THOMAS C. SCHELLING: Whatever happened to Nuclear Terrorism?

Thomas SchellingCOLLEGE PARK – In 1982 I published an article that began, “Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.”

I hedged about the 80’s but sounded pretty firm about the 90’s. It’s now the 2010’s, twenty-nine years later, and there has been no nuclear terrorism nor any acquisition of such weapons by any terrorist organization that we know of; and I think we’d know by now. I don’t know of anyone—and I knew many colleagues knowledgeable on the subject—who thought my expectations outlandish. Something needs to be explained!
I’ve thought about this and concluded that we all concentrated, back then and since, on how vulnerable weapons-grade fissile material was to theft, in Russia or in a few former Soviet Socialist Republics, and that despite significant efforts by the USA to help financially to secure fissile materials, remained frighteningly vulnerable. I think now that we failed to appreciate that theft of weapons-grade fissile material was only a first step in a difficult process of getting stolen material to a dangerous customer.

Imagine that you have succeeded in stealing a Picasso insured for many millions of dollars, and you know that there are people willing to pay several millions for it: how do you find your customer? You cannot put a want ad in the New York Times.

If you have weapons-grade uranium for which you know someone is willing to pay a high price you probably need someone able to get it out of the country, who can meet someone somewhere who can be in touch with someone who is in touch with someone who is known to be willing to kill to get the stuff, who may pay handsomely. At every stage someone has much money, someone has stuff worth much money, someone gets a commission, and somebody may be willing to kill for the money or for the bomb material.

Eventually, if all goes well, a “supplier” and a “customer” representing the terrorist organization may meet in a public place, each with a few unrecognizable body guards, to consummate the deal. At that point I fantasize that the seller and the buyer recognize each other, one is from the CIA and the other from the Israeli Mossad. Each is engaged in a “sting” operation, and they shake hands and go back to work.

Assume the sale succeeds. The terrorist organization needs the people who can convert the fissile material into an explosive. It needs several highly trained scientists in physics, chemistry, computer science, and metallurgy, and highly skilled machinists and others who can produce something technologically demanding. The fact that a bomb design can be found on the internet, doesn’t make it easy. Anyone can find out how to make a Chevrolet, or an MRI or a CAT scan; there’s no secret, but it’s not easy!

Recruiting must be a problem. There are three main avenues. Loyal terrorists, if they have the skills, may be happy to join. Pay may attract the needed people. Coercion—threatening family, etc.—may work. But there’s always the chance that the persons approached can become informants. Pay may be unattractive if the potential contractor suspects that any organization willing to kill thousands or millions wouldn’t hesitate to kill a nuclear scientists rather than pay him at the, end of his contract, especially to preclude his becoming an informant. As in the process of avoiding enemy intelligence in the chain of transactions getting the fissile material to the ultimate customer, there is the difficulty of “advertising” for participants in an enterprise that requires leaving job and family and going off to a secret location from which he may never return.

The foregoing thoughts may suggest why “terrorists” have not yet acquired a nuclear weapon: it’s more than stealing the fissile material. But they still may! What are we to suppose they will do with one, or a few, that they may yet acquire?

If a team is assembled that, in isolation, spends months making a workable bomb, or a few bombs, what will they spend their evening hours talking about? They are all concentrated on a nuclear weapon. Won’t they continually converse about what the thing is good for, what should properly be done with it, how it might be used to advance some important objective, and whether they might have any influence on its use? They will almost certainly have spent more hundreds of hours trying to think strategically about the possible uses of a few nuclear weapons than any head of government, or even senior government adviser has devoted to the question. It’s possible—I think likely—that they may be listened to. And what “strategy” might they propose?
I propose that they will conclude that exploding a weapon over Los Angeles or Vladivostok or Bremen will “waste” the weapon. They will think, “we are a nuclear power. There are the USA, Russia, France, Britain, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Maybe Iran, and now US. We have status, power, influence. Let’s use it!”

Can they prove they have the weapon? I think they can. I’ve talked to American weapon experts who, when I inquired, would willingly go blindfolded to a terrorist organization’s site to examine the fissile material and the weaponization capability and return home to declare whether it was “real.” (If they couldn’t be attracted, they could be kidnapped, shown it all, and taken home to declare what they had seen.)

So what kind of thing might the “terrorist” (now a major diplomatic power) demand under what kind of nuclear threat? I’m not sure I want to give them any ideas, but I think I’d prefer they coerce us than kill a great many of us. A simple example might be that they say that have already introduced a weapon into one American city, and name ten cities that include the one: Port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Houston, San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, Seattle, and will detonate it New Years Day if the United States has not by then . . . .

Do I think, if they pursue this strategy, they would explode it if the United States did not meet their demand by New Years Day. I’m not sure. I think they, whoever they are, might be severely inhibited by the sixty-six years in which no nation has, in the words of President Lyndon Johnson, “loosed the atom against another.”

