Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?

Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?

by Brian Michael Jenkins

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According to a British intelligence report leaked to the press in 2007, al Qaeda operatives are planning a large-scale attack "on par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki." How likely is it that terrorists will develop the capability of such an attack? No one understands the nature of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism better than Brian Michael Jenkins—one of the


According to a British intelligence report leaked to the press in 2007, al Qaeda operatives are planning a large-scale attack "on par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki." How likely is it that terrorists will develop the capability of such an attack? No one understands the nature of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism better than Brian Michael Jenkins—one of the world’s most renowned experts on terrorism. For more than thirty years, he has been advising the military, government, and prestigious think tanks on the dangers of escalating terrorism.
Jenkins goes beyond what the experts know about terrorists’ efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, nuclear black markets, "suitcase bombs," and mysterious substances like red mercury to examine how terrorists themselves think about such weapons. He offers many insights into such vital questions as:

• Do terrorists see nuclear weapons as instruments of coercion or of pure destruction? • Are those we label religious fanatics constrained by political and strategic calculations?
• If a nuclear attack took place on American soil, what life-and-death decisions would the president be forced to make? He puts the reader in the position of the president to convey the immediacy of making decisions—and the perilous repercussions of each critical decision.

Jenkins notes that terrorists have become increasingly adept at creating an atmosphere of nuclear terror. In fact, al Qaeda may have succeeded in becoming the world’s first terrorist nuclear power without possessing a single nuclear weapon. The psychological effects of nuclear terror are fueled by American culture, which churns out novels and movies in which every conceivable horror scenario is played out. Political factions on both the right and the left also view nuclear terrorism as fodder to support their own arguments. In such an atmosphere, it is difficult for the average citizen to separate real from imagined dangers. Jenkins’s informed and seasoned analysis will give all Americans a levelheaded understanding of the real situation and teach us how not to yield to nuclear terror.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Jenkins shows us how we must confront our fears with thoughtful and diligent action. We can afford to do no less. A must read. " —George Tenet, former director of the CIA

"In Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? Brian Michael Jenkins brings a lifetime of experience and expertise to today's most pressing national security question. With skill and clarity he separates fact from fiction, laying the groundwork for a thoughtful approach to confronting the nexus of nuclear weapons and terrorism. This is an important book on an urgent threat confronting the American people."
—Lee H. Hamilton, Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, President and
Director, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Publishers Weekly

A leading expert on terrorism and a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, Jenkins (Unconquerable Nation) addresses the contentious issue of nuclear terror in this exhaustive study that seeks to "separate what we fear from what we might reasonably expect." The author traces the debate over nuclear terror from the Cold War to its contemporary nexus with al-Qaeda, noting that 9/11 "renewed all the old debates" and significantly "altered our perceptions" of what was plausible. Furthermore, the Bush administration's "saber-rattling" and the relentless media coverage exaggerated the threat and left the nation "intentionally terrified." While acknowledging al-Qaeda's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, Jenkins points out that the evidence "confirms... ambition, not capability" or the knowledge "to fabricate a nuclear device." Finally, the author invites the reader to assume the role of president in a frightening scenario that begins with a nuclear blast in Manhattan. Jenkins's ambitious goal seems to be not to downplay the nuclear threat posed by terrorists but to get Americans to address it logically and dispassionately; his thoroughly documented and carefully reasoned study is an important step in that direction. (Sept.)

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Library Journal

Will the United States be attacked with nuclear weapons? If you're looking for a definitive answer, you won't find it here. Jenkins (RAND Corp.; Unconquerable Nation; Countering al Qaeda), an expert on terrorism, focuses here on nuclear terror. Nuclear terrorism is about events; it is about possibilities and fear. Although abstract, it has an impact on policymakers' views. After covering standard terrorism topics like history and motives, Jenkins does something distinct: he introduces an imaginary scenario where the reader becomes the president of the United States, facing a nuclear attack on American soil by unknown forces and making potentially far-reaching decisions based on limited and possibly incorrect information. Jenkins discusses possible choices and gives tangible suggestions for what could be done. Among many books on the topic (e.g., Michael Levi's On Nuclear Terrorism), Jenkins's stands out for his expertise and his particular method. Recommended heartily for all public and academic libraries.
—Krista Bush

Kirkus Reviews
This oddly disjointed inquiry into the world of nuclear terrorism contains sporadic nuggets of wisdom. Jenkins (Unconquerable Nation, 2006, etc.) combines his knowledge of terrorism with private briefings from intelligence officials to provide an earnest, meandering historical take on the difficulty terrorists face in going nuclear. An insightful chapter describes obstacles to procuring authentic enriched plutonium or uranium in the "world of shadows" that is the nuclear black market. Preceding it, a chapter about the restraints terrorists impose on themselves ends with the chilling comment, "Over time...the constraints erode." The author's main point is that groups like al-Qaeda succeed in terrorizing us not by actually detonating nuclear devices, but by threatening do so. Jenkins convincingly shows that Russia's nuclear arsenal is well protected and there is no evidence that al-Qaeda has been successful in obtaining Russian-made suitcase bombs or the imaginary superdetonator, red mercury. But al-Qaeda does not need to possess a nuclear bomb, the author argues. The fear of a nuclear attack, fueled by the savvy al-Qaeda publicity machine and a sensationalist, story-driven media industry, is more effectively debilitating. The U.S. government has been inadvertently complicit with the terrorists, Jenkins avers, by promoting a message of fear since 9/11. However, the author contributes to the sensationalism with a poorly sketched chapter positing a nuclear detonation in Manhattan that casts the reader as president and asks how "you" will react. The author aims to convey the limited range of options available when the perpetrators are unknown, but instead provides an amateurish story outlinebarely suitable for tabloid television, with an unprepared president surrounded by unsure, non-technical advisors. Ultimately his cop-out conclusion is that "we cannot do more than guess" at the answer to the question posed by the book's title. Educational but uneven.

