When Nuclear Terrorism Isn’t Terrorism

Wait, is this one of those articles that tries to justify terrorism as a legitimate tactic for a people fighting an occupying power? No, but we are questioning why atrocities committed by a state don’t qualify as terrorism. After all, as Jim Holt wrote at Slate in 2002 of terrorism . . .

The broadest definition is the deliberate killing of noncombatants. That, for example, is how Caleb Carr characterizes terrorism in his recent book The Lessons of Terror. For this he was taken to task in the New York Times Book Review by Michael Ignatieff, who insisted that if the slaughter is carried out by “a state army under regular command, as part of a formally declared campaign to defeat another state,” then it ought not to be called terrorism.

In other words, wrote Holt, “The decision to reserve ‘terrorism’ for nonstate acts of terror, or to extend it to state acts, is a semantic one.”

In part, because the word “terrorism” just won’t stick to states, and no other term packs its punch, states (including the United States, of course) invariably avoid prosecution for killing noncombatants. Meanwhile, new attention has been focused on that subdivision of terrorism that plumbs the very depths of our terror — nuclear terrorism. The recent high-profile disarmament documentary Countdown to Zero has been criticized for hyping the threat from Muslim terrorists as a means to justify using force if necessary to keep Middle-Eastern states from proliferating. But at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson points out one of the film’s savings graces:

But, if the film does play up the danger of a terrorist attack on an American city, is that so unreasonable in a situation where Al Qaeda is known to be seeking a nuclear weapon? . . . Indeed the reason that people like Henry Kissinger and Graham Allison have switched sides in the debate on nuclear abolition is that they fear a world where nuclear deterrence stops working because the people thinking of attacking American cities have no territory against which retaliation might be threatened. Surely the film is naming an all-too-plausible danger of our age that we need to confront.

In other words, if Osama bin Laden had never attempted to procure nuclear material in the 90s, Kissinger might never have tested the waters in the disarmament end of the pool. See, we knew OBL was good for something.

Meanwhile, nuclear terrorism is defined as a non-state actor such as a terrorist group obtaining nuclear weapons and brandishing them. But the degree of difficulty for such a group to deploy nuclear weapons may only be exceeded by attempting to do the same with a delivery system, such as a missile. Thus it’s usually assumed that the non-state actor would instead attempt to smuggle nuclear devices and uranium into the target country.

Yet as Dr. Stanley Erickson, whose job title today is Principal Scientist supporting the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), wrote for the Nonproliferation Review back in 2001, a state on a budget might attempt to acquire an entry-level delivery system such as the cruise missile. Nor is it outside the realm of possibility that a terrorist group might attempt to do the same. Still, smuggling remains more likely.

Stashing a cache of demolition munitions can also be called “prepositioning,” a term to which I was first exposed while reading 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century (Bantam Books, 2009) by Andrew Krepinevich, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The second of Krepinevich’s alarming, but plausible scenarios is titled “War Comes to America.” In 2011, a Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon is detonated in San Antonio, home to several major Air Force bases and an intelligence center. Krepinevich writes (emphasis added):

Strategic Command’s nuclear forces are placed on high alert . . . military specialists pore over incoming satellite imagery to determine if they somehow missed a missile launch indication . . . and to detect any additional missile launches that would indicate a follow-on strike. . . . That evening President David Reynolds . . . informs the American public that [they've found] no indication that the weapon was delivered by any kind of missile or aircraft. Simply stated, the bomb was prepositioned in the city covertly and then detonated, perhaps remotely.

Turns out, though, that use of this term to describe munitions cached in advance — but only by a state — was already coined by Dr. Erickson, who wrote another article in 2001 titled Nuclear Weapon Prepositioning as a Threat Strategy, which appeared on the website of a company that provides analysis for the Department of Homeland Security. His definition: “Prepositioning is not the same as nuclear terrorism or state-sponsored nuclear terrorism, but is a military operation conducted by military personnel, using the new nuclear nation’s full range of military assets, including intelligence, communications, and special operations forces.”

