Number Fifty-One

Tealiberasophoterianistic Perspectives

Afraid of the Dark: Terrorism, Nuclear Bombs, and Prevention Strategies

with 25 comments

This is a paper I wrote for a Strategic Weapons and Warfare class.  I am re-posting it here, since it is less controversial than Jesse’s topic :), and is a nice stop-gap until James and Alex post.  I probably went overboard in this paper, but I had to defend a position strongly, so I am unashamed.  Sorry for how long it is.  Congratulations if you finish it.

Terrorism, according to the Department of Defense, is the biggest security threat to the United States.[1] Terrorism is also the biggest threat to Germany.[2] It’s also the biggest threat to the United Kingdom.[3]  The threat that a non-state, terrorist organization could acquire nuclear weaponry has exponentially horrified state officials from every country.  However, there is also scholarly opinion that terroristic organizations wouldn’t even use nuclear weaponry even if they could acquire them.  The goal of this paper is to answer the following questions.  How great is the possibility that terroristic organizations would deploy nuclear weaponry if they could acquire it? And if so, what is the best strategy for stopping this threat from ever actualizing?

            William C. Potter, one of the leading scholars regarding nonproliferation, writes that “the conventional wisdom about terrorists…is that few would be inclined to carry out an attacking using WMD’s even if they had the capability to do so.”[4]  Not only is it a debatable subject, but Potter claims that research shows that, especially throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, most scholars and state officials believed that terroristic organizations would not use WMD’s.  Brian Jenkins wrote in 1987 that “terrorists want a lot of people watching, but not a lot of people dead.”[5] Further, some argue that the potential for blackmail, among other things, mean that nuclear weapons would be too useful to detonate.  This line of thinking goes on to argue that the ideology of any terrorist organizations powerful and equipped enough to possibly acquire WMD’s, any sort of nuclear weapon, would be inconsistent with a massive killing of civilians.[6] Additionally, terrorists organizations, and the possession of nuclear capability (by states) has coexisted for decades.  There has been no nuclear attack to date.  States have thus far not given nuclear information, or at least any significant nuclear information, to terrorist organizations, and there is no indication that they would change their minds.  The potential negatives, in this scenario, far outweigh any potential positives.[7]

            There are, however, many problems with the idea that terrorist organizations would not deploy nuclear bombs upon acquisition.  The first reason is the growing amounts of high-casualty attacks.[8] From the sarin attack in Japan to the bombing of USS Cole to the attacks on 9/11 and many more recent examples, the existence of high-casualty attacks proves that terrorist organizations are willing to go to extreme lengths to present whatever message they believe in, even if to this point they haven’t actually deployed nuclear weapons.  The argument that it would be difficult for them to acquire such weapons due to reluctance by those who have nuclear programs or information to give those programs or that information up, is irrelevant given this evidence.  The argument is not about the ease of acquisition; clearly, acquiring the weapons is difficult.  The argument is about whether they would deploy them should they acquire them. 

The shift from largely political motivations for terrorism to largely religious motivations for terrorism is parallel to the growing belief by state officials and scholars alike that terrorist organizations would deploy WMD’s with acquisition of them.[9]  This opinion is proven correct by a cursory glance at the words of the terrorists themselves.  The Al Qaeda American spokesmen wrote that “You…will experience things that will make you forget the horrors of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, and Virginia Tech.”  One terrorist organization spokesmen justified the use of nuclear weapons by saying that the Koran stated that it was permissible to “chastise as you have been chastised.”  Another Al Qaeda terrorist said that using nuclear weapons should be sought because it would “prove Al Qaeda’s influence to the whole world.” A Muslim cleric issued a fatwa stating that the use of nuclear weapons against infidels is consistent with the teachings of the Koran.  Osama bin Laden stated that it is “a religious duty to acquire nuclear weapons.”[10]

Coupled with the fact that there is evidence that Al Qaeda has sought nuclear weapons[11] and the linking of numerous terrorist organizations to Pakistani scientists, it becomes clear that any academic or political argument that terrorists organizations would not use nuclear weapons, or any sort of WMD, is hopeful and naïve at best, disingenuous at worst.  Historical and ongoing mass-casualty attacks, the desire to acquire nuclear weapons, the evidence that attempts have been made, and the rhetoric of the terrorists themselves prove that the answer to the debate as to whether terrorists would use nuclear weapons should they acquire them is an emphatic ‘yes’.

The next question, then, is what is the best strategy to deter this from happening? This question assumes, philosophically, that non-terrorists desire to prevent terrorists from coming into possession of nuclear weapons, and are taking the obvious, physical steps to avoid giving away or leaking nuclear weapons or information to said terrorists. 

