Book by Brian Michael Jenkins explores nuclear terrorism

September 10, 2008

Will terrorists go nuclear? Almost since the dawn of the nuclear age, experts have tried to assess the chance a rogue group could acquire the raw materials and technological skill needed to assemble a nuclear bomb.

In a new book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?, leading terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins explores both the risks and history of nuclear terrorism, and warns that terrorist may not even need to acquire such weapons to order to perpetrate "nuclear terror."

"Upon close examination, nuclear terrorism turns out to be a world of truly worrisome pieces of truth," Jenkins says. "It also is a world of fantasies, nightmares, hoaxes, scams and stings where it is hard to separate truth from myth. I wrote the book to help the public identify where the myths end and the reality begins."

Jenkins began RAND's terrorism research program in 1972, after serving in the Vietnam War as a captain in the U.S. Army Special Forces. Recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on terrorism, he is now a senior adviser to the president of RAND.

The history of nuclear terrorism can be quickly summarized. There hasn't been any -- that is if by "nuclear terrorism" we mean the successful sabotage of an operating nuclear reactor, the deliberate release of any significant amounts of radioactive material, or the detonation by terrorists of a nuclear bomb.

Yet many people would hasten to add "yet," Jenkins writes, since they believe that while none of these events has happened, they inevitably will. It is not a matter of "if" but "when." The anticipation of nuclear terrorism, not its history, drives the defense.

A major thesis of Jenkins' book is that nuclear terrorism and nuclear terror reside in different domains. Nuclear terrorism is about a serious threat -- the possibility that terrorists might somehow obtain and detonate a nuclear weapon -- while nuclear terror is about the anticipation of that event. Nuclear terrorism is about terrorists' capabilities, while nuclear terror is about imagination.

Jenkins writes that while there has been no nuclear terrorism, nuclear terror is real and pervasive. In that regard, Al Qaeda may have succeeded in becoming the world's first terrorist nuclear power without possessing a single nuclear weapon.

"We must take sensible measures to prevent nuclear terrorism," Jenkins said. "We must defeat nuclear terror."

The psychological effects of nuclear terror are fueled by American culture, which churns out novels and movies in which every conceivable horror scenario is played out, Jenkins explains. Political factions on both the right and the left also view nuclear terrorism as fodder to support their own arguments. In such an atmosphere, it is difficult for the average citizen to separate real from imagined dangers.

In addition to a careful telling of the history and strategy of nuclear terrorism, Jenkins provides readers with an opportunity to play the role of commander in chief in an evolving, hypothetical nuclear attack. The book outlines a realistic "war game" where the reader is the U.S. president and is asked to make decisions about how to respond to a hypothetical attack on New York City.

The reader not only must make decisions about how to strike back at the attackers, but how to deal with other governments around that world that begin to posture and protect their options as the scenario unfolds. It's an uncomfortable ride, but one that makes clear the complexities of dealing with nuclear terrorism.

Jenkins leaves readers with a warning that the fear of terrorism has the power to cause the United States to take actions that fray the national fabric.

A nuclear attack by terrorists is not inevitable and the nation must do all that is rationally possible to prevent such an event by improving intelligence, international cooperation and teaching the public how to react should such a dreadful event occur.

But, Jenkins argues, the fear of nuclear terrorism should not cause the nation to become intolerant and frightened. The nation must defeat tyranny while maintaining and strengthening its democracy.
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Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? is published by Prometheus Books.

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