Nuclear Terrorism: A Rationale Choice For Terrorists? – Analysis


Nuclear terrorism is defined as the use of a nuclear device by a terrorist organization to cause massive devastation or the use (or threat of use) of fissionable radioactive materials; “assaults on nuclear power plants is one form of nuclear terrorism.” The term nuclear terrorism is understood to be a terrorist act using a nuclear or radiological weapon intended to kill or capable of killing hundreds or thousands of people with one attack. Nuclear terrorism at times has also been defined as the world’s most dangerous terrorists acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.

The term “nuclear terrorism” encompasses a broad range of possible criminal acts. It includes actions against nuclear facilities, military or civilian, including vehicles transporting nuclear weapons, components, or materials; and those in which nuclear weapons, explosive devices, or materials are used to threaten or actually destroy people and property. The first type of action might serve as a precursor to the second; terrorists might assault or infiltrate a facility to steal a weapon or material for use in a future nuclear threat.

Global Concerns over Likelihood of Nuclear Terrorism

The discussion regarding nuclear terrorism first came in sight during 1970s; later on it took on a larger public character in the 1980s after NBC aired Special Bulletin, a television dramatization of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States. In 1986 a private panel of experts known as the ITFPT (International Task Force on the Prevention of Terrorism) released a report urging all nuclear armed states to beware the dangers of terrorism and work on equipping their nuclear arsenals with permissive action Links. The experts warned that the probability of nuclear terrorism “is increasing and the consequences for urban and industrial societies could be catastrophic.” Since the creation of the atomic bomb, government officials, scientists, and concerned citizens have been aware that weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of dangerous terrorist groups or rogue regimes. Bruce Hoffman mentions that there were least fifty two incidents of terrorist’s threats to use WMD during 1968-1994.

The alarmists such as Scott D. Sagan threatens the world that the proliferation of nuclear weapons will lead to the spread of nuclear weapons into terrorist hands, or to such countries where there is a risk of terrorist access to such weapons. Before 9/11 many international security specialists claimed that terrorists were not interested in creating mass fatalities. These attacks, which have resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries, have raised concerns that the constraints on terrorists against committing mass murder have been breached, and that next time terrorists may use nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Since 1995, there have been three significant episodes that bear out the danger that terrorists can have access to — and no scruples about using — devices, substances or weapons with the potential for mass killings. These episodes also manifest that preparation for acts of terrorism with such weapons of mass destruction or devices may be difficult and at times impossible to detect. The Aum Shinrikyo attacks on the Tokyo Subway in 1995 resulted in the death of 12 people and some 6000 were injured, the unsolved anthrax attacks in the United States (Florida, Washington and New York) in October 2001 are the first two. The third is the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 with Polonium- 210.

According to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, Polonium-210 is 250 billion times more toxic than hydrocyanic acid, the chemical used in Nazi gas chambers. Polonium-210 has been used as part of the trigger process in many nuclear weapons and the main grounds for suspicion that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons is based on Iran’s reported experimentation with this substance. Though this case is still being investigated by Britain’s anti-terrorist police, most scenarios suggest that it can be read in one of only two ways. First, though the event may not have been an act of nuclear terrorism, it has to be taken as a warning of how undetectable the preparations for nuclear terrorism might be. Second, the death may have been the result of an active plan to conduct nuclear terrorism.

In contrast to the nuclear weapon case, Christoph Wirz and Emmanuel Egger conclude from their study that there are in principle no impossible obstacles to the acquisition and use of radiological weapons by a well-organized terrorist group, even though such an action remains high-tech and thus very difficult. During the 2008, the President Barack Obama said that nuclear terrorism is “the gravest danger we face.” Former US President George W. Bush views this alarming threat in such remarks;

“The gravest danger to freedom lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology. When the spread of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons…occurs, even weak states and small groups could attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations…”

It would be a milestone; timely for ongoing efforts to consolidate the non-proliferation regime, combat nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear safety says Mohammad ElBaradei.

