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Crying Wolf: Al Qaeda And The Nuclear Threat – Analysis


By Alankrita Sinha

The threat of nuclear terrorism has been around since the advent of the nuclear age, though it transformed into a real possibility only after the 9/11 attacks by the al Qaeda on the US mainland. This threat of nuclear terrorism has been used by the US to galvanize the global war on terror by asserting that the al Qaeda could attempt to inflict irrevocable damage on its adversaries. However, the credibility of the nuclear threat posed by the al Qaeda seems to be uncertain. The main argument in favour of this assertion is that this narrative has been fuelled by al Qaeda operatives to a larger extent than even the US itself. This argument may seem far-fetched; however if one evaluates it in the light of ‘terrorism as strategy’ to obtain defined socio-political goals, its implications become clearer. The central argument in this article is that nuclear terrorism is a ‘high risk-low probability event’, which is consciously promoted as part of al Qaeda’s overall strategy to gain mileage by violent attacks and the creation of ‘fear-psychosis’.

Al Qaeda and Nuclear Terrorism: Evidence on a Platter?

Evidence that claim al Qaeda’s nuclear ambitions as reality are abundant. According to a recent Telegraph article (, “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind was involved in a range of plans including attacks on US nuclear plants and a ‘nuclear hellstorm’ plot in America.” In another revelation, a Libyan detainee, Abu Al-Libi, hinted that the al Qaeda possessed a nuclear device. These revelations echo the general hysteria of an imminent threat of nuclear terrorism and its guaranteed use by these ‘irrational’ elements.

However, it is interesting to note that this narrative has been constructed by the al Qaeda more than the US. In fact, al Qaeda’s supposed intent has been constructed from the information gathered through interviews and interrogations of its operatives, plus declarations on its own website. This form of information, which often finds its way back to the al Qaeda as the original source, has been utilized by the US and likeminded states to shape the narrative on nuclear terrorism. Former US president George W Bush’s 2003 address to UNGA is an example of how al Qaeda’s declared intent was officially internalized by UNSC Resolution 1540. The question which naturally follows then is why the al Qaeda is playing an active role in promoting its own notoriety, and attracting an array of international backlash. The answer lies in its aims which are facilitated by the strategy it employs.

Al Qaeda and Nuclear Terrorism: Means to an End

‘Terrorism’ is a strategy used by non-state actors to gain their objectives and overcome the power asymmetries that exist between a non-state actor and a powerful state. More importantly, the aim of any act of terrorism is to gain socio-political leverage by resorting to violence. Thus, terrorism is definitely not ‘apolitical’ but is inherently political. Here, a violent act is symbolic in nature, wherein creating panic is as important as the violent act itself. The al Qaeda has used the threat of nuclear terrorism to the same effect.

Hence, al Qaeda’s overall strategy has utilized elements of both an operational strategy as well as a declaratory one. Whereas its operational strategy seeks to use terror tactics like violent attacks and suicide bombings to destabilize its adversary through bruises, not necessarily fatal; a declaratory strategy either precedes or follows such an act with a ‘declaration’ to show its resolve to inflict more pain. Simply put, actual use of force forms a part of its operational strategy, while the ‘threat’ to do so is its declaratory one. Thus, al Qaeda’s operational strategy is to use force to facilitate the achievement of its aims. The constant use of violence through terror attacks, especially since 9/11, has operationalized this strategy. The Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the ones in London in 2005, amongst many others, are cases in point. Its declaratory strategy has been used to facilitate and substantiate its operational strategy. This essentially means that if the al Qaeda has an operational strategy of using violence to gain socio-political leverage (like any other terrorist group), its declaratory strategy seeks to induce and maintain the fear thus generated over time.Hence, the image of the al Qaeda having acquired nuclear technology or fissile materials is a part of its declaratory strategy of sustaining fear-psychosis.

Al Qaeda and Nuclear Terrorism: Incredible Credibility

The delineation of al Qaeda’s strategy provides an important insight into whether its nuclear threat is credible. This article argues that it is not. The idea of ‘nuclear terrorism’ only forms the basis of a refined ‘declaratory strategy’ of the al Qaeda to sustain fear. At the operational level, however, the use of Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD) or ‘dirty bombs’ by al Qaeda seems redundant. Conventional methods at the operational level are enough to achieve its ends, in tandem with a credible declaratory strategy, which its narrative on ‘nuclear terrorism’ fulfils.

Alankrita Sinha
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

One thought on “Crying Wolf: Al Qaeda And The Nuclear Threat – Analysis

  • June 2, 2011 at 6:55 am

    The day China, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Russia invite USA, Israel and India to send a team of experts to take away the nuclear assets
    from these countries. Terrorism of all types will vanish in thin air.Western press will deny
    the existence of Al Qaida and even claim that the Twin Towers were brought down by the two pilots who had developed suicidal tendencies and the authorities took no notice.


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