Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Does Nuclear Deterrence Apply in the Age of Terrorism?

Does Nuclear Deterrence Apply in the Age of Terrorism?

Having been asked to address the question that provides the title to this FPRI Footnote, I begin by interrogating and unpacking the question. What does the question mean? Does it mean: Can terrorist organizations that may somehow get their hands on nuclear weapons be deterred from using them? Does it mean: Do nuclear weapons states think differently about strategic deterrence relationships among each other and with regard to non-nuclear states just because there have been major terrorist attacks in recent years? Or does it mean: Can nuclear weapons somehow deter acts of non-nuclear terrorism?

Obviously, these are three different, if overlapping, questions. I will discuss them all below, but first it is important to observe that all three dwell in the context of the assertion, implied in the question, that we live in “an age of terrorism.” But we do not. Despite the attacks of September 11, 2001 and several deadly if less spectacular terrorist attacks elsewhere since launched by Salafi Muslim fanatics, terrorism does not define the age in which we live. When historians look back on this time fifty years or a century from now, they may call this era after the fact that a universal society first formed on a fully planetary scale owing to the rise of Asia and the declining dominance of Western norms. They may call it the age of Ecological Awareness, or the age of the Third Plague (the first being Justinian’s Plague in the year 540, the second being the Black Death from 1348) owing, like the prior two plagues, to a major system effect of climate change. They might call it the Age of Globalization if benign trends prevail, or the Age of Disconnection if more morbid ones do.

The point is that there are striking global developments afoot concerning demography and migration, science and technology, that presage major socio-economic and political change even beyond that which we have experienced in recent years. Change generates anxiety; it stimulates fear as well as offers opportunity. Terrorism is epiphenomenal of all this; it is a residual category spawned by more fundamental global dynamics. We know this because it’s happened before; terrorists can bomb and murder their way into high politics for a short time, but terrorist cults—suicidal terrorist cults, in particular, for what ought to be obvious reasons—cannot readily institutionalize themselves, and so soon fade away. To call these times an “age of terrorism” is therefore a major category error.

This does not mean, of course, that there is no terrorist threat. There is a threat, and it would be irresponsible to ignore it. It would be especially irresponsible to ignore the threat of terrorists with nuclear weapons, again for fairly obvious reasons. For similar reasons the prospect of states known to support terrorism acquiring nuclear weapons stands alone in a special category of concern. It is why the A.Q. Khan proliferation network, a rogue effort that went on almost certainly with the knowledge of a state, is of special importance.

The concern is not very new; it long predates 9/11. The possibility that non-state terrorist groups might acquire and use nuclear weapons, either literally or figuratively—blowing something up with one or using it as an instrument of political blackmail—is a problem specialists have studied going back to the mid-1970s. In those days, the concern was not with apocalyptic, chiliastic groups like al Qaeda, but with instrumental terrorist groups like the PLO. The difference between the two, while often exaggerated, is important. Instrumental terrorism wants to draw attention to a cause, as in the airplane hijackings of the Palestinians in the 1970s. The terrorists weren’t trying to kill lots of people, just enough to extort the world’s attention for use as leverage against target governments. If the aim was not mass murder, then it is hard to see how nuclear weapons could have been of much use to them compared to the difficulties of obtaining them—and indeed, no such terrorist organization ever made much of an effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

Al Qaeda, on the other hand, does wish to kill large numbers of people, the more the better according to its spokesmen, at least up to the wildly exaggerated numbers of Muslims they claim infidel Crusaders and Jews have killed over the past eighty or so years, since the formal end of the Caliphate in 1924. Some significant figures in the al Qaeda pantheon have said they want nuclear weapons for precisely this purpose, although many clerics that al Qaeda figures respect say that such weapons are inherently immoral—so even on this point the matter is not clear-cut.