Beyond that, there is one major obstacle to deterring terrorist organizations from deploying WMD’s and nuclear weapons; this theoretical terrorist organization’s lack of rationality.  Traditional strategies of deterrence are “based on an assumption of the enemy’s rationality.”[12] How can we make an inherently irrational enemy see that the deployment of nuclear weapons goes against his own cost-benefit ratio, an inherently rational consideration? There are literally hundreds of factors that go into any large-scale, consistent, thorough policy regarding the deterring of terrorist organizations from using nuclear weapons, and some of these factors can differentiate and are somewhat dependent on the scope and differing abilities of those who are implementing the strategy.  This theoretical “best strategy” has been thoroughly argued and debated, and has changed based upon the presumption as to whether they would use nuclear weapons or would limit themselves to less casualty-heavy attacks. However, built upon the presumption that terrorist organizations would deploy nuclear weapons if they could acquire them, there are three non-negotiable, foundational factors that must be present in any strategy.

The first is the realization that there are no significant bridges that can be built with an enemy that is willing to use nuclear weapons against civilians for some twisted religious or political conviction, with no greater life-saving rationale.  Deterrence in this case, then, depends upon pre-emptive military attack.[13] Proponents of soft power, the belief that building bridges and appealing to those who may not be terrorists but have a voice of influence over terrorist (moderate Muslims, for instance), only perpetuate terrorist organizations by installing confidence in them that we will not attack back in kind, and certainly won’t attack them before they attack us.  Some claim that such bridge-building actions as eliminating poverty would work better than the threat of preemptive attacks.  However, terrorist are far more likely to be middle or upper class than to be lower class.[14] With each soft-power or bridge-building thesis comes a convincing response that these issues (such as poverty) are merely the talking points of terrorist, and they change as soon as we take steps to address their supposed complaints.  Land reform in Pakistan is an excellent example; Hillary Clinton attempted to address this talking point, but terrorist organizations dropped it as soon as she began addressing it.[15] The facts are that the only thing that has continued to be shown to be successful is the threat of dropping bombs, not building bridges.  Colonel Gadaffi in Libya did not give up his chemical and biological program, and his attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, until the United States responded to terroristic threats by invading Iraq.[16] This is just one of countless examples that the key to reducing the threat of chemical, biological and thus nuclear attack is to raise the price of engagement so that terrorists would be committing organization, and not just individual, suicide by going forth in their deployment.  An irrational enemy might be willing to die, or even to suffer some greater loss, in order to deploy a nuclear weapon.  But their cause, whatever it may be, depends on those who believe in it.  A threat to the existence of that cause is foundational to the prevention of the deployment of any WMD, including nuclear.

The second foundation to the prevention of nuclear deployment by terrorist organizations is the promotion of democracy.  Democratization will help address the foundational conditions that allow terrorist organizations to grow and flourish in the first place.[17] If terrorist organization are not allowed to have the environment in which they can grow and flourish, or continue to exist where they current do, than the acquisition or deployment of nuclear weapons becomes a moot point.  Democracy provides an outlet in which disagreements can be aired, and the redress of grievances can be peaceably sought.  Repressive regimes and systems do not allow such democratic and peaceful options.  They cut off dissent and allow no public debate.  They therefore create an “enabling environment for violent extremism.”[18] The spread of democracy, then, eliminates such repressive systems and the terrorist organizations it spawns.  It eliminates the environment that enables terrorists, and therefore destroys the possibility of nuclear deployment by terrorist organizations that, within democracies, would not exist.

The third and final foundational factor necessary to any strategy of preventing the deployment of nuclear bombs is that it is necessary to, at times, trade civil liberty to acquire security.  “The threats of the modern age, most notably the threat of catastrophic terrorism,” i.e. nuclear weapons, “…require tremendous executive flexibility.”[19]  I have gone back and forth on this issue, and would be easily convinced, probably, by a contradicting viewpoint, but I believe that my current opinion is borne out by American history.  Abraham Lincoln invoked massive executive powers, and restricted civil liberties, and the result was the emancipation of slaves without Congress approval, as well as victory in the Civil War.  Franklin Roosevelt invoked massive executive power, and restricted civil liberties, and the result was victory in World War II.  To those that cite Richard Nixon, and other examples of when civil liberties were restricted with no real gain, the question is begged; is it worth it to prevent these cases, and the relative lack of cost, and in doing so also prevent the possibility of winning wars such as the Civil War and World War II, while also making the prevention of nuclear deployment by terrorist organizations less likely.[20] That is a risk that no strategy of deterrence of deployment of a nuclear bomb should be willing to take.

