Expert says nuclear terrorism is not a major threat

The Rand Corp.'s Brian Michael Jenkins says fears of a nuclear attack are overblown.

Seven years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, experts and presidential candidates continue to put nuclear terrorism atop their lists of the gravest threats to the United States. Yet Brian Michael Jenkins, a longtime terrorism expert with the Rand Corp., says that the threat lies more in the realms of Hollywood dramas and terrorist dreams than in reality. There has never been an act of nuclear terrorism, he notes, yet the threat is so potentially catastrophic that it incites fear -- and that fear fulfills a terrorist's primary goal. National Journal Staff Correspondent James Kitfield interviewed Jenkins about his research into nuclear terrorism for his new book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

NJ: Why did you decide to delve so deeply into the psychological underpinnings of nuclear terror?

Jenkins: Well, I couldn't write about the history of nuclear terrorism, because at least as of yet there hasn't been any. So that would have been a very short book. Nonetheless, the U.S. government has stated that it is the No. 1 threat to the national security of the United States. In fact, according to public opinion polls, two out of five Americans consider it likely that a terrorist will detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city within the next five years. That struck me as an astonishing level of apprehension.

NJ: To what do you attribute that fear?

Jenkins: I concluded that there is a difference between nuclear terrorism and nuclear terror. Nuclear terrorism is about the possibility that terrorists will acquire and detonate a nuclear weapon. Nuclear terror, on the other hand, concerns our anticipation of such an attack. It's about our imagination. And while there is no history of nuclear terrorism, there is a rich history of nuclear terror. It's deeply embedded in our popular culture and in policy-making circles.

NJ: So the fear of nuclear terrorism is not new?

Jenkins: Almost as soon as the people involved in the Manhattan Project tested an actual atomic bomb they started to wonder about the possibility of someone using it for terrorist purposes. In the 1970s, some talented nuclear weapons designers studied the issue of whether someone outside of a government program could possibly design and build a workable nuclear weapon. They concluded it was possible, and then postulated who might do such a thing -- terrorists! So, in a way, the threat preceded any terrorist actually thinking about the issue. To a certain extent, we educated the terrorists on the subject.

NJ: Hasn't Al Qaeda, in particular, focused considerable energy on nuclear weapons?

Jenkins: Yes, because terror is the use of violence to create an atmosphere of fear that causes people to exaggerate the strength of the terrorists, and they are very good at that. So in Al Qaeda's media jihad there is a recurrent theme of nuclear terrorism. They realize that if they put the words "terrorism" and "nuclear" in proximity to each other it creates added fear. It also excites their constituency, because nothing excites the powerless more than the idea of ultimate power.

NJ: Are you saying that Al Qaeda is interested in nuclear weapons only in the abstract, as a propaganda tool?

Jenkins: No. Al Qaeda has actual nuclear ambitions, there is no doubt about that. When Osama bin Laden was in Sudan, he tried to acquire some nuclear material. The efforts were mostly amateurish, and Al Qaeda was the victim of some scams. Qaeda [leaders] also had meetings with some Pakistani nuclear scientists while in Afghanistan. So, clearly, they were thinking about nuclear weapons. If bin Laden were able to acquire a nuclear weapon, I also suspect that he would use it. My larger point is that Al Qaeda has already become the world's first nonstate nuclear power without even having nuclear weapons.

NJ: Do you mean by its ability to incite fear of nuclear terrorism?

Jenkins: Yes, and we contribute to that fear. The message clearly coming out of Washington for the last seven years has been a relentless message of fear. We've spent the years since 9/11 discussing every conceivable vulnerability of our society. We talk about the next catastrophic attack not as a matter of "if" but "when," implying that it's unavoidable.

NJ: We've created a perfect incubator for terrorist propaganda?

Jenkins: Yes, because the whole dynamic lends itself to sensationalism and overdramatization. In a sense, terrorism is a form of theater anyway, and its message is amplified in America's media-drenched society. I've actually had government officials say to me, "We'll deal with nuclear terrorism the way Jack Bauer does on 24." And I have to remind them that, you know, that's a television show. It's not real life.

