuclear weapons, let alone conduct the requisite tests to ensure that their device works.

Notwithstanding widely held beliefs about the threat and imminence of nuclear terror, this analysis illustrated that there is very little substance in such fears. There is no reason to believe that nuclear states will transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. Over against this, there are ample reasons why states would not transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists (and ample constraints on their doing so). Where such states contemplate transferring nuclear weapons to terrorists, they would be acutely aware that their actions would not go unnoticed or unpunished. In such cases, nuclear deterrence will remain remarkably efficacious. At the same time, terrorist groups guilty of nuclear terror would surely know that they could not remain anonymous. Neither buying nor stealing a nuclear weapon provides viable paths for terrorist groups wishing to go nuclear. Moreover, building their own bomb appears to be impossible. In international politics, conventional terror constitutes a recalcitrant problem; nuclear terror, by contrast, is hardly a problem to begin with.

Keywords: nuclear deterrence; nuclear terrorism; nuclear weapons; superterrorism; terrorism


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