Nuclear Terrorism: Real or the Stuff of 9/11 Nightmares?

Nuclear Terrorism: Real or the Stuff of 9/11 Nightmares?

Photo by Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo

In a Feb. 4 talk cosponsored by the Burkle Center, RAND Corporation senior advisor Brian Michael Jenkins delivers a sober analysis of the evidence, and fears, that drive the debate about nuclear terrorism.

UCLA Today

By Ajay Singh

IT'S A QUESTION that surfaces regularly in the media, intelligence reports, political briefings and academic analyses: Is a nuclear attack by terrorists imminent?

Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior advisor at RAND Corporation and one of the nation's leading counterterrorism experts, has analyzed the likelihood of such an unprecedented event in his recent book, "Will Terrorists go Nuclear?" (Prometheus).

In a Feb. 4 talk at the UCLA School of Law, Jenkins delivered a sober analysis of the evidence — and fears — that drive the debate about nuclear terrorism. The event was jointly sponsored by the UCLA-RAND Center for Law and Public Policy, and the Burkle Center for International Relations.

Nuclear terrorism is a frightening possibility, but it's also the stuff of "fantasies, nightmares, urban legends, mysterious substances, terrorist boasts and layers of misinformation and disinformation," Jenkins said, adding that the issue is best analyzed under two separate domains: nuclear terrorism and nuclear terror.

While nuclear terrorism revolves around intelligence about terrorist capabilities, "nuclear terror is driven by our imagination and is deeply embedded in our popular culture and in our policy-making circles," Jenkins said.

Hard intelligence about terrorist capabilities suggests that terrorists are still a long way from using the ultimate weapon of mass destruction — or even a crude suitcase version of it. Yet, in an otherwise "excellent report" last fall, Jenkins said, the National Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism predicted that "there is a better than an even chance that terrorists will use weapons of mass destruction within the next five years."

Also last fall, the head of the CIA identified Al Qaeda as the agency's "number one nuclear concern," surpassing the threat from North Korea's nuclear weapons as well as Iran's nuclear ambitions, Jenkins said. Such an assessment is clearly based upon an analysis of Al Qaeda's well-publicized intentions, not capabilities, and yet the effect of the CIA's analysis is that "Al Qaeda has become the world's first nuclear power without possessing nuclear weapons," he added.

Part of the reason for such alarmism is that "in order to make people listen to sensible things, you have to scare the hell out of them," said Jenkins. "But scaring the hell out of them contributes to this atmosphere of terror, which then has its own adverse consequences."

Jenkins criticized the Bush administration for spreading a "relentless message of fear" about terrorists. "It's understandable to some extent," he conceded, "but as a consistent message it begins to take on a political agenda that undermines democracy."

According to a public opinion poll, 40 percent of Americans think it is likely that terrorists will detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city within the next five years, said Jenkins. "It was a 2007 poll, so we have three years to go," he quipped.

Long before 9/11, one prediction of a looming attack revolved around "red mercury," a substance ostensibly invented by the Soviets in the 1980s to simplify the production of small nuclear bombs.

"One American scientist said that with red mercury terrorists armed with nuclear bombs the size of baseballs could bring down skyscrapers," Jenkins said. "Export licenses from Russia indicate imminent sales of red mercury — people have sought red mercury, people have died because of red mercury. It doesn't exist."

The public is vulnerable to such misinformation partly because of "apprehension left over from the Cold War, and part of it is 9/11 nightmares and the nature of our counterculture," said Jenkins, adding: "Doom sells in America." The climate of fear is also stoked by bureaucrats engaged in "a very noisy contest" to highlight threats most relevant to their budgets, Jenkins said. "And the way you make people pay attention to your threat is to advertise that your threat is far more terrible, far more consequential than all of the other threats."
Some time ago, Jenkins asked a number of experts in intelligence, terrorism and nuclear facilities how likely it was that terrorists would detonate a nuclear weapon somewhere in the world in the next 10 years. "The answers ranged from one in a million to virtual certainty," he said.
"We tend to see terrorists not as complex figures, but as evil [and because] they are evil, no further analysis is necessary — if they can do it, they will," Jenkins said. "We do have terrorist intent to exploit a nuclear venue — to heighten the drama. Beyond that, we have a kind of theological debate — and it's theological because it rests upon assertions and faith, as opposed to evidence."

Published: Wednesday, February 11, 2009