Michael KreponAre We Winning or Losing? (Continued)

We’ve now passed the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and widely expected acts of nuclear terrorism have yet to occur. One example: Graham Allison predicted in Nuclear Terrorism (2004) that, “In my considered judgment, on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not.”

We all know that the most likely form of nuclear terrorism is the use of a “dirty” bomb. There is no shortage of material for these instruments of mass disruption, and much of it is not well secured. As for an improvised nuclear device, we know about successful intercepts of small quantities of fissile material, but not about successful transactions. If there is opportunity – and presumed motive – why hasn’t a dirty bomb attack – or far worse – already happened?

John Mueller’s answer, in Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (2010) is that nuclear dangers are far less than we presume:

Fears and anxieties about them, while understandable, have been excessive, and they have severely, detrimentally, and even absurdly distorted spending priorities while inspiring policies that have often been overwrought, ill conceived, counterproductive, and sometimes massively destructive. And they continue to do so.

Allison, and others who warn of impending disaster, may yet be proven correct. They maintain a well-defended position, whether they are right or wrong: by warning of tragic consequences, they have helped encourage remedial actions. Those issuing stark warnings can always argue that, as a result of their calls for preventative actions, worst cases haven’t occurred. It’s only fair that this line of argument – we’re right whether bad things happen or not – can be employed on behalf of arms-control measures as well as for hawkish remedies.

I periodically return to the subject of dogs that haven’t barked because answering the question, “Why not?” might help with peace of mind, and with peace and quiet, as well.

I’m not sold on the argument that extremists are highly motivated to use dirty bombs or to detonate mushroom clouds, even though there is evidence that Osama bin Laden was interested in acquiring a nuclear weapon. I question this post-9/11 conventional wisdom because I suspect that even extremists have to be cognizant of norms. If they blow by them, producing catastrophic damage, they could also alienate the very audiences they seek to champion. On the other hand, none of us can place too much faith in norms when dealing with those who carry out mass-casualty attacks.

A second possible reason for the absence of dirty bomb attacks – so far – is that they are unlikely to result in many casualties. Extremists have proven time and again that they can produce heavy loss of life with automatic weapons and conventional explosives. Why go to the trouble to acquire the material for a dirty bomb when more deadly instruments are so easily available? Nor do extremists need radiological material to get inside the heads of an entire population. Hell, one man and his surrogate son achieved this result in October 2002 by carrying out sniper attacks in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

Another possible reason for the absence of dirty-bomb attacks might be their blow-back effects in the locations where they can most easily be carried out. If co-religionists are harmed more than foreign adversaries, extremists can lose followers. This argument would apply far more to bio-weapons and mushroom clouds than to dirty bombs. I’m not sold on this reasoning, either — even though Osama bin Laden seems to have embraced it in his lonely domicile in Abbottabad. The violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq has overwhelmingly been directed by Muslims against Muslims. These attacks may well breed resentment and lose potential adherents, but the slaughter continues.

Another possible reason for the absence of our worst, post 9-11 nuclear nightmares to date is that extremist groups may not have all the requisite skill sets, as was evident with Aum Shinrikyo’s failed attempts to employ bio weapons and nerve agents in Japan. The most worrisome case of BW terrorism so far has been the responsibility of a single, highly skilled, twisted individual with security clearances who worked at a US bio-defense laboratory. The problem with the skill-set argument: it doesn’t apply very well to dirty bombs.

Another possible reason for the absence of WMD terrorism or dirty bomb attacks has to do with organizational secrecy. To limit damages from exposure, extremist cells need to be kept separate. If cells and skill sets are separate, it’s harder to pull everything together without compromising operational security.

All of these possible answers have weaknesses, but taken together, they might help explain the absence of worst cases. Other answers seem clear-cut. Improved intelligence collection and sharing have surely helped prevent WMD terrorism, as have US initiatives to lock down dangerous weapons and materials.

Since all but my last two arguments are heavily conjectural, it makes good sense to keep focusing on – and funding – the last two.

Are we winning or losing the battle against proliferation? There are indicators that point in both directions. How you answer this question probably reflects your optimistic or pessimistic nature.

(See the first part of this post.)


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    A second possible reason for the absence of dirty bomb attacks – so far – is that they are unlikely to result in many casualties. Extremists have proven time and again that they can produce heavy loss of life with automatic weapons and conventional explosives. Why go to the trouble to acquire the material for a dirty bomb when more deadly instruments are so easily available?

    —Here is my argument: I think an extremist group would view a “dirty bomb” as magic. Why? For the same reason the Soviets made the “Big Bomb” of October 30, 1961. It was not really deliverable, yet the Soviets made it and set it off.

    —Do I have to mention that the “Boxer Rebellion” was done by people who thought magic charms would make thembullet proof?