As noted above, it is a mistake to exaggerate the difference between instrumental and apocalyptic forms of terrorism. Al Qaeda had, and still has, an instrumental strategy; it is not about perpetrating mass murder for its own sake. Its spokesmen have told us that al Qaeda perpetrated 9/11 in order to suck us into Afghanistan and the greater Middle East to enervate and destroy us, just like Afghanistan proved to be the cemetery of the Soviet empire. The “far enemy” humiliated and expelled, al Qaeda could then defeat its real enemies, the impious governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the rest.

So if al Qaeda is capable of strategic reasoning, says it wants nukes, and actually made an effort in 2002-04 to obtain them in cahoots with the A.Q. Khan network, shouldn’t we be extremely afraid? No. Just as it would be irresponsible to ignore the threat of terrorism, it is irresponsible to exaggerate it. Thus, for example, contrary to what some believe, al Qaeda is not stronger today, thanks to the supposed recruiting windfall provided by the Iraq war, than it was in 2001-02. It is, not least, nearly broke, or its spokesmen would not be asking for money every time they put out an Internet message. Al Qaeda has been fractured, too, which can cause new problems but which, on balance, is a good thing. It’s also vastly more unpopular throughout most Muslim societies because of the arrogant and murderous way it has conducted itself in Iraq and elsewhere. Exaggerating the terrorist threat gives terrorists more credit than they deserve, empowering them as avatars of anti-Western grievances, real and imagined. It also diverts our attention and resources away from other problems where they could do more good.

Moreover, the threat of nuclear terrorism is very remote. The reason why, back in the 1970s-80s, people studied the possibility of nuclear terrorism was because of a worry that nuclear weapons powers would give fissile material or a bomb to a terrorist organization that would then use it against a mutual adversary with a “no fingerprints” effect. The fear was that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to track back the attack to its real source in some state authority, hence nuclear use would be more likely.

This was logical to a point, but it was always a far-fetched possibility; the USSR was an extremely conservative power when it came to nuclear proliferation of all kinds, and China not less so. It is just as far-fetched now, if not more so. Whether any state would actually give terrorists a finished bomb, confident that the target of use would not retaliate against the original owner, I very much doubt. There’s never been a case of nuclear terrorism or even a real near-miss case. The most likely scenario right now concerns Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons that is falling apart at the seams. One could imagine scenarios in which a Talibanized Pakistan might give nukes to al Qaeda. But it is far easier to imagine scenarios in which that does not happen. British and U.S. intelligence had their eye on A.Q. Khan and associates for a long while before they rolled up the operation, so even that most daunting of episodes was not as dangerous as some seem to think.

There have, of course, been several novels, dozens of action movies, and countless television shows featuring terrorists who had somehow gotten their hands on a nuclear device. But none of these dramas ever explains credibly how a bunch of ragtag dropouts and narcissists get their hands on or figure out how to build a useable nuclear weapon. This is because they can’t. It is, to understate the matter, not an easy thing to build a nuclear weapon, given the physics, metallurgy, and engineering involved. It takes a fairly large space, a lot of people with different kinds of specialties, and a fair amount of time and money. The material involved is not easy to hide or move, and it certainly isn’t easy to deliver a bomb to a target even if one could be fabricated or stolen. Some of the more imaginative depictions of potential catastrophe would have us believe that terrorists could put a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. This is nonsense. You’ve got to be very sophisticated technically to get a nuke into a suitcase. If you’re al Qaeda working in a cave somewhere, even if you have some metallurgy experts and scientists trying to help you, getting a nuclear device into a suitcase is even less likely than being able to launch Osama bin Laden into orbit.

And it’s not as if there aren’t a few dozen serious intelligence agencies around the world looking for evidence that terrorists are trying to build, buy or steal nuclear weapons or materiel—and, the single aborted case noted above aside, they haven’t found anything. They are the Maytag repairmen of the global intelligence community. We should be far more worried about terrorists getting their hands on biotoxins. The reason is that unlike nuclear physics and engineering, bioscience and its applications are relatively unbounded. Bioscience today is an open-ended, rapidly developing mode of scientific inquiry. Moreover, for a terrorist organization to engineer smallpox, say, and spread it around, would require little space, fewer people and less time and money. It would be far easier to hide and to deliver than a nuke that weighed a few thousand pounds.

