Home inFocus Counterterrorism (Summer 2010) Armageddon and the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Armageddon and the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Chuck Freilich Summer 2010

President Obama recently convened a global summit on the threat of nuclear terrorism, an issue that he considers to be the greatest danger currently facing the U.S. and the international community. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly believes that the gravest threat is not posed by rogue states, such as Iran, even if it acquires nuclear weapons, but rather “…a nuclear weapon reach[ing] a terrorist group, which will not hesitate to use it immediately. They will send it in a container with a GPS to a leading port in the U.S., Europe, or Israel.”

Unlike traditional terrorism, nuclear terrorism would pose a potentially catastrophic threat to states across the world. Even a bomb considered to be relatively small would have devastating consequences, with estimates ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dead. Although Israel would survive such a strike as a state, the consequences would be devastating – and this scenario is based on the optimistic assumption that terrorists would detonate only one nuclear bomb. Should nuclear terrorists strike the U.S., the consequences while not existential, would nevertheless be extreme.

Nuclear terrorism poses a unique threat not only because of the magnitude of the destruction, but because those most likely to perpetrate an attack may be fundamentally nihilistic and therefore undeterrable – prepared to pay any cost in loss of life in pursuit of their objectives. As millennial movements for whom the crippling and even destruction of the U.S. and Israel are sacred missions, a nuclear terrorist attack where even a devastating response is assumed may be a worthy means of ushering in a messianic era.

Purpose of Nuclear Terrorism

There are several reasons why nuclear terrorism, whether against the U.S. or Israel, could serve strategic objectives and benefit those states and groups contemplating such actions. First, there is the actual use of nuclear weapons with the designed goal of dealing their victim a devastating blow. However, nuclear possession may also be used as a deterrent against an attack from the U.S. or Israel in order to counter their overwhelming military superiority. In this way, nuclear terrorism would provide an umbrella enabling the state or group to conduct lower level hostilities with the assumption that they would be spared the threat of massive retaliation.

Possessing nuclear weapons would also allow the group or country to exercise decisive influence over U.S. and Israeli decision-making in times of crisis. It could prove to be a deciding factor on fundamental policy issues as the two countries could be held hostage by the very threat of a nuclear terrorist attack. It also would serve to weaken the resilience of American and Israeli society as a result of the need to live under the shadow of nuclear terrorism. In turn, it would severely undermine public confidence in either government’s ability to provide a safe environment in which to live.

A nuclear terrorist attack against either the United States or Israel could be carried out by sea, air, and land-based operations. Israel, however, faces the additional threat of rocket attacks, such as those already in Hezbollah’s possession that could be fitted with nuclear warheads. Though unsuited for ordinary military purposes, these rockets could be effective weapons of terror.

Policy Options

The United States and Israel have two policy options—prevention and deterrence—that they can pursue in countering the threat.

Prevention: Prevention is the first measure in the bilateral tool-kit, including heightened intelligence, interdiction cooperation, and a variety of related offensive and defensive measures. Nevertheless, the difficulties the United States has encountered in tracking down bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives, as well as the trouble Israel faces in detecting short-range rockets in Lebanon and Gaza, are indicative of the challenges posed by the detection of a terrorist nuclear weapon. Once detected, the problem of eliminating the threat before it could be detonated would remain critical and difficult.

Part of the prevention effort is simply based on already existing U.S. policies and programs designed to deal with the threat on a global scale. Israel, for the most part, is not involved in these efforts, though highly supportive. They include the following:

  • Engaging in global diplomacy to further strengthen international resolve to deal with the threat of nuclear terrorism. This includes better utilizing already existing diplomatic tools, such as UNSCR 1540; engaging with rogue states, such as Iran and Syria, on a conditional agreement with severe penalties for failure; and heightening pressure on states to deny assistance and sanctuary to terrorists.
  • Creating a variety of programs designed to improve control over nuclear facilities, stockpiles and personnel in a number of countries. This is a “drying up the swamp” type approach – the fewer the number of “loose” nukes, materials, and experts, the lower the risk of nuclear terrorism.
  • Heightening international cooperation in the areas of law enforcement, border security, export controls, intelligence, interdiction of WMD, and terrorist related shipments and financial flows.
  • Expanding covert operations and, in some cases, a willingness to bring significant military force to bear, over and above special forces, may also be required.

