Sanity, Terror and Nukes

Posted: November 2, 2010 in Nuclear Weapons, Sanity Nukes and Terror, Terrorism 101

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May 29, 2009 | 1426 GMT
Debunking Myths About Nuclear Weapons and Terrorism
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A warning placard on a container at a decommissioned nuclear facility
Summary

STRATFOR’s Geopolitical Intelligence Report on May 26 generated many questions and responses from our readers concerning various scenarios of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation. We take a closer look at issues of terrorism, loose nukes, unstable and unpredictable world leaders and clandestine delivery in a follow up to our coverage of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

Analysis

STRATFOR’s Geopolitical Intelligence Report that examined North Korea’s nuclear test elicited many questions from our readers regarding nuclear terrorism and the role that could be played by irrational world leaders in actually using such a weapon or device. STRATFOR examines these issues.

Terrorists and Apocalyptic-Minded Jihadists

Concerns about nuclear terrorism have been a reality since even before Sept. 11, 2001 — though a profound lack of situational awareness in the wake of those attacks spawned a deep concern about what plans al Qaeda might already have in motion for the weeks and months that followed.

In planning the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda enjoyed financing that included patronage from Saudi royalty and — perhaps even more importantly — sanctuary from which to operate in Afghanistan. Hardened radicals, bent on re-establishing a Caliphate across the Muslim world, al Qaeda had time and resources to consider devoting to potential chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) programs. Their only success (they tinkered unsuccessfully with biological and chemical weapons) was in weaponizing hijacked civilian airliners.

Presently, al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self, and empirical evidence in the years since 2001 has shown a steady erosion — especially after the July 2005 London Underground and March 2004 Madrid bombings — of the apex leadership’s capability to orchestrate global strikes. Al Qaeda’s remaining leadership is on the run and focused only on operations in the Middle East and South Asia. Al Qaeda “franchise” operations have undoubtedly sprung up around the world, but these are far less capable and far more localized than the pre-Sept. 11 al Qaeda phenomenon.

Though al Qaeda is only one example, it is important to note that the immense security, sanctuary, financial backing and time that al Qaeda had was insufficient to begin attempting to produce a crude nuclear device in any meaningful way — the furthest they got was attempting to procure nuclear materials that turned out to be fake, sold to them by con men. Even chemical and biological weapon pursuits (which were certainly explored and experimented with) were not seriously or successfully pursued, given the complexity and cost.

Efforts to clandestinely build a nuclear device require a coherent and consistent investment measuring in the billions (if not tens of billions) of dollars over a period likely spanning a decade or more. They require large, fixed, well-powered and vulnerable installations for a variety of aspects of the effort. These installations represent an enormous risk and opportunity cost for a terrorist organization. The international community closely monitors some of the equipment required, and they will concentrate an enormous investment of intellectual, financial and material resources into just the sort of target that the United States can bring air power to bear upon.

Though the history of the use of CBRN in terrorist attacks is limited, the fact of the matter is that most cases where groups have considered pursuing these capabilities have ultimately led to them being abandoned in favor of more obtainable and efficient tactics. They simply fall well short of the destruction wrought by simpler and more conventional explosive devices. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar and hour for hour of effort, high explosives are far more effective at inflicting massive casualties. The innovation of using hijacked civilian airliners as human-guided cruise missiles is far more in line with al Qaeda operational thinking than concepts of concentrating so much in easily targetable facilities for long periods of time. Doing so runs in the face of basic operational security considerations for any terrorist organization.

For further reading on STRATFOR’s perspective on the full spectrum of weapons of mass destruction, see the following analyses:

Loose Nukes and Clandestine Acquisition

But what about acquiring a nuclear weapon that has already been built? The security of nuclear weapons is and has long been an important concern.

However, the effort involved in actually trying to steal a nuclear weapon would entail a significant dedication of resources and an immense intelligence effort beyond the reach of almost any terrorist organization. Indeed, the odds of a failure are high, no matter how careful and meticulous the planning. Some nuclear weapons facilities around the world are obviously not as hardened as others, but taken as a whole, they are some of the hardest targets on the planet, and the personnel better vetted than almost any other institution.

Even the lightest attempt to begin probing runs the risk of not only failing to acquire a bomb, but setting off a series of alarms and red flags that brings such an aggressive investigative and law enforcement/military response down on the terrorist organization that it could be completely wiped out before it ever attempted to target its true objectives (whatever they might be).