Indeed, it would probably be so much easier to hide and deliver than if there were a bioweapons attack, it would not be obvious right away whether it was in fact an attack or a naturally occurring event—for example a smallpox, anthrax or possibly an Ebola outbreak. In the event of a nuclear terrorist incident, we would probably be able to trace back to the source of the attack and would thus probably be able to retaliate or in other ways ensure that those who struck us were never able to do so again. But after a bioweapons attack, it is more likely that we would not be able to trace back the source. Biotechnology, especially in conjunction with nanotechnology, is being conducted around the world today, and we do not even have a database on the research that is going on. There is no international agreement to build such a database either. We ought to have one, or we may in fact end up living one day in an age of WMD terror.

What about the question of whether nuclear deterrence still applies between nuclear weapon states, even if one thinks terrorism a problem and nuclear terrorism a likelihood? Of course nuclear deterrence still applies. The existence of al Qaeda has nothing to do with the maintenance of the strategic balance among Russia, the United States, China, and so forth. No one in government whose responsibility it is to look after the viability of his country’s nuclear deterrent is going to become so preoccupied with terrorists that he stops doing that.

Most likely, even the suggestion that this might not be so rests on a misreading of the Bush administration’s September 2002 strategy white paper, the one remembered for its “preemption” clause. Few people seem actually to have read what the document said. It never said that strategic deterrence was obsolete, only that it wasn’t an adequate means of defending against non-state actors with no return address and no material assets we could put at risk. The thinking was never either/or, but this+that. Most of people who managed to misunderstand this did so, apparently, because they wanted to.

We can debate what the U.S. government ought or ought not to do to modernize its strategic arsenal. But this has nothing to do with terrorism, except in one tangential way. Suppose, for instance, that we wanted to use ICBMs or some other long-range strike instrument to hit terrorist camps or staging grounds for a terrorist attack about which we had reliable and actionable intelligence. Some have suggested taking the nuclear warheads off of some of our ICBMs and putting conventional warheads on top of them to use for that purpose, rather than trying to send a B-2 bomber from a base in Missouri, 14 hours away from the target. That’s a perfectly sensible idea. (It hasn’t been accepted as a policy, however, because there are potential miscommunication problems with Russia. We don’t want the Russians to mistake a conventionally armed ICBM headed for some terrorist staging ground in Waziristan for a nuke aimed at the Kremlin.) But if we implement this policy, the only effect it would have on nuclear deterrence is that we would have a few less ICBMs with nuclear weapons. So what? We have many more than we need as it is.

Now what about our final question: Does deterrence, nuclear or not, apply to terrorism? Can we deter terrorists? The answer is variably maybe; it depends; probably not most of the time. Most likely, too, even if we can find ways to deter terrorism, our own nuclear weapons will have little if any role in the winning formula.

To really answer this question, however, or even to think about it coherently, we have to start with a deeper understanding of what deterrence actually is. People throw the word around all the time without giving its definition or character much thought. This cavalier approach will not help us understand how to think about deterring terrorism.

Deterrence is only one thing military power can achieve. There are two other purposes, as well. One is compellence: getting someone to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise do. The second other thing military power can achieve is reassurance. The U.S. 7th Fleet sails the Pacific to reassure all concerned that no act of compellence is about to happen. Reassurance is what most military power does most of the time.

Deterrence is in between compellence and reassurance, so to speak. It’s not getting somebody to do something they don’t want to do, nor is it reassuring anyone that nothing like that is about to happen. It’s getting someone to not do something that they otherwise might do, and there are basically two ways to achieve this: through the threat of punishment and through the efficacy of defense. Either way, you can tell when deterrence fails, but not necessarily when it succeeds. When it fails one witnesses an attempted act of compellence. When it succeeds, it collapses into what looks like reassurance. I believe that had there been no nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union would have fought a major war, but neither I nor anyone else can prove that deterrence worked to prevent it.

