Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On the Nuclear Threat

Just a short item duly noting the article in USA Today about today's hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Not much new here:

"The prospect of terrorists detonating a nuclear device on American soil sometime within the next quarter-century is real and growing," according to prepared testimony from Gary Anthony Ackerman, research director of the Homeland Security Department-funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

In testimony, Charlie Allen, intelligence chief at the Homeland Security Department, said he does not believe that any terrorist group has a nuclear device in hand, but "the terrorist threat is dynamic and constantly evolving."
A nuclear weapon isn't a likely method of attack for terrorists, mostly due to technical constraints. But it certainly can't be ignored.

Update 2008-04-04: DHS has posted Charlie Allen's prepared statement. One highlight:
As you can appreciate however, there are non-trivial challenges to developing a nuclear deviceprimarily the acquisition of sufficient weapons-usable nuclear material. This is the biggest obstacle; without sufficient amounts of weapons-usable nuclear material, a terrorist cannot develop a nuclear weapon.

Additional obstacles include devising a feasible nuclear design, device fabrication, and avoiding detection during delivery to target.
It's for these reasons I'm not convinced a nuclear weapon is the first choice of terrorists. While it may be the weapon that fills their nights with happy dreams, the barriers to acquiring, transporting, and using a nuclear weapon are greater than any other attack mode.

With a nuclear weapon, the risk of failure also carries enormous additional weight. With a nuclear weapon, there's a nontrivial risk that the thing will fizzle or not work at all. And imagine that scenario from the perspective of a terrorist group. They acquire the materials, build and transport the weapon, then...phhhbt. Not only would the attack fail, but they would risk setting off a worldwide tsunami of anger and retribution. The gloves would come off, in a way they didn't even after 9/11.

At least in the short-term, it seems more likely that they will use proven methods of attack for smaller incidents (e.g., car bombs), and creativity and surprise for larger attacks (e.g., 9/11).

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