In conclusion, the answer to both questions has been convincingly given.  Terrorist organizations would indeed be willing to deploy nuclear weapons at their acquisition, as shown by the growing amount of high-casualty attacks; the attempts to acquire nuclear weapons and the rhetoric that there is a continuing desire to both acquire and use nuclear weapons by the terrorists themselves.  The best strategy for deterring this theoretical deployment has been spelled out; the willingness to drop bombs rather than build bridges (hard power over soft power), the spreading of democracy, and the willingness to exchange civil liberties for security must be foundational to this strategy.  Greek philosopher Plato once said “We can easily forgive a child for being afraid of the dark.  The greatest tragedy is men who are afraid of the light.”  Terrorism exists, and the threat they could potentially use devastating nuclear weaponry is real.  We could forgive a child afraid of that dark possibility.  We must not, however, be afraid of doing what is necessary to confront it.

[1] United States Department of Defense News Release, 2008.

[2] Office for the Protection of the Constitution Report, 2008.

[3] Robin Simcox “Islamist Terrorism: the British Connection” The Centre for Social Cohesion: 2010

[4] William C. Potter “Nuclear Threats From Non-State Actors,” in Arms Control After Iraq: Normative and Operational Challenges, ed. Ramesh Thakur et al. (New York: United Nations University Press, 2006), 384.

[5] Brian Jenkins “The Future Course of International Terrorism,” The Futurist (July-August 1987), 8.

[6] Lewis Dunn, Can Al Qaeda Be Deterred from Using Nuclear Weapons?” Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction Occasional Paper No. 3 (Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, July 2005).

[7] Matthew Kroenig, Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (London: Cornell University Press, 2010) 182-183.

[8] Charles D. Ferguson et al. The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (London: Routledge Press, 2005) 14-19

[9] Gordon Corera Shopping For Bombs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 34-36.

[10] David Aaron In Their Own Words: Voices of Jihad (Arlington: Rand Publishing, 2008) 292-295

[11] Bob Woodward “U.S. Fears Bin Laden Made Nuclear Strides,” Washington Post, December 4th.

[12] Boaz Ganor The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2005) 74.

[13] Michael Rubin “Military Attacks Are Essential to Fighting Terrorism,” in Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism ed. Stuart Gottlieb (Washington D.C., CQ Press, 2010) 219.

[14] Corera, Shopping For Bombs, 57-60.

[15] Ibid, 61.

[16] Ibid, 171.

[17] Jessica Stern Terror in the Name of God (New York: Harper Collins, 2003) 11-13.

[18] Ibid, 51-52.

[19] John Yoo “Limit Civil Liberties and Bolster Executive Power” in Debating Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism (Washington D.C., CQ Press, 2010) 352.

[20] Ibid, 348.


Written by Jake Phillips

May 25, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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25 Responses

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  1. Terrorists do not produce nuclear weapons. Governments with nuclear programs do. So, on who do you expect to “drop bombs rather than build bridges” ? And how do you think this is going to dissuade terrorists from wanting to kill?

    Maybe if the US kills 100,000 innocent Iraqis, that’ll teach those terrorists to not attack us. More of that ‘culture of life,’ I see.

    If there is a ‘cure’ for radical violent fundamentalism, it is through education. Education leads to empowerment, then revolution, and hopefully to democratization, as we see happening in N Africa now.

    But I guess violent intimidation is a part of the Christian world view. Jesus loves us so much that he demands and requires worship and allegiance – under the penalty of an eternity of torture by fire. Sounds worse than Saddam.


    May 25, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    • If you have an actual question to argument to make about Christianity, feel free to do so.

      As for the nuclear weapons, I addressed the issue of the liklihood that terrorist organizations would acquire a nuclear weapon, so I’m not sure what your point is. The idea of a preemptive attack in case of a nuclear threat is the same that’s been held by all states going back to 1949. It’s really not particularly radical, or even conservative.

      Jake Phillips

      May 25, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    • Ellen, you seem to be taking out all of your frustrations with conservative christians in America out on this blog. Some of your arguments have been very compelling and I probably agree with you on a lot of issues, but you’re not going to get anywhere like this. Sarcasm and derision can be useful in this kind of forum, but you should use it like punctuation at the end of a valid, relevant, and well-reasoned argument. We all know that you don’t think highly of Christian conservatives. Try telling them why, specifically, you think they’re wrong.


