Fears of nuclear terrorism are overblown?
Citing a presentation by John Mueller, a Ohio professor, Steve Chapman contends that the “worst” won’t happen.
Far from being plausible, (argued John Mueller), “the likelihood that a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small.” (See Mueller’s paper)
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 Qaeda, 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 Osama bin Laden embarks on the project, he has only a minuscule chance of seeing it bear fruit. Given the formidable odds, he 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. [Chicago Tribune]
Dr Mueller’s paper is entertainting but he and Mr Chapman are dangerously close to fallacy. That’s because while the likelihood itself may be low, the risk itself is not. The worst can still happen. And hence we must worry. How much? Now that’s a subjective and different countries would assess it differently.
Similarly, Bin Laden would not be deterred from pursuing the project merely because the chances of success are low. For a start he doesn’t even have to deliver or detonate one in the United States. He might calculate that he can go a long way merely by having one. It is dangerous to fall into the trap of believing that states (or terrorists) seek nuclear weapons only to use them. Dr Mueller’s analysis is academically expansive, but doesn’t consider the specifics of the contemporary problem: nuclear collusion between a faction of the Pakistani state and a faction of the jihadi establishment.
And then again, there is a risk—albeit with low likelihood—that al-Qaeda would try to get one across into the United States or another country.
Both overstating and understating the risks is wrong. Understating is arguably more dangerous.