Assessment of the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Following the horrific events of 9/11, media narratives created a paranoid fantasy in which terrorist groups obtain and deploy nuclear weapons of mass destruction. In 2017, Mathew Bunn and Nickolas Roth, a professor and a research associate at Harvard University argued that a “nuclear nightmare” is possible and could result from a single terrorist nuclear attack on a major city. They articulate the fatal consequences of another Hiroshima and Nagasaki event: long-term radioactive fallout, a nuclear counterattack, and a half million people dead. However, those scenarios are extremely overblown and exaggerated and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of war by a state actor, not terrorists.

Bunn and Roth argue that a nuclear terror attack is possible if a terrorist group acquired the necessary nuclear material, but such a scenario is highly unlikely, according to Leonard Weiss, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Only nine states have nuclear weapons capabilities: The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, North Korea, India, and Pakistan. A scenario in which nuclear materials are stolen from any one of those nations is almost impossible. All nuclear weapon states have multiple layers of safeguards that prevent security breaches. Any scenario for seizure would require major security breakdowns followed by an extremely fast takeover of weapons by terrorist groups with no time for other state actors like the United States to intervene. No existing non-state actor terrorist group has ever reached such sophistication. Even Al-Qaeda, who perpetrated the worst terror attack in modern history, could not acquire nuclear weapons. Furthermore, none of the nuclear weapon states would willingly give nuclear weapons or materials to any terrorist group due to existing nuclear deterrence. If a terrorist group manages to deploy a nuclear bomb as a result of a transfer from a sovereign nation, that will ultimately result in the transferring nation becoming a nuclear target as a form of retaliation. No country will risk absolute annihilation in favor of any terrorist organization.

Another scenario for a nuclear terror attack outlined by Bunn and Roth is the acquisition of nuclear material. However, necessary material such as uranium and plutonium are highly protected. Even if a terrorist organization were to acquire the necessary materials, it is extremely difficult to build and denote, requiring high level of expertise that no non-state actor can access. Technical hurdles and logistical difficulties is a huge challenge to nuclear terrorists

Deployment of a nuclear weapon by stateless terrorist organization should be the least of our worries in a world where minor provocations between any nuclear weapons states, such as Pakistan and India, are more likely to escalate. There have been no instances in which a terrorist group acquired and deployed a nuclear weapon. Terrorist groups do not have the capability, expertise or sophistication to carry out a catastrophic nuclear attack.

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