  2. @FHeisbourg (History)

    I share the refusal to play up the risk of home-made nuclear terrorism, as opposed to ‘traditional’ nth state proliferation or ‘windfall’ proliferation (‘loose nukes’ in a failing state), which are at the center of my concerns. Hence my prudence on nuclear terrorism in my NPEC article. A mystery remains: it is not easy to fully account for the absence of fully-fledged attempts at ‘dirty bomb’ terrorism and we may yet experience unpleasant surprises in this field, which is not in the same category as nuclear weapons proliferation.
    François Heisbourg

  3. jeannick (History)

    Maybe the “terrorists” are not interested in “terror”
    after all it is not their tag but a description by others

    Their main interest is to further their own political agenda by public acts of defiance
    not for the West as such but for Muslim everywhere

    Success in one endeavor is pretty much beside the point
    engaging in strife for the Faith is the very core of it

    It is a reproach by action against all believers who compromise themselves by accommodation with the house of strife ( all the non Muslim )

    Every act , thus is a sermon in faith , an example

    the Evil ones ( us and particularly the US )
    will destroy themselves eventually through their wickedness and folly

    Certainly by those standards 9/11 was a resounding success
    the USA are now broke having lost large amount of blood treasure and face demonstrating to the Muslim world the errors of their ways .

    Killing bin laden, while deeply satisfying at a personal level ,was not much use at all ,he was irrelevant already
    all the inglorious details are like water on a ducks back
    it simplified his message by making him a martyr.

  4. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I’m not at all surprised that we have not yet had an incident of nuclear terrorism. In 9/11 the Westerners did all the work. We made the airplanes, developed the airmanship needed to fly them, the economy to run them, and the crux of the whole operation, the standard operating and cultural responses to a hijacking to allow the terrorists to take control of the aircraft. As has been demonstrated in the laboratory of recent history the traveling public will no longer allow themselves to go down without a fight. The dynamics of hijacking are for the most part turned off.

    The real victory for the Islamists in 9/11 was not the smiting of New York or Washington DC, it was in eliciting a calculated response out of the West, and in particular the United States. The goal was to turn off the engine of American society that as of Dec 10, 2001 had a future that could have been debt free, and looked to be at least 20 years out from having to face a peer power on the globe. They knew just how to turn the dynamics of the post American Cold War victory off and push the right Americans to the fore and have the United States ruin itself. We are broke, our economy is a ticking doomsday machine, and we live in a police state.

    Nuclear terror is out of reach of these players. Like 9/11 they need us to build and maintain their weapons for them. Not only that the threat of nuclear terror is already doing more damage than any real dirty bomb really would. We are now saddled by experts, policy wonks, and extra constitutional police powers to ‘address’ ‘the problem’. Not to mention the fear and paranoia that now steeps American culture.

    The pattern is the same for Islam since the 1960’s. They cannot and do not make their weapons of terror themselves. They use our weapons and our own paranoia, and fear against us. If they do attack us with a nuclear weapon, it will be from materials and means they got from us. Pakistan and Iran are too proud to just give away their hard earned armaments to ‘just anyone’ with the will to use it.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —The “weapons of terror” used in the 2008 Mumbai attacks were automatic rifles. Ones that most countries, and many private gunsmiths, have known how to make for decades.

      —Yes, “they” can make “their own” weapons of terror. They use the blowback principle from the Maxim Gun of 1883, and high qaulity steel available world wide.

    • rwendland (History)

      Andrew, bringing together your themes of “they need us to build and maintain their weapons for them” and “nuclear terror is out of reach of these players”, should draw folks attention to a pretty rarely debated topic.

      Given the huge sums spent on homeland security, and the none too great economics of nuclear power, how is it that “we” are allowing old nuclear power stations to be life extended beyond 40 years, when we know they have, ahem, certain deficiencies wrt large airplanes. Especially when some of them are fairly close to large cities. (Not to mention that quite a few in the US are BWRs with Mark 1 containment buildings a la Fukushima, known not to do well in moderately long power outages.)

      I would be interested to read a paper giving a rough cost/benefit analysis of life extending these pre-positioned nuclear material stores, against an estimate of the terrorism risk-consequence multiple. Anyone know of such a paper?

  5. Andy (History)

    Personally, I think a lack of skill-sets is the correct answer, but not the skill-sets required to make a dirty bomb. You need a lot of other things to make an operation against the US (not just a dirty bomb attack) work:

    – You need people who are able to get into the US and who can operate below the security radar.
    – You need people who understand operational security and can either operate independently or practice good communication security.
    – You need money along with channels to transfer that money where it needs to be.
    – You probably need leadership and organization capabilities to bring all these elements together.