And even if one could be stolen or otherwise acquired, modern nuclear weapons have been designed to include a series of (highly classified) safety features. Though all nuclear weapons are not created equal, these range from permissive action links without which the device cannot be armed (a feature Pakistan is now thought to employ) to configurations that will actually render the fissile core(s) useless if improperly accessed. The security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan has long been something STRATFOR has kept a close eye on, and something we continue to monitor. The Hollywood scenario of a terrorist group stealing away with a nuclear device in the night and automatically being able to arm it at its convenience is not grounded in reality. Furthermore, the theft would be difficult to carry off without setting off the same alarms and red flags that would leave little opportunity for the device to be smuggled particularly far — much less half way around the world.

Nuclear weapons are complex devices that require considerable care and maintenance — especially the small, modern and easily transportable variety. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, fears arose of a series of Soviet suitcases containing sophisticated nuclear devices were somehow lost. These fears persisted into the 21st century, well after the fissile and radioisotope materials in the design would have decayed significantly enough to effect the performance of the weapon, in addition to the diminished functionality of its other components after being handled roughly over the years.

Irrational Actors

One of the questions that arose from our analysis of the North Korean situation was that it was governed by a reliance on rational actors. There was a concern that STRATFOR was too quick to assume that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be considered rational.

Historically, every leader makes mistakes and missteps. Some are certifiable: Josef Stalin utterly refused to believe his advisers when they insisted that Nazi forces were poised to invade in 1941. Even after the invasion began, he refused to believe it until his most trusted advisers actually traveled to the front lines.

But despite Stalin’s ruthlessness when it came to cracking down on the population of the Soviet Union, he did not throw a nuclear weapon at the United States the moment he got one, even though many in the West feared that he might. Running a country as Stalin ran the Soviet Union for as long as he did requires a certain rationality, and most importantly, a personal nature that clings tenaciously to continued existence. Overseeing the defense of that country against the Nazi onslaught and then implementing an aggressive crash nuclear program takes coordination and focus.

No one can run a country alone. Leaders require loyal and competent administrators. A certifiable and apocalyptic-minded leader is simply unlikely to rise so far — and is even less likely to command the respect and loyalty of those necessary to actually run the country for any length of time.

Kim Jong Il undoubtedly ranks very high among the world’s most idiosyncratic world leaders. But he has deftly transferred and consolidated control over a country that was run by a single individual, his father, for nearly 50 years. By balancing various groups and interests, he has both maintained internal control and loyalty and kept the attention of some of the world’s most powerful countries focused on North Korea for more than 15 years. Indeed, he has overseen the allocation of resources necessary to build both crude intercontinental ballistic missiles and crude nuclear devices while faced with crushing international sanctions. This is the track record of a competent (if annoying) leader, not a crazy one.

If Kim was merely suicidal, he has had the artillery, artillery rockets and short-range ballistic missiles at hand to destroy Seoul and invite a new Korean War since before his father died — a choice that would be far quicker, cheaper and even more complete than the prototype nuclear devices that North Korea has so far demonstrated. Rather, his actions have consistently shown that his foremost goal has been the survival of his regime. Indeed, he has actually curtailed much of the more aggressive activity that occurred during his father’s reign, such as attempting to assassinate South Korea’s president.

While Kim’s actions may seem unstable (and, indeed, they are designed to seem that way in order to induce an element of uncertainty at the negotiating table), Pyongyang regularly uses ballistic missile tests and even its nuclear tests as part of a larger strategy to not only keep itself relevant, but to ensure regime survival.

As for Ahmadinejad and his fiery rhetoric denying the Holocaust, calling for the destruction of Israel and defying the United States, he has not lost steam in recent months before the country’s next presidential election in June. This rhetoric has a role. Not only is it populist, and intended for domestic consumption, but it is also a strategy, similar to North Korea’s, to cultivate perceptions and influence behaviors by making Tehran appear crazy and unpredictable. Regardless, even if he is reelected, the true power in the country is the clerical leadership, not the country’s highly-visible president. Although the executive in Iran does indeed wield considerable power, the complexity of the Iranian political system allows for several layers of oversight.

Furthermore, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the true leader in Tehran — has consistently relied upon consensus when it comes to policy- and decision-making. Under his direction and authority, the various institutions — the executive, Parliament, the Expediency Council, the Supreme National Security Council, the Assembly of Experts, the Guardians Council, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and others all have a say in the final policy on a given matter. Though there are extremist elements within some of these institutions (such as the IRGC), Tehran’s senior leadership has consistently demonstrated itself to be far more rational than Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric suggests. In short, even if Iran did have nuclear weapons, it would not be Ahmadinejad — or any potentially like-minded successor — with his finger on the proverbial button.