Another way of getting at the essence of deterrence for the purpose of applying it to the deterrence of terrorism is to describe the concept of a tacit move. The game of chess furnishes a good way to start as explanation. A chess player at, say, the twelfth move of a game doesn’t reason, “I think I’ll take my rook and move it five spaces forward; that will scare the dickens out of my opponent.” Rather, the player says someone on the order of, “OK, if I move my rook five spaces forward, my opponent will move his bishop over there, and if he does that, then I’ll have to move my knight back, and he’s then going to push his queen…” In other words, a competent player projects forward a series of possibilities, in essence creates a decision-tree approach as to what might happen. While he is doing this, his opponent is doing the same thing. When a move is finally made, it is the product of collapsing a series of tacit moves into an actual move. Every move thus reveals some—but not all—information about what a player has been thinking. When the other player makes a move in return, he also reveals some—but not all—information about what he has been thinking. That’s the basic logic of an assessment game, and deterrence is an assessment game.

Several things follow that are relevant to understanding terrorism. First, a simple assessment game is not about the board or about the chess pieces in any simple way. It’s about the players and their orientation to and skill for play. The same is true with deterrence relationships of all kinds. It’s not about the weapons. Whether they’re nuclear or other kinds, the weapons form parameters around what kind of action can happen. But players’ moves are not tied lockstep to the weapons. There’s a great deal of flexibility based on the entwined imaginations of the players. Deterrence is not fundamentally a technical relationship, but a psychological one.

This means that political culture, personality, idiosyncrasies and happenstance can affect the unfolding and development of an assessment game, and hence of a deterrence relationship. There is no automatic, universally guaranteed formula for deterrence. A force posture and a declaratory policy that deter some threats will not necessarily deter all other threats. Deterrence can be difficult to establish, and difficult to be sure of, particularly as we move from two-player to multi-player games.

Second, it follows from the idea of deterrence as a mutual assessment game that certain conditions must obtain for it to work. There has to be a mutual commitment to play, and basic agreement on the rules. With terrorists, unfortunately, there is no agreement on the rules. What al Qaeda says it wants to do is overthrow the state system itself, to destroy the ruling framework.

As noted above in passing, for deterrence to work, there also has to be a return address. How can you deter, whether by punishment or even defense, an act of terrorism if you don’t know where it’s liable to come from? The late 1960s marked the first time that not one or two but three countries could field nuclear submarines with submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The problem arose that if one day an SLBM slammed into Los Angeles, and there were both Chinese and Soviet submarines out there, how would we know who launched it? This was so obvious that it became the theme of one of the early James Bond movies (“You Only Live Twice,” 1967) in which the Chinese sought to catalyze a war between the Russians and Americans, leaving them standing superior at the end.

Many professional security analysts have been thinking about these and other themes for application to the terrorism problem, especially since 9/11. Some solutions are obvious in the realm of defense. You harden targets that terrorists might attack. You beef up, without overdoing it as we have, airport security. You change your intelligence protocols to focus more on human intelligence rather than on just signal and photo-reconnaissance intelligence in order to find out what you need to know about what terrorists are intending. You take their ideas seriously even if their capabilities are limited. We can do this multilaterally, as well, as some have suggested, by giving the IAEA an intelligence shop. We’ve been slow to do any of this.

Other not-so-obvious things we can do, and in some cases have been doing, include beefing up our forensic capabilities to give us a better chance of knowing where an attack comes from. If terrorists think you’re not going to be able to figure out who attacked, they may be more inclined to hit you; if they think a retaliation will make the terrorists less popular among constituencies they care about, they may be less likely to strike. Here there is no substitute for understanding the groups you want to deter. Terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezballah are enmeshed in a social vortex, in a community they care about to one degree or another, and so they may be deterrable indirectly. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has no social context; it has no social program of any kind, so it is much harder to hold anything at risk its leaders care about.