    The reality is that all these skills are very difficult to bring together. Drone strikes keep killing Al Qaeda’s operational leaders. There are relatively few people who have the language and cultural skills to live undetected in the US. Fewer still can get into the US at all. Once they get here, then what? They’ve got to get money to live on and purchase whatever materials are required for an attack, or the materials would have to be brought in. In this kind of operation there are multiple paths to failure and few to success.

    Imagine this scenario – suppose a US right-wing militia was determined to conduct some kind of attack against Pakistan, even something relatively simple like a bombing or shooting. It sounds easy at first until one considers all the details and all the pieces that must fall into place in order to conduct a successful attack. How are they going to get to Pakistan? How are they either going to get guns to Pakistan or how are they going to obtain guns once they get there, much less explosives? It’s not so easy.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Seconded, and the “American Militiaman in Islamabad” thought experiment is a good one. And it may be worth noting that Al Qaeda’s public recruitment efforts, at least, have been increasingly oriented towards convincing sympathizers in Western nations to embark on “lone-wolf” attacks in their home countries using simple weapons and tactics. The traditional route of traveling to a training camp in one of the -stans and joining an organized terrorist group, doesn’t work as well as it used to.

  6. Alex (History)

    1) Dirty bombs just aren’t all that. Why go to the trouble and especially the increased risk of getting caught involved with nuclear material, when you could just use your stock of explosives to kill people?

    2) Real nukes are too much like hard work.

    3) Al-Qa’ida has actually had an object lesson in the possibility of over-playing their hand. In early 2006, they were winning in western Iraq. Over the next 12 months, there are many, many accounts from the local tribes who turned against them of how they alienated them through extreme and indiscriminate violence and arrogance.

  7. Alex W. (History)

    I wonder if anybody has put together something like the Drake equation for nuclear terror. The Drake equation is a group of parameters that helps to roughly sketch out the odds of getting in touch with extraterrestrials. A lot of the variables are unknown and have to be guessed rather widely, leading to widely differing estimates of probability. What it does usefully, though, is help systematize out what some of the pertinent factors might be, which is useful in getting a sense of whether we should regard it as surprising that we haven’t been in touch with any aliens by now. (I read the Drake equation rather pessimistically myself with regards to alien contact.)

    Anyway, one could imagine doing something similar for nuclear terrorism. Maybe the parameters would be 1. odds of a non-state actor group being organized enough to actually pursue nuclear terror in a dedicated way, 2. odds of them having people with the relevant expertise, 3. odds of them being able to acquire and smuggle fissile material, 4. odds of none of their contacts or compatriots actually being hooked up with hostile intelligence agencies, 5. odds of their actions not being monitored by hostile intelligence agencies, 6. odds of their movement of the final device into a target area going undetected… and so on.

    My personal reading of such a thing is that there are quite a lot of very hard parts associated with those probabilities. “Pursuing” in the vague sense seems like the easy part (and is so easy that we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that a few bad groups have done that part of it); having people with expertise really depends on the size and nature of the organization; being able to mobilize the networks necessary to acquire suitable amounts of fissile material without tipping anyone off seems quite hard indeed. Even if one is not too impressed by the world’s intelligence agencies, it’s clear that a lot of people are on the payroll, and this would be a big fish to catch.

    Of course, whatever you calculate the odds as being, it’s hard to know how much effort is sufficient and what might be too much. The consequences of failure would be pretty high, and it’s hard to evaluate cost-benefit tradeoffs for massive catastrophes. (Except in retrospect, when it is clear that not enough was done…)

    • Sharif (History)

      Yes, John Meuller put together such an equation for nuclear terror in his excellent book “Atomic Obsession”: short answer — it is virtually impossible for a terror outfit to pull off a nuke strike. The threat is vastly exaggerated.

      Yes, there are low probability high consequence events but that doesn’t mean we need to be preoccupied with them. e.g. Another low prob. high consequence event is if all the wheels of your car came off due to loose wheel bolts. You’d likely die. High consequence. But how often each morning do you check your wheel bolts? Never.

      Anyway Meuller’s book is worth a read and a re-read to counteract the hysteria.

      Personally, I’d worry about a bio attack far before I’d worry about a nuke attack.

    • krepon (History)

      The Wellerstein Equation?

    • Alex W. (History)

      “Yes, there are low probability high consequence events but that doesn’t mean we need to be preoccupied with them. e.g. Another low prob. high consequence event is if all the wheels of your car came off due to loose wheel bolts. You’d likely die. High consequence. But how often each morning do you check your wheel bolts? Never.”

      But there are differences between individual and collective risk, and how we treat them. I don’t think you can claim that the risk of one person dying in a car crash is of such high consequence as a nuclear terrorist attack. It’s not just the casualties, which would be bad enough; the politics that would follow such a thing would be disastrous.