Maybe, to avoid facing that decision, they would abstain from committing themselves.

But I have not yet given as many hours of thought to this subject as that team will have done by the time they’ve produced a nuclear bomb.

Thomas Schelling was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2005, and is the Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

See also: Robert Pape: The End of Fear
John Esposito: The Consequences of Islamophobia
Rami Khouri: The Middle East After 9/11
Mark Juergensmeyer: Is the War on Terror Finally Over?
John Mueller: The 9/11 Syndrome

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9 Responses to THOMAS C. SCHELLING: Whatever happened to Nuclear Terrorism?

  1. An interesting article. One thing that I’ll add is that serious attempts to get hold of a nuclear weapon, if found out, would make the group the most wanted in the world. There would be a very significant cost to the acquisition process, a cost that doesn’t exist if the group were just to try to obtain Kalashnikovs or suchlike. I guess it’s the same reason why, in OECD countries at least, criminals don’t use anti-tank missiles (to rob banks or take out pursuing police cars). They are available given enough effort (you could buy one on a trip to Tripoli). But just getting hold of one would instanty make them the country’s most wanted.

  2. Barnabus says:

    I’m not sure you completely appreciate the concepts of blood lust and religious conviction. Both can blind one to logic and the consequences of one’s actions. To be more specific, if a drug cartel was able to get a weapon they may in fact engage in the type of thinking you describe; heck they are running a business and you wouldn’t want to kill all your customers. However, when Islamic radicals get ahold of a weapon, you will know about it from the mushroom cloud you see on video. Their anger is such that they will act regardless of the consequences and further their belief that God is on their side allows them to believe in their ultimate “victory.”

  3. gwern says:

    Perhaps you simply underestimated how interested people in nuclear-power states are in retaining control of their nukes – they must know that nuclear bombs and nuclear materials often come with ‘return addresses’ (isotope ratios). Look at how reportedly worried Pakistan is about its arsenal, despite stabbing the US in the back every time it pleases (such as with Osama bin Laden).

  4. Nick_L says:

    Isn’t it just as likely that an Islamic militant group would use it against Islamic authorities? OBL was no friend of the Saudi’s, nor many other ME rulers. How would the West react to the detonation of a small atomic weapon somewhere in the ME – or Africa, if carried out by Al Q or similar?

  5. Paul Minard says:

    Large numbers of people can make large amounts of money through the copying/smuggling/reverse engineering of many technologies. The benefits of holding nuclear technology are hard to monetize. Some actors in some states have an incentive to acquire this material and technology, but the aggregate demand for this technology is small, as for most people it does no good. Also, if I were an intelligent and ambitious person, there are many technical areas from which I would expect better returns than a career in nuclear proliferation could provide. Even in those countries interested in acquiring material, or from which employees of terrorist groups are drawn, the intelligent and ambitious will likely find more profitable pursuits. Some measures to restrict supply have also been taken, but I would think that a lack of demand is the most significant factor.

  6. Tim Worstall says:

    “At that point I fantasize that the seller and the buyer recognize each other, one is from the CIA and the other from the Israeli Mossad. Each is engaged in a “sting” operation, and they shake hands and go back to work.”

    There’s a great deal more truth to that than you might realise. There have been quite a large number of cases of people having nuclear materials for sale. Usually a few grammes of this or that, samples if you like, of what perhaps can be provided in larger quantities. Yes, of course, we only ever hear about those cases which are successfully detected, but all of them, without exception, have involved various security services as either buyers or sellers.

    And it’s not just actual nuclear materials either. The associated materials as well: say zircalloy. This is the tubing used for fuel rods and it’s a controlled substance. There was a nice little sting operation run for some years out of Cyprus concerning it. A stock of such tubes of Soviet manufacture. At least one group of people I know of ended up in jail for trying to buy it without having the necessary documents. Comnspiracy to ship without a licence rather than actually trading in nuclear materials but still….

  7. Daniel Jackson says:

    You should read the book “Physics for Future Presidents” – It lays out some great arguments about why terrorists will continue to favor conventional terror weapons instead of nukes.

  8. Jack says:

    It is unlikely that any terrorist group will be able to assemble, and have a capability to transport and explode a nuclear weapon. However, it is very likely that a muslim nation, such as Pakistan or Iran, will help a surrogate terrorist group to terrorize USA, Israel, or India. So we should be watching terrorists, but, more importantly, making concrete plans to act, if and when (hopefully before) a rouge government passes a nuclear weapon to terrorists.

  9. Matthew Montague says:

    The “ten city” scenario is one I’ve thought of before. However, it does not require building a bomb to work, just the reasonable belief that the particular group is capable of building a bomb.

    Can you imagine the distress and economic distruption if Al Quaeda announced that they had put a nuke in one of the ten, or better twenty, largest US cities and would set it off in 24 hours? Terror; no bomb needed.