As another source of prevention, Israel has an extensive homeland security system, both active (“Arrow” and “Iron Dome”) and passive. Together they provide a modicum of security. However, even one nuclear warhead piercing through the system would constitute a catastrophic failure. Defense is thus not a sufficient option in the case of nuclear threats. At the same time, a potential attacker would have to take the high probability of interception into account and that Israel would presumably retaliate massively.

Deterrence: It is typically assumed that deterrence is ineffective against nuclear terrorism, due both to the nihilistic nature of the assumed perpetrators and the absence of a return address. However, this is not always the case. While the biggest question mark is al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas have both proven themselves deterrable over the years. Though certainly extremist, their commitment to their domestic audiences vies with and at times overrides their commitment to Israel’s destruction. This in no way detracts from the extreme severity of the threat that would be posed by their acquisition of a nuclear capability – such as the ability to terrorize Israel’s population, conduct large-scale terror attacks with relative impunity, or attempt to dictate terms – but their deterrability does place the threat in an appropriate context.

Similarly, while a precise assessment of Iran’s cost-benefit analysis is unknowable, Tehran does appear to be a rational player and thus deterrable. Although Iran would presumably be willing to suffer severe consequences in pursuit of Israel’s destruction, Iranian leaders will, of course, take into account that Israel is widely considered by the international community to be a nuclear power and if so, that its actions could lead to a devastating exchange for both. Iran would also have to factor in the possibility of an American response, even if Tehran solely directs its actions against Israel.

Al-Qaeda and its acolytes, on the other hand, are assumed not to be deterrable – and for good reason. Such Islamic extremists view all non-Muslims – and even Muslims that don’t adhere to their strict reading of Islam – as infidels, or kufar, who must be killed for the sake of Allah. Indeed, al-Qaeda and its followers have proven their willingness, if not desire, to murder and die in order to obtain their ultimate goal of creating an Islamic Caliphate. For this reason, nuclear capabilities in the hands of al-Qaeda would pose an unacceptable danger.

As such, unless virtually irrefutable and immediate evidence exists to the contrary, Israel and the United States should adopt a declared retaliatory policy that holds Iran and/or al-Qaeda responsible for a nuclear attack regardless of the perpetrator’s identity. The allies should clarify that its response will be unlimited and include not just their leaders and their families, but major population centers and all sites of value for the Muslim world, including those of major symbolic importance.

Potential perpetrators of nuclear terrorism must be convinced that the U.S. and Israel will both retaliate in a devastating fashion. For Israel, this means a “shoot first, no questions asked” policy, which holds accountable those clearly responsible for the attack (if any) as well as those reasonably suspected of involvement. There will be no room for diplomacy and Israel and the United States must respond with all means at their disposal.

As a global power, the U.S. may not be able to adopt such a “no questions asked” policy and nuclear forensics will be crucial. Nevertheless, American determination to act decisively to prevent a nuclear terrorist threat and to retaliate devastatingly against those found responsible, must be beyond question. U.S. declaratory policy on the nuclear terror threat to Israel would not need to be substantially different from its posture on the issue of nuclear terrorism generally and its commitments to Israel’s security, but could be further expanded to specifically include nuclear terrorism.

A Steadfast Approach

While the list of those who might wish to carry out nuclear terrorism against either the U.S. or Israel is not long, it is also not as short as one might hope. It includes al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadi organizations, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and potentially Syria in the future.

To date, none of these players appears to have acquired a nuclear weapon, although Iran is certainly well on its way. To be sure, although the threat probability is considered low at this time, that assessment is likely to change significantly in the coming years. The United States and Israel must take into account that a nuclear terrorist threat could emerge in the foreseeable future, and act accordingly to minimize that threat using prevention and deterrence. Indeed, the potential costs of nuclear terrorism are appallingly high.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security advisor in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an adjunct professor at NYU. He recently completed a study on the threat of nuclear terrorism to Israel, published by the Begin-Sadat Center.