      I’m not for alarmism, or the endless gush of spending towards all things done in the name of counterterrorism, of course. But I’m not convinced that the consequences would not be quite significant.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I’m afraid that would have to be called the (Matthew) Bunn equation; see Ch. 3 of his PhD thesis.

      The “math” is of course a trivial multiplication of probabilities of success at each stage of a presumed process through which a terrorist group would acquire fissile materials and assemble a nuclear weapon. Such factors can at best be estimated based on arguments which can be stated with more or less evidence, sophistication and erudition but are endlessly arguable.

      I personally believe the most important factor in suppressing terrorist nukes and all major terrorist plots is the flooding of the “market” in needed materials and personnel by government agents offering to buy and sell the materials or weapons, and to finance and carry out the plots and attacks.

      In some cases, this has led to absurd levels of entrapment of otherwise clueless individuals in government-created fake terrorism plots. However, at a high level, this has probably made it nearly impossible to buy or sell materials and resources needed for nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

      This analysis argues for both vigorous prosecution of this form of “warfare” against terrorism, and relative leniency toward those entrapped individuals who would otherwise have been unlikely to engage in terrorism activities.

    • Sharif (History)

      Alex —
      ” I don’t think you can claim that the risk of one person dying in a car crash is of such high consequence as a nuclear terrorist attack. ”

      Of course, the consequences ***for society*** of a nuke terror attack are much larger than one person dying in car crash. The consequences ***for that person*** of dying himself are pretty darn high. About as high as they can be, in fact.

      What I — and Mueller — are saying is that for a given person his/her own death is way up there as far as “high consequence” events go. However ***no one person*** [that I know of] checks their wheel bolts everytime before they climb in their car. So even highly educated people learn to put low probability events in perspective, no matter how high the consequences.

      I am not saying we should ignore the minuscule probability of nuclear terror. I think we should keep in perspective how unlikely it is, and also see whether we are we are creating more harm than good by being militant non-proliferators [e.g. Iraq war, possible Iran strike].

      Anyway, Mueller’s book has the equation and probabilities you asked about. It is minuscule.

    • Alex (History)

      I think this is a great idea. As with the Drake equation, it’s not really a question of “stick a probability on it”, it’s one of “sketch the scenarios that are possible”.

  8. Krepon (History)

    Had breakfast with Sandy Spector this morning, and asked him the ‘are we winning or losing’ question. His answer was brilliant.

    Sandy answered my question with a question: Were the Russians winning or losing the Battle of Stalingrad? The answer, of course, depends on when in 1942-43 you asked the question.

    By analogy, Sandy suggests that we will have a much better handle on the ‘winning or losing’ question after the situation with Iran is clarified.

  9. Jason (History)

    So you say, “They maintain a well-defended position, whether they are right or wrong: by warning of tragic consequences, they have helped encourage remedial actions.” I’m really puzzled by that attitude. Their rhetoric does, in fact, make a negative impact on the overall national budget (billions of dollars each year) and our preparedness for natural disasters and accidents that actually kill thousands if not tens of thousands of people every year because we’re wringing our hands about WMD terrorism. I’m with John Mueller – this overblown reaction to perceived threats is fundamentally harmful to our society. That’s hardly a “helpful” position.

  10. Daniel (History)

    Hello Mr. Krepon, I agree with your point on the reasoning behind the absence of WMD terrorism. I also feel that the process of disarmament should be strongly stressed not just towards terrorist organizations, but with nations containing nuclear weapons. Would you mind reading my blog at http://droyston.blogspot.com/? I would like to have your perspective.

    -The Green Room at Ohio University

  11. Ara Barsamian (History)

    It is skills…An analysis of the skills available to the 9/11 hijackers showed a couple of electrical engineers educataed at pretty good German technical universities, who seem to have had the skills, if ordered, to either make a stolen warhead operational bypassing the safety interlocks, particularly on old Russian tactical warheads.

    It would’ve been a bit tougher to assemble teams and machine shop and electronics shop to fabricate a crude cylindrical implosion system.

    After the genius mastermind, KSM was aprehended, and the skillset disappeared, it become rather impractical.

    A dirty bomb does not have the same psy-impact as a 100 ton nuke…so the cost/benefits would not make it worthwhile. But it is hard to say if you’re dealing with extremist peasants from a hole in Tora Bora with no education…and equally hard to say about the psychological impact on the generally abismally ignorant US public (considering that our kids rank 37th in math and science…)

  12. hass (History)

    Again, success is being defined solely in terms of non-proliferation, ignoring the other two issues: encouragement of the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, and disarmament. Why? Why is non-proliferation given priority over those two other equally weighty parts of the NPT?

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