The nuclear-weapons risk

The Washington-hosted summit on nuclear security heard Barack Obama warn of the fearful prospect of a non-state group using a nuclear weapon. How realistic is it, and how to prevent it?
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
15 April 2010

The nuclear-security summit in Washington on 12-13 April 2010, attended by forty-seven states, resulted in a four-point communiqué and seven-page work plan that outlined tasks to be achieved by 2014.

The sense of progress was reinforced by the deal between the United States and Russia to destroy weapons-grade nuclear material; the decision by Ukraine to abandon its stockpile; and the scheduling of a follow-up meeting in Seoul in 2012. But the atmosphere of the gathering was shadowed by the prospect President Barack Obama described in his opening address as one of the greatest threats facing the world, namely the possibility that terrorists might acquire and use a nuclear weapon:

“Two decades after the end of the cold war, we face a cruel irony of history - the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.”

The imagery of such illicit action by dangerous non-state networks such as al-Qaida is alarming enough. But Obama’s remarks also raise practical questions that deserve to be probed in a bit more detail than is usual:

* is there a real risk that a paramilitary movement could make or obtain a nuclear weapon?

* are there groups that would explode such a weapon?

* are there responses to this putative threat that are being ignored or neglected?

The trying game

On the first question, there is a small but definite possibility that a determined group could obtain a useable nuclear device illicitly either from a major existing nuclear state or from one of the newer powers. It is impossible to estimate the size of that risk, but it is probably the case that there was a greater danger in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even so, as nuclear weapons slowly proliferate, especially in countries with weaker security controls, then the chances of this outcome grow.

The availability of nuclear material, whether highly-enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium, does tend to rise as nuclear power and research reactors proliferate. At the same time, turning even weapons-grade fissile-material into a deployable weapon is very difficult - far more so than developing chemical or biological weapons, even though its destructive effects might usually be much less (see Pam Benson, “Official: Terrorists seek nuclear material, but lack ability to use it”, CNN, 13 April 2010).

On the second question, there is no clear way of assessing the chance of unofficial groups gaining access to a nuclear capability; but it exists. The important issue then becomes the level of motivation and willingness to use such destructive weapons if they were to become available (see Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, January 2010).

Most paramilitary groups since the 1980s have had clear and usually defined and regional- or national-related political agendas that endorsed violence in the context of furthering those agendas. Some groups developed very sophisticated tactics. The Provisional IRA, for example, by the early 1990s effectively faced a stalemate after two decades of its “long war” against British rule in Northern Ireland: it could not win in any terms but could not readily be defeated militarily either. It chose at that point to place considerable emphasis on economic targeting in Britain, with much of the focus being on financial districts and transport links in London - as in the huge bombs of July 1990, April 1992, April 1993, and February 1996, which rendered great destruction but caused minimal loss of life (see “The asymmetry of economic war”, 14 February 2008).

The effects were considerable, as London was at the time competing intensively with Frankfurt for financial-market pre-eminence. Although no British politicians would admit it, this strategy made Westminster and Whitehall far more ready to recognise the need for a genuine peace process and to act on it.

The Provisional IRA was not strategically or ideologically committed to indiscriminate mass casualties, indeed when its bombs did kill civilians (as in Birmingham in 1974) this was almost always seen as counterproductive to its aims. This applies to many other paramilitary movements, though not all. Algerian militants who hijacked an Airbus A300 on 24 December 1994 intended to crash it on central Paris, for example; the operation was foiled by French commandos during an attempted refuelling stop at Marseilles. When the Sri Lankan army sought to clear the Jaffna peninsula of Tamil Tiger (LTTE) fighters in January 1996, the LTTE responded with a massive truck-bomb in the financial heart of Colombo that killed nearly a hundred people and injured 1,400.

Moreover, two potentially catastrophic attempts were made around the same period - and each is more indicative of possible future motives. Three months after the Algiers operation, on 20 March 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo sect attacked the Tokyo subway by releasing sarin nerve-gas. The nihilist attempt to “destroy the world to save it” killed twelve people and affected thousands, numbers that meant it failed to have the full global impact that the death of thousands would have guaranteed.

The most potent anticipatory incident occurred earlier, on 26 February 1993, when a radical Islamist group exploded a van-bomb containing 1.5 tonnes of explosive in the car-park under the north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York. The aim was to bring the entire tower down across the twenty-six-storey Vista Hotel and into the south tower, which might have killed perhaps 30,000 people in a matter of seconds. The wholesale attempt failed, although six people were killed and many injured, and the Vista Hotel came very close to collapse.

Aum Shinrikyo was a rare example of a well-financed religious sect that espoused millennial and potentially self-destructive aims. But the much more significant consideration is whether networks whose roots lie in more established movements (religious, ethnic or nationalist) would act, if they could, to kill many thousands of people. The WTC attack of 1993 suggests a positive answer; but this must be put in context, even at the cost of some intellectual discomfort.

The view from afar

The biggest mistake is to assume that a group such as al-Qaida is based on entirely irrational thinking. Rather, its planners and theoreticians are far more likely to be highly intelligent and rational, as well as thoroughly infused with a sense of purpose.

Moreover, that motivation is almost certain to have its own context. Its components from an al-Qaida perspective might include the felt need to respond to a “far enemy” that has brought wars to Afghanistan and Iraq that have killed tens of thousands of people (100,000-plus in the latter case); is using armed drones on an almost daily basis in Pakistan; and is a close ally of the Zionist state of Israel that has too killed thousands of Muslims in its many wars (including over 10,000 civilians killed during the weeks-long siege of west Beirut in 1982).

None of that cuts any ice in the west, and a nuclear blast in New York or London is almost too terrible to contemplate. But it is also worth remembering that nuclear targeting at the height of the cold war - only a generation ago - involved a willingness to commit to “first-use” of nuclear weapons, including so-called “demonstration-shots”; a policy that carried the risk of escalation to a nuclear holocaust that would leave scores of millions of people dead. Both Nato and the Warsaw Pact were all too ready to equip, train for and contemplate such destruction. Whatever might come from a paramilitary group at some time over the next decade or two would still be very small compared with that.

The hard lesson

The implication of all this is that Barack Obama is one sense absolutely right to highlight the danger, and to use it to encourage movement towards a denuclearised world. But this is not enough. The risk of nuclear, or indeed chemical or biological attack will continue to exist; and far greater attention must be paid to the background of groups that might be tempted in this direction, and to the policies of powerful states that provide them with much of this motivation (see Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century [Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010]).

Roger W Barnett, a United States navy captain who went on to run a Washington think-tank, made a key point soon after the cold war ended when he spoke of the “[impact] of high-technology weapons and weapons of mass destruction on the ability - and thus the willingness - of the weak to take up arms against the strong” (see Asymmetrical Warfare: Today's Challenge to U.S. Military Power, Potomac, 2003).

The point is even more valid now, with the qualification that as much attention needs to be paid to “willingness” as to “ability”. That lesson has yet to be learned. If it is, the answer to the third question above might begin to come into focus.

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