Why Terrorists Potentially Want to go Nuclear?

Nuclear weapon is the most dangerous weapon that mankind has ever made. These weapons are ultimate weapons for ultimate destruction. Terrorists have been struggling for the publicity throughout the time and WMD may sever as an attention-getter stunt. Nuclear terrorism becomes a lucrative option for the terrorist organizations only because of lethality of nuclear weapons. Historically speaking, it has been observed that terrorists have been pursuing weapons which are increasingly lethal. Indeed, the acquisition of any type of nuclear weapon would boost their confidence as well as degree of terrorist-actions. This inclination towards nuclear weapons or material could be well observed in the case of biological and chemical agents which are being used by terrorist groups/individuals in USA and else where. So, based on this premise it can be proposed that the tendency towards the acquisition of WMDs and their usage would increase in near future.

It is acknowledged that terrorist organizations are relatively weak in terms of power, prestige, and security, when compared with large states. So, these factors become a key to understand the dynamics of acquisition of nuclear technology by terrorist organizations. Terrorists have been constantly struggling to gain more and more power against their adversaries to boost their striking potential and this could be understood by Morgehthau’s definition that the possession of power is really the possession of coercive potential. Prestige is also related to power and also an integral component of international relations. Prestige could play a motivating role and is subject to constant change. Coercive potential is directly related to the perceived power and prestige in one way or other. For terrorists to be perceived as credible source of threat, they must be perceived as powerful and prestigious. This may lead to the acquisition of ultimate weapons by terrorist organizations to raise a high and prestigious voice to fulfil their objectives or blackmail the adversaries.

Security is also connected to power and actors feel more secure once they are powerful. The power and security dynamics may unleash terrorists to exercise the phenomenon of “might is right”. The alarming episode is that terrorists might be observing that the sole solution to their problems is the acquisition of WMDs, which could ensure their power, prestige, security and enhance the credibility of their threats.

To conclude one must understand that, terrorists are rational actors prevailing in the world. So, it can be assumed that the acquisition of nuclear weapons become more rational for terrorists as it may enhance the vulnerability of states. Similarly, it can be assumed that a terrorist group with nuclear weapon may pose a serious challenge of blackmail. At the same time terrorist organizations might consider that nuclear weapon may create environment of deterrence against their adversaries. Furthermore, it can be assumed that terrorists may use nuclear or radiological weapon to create precedence, so that states may not try to underestimate their capabilities. It may enhance the credibility of threats posed by the non state actors in the up coming era.

Muhammad Jawad Hashmi

Mr. MJ Hashmi is M.Phil in Defence and Strategic Studies. He is an Author of a book entitled as “Nuclear Terrorism in Pakistan: Myth of Reality?” His Area of interest is Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Safety and Security issues in Pakistan, Arms Control and Disarmament, Nuclear Non-Proliferation. He can be reached at [email protected]

One thought on “Nuclear Terrorism: A Rationale Choice For Terrorists? – Analysis

  • January 29, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    Muhammad, thank you for a very interesting and informative article. I fear we have to assume that terrorists groups with established links to state sponsours, will acquire radioactive material, if they have not already.
    For me the question as to the damage that will ensue following the use of such material on an unprotected population is secondary to that of the question of “what will be the response by the affected state and/or its allies”.
    Across the developed world $billions has been diverted to CBRN contingency and recovery. The efficacy has yet to be determined of this work. However what response will a government, NATO or the UN authorise to be taken against a faceless assailant that melts in to the back ground once the deed has been carried out.
    Should it be proved, or even suspected that the attack is State sponsoured then I am sure we can assume what that response will look like.
    I wonder what that response is likely to be say if the attackers were found to be from the SWAT region, Mahgreb, Middle East or Inner City Suburb Minority Community.
    I genuinely feel that fear of a terrorist attack where Nuclear or Radioactive material is used is greater than the actual outcome, albeit it will be challenging. For me the real question is what will a civilised response be.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *