Book Review: Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?

Book Review

Nuclear fears

Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? by Brian Michael Jenkins. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008, 410 pp.

Michael A. Levi

Are there any big-idea books left to be written about nuclear terrorism? After all, every possible threat assessment, from apocalyptic to anodyne, is well represented in the stacks. Analyses of how to secure nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union and beyond abound. So do prescriptions for blunting the spread of nuclear weapons and materials to new and possibly irresponsible states. Books exploring the links between the nuclear threat and traditional counterterrorism and homeland security are, although fewer, still in sufficient supply.

Yet in Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?, Brian Michael Jenkins manages to provide a fresh perspective on the subject, largely by devoting most of the book not to nuclear terrorism itself but to an important component of the subject: our own fears about nuclear terror.

Jenkins is a natural for this sort of examination. In the mid-1970s, he brought a careful eye for terrorist psychology to what was, at the time, an overly technical academic effort to assess the likelihood of nuclear terrorism and develop appropriate responses. Scholars then (and still too frequently now) focused on what terrorists might be capable of doing, rather than on what they would actually be motivated to do. Jenkins is still interested in psychology. But in this book, he probes the minds of the would-be victims. His conclusion: By inflating our perceptions of the nuclear terrorist threat, we have managed to make al Qaeda “the world’s first nuclear terrorist power without, insofar as we know, possessing a single nuclear weapon.”

Our understanding of nuclear terrorism, Jenkins persuasively demonstrates, is substantially a product of our imaginations. He does not mean this in a flip or dismissive way. Rather, it is a simple factual observation: Because nuclear terrorism has not happened, our understanding of it is necessarily shaped by the speculations and dreams of nuclear experts and policymakers, as well as those of the people who listen to them. Early in his story, Jenkins high lights the 1967 report of the so-called “Lumb Panel,” which flagged the problem of nuclear terrorism before modern international terrorism was even a meaningful concern. In one of many interesting personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book, he relates a conversation he once had with the chair of that panel. “Who were the terrorist groups in 1966, when the panel was convened?” Jenkins recalls asking. The response: “They had no particular terrorists in mind.” It is easy to see how such speculation, only thinly anchored in fact, can get out of control.

It is no surprise that as the issues of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation rose, first in the early 1970s and again in the aftermath of the Cold War, assessments of the threat grew, leaving public terror in their wake. Increasingly sophisticated terrorist operations, along with the expanding global scope of nuclear weapons programs and nuclear commerce, provided analysts with evidence that naturally led them to revisit their previous judgments and inevitably to revise them in ever more pessimistic directions. Cultural influences—the cable news/ terrorism expert complex, popular movies, and end-of-days novels that feature nuclear destruction—added fuel to the fire.

That sort of environment is ripe for a speculative bubble, and in many ways that is what has occurred. It is not that there is no underlying threat of nuclear terrorism; there certainly is, and it is one that deserves our strong attention. But that does not change the fact that we have tended to compound worst-case analyses and imaginings to come up with apocalyptic visions of the threat that may not square well with reality.

Only a disciplined effort to test our projections of nuclear terrorism against whatever evidence we can find has any hope of keeping analyses grounded. It is here, in assessing some of the perennial features of the nuclear terrorism litany, where Jenkins’s book is at its finest. He explores two interesting areas of evidence.

The first is exemplified by his analysis of black markets for nuclear explosive materials, which figure prominently in many dire assessments of the nuclear threat. Such markets clearly exist at some level, as is made clear by the occasional apprehension of participants in illicit transactions. Many if not most analyses of nuclear terrorism take things a step further, conjuring robust markets where nuclear explosive materials can consistently be had for the right price. This is a critical link in the story of nuclear terrorism, because if terrorists can acquire nuclear materials, the logic goes, they can build and detonate a bomb. Jenkins, however, after a careful analysis of real black markets, comes to a different, more subtle conclusion: The black market exists, “although not in the form we imagine.” Jenkins makes no definitive judgment, but the upshot is clear: Nuclear terrorism is more complicated than many imagine, and as a result, many of our fears are unfounded.

The second area of evidence for our overestimation of the threat is typified by a fascinating chapter that traces the history of “red mercury.” For decades, stories of red mercury have conjured a lethal substance whose near-magical properties might quickly turn a terrorist or tin-pot dictator into a mini-superpower. To their credit, most mainstream analysts have long dismissed red mercury as a ruse. Still, red mercury doesn’t seem to want to die. Why, Jenkins wants to know, do serious people still refuse to part with a notion that most agree is nonsense? As he traces its history, from the 1960s to today, an important pattern emerges. Given the consequences of underestimating a nuclear threat, analysts tend to err on the side of not ruling anything out, even something as discredited as red mercury. But as Jenkins notes, the consequences of threat inflation can be grave, including unnecessary wars and erosions of our liberties. No analyst of nuclear terrorism has ever been blamed for these.

Most of the book is on solid ground, but it is not without its flaws. Jenkins argues, for example, that many Americans have “sentenced themselves to eternal terror” because of guilt stemming from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima—a stretch at best. And some of the sections drag; the book could be shorter and tighter.

Jenkins also enters tricky territory when he moves from his exposition of nuclear terror to a policy-focused assessment of what the United States should do in the aftermath of a nuclear attack; an analysis that occupies much of the final two chapters of the book. He asks an extraordinarily important set of questions: Should the United States retaliate against states that might have been complicit in an attack, either through deliberate action or through negligence? Should it respond more broadly? Should it exercise restraint?

Unfortunately, the analysis backing up his answers is thin. Torn between counseling restraint and an overwhelming response, he falls back on the old Cold War standby of strategic ambiguity. This may have been the right way to deal with the Soviet Union. Stopping short of a firm threat to retaliate overwhelmingly to any aggression allowed the United States to avoid a commitment trap, while explicitly keeping all options open preserved deterrence. But it is not clear that strategic ambiguity makes sense for dealing with potential state sources of nuclear terror. In the aftermath of a nuclear attack, the first priority of the United States will be to prevent another strike. That will, in turn, require cooperation. Certainty that states will be spared the brunt of U.S. force—the opposite of ambiguity—may be essential for securing the sort of cooperation that is needed.

Ultimately, these are small flaws in a book that is engaging and illuminating and adds an important new dimension to our understanding of nuclear terrorism—and of nuclear terror. Our imaginations, as Jenkins surely knows, are essential for confronting the real threats of the future, including the threat of nuclear terrorism. But our imaginations can also get in our way. Writing about black markets, Jenkins notes that “Theoretically, there are several ways for terrorists to obtain [nuclear materials].” Wisely, he adds, “Theoretically, just about anything is possible.” The job of analysts is to keep our imaginations at once active and in check, to help policymakers and the public understand the nuclear threat without becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed by it. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? shows how important that task is and how hard it is to do.

Michael Levi () is the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of On Nuclear Terrorism (Harvard University Press, 2007).