NJ: Why do you think nuclear terrorism connects so powerfully with the American psyche?

Jenkins: Because beneath the veneer of our American optimism are layers of anxiety. We as a nation have been fascinated with the theme of decline and doom going back centuries. We worry about losing our pre-eminent place in the world. We worry that our borders cannot protect our culture [against threats] from without, and [we worry] about subversion from within. If you want to write a best-seller, just write a book [such as] The End of Days or The Late, Great Planet Earth. For the many biblical literalists among us, talk of a nuclear apocalypse and Armageddon just confirms their faith. As the ultimate doomsday scenario, nuclear terrorism condenses a lot of the free-floating anxieties in American society.

NJ: How do you break this chain reaction of fear?

Jenkins: The first thing we have to do is truly understand the threat. Nuclear terrorism is a frightening possibility but it is not inevitable or imminent, and there is no logical progression from truck bombs to nuclear bombs. Some of the steps necessary to a sustainable strategy we've already begun. We do need better intelligence-sharing internationally and enhanced homeland security and civil defense, and we need to secure stockpiles of nuclear materials around the world.

Nations that might consider abetting terrorists in acquiring nuclear weapons should also be made aware that we will hold them fully responsible in the event of an attack. We need to finish the job of eliminating Al Qaeda, not only to prevent another attack but also to send the message to others that if you go down this path, we will hunt you down relentlessly and destroy you.

NJ: What should political leaders tell the American people?

Jenkins: Rather than telling Americans constantly to be very afraid, we should stress that even an event of nuclear terrorism will not bring this Republic to its knees. Some will argue that fear is useful in galvanizing people and concentrating their minds on this threat, but fear is not free. It creates its own orthodoxy and demands obedience to it. A frightened population is intolerant. It trumpets a kind of "lapel pin" patriotism rather than the real thing. A frightened population is also prone both to paralysis -- we're doomed! -- and to dangerous overreaction.

I believe that fear gets in the way of addressing the issue of nuclear terrorism in a sustained and sensible way. Instead of spreading fear, our leaders should speak to the American traditions of courage, self-reliance, and resiliency. Heaven forbid that an act of nuclear terrorism ever actually occurs, but if it does, we'll get through it.

NJ: Seven years after the 9/11 attacks, how do you rate the effort to destroy Al Qaeda?

Jenkins: On the negative side of the ledger is the fact that Al Qaeda's top leadership is still intact. The organization has managed to reconstitute itself and find sanctuary inside Pakistan. [Qaeda leaders] remain committed to large-scale acts of violence, and their narrative still has considerable traction with angry young Muslim men, whether in Karachi, Cairo, London, or Paris. Their communications have increased in volume and are increasingly sophisticated.

NJ: What about the positive side of the ledger?

Jenkins: There is no doubt that we have significantly degraded Al Qaeda's operational capability. The leadership is in hiding and on the run, and we've removed some key figures whose talent is not easily replaced. It's much more dangerous and risky for Al Qaeda to operate now. Through an unprecedented level of cooperation among intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the world, we have significantly reduced [its] ability to execute large-scale attacks of the like we saw regularly in the period between 2001 and 2006. The inability to pull off those large terrorist spectaculars that acted as recruiting posters, in turn, has slowed the flow of new recruits. Al Qaeda's indiscriminate violence has also provoked a backlash in the Muslim community, putting [it] on the defensive in places such as Iraq.

NJ: What do you consider Al Qaeda's greatest vulnerability?

Jenkins: Irrelevancy. As the world moves on to new issues, these virtual jihadists are locked into a closed-loop discourse on the Internet that is increasingly irrelevant. They are participating in a fantasy. That's the biggest fear of the terrorists: One day Osama bin Laden will issue his 450th proclamation, and no one will really be listening.