Furthermore, any fears associated with Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons must be balanced against the policies of Israel, which is not known for its subtlety or half measures. The Israelis deploy a fully functional nuclear triad, and have a variety of survivable means for delivering a decisive retaliatory blow against Tehran if nuclear weapons were ever used against them. This is not doubted by anyone in Tehran.

Truly crazy and suicidal leaders have a difficult time becoming leaders of a country even capable of considering trying to developing a nuclear weapon, much less being able to see the process through to the end over the course of a decade. But the leader of a country has worked to get to that position. They may have taken risks, but they were generally calculated and they want to enjoy the fruits of that labor. The consequences for miscalculating with nuclear weapons is annihilation — not only for themselves, their family and the power base that they have toiled to build, but for the entire society.

Nuclear Weapons and Proxies

Another concern is that North Korea, Iran or Pakistan might hand off a nuclear weapon to a non-state actor or proxy of some sort — one that would detonate it at a mutually-agreeable target as soon as possible. Subsets of this same issue are whether one of these countries might not use a shipping container or some other clandestine means to carry out an attack on the United States or another target — the deniable use of nuclear weapons.

Three factors must be considered when addressing the above concern. The first is an issue of trust and control. Non-state, militant proxies like Hezbollah rely on patrons like Iran for support and training. But they have their own interests as well — and they hold those close. Despite its own rhetoric about Israel, for example, Hezbollah’s senior leadership often owns property in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon, and has grown wealthy off the proceeds. They are no more interested in seeing their livelihood and retirement destroyed in the Israeli retaliation than Tehran. This older generation does not have complete control over the organization (nor is it a monolithic, unified entity), and there is certainly no shortage of young, ideologically motivated militants in Lebanon.

But that assumes Tehran would ever hand over a nuke to Hezbollah in the first place. Proxies must be kept dependent, otherwise they cease to be proxies. They do not share some deep bond of trust. Though there may be some shared ideological affinities (like their hatred of all things Israeli), they attempt to maintain control over their proxies. Handing over even a crude nuclear device is anathema to that relationship and would destroy the dynamics by which the country enforces its will as a patron. It would have provided an organization that it can never fully trust with the one true guarantor of sovereignty.

Second, the nuclear device is the product of an immense, expensive national effort. Each individual weapon or device — especially early on — represents an enormous investment of national resources. By handing one over to an outside group, the country not only has no assurance of it being employed in the way they want, but opens itself to the prospect of that immense investment being wasted or misused. Because a meaningful nuclear deterrent rests on not one weapon, but many, the incentive will be for the country to consolidate its stockpile and deploy it to multiple locations that it has strong control over in order to work towards establishing that deterrent.

Finally, there is the issue of risk. A nuclear weapon used in a terrorist attack — not just against the United States or Israel, but anywhere in the world — will be followed by the most intense, broad and meticulous investigation in human history. The idea that because a bomb was involved in a terrorist attack that the fissile material that made it possible will not be traced ruthlessly to its source simply does not hold water. The necessary investigative processes are not only possible and well understood, but work to improve and further refine them has only intensified and received additional funding after 9/11. Indeed, a country providing a nuclear weapon to a non-state group could not have even reasonable assurances that it would not come back to haunt them, either through investigation or interrogation of those that carried out the attack.

Far from being able to carry out a nuclear strike clandestinely or deniably, Tehran would be opening itself up to responsibility and accountability for Hezbollah’s actions. Again, the material will almost certainly be traced back to Tehran. And it would be Tehran that suffered the consequences.

Indeed, the closest Pyongyang has come to this is an attempt to share some civilian technology with Syria — its trial run with the idea of low-level proliferation of some civilian (though inherently dual-use) precursor technologies. It quickly decided that the entire idea was too risky and sold Syria out to Israel and the United States, resulting in Israeli airstrikes in Western Syria in 2007. So while the concern about technology sharing is real (and validated by the now infamous network of A.Q. Khan), there are also limitations to how much one country is willing to risk for another. The Israeli bombing and North Korea’s betrayal of Syria will not be soon forgotten.

And if countries like Syria and North Korea cannot trust each other when it comes to such high stakes, the idea that a country would be willing to trust a non-state actor is even more problematic.

Ultimately, such doomsday scenarios cannot ever be completely ruled out, and continual, ever-improving efforts to further secure global nuclear stockpiles and vigilance over them are certainly warranted from a security standpoint. But man has controlled nuclear weapons for more than half a century, and we do not see the latest nuclear crisis playing out any differently than every other nuclear crisis that has come before it. Furthermore, STRATFOR does not subscribe to the idea that countries build nuclear weapons in order to use them immediately, thereby triggering nuclear war, or freely hand them off to non-state actors that would.

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