Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Nuclear Fears: Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Nuclear Fears: Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?

Article excerpt

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 highlights 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. …

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