As to deterrence through punishment, we could say, and have said as a matter of declaratory policy (Bush Doctrine version 1.0), that we will attack not only terrorists who strike us (if we can find them) but any state or state agents that helped terrorists by providing them safe haven or other resources. The idea here is to provide incentives for responsible state agents, or merely self-interestedly prudent ones, to distance themselves from terrorists who would harm Americans and others. This amounts to a sort of reverse extended deterrence via a threat of punishment: instead of using the threat of force to protect friends once removed, one uses the threat of force to make enemies vulnerable once removed.

We could also raise costs to terrorists by attacking them with special forces and other covert operations. When it comes to terrorists who might be thinking about bioterrorism or nukes, we could kill greedy or sympathetic scientists or engineers willing to help them. This is deterrence by preemptive punishment, but it spills over into deterrence by defense, as well. We could also drain al Qaeda and other groups of trained personnel and time and money by enticing plotters we identify toward false flag operations, toward dud weapons, and other diversions.

The point of doing all these things would be to show terrorist groups that they can’t succeed, to frustrate them in such a way that they would channel their chiliastic energies inside rather than outside toward us until they burn themselves through.

We could also, in theory, threaten to attack not states that support terrorists but targets all Sunni terrorists revere, like the holy mosques in Mecca. Of course, this would be a very stupid, counterproductive thing to do, but I mention it because I have actually heard people propose actions like this. We could try to mobilize Shia groups, for example, against Sunni extremist groups. This would also be difficult and probably stupid, because there are also terrorist versions of Shia Islam, and the unanticipated consequences of such actions could easily outrun their uses. Not everything we might do we should do.

And not everything we might do we actually can do. In theory we could ramp up our efforts to persuade mainstream Muslim clergy abroad to denounce Salafi theology and behavior, try to stigmatize terrorism the same way prior generations stigmatized slavery and piracy. This would hurt al Qaeda’s ability to recruit and reduce its resource base. We might persuade some respectable clergy to ex-communicate al Qaeda leaders. After all, when Bin Laden issues a fatwa, a religious edict, he’s a fraud because he’s not a cleric. We’ve tried to do these things, to network mainstream Muslims who are not Salafi, for example, but we have not had much success. We should keep trying, but we should be aware that it is inherently difficult and can be counterproductive for non-Muslims to try to manipulate or shape relations among Muslims.

So the problem is a hard one, particularly if we’re dealing with apocalyptic terrorists who have no return address, no assets to protect, and who may actually want to die. The only thing we can reliably do to deter them is to kill them before they can hurt us, and that is not easy. Are we helpless otherwise?

No, we are not. All the foregoing are things we might do are “out there,” against them. There’s one thing we can do “in here,” forourselves. We can train our society better not to be terrorized. The purpose of terrorism, after all, is to terrorize people and get them to be untrue to their own interests and values. If we refuse to play our part of the game, then the bad guys will lose interest over time. If the terrorists refuse to play by our rules, we certainly should not play by theirs.

This means really taking homeland security seriously, teaching people how to deal, literally and psychologically, with disasters, manmade and natural, building resilience into our society at a higher order. We need to quit cooperating inadvertently with terrorists by doing their job for them. We need to stop taking overboard steps that show we’re afraid, which tell every potential terrorist, whether domestic or foreign, that it’s easy to scare Americans—that all you have to do is frighten the Americans once, and they’ll do extremely expensive and counterproductive things, essentially bureaucratizing and thus perpetuating their own paranoia.[1] We can make our era an “age of terrorism” if we’re foolish enough to do so. Let’s not, OK?


  1. ^See Adam Garfinkle, “Comte’s Caveat: How we Misunderstand Terrorism,” Orbis, Summer 2008.

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