In fact, if successful, said state might even cache them in a safe house or underground. However far-fetched that sounds, a precedent may exist. Stanislav Lunev is the highest-ranking member of the GRU (Russian foreign intelligence agency) ever to defect to the United States. He speculates that GRU agents crossed the U.S.-Mexican border with SADMs (special atomic demolition munitions, aka, suitcase nukes) and buried them just in case war broke out between the United States and Russia. That his musings can be found in the pages of an autobiography published by Regnery Publishing (publisher of books like the Swiftboaters Unfit for Command) makes it automatically suspect, however.

Meanwhile, the explanation that Dr. Erickson provides for what might possess a state to preposition is one you’re unlikely to have encountered.

If a midsized nation were contemplating an activity such as taking over a smaller neighbor, suppressing discontent among some groups, or pushing out its boundary line, it would be concerned about international opposition. It might assume that the United States would be the principal opponent or be a leader in blocking it. It might therefore seek ways to prevent any serious U.S. response, especially military, to its activities. If the nation is a new nuclear nation, having accomplished nuclear proliferation either covertly or overtly, it might seek ways to use its new capability to promote this end and to deter the United States from taking any action against it. One possible method would be to preposition nuclear weapons at targets inside the United States and then inform the U.S. government that the threat exists and demand that the United States cease calling for or planning any military actions in the region of the new nuclear nation.

In fact state prepositioning is a potentially more significant threat than a non-state actor’s terrorism. Dr. Erickson again.

Terrorism is a difficult problem to deal with, but one advantage that counterterrorist forces have is the terrorist groups’ lack of resources, including technical expertise, planning ability, communications capability, transport options, and highly trained manpower. This advantage disappears in the prepositioning threat. Discussions of the terrorist threat revolve around a situation involving a single weapon, whereas in prepositioning, the threat is multiple weapons.

Though, in 7 Deadly Scenarios Krepinevich postulates a terrorist group armed with seven weapons distributed throughout the United States. Either way, measures can be taken and some of them, writes Dr. Erickson, begin with you and me.

Once a weapon is inside the United States, detection may depend on chance encounters rather than comprehensive search. An aware public can play a useful role in such a situation. Once clues are obtained regarding neighborhoods in which such weapons are located. . . . disabling an armed nuclear weapon that has been booby-trapped is a matter of extreme skill and care.

One can only imagine. We’re obviously in Hail Mary territory here. Meanwhile, what what would have been a first line of defense keeping the weapons from penetrating so deeply into the country? That’s where the likes of Dr. Erickson come in. His work in support of the DNDO (in case you didn’t get it the first time, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office) includes cargo radiography and ASP (advanced spectroscopic portal) which, besides cargo containers, screens car, trucks, and railroads for nuclear materials.

For all the outstanding work on the part of the DNDO, gaps remain through which terrorists bearing nukes could slip, such as along the southern and northern borders of the United States. Also nuclear material could presumably be offloaded from an ocean-going vessel to a smaller boat which could dock in a lonely cove.

Even more important to national security is keeping nuclear weapons other than our own in the arsenals of the states that possess them, where they belong (if, indeed, they can be said to belong anywhere). This requires scrupulous compliance and verification to monitor the whereabouts of nuclear materials and weapons at all times, as well as continuing to secure loose nukes in the states of the former Soviet Union. In his book On Nuclear Terrorism, Michael Levi demonstrated how many different elements need to fall into place for an attack by nuclear terrorists, or states adopting their tactics, to succeed. But persistence on the part of a terrorist group or state determined to probe our defenses could eventually pay off for them (if you call the retaliation they’d likely bring down on them and their people paying off).

In the end, of course, the chance that a state might attempt to smuggle nuclear weapons into the United States as if it were a terrorist group only compounds the urgency of disarmament.