      May 25, 2011 at 7:03 pm

  2. I found this interesting and thought-provoking. However, you were right, I do disagree with some of your points. I think that your example of Hilary Clinton’s use of “soft power” sounds like a success to me. The terrorists are using an issue that matters to the locals as an issue to legitimize themselves and the fact that the US addressed the issue in a positive way took that away from the terrorists. Even if most terrorists are from middle/upper class backgrounds, they require the support of the populace to some degree to exist. We saw the power of the terrorists in Iraq dwindle after they lost the sympathy of the Iraqi people. Bombs are obviously required to some extent when dealing with terrorists, but they are clumsy instruments.

    Your second “foundation” strikes me as a little naive. The US has, for decades, actively suppressed democracy around the world for fear that it would allow terrorists and their ideas to spread. Hosni Mubarak was supported by the US until it was obvious that he couldn’t hold on to power. I agree with you that in the long term democracy is bad for terrorism, but in the short term, things are much more complicated. Just look at Palestine where they have had a democratically elected “terrorist” government. Also, spreading democracy along the Iraq/Afghanistan model is so obviously wrong that I don’t think it even deserves an argument. (I’m not saying that you’re proposing that kind of democracy spreading, I’m just sayin’.)

    I’m not going to debate the issue of civil liberties and executive power right now, because that’s a complicated topic and I just don’t feel like getting into all that right now. I do want to challenge the whole assumption that our biggest threat is terrorism. Terrorism has caused a statistically insignificant number of deaths compared with how much wealth and life have been sacrificed to fight it. By invading countries, restricting civil liberties, creating an absurd security theater at airports, and stoking the fires of xenophobia, politicians have only made the terrorists more relevant. If the US didn’t take terrorists so seriously, their target recruiting pools wouldn’t take them as seriously either. One of the primary appeals of al Qaeda is that it was a very small group of people that changed the course of history of the most powerful nation on earth. I also think it is unlikely that a terrorist organization will acquire nuclear weapons. I agree that they would use them if got them. I don’t understand why, after explaining that they aren’t rational, you still argue that they could be convinced not to launch such an attack if they knew it would mean the end of their organization. But nuclear weapons are hard to get and the governments that could supply them know that if a North Korean nuke, for example, blew up in the US, we would completely destroy North Korea. It takes a group of significant size and sophistication to acquire and deploy a nuclear device, and if we can keep terrorist groups small we will probably be safe from nuclear attack. That said, obviously we need to work hard to stop nuclear proliferation and keep that shit under a tight lid.


    May 25, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    • James,

      Regarding the spread of democracy, the tactics of how we actual spread democracy was not really my point. Terrorism simply does not exist in stable democracies, and so even if you are correct in the short-term problems (with which I would agree with you), I do not think that either is valid against constructing a long-term strategy of democratization radicalized states.

      “I don’t understand why, after explaining that they aren’t rational, you still argue that they could be convinced not to launch such an attack if they knew it would mean the end of their organization.”

      Touche. A flaw in my argumentation. I’ll have to re-evaluate that point.

      As far as to whether terrorism is actually our biggest threat, I don’t know that I know enough to speak intelligently about the subject. It certainly feels like terrorism is the biggest threat, but how much of that is perception and how much is reality is difficult to tell. For the sake of the assignment, I accepted the sources that I cited.

      Otherwise, a fair critique :-).

      Jake Phillips

      May 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm

  3. And the assertion that Libya abandoned it’s nuclear program because of the US invasion of Iraq? I guess it didn’t work that way for N. Korea, who detonated a nuclear weapon 2 yrs ago today.


    May 25, 2011 at 6:11 pm

  4. Interesting essay. As Ellen stated, is it mainly the governments who make the weapons? Has any of your research shown the terrorists themselves making the WMD’s? It seems to me that the governments, particularly in the middle east, turn the blind eye and harbor these extremists while they do their training and come up with their plans…


    May 25, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    • Janelle,

      The creation of a nuclear weapon requires a level of sophistication, resources, and money that non-state actors (like terrorist organizations) simply do not have. Nuclear programs have historically always been state-sponsored. Terrorist organizations would have to acquire the materials from a state actor.

      Jake Phillips

      May 25, 2011 at 6:36 pm

  5. Terrorism is simply an excuse that our government uses to keep the war machine running and the money flowing. Ever hear of Operation Northwoods? If not, look it up. Like James said, they’re not producing this stuff themselves. Just research who we’re arming today, and you’ll have a good indicator of who our biggest threat will be in ten years.


