Nuclear Terrorism: Lessons from the Past

Even though 9/11 and the Beslan School Hostage Crisis were not nuclear terrorist attacks, they tell us that nuclear terrorism, if it occurs, will be something its perpetrators get to do only once. These gruesome attacks both stimulated and legitimized a vigorous counter-terrorism response on the part of the countries that were attacked. In the case of 9/11 the US got a free pass from the entire world, including the so-called “Arab Street” to invade Afghanistan and render al-Qaeda Central irrelevant to what has now become a loose affiliation with a tarnished brand. (The US invasion of Iraq was seen as going too far.) The Beslan crisis, in which Ingush and Chechen terrorists siezed a school full of young children whom they abused and killed, gave rise to global revulsion so intense that the entire world turned a blind eye to whatever the Russians saw fit to do in Chechnya for roughly two years.

The Boston Marathon bombing has a second lesson: it is far easier to reconstruct an event than it is to predict one. The bad guys who place the device may not be smart enough to know or care. But the bad guys who obtain the material and make the bomb will have to weigh whatever they might achieve by attempting a nuclear explosion against the destruction of their organization and themselves with it.

Most terrorists are in the business of coercing a government or society into satisfying some set of demands. To do this they create terror as theater, playing to the media. An apocalyptic weapon will not coerce anybody to do anything – it will just get them wiped out. Coercion requires that they stay around for repeat performances, which is more likely if they stick to guns and conventional bombs.

A device that contains enough special nuclear materials to be at all credible as a nuclear explosive will create the same terror and counter-terrorism response whether or not it works and whether or not it is interdicted. Only an apocalyptic terrorist organization will attempt to obtain or build an apocalyptic weapon.

The one historical example of an apocalyptic group using weapons of mass destruction is Aum Shinrikyo, the organization that released Sarin into the Tokyo Subway. They had purchased land in Australia, intent on mining the uranium under it and making an atomic bomb. But the work went slowly, and their impatient leader, Shoko Asahara, decided to go with chemical weapons instead. They killed and injured people, stimulated a counter-terrorism response, and were, as they say, “rolled up” by Japanese authorities.

So there it is. One nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction, one time, and the perpetrating bunch is history, whether or not the device does much damage. It makes all but the craziest terrorist organizations stick to their usual arsenals.

See also:

Jackson, Brian A. and David R. Frelinger. 2007. Rifling Through the Terrorist’s Arsenal. Santa Monica: RAND.

Pape, Robert A. 2003. The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. American Political Science Review. 97:3. 343-361.


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