Don’t worry, be happy (and alert)

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.

5 thoughts on “Don’t worry, be happy (and alert)”

  1. Nitin,

    I wonder if terrorists and nations have the same outlook toward using nuclear weapons (if they had them). Nations maybe more tempted to act in their narrow self interest and use their possession of nuclear weapons for diplomatic / economic gains, while terrorists (esp. of the irrational jehadi kind) maybe more inclined to act to cause maximum possible destruction in an enemy kafir country (irrespective of how it affects their longevity). If Bin Laden ever wanted to negotiate, he need not actually have nuclear weapons to do so.

    Also, if Al Qaeda had weapons and could use them only once, would not India be an easier target than the US because of regional proximity?

  2. Vimal,

    The terrorists would like nothing better than to have us convinced that they won’t negotiate, but will go ahead and use it anyway. But even Bin Laden is on record has having told Hamid Mir (it’s in the Mueller’s paper linked in the article) in late 2001 that they want the nukes to deter America. Some of his tapes have been seen as warnings/demands before attacks, although we don’t know how sincere these were. But we shouldn’t assume that they have non-negotiable demands.

    As for targets: yes, indeed. India would arguably be an easier target compared to the US, but might not be “important” enough for them. The easiest target, though, is Pakistan itself.

  3. Several US experts including former assistant secretary of defense Graham Allison (in his book “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe”) have said that they almost certainly anticipate a dirty bomb attack on the US till 2010. As for Pakistan, it should not be difficult for Bin Laden to explode a nuclear weapon there since Pakistani scientists and officials themselves are interested in providing him with know-how and possibly material.
    P.S. I think you will like Jonathan Schell’s “The Seventh Decade: The New Face of Nuclear Danger” which I reading right now.

  4. Ashutosh,

    If you read Mueller’s paper, Allison is the one scholar who gets the most drubbing. Mueller contends that alarmists have always been saying that the Bad Thing will happen in a decade. They said it in 1995 and in 2004 and now….and yet, look here we are.

    I disagree with much of Mueller’s basic thesis. But I’d say Allison has something to answer.

  5. got bureaucracy? then a lot of things will go wrong under your nose. see Sept 11 which has been investigated in depth and there is a second book to add the initial one. 🙂

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