    May 25, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    • Our government has used terrorism to keep the money flowing? You mean our same government that has run up trillions of dollars of debt, a lot of which can be blamed on wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) started because of terrorism? No one has thought that the government makes money off of war since the 1950’s, Jason.

      But yes, you are correct that terrorist organizations don’t produce nuclear materials themselves. They would have to acquire it. James pointed out the reason why they haven’t been able to do so yet.

      Jake Phillips

      May 25, 2011 at 6:38 pm

      • Oh really? Blackwater? Halliburton? Oil? Did you know 90% of the world’s opium is in Afghanistan? That armed US troops guard the fields? That the president of Afghanistan’s brother sold heroin and was on the CIA payroll?

        And we have to be over there to protect our freedom and promote democracy. Please. Read Eisenhower’s speech—as he was leaving office—warning against the military-industrial complex. This was his last speech to the American people as president, and he (the sitting President of the United States) chose to use his last speech to warn us of what is happening right now.

        There are many, many powerful corporations and individuals who don’t make money if we aren’t at war.


        May 25, 2011 at 6:53 pm

      • I know it sounds crazy until you look at history. There is a business behind going to other countries and taking their stuff. Just look at how our country started.


        May 25, 2011 at 7:03 pm

      • That’s a different argument. You said government before. Now it seems like you’re talking about private corporations benefitting from war. That’s probably a more valid argument.

        Jake Phillips

        May 25, 2011 at 7:05 pm

      • No, they are connected. Who do you think controls the government? Where does the tax money come from? How about campaign contributions? Off-the-record lobbyist gifts? Government is largely controlled and influenced by corporations. And all kinds of corporations make all kinds of money off of war and, yes, terrorism. Just check out the ad running on your very own post:

        Look up Operation Northwoods yet?


        May 25, 2011 at 7:27 pm

      • I guess I’m trying to figure out if I’m supposed to be surprised that there are businessmen that are going to profit off of something that America does. I agree with you; there is. I just don’t see a huge conspiracy theory behind it. That doesn’t mean that then these strategies are not also in America’s best interest as a country. Academics who are experts in counterterrorism, most of them liberal, some conservative, have spent many years studying this field, and they wrote the books I cited. I’m inclined to trust them, while acknowleding that corportations are going to find ways to profit.

        Jake Phillips

        May 25, 2011 at 7:43 pm

      • Let’s agree to disagree on the money aspect then, and let it go. Back to the original article and terrorism: Your post argues that the US is interested in preventing terrorism, and in a certain sense that is true. However, our government has a history of using terrorism—even creating terrorist attacks—to justify doing what they want. That is why it is difficult for me to believe anything they say.


        May 25, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    • And by the way, I never said the government directly makes money off of war. I said “keep the money flowing,” which is a totally different point. They have to protect their special interests, contributors, corporations, etc.


      May 25, 2011 at 7:40 pm

      • I forgot to address Operation Northwoods. I’ve studied that timepiece of American history before. I’m not sure what you’re looking for. It was a horrible plan from the beginning, made by a bunch of scumbags, and completely rejected by Kennedy, who fired many CIA operatives (because of that, and the Bay of Pig.)

        If you’re insinuating, as some conspiracy theorists do, that Operation Northwoods has some bearing on 9/11, you’re crazy :).

        Jake Phillips

        May 25, 2011 at 7:50 pm

      • And good point, by the way. I misunderstood what you wrote.

        Jake Phillips

        May 25, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      • I’m not going to connect Operation Northwoods to 9/11. Just trying to make the point that the US government is not above lying to the American people to get what they want. I think that has been proven. You can’t overlook the fact that Operation Northwoods had the written approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


        May 25, 2011 at 8:02 pm

      • And we all know what happened to Kennedy a year later. Not saying everything is ALWAYS connected, but “once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”


        May 25, 2011 at 8:12 pm

      • You see what I did there? We were making progress toward a rational discussion, and I made a left turn onto conspiracy theories.


        May 26, 2011 at 11:45 am

  6. Man, this reply system is really screwing me over…


    May 25, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    • Lol, yes I did see what you did there, and was trying to decide how to respond.

      We have had terrible leaders at different points during our country’s existence. Scratch that. We’ve had terrible leaders at every point during our country’s existence. This is why our system of checks and balances is so important; it prevents ridiculously stupid and short-sighted ideas, like Operation Northwoods, from being enacted.

      Jake Phillips

      May 26, 2011 at 3:34 pm

  7. Jake solid view point. Your a fairly well educated writer and I appreciate your approach…


    June 24, 2011 at 3:26 am

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