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Prometheus Books
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Prometheus Books
Copyright © 2008

Brian Michael Jenkins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-656-3

Introduction Will terrorists go nuclear? It is a question that haunts government policy and decision makers. What must be done to prevent terrorists from acquiring and using nuclear weapons? How will the nation respond if they do? How likely are they to succeed?

These are difficult questions that involve assessments of terrorists' intentions, estimates of terrorists' capabilities, their access to scientific know-how, the availability of nuclear material, the existence of nuclear black markets, and the effectiveness of security and intelligence services. As Brian Michael Jenkins points out in this volume, experts' estimates of the probability that terrorists will somehow acquire and detonate a nuclear bomb range from virtually impossible to inevitable and imminent. There is no obvious consensus, and, of course, no one knows for sure. The uncertainty only increases our anxiety.

As chairman of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, I was privileged to lead a distinguished group of Americans in examining how we as a nation, dedicated to liberty and justice for all, could effectively respond to almost unthinkable terrorist threats while retaining our fundamental freedoms.

Jenkins was one of the first analysts to recognize this challenge. More than thirty years ago, he warned that "power, defined crudely as the capacity to kill, destroy, disrupt, alarm, compel society to devote vast resources to security, was descending into the hands of smaller and smaller groups. The capacity for violence once possessed only by powerful armies was coming into the hands of gangs whose grievances, real or imaginary, it will not always be possible to satisfy.... How we as a democracy will deal with this and remain a democracy," Jenkins observed, "is one of the major challenges of our era."

For five years, our advisory panel wrestled with this issue. Our labor began when the panel was created in 1999, more than two years before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Our fifth and final report was delivered in December 2003-twenty-seven months after our nation was so viciously attacked. In the five volumes delivered during this period, we examined the escalating terrorist threat; the necessity of good intelligence and sober, not fear-mongering, threat assessments; the need for and components of a successful national strategy; the kinds of structures we would need to ensure preparedness at the local, state, and federal levels; and most important, the need to sustain the principles set forth by our Founding Fathers.

There is no doubt that the idea of nuclear weapons may appeal to terrorists. It is the responsibility of our leaders to ensure that we have good intelligence and the ability to assess the capability of terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons. Likewise, decisive action should be taken to recognize, prevent, and intercept efforts by terrorists to acquire such weapons. Nuclear nonproliferation must be a top priority of all nations seeking to maintain a free and tolerant civilization. Yet, the obstacles to the acquisition or fabrication of nuclear weapons by terrorists remain formidable. Policy makers tend to focus their attention on the remote high-consequence event-a terrorist nuclear bomb-believing that if government can handle this worst-case scenario, everything of lesser consequence will be covered. That may not always be the case. The safety of the nation requires that we not ignore the higher-probability, lower-consequence events. This was a conclusion of the advisory panel. As Jenkins shows, terrorists are extremely effective at exploiting our fears to leverage their psychological power, creating nuclear terror even without a commensurate nuclear capability. It only proves that terrorism succeeds in creating terror.

Succumbing to nuclear terror can promote dangerous passivity. Asked what plans had been drawn up for responding to a terrorist nuclear explosion in an urban area, one state homeland security official admitted that nothing had been done-everyone simply assumed the city would be gone. In fact, the destruction of a city would require a nuclear explosion of a magnitude far beyond anything terrorists conceivably could achieve.

Nuclear terror can also have another insidious effect, one that imperils our very democracy. Terrorism does pose a terrible danger, but our fear of real and imagined threats must not persuade us to diminish our freedoms or our core values. There is no trade-off between security and liberty. One does not exist without the other.

Ancient cartographers used to populate the edge of their known worlds with dragons and other mythical monsters. We tend to do the same at the edge of our knowledge. But we must be careful not to let dangerous fantasies become the perceived reality that dictates our course of action. That is exactly what this book is about.

As in his last book on terrorism, Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves, Jenkins is always analytical, thoughtful, and provocative. An independent thinker, he doesn't care whether you agree or disagree with every one of his arguments; rather, he compels you to think. Nowhere is that more effectively done than in his harrowing chapter 17 of this volume, where the reader is thrust into the role of the president-an unenviable position given the scenario Jenkins unfolds. It is a lip-biting read that forces one to reflect upon what he or she holds dear.

Jenkins does not leave us wringing our hands in despair. He concludes with a set of sensible steps, many of which coincide with the recommendations of the advisory commission. But at the end, he points out-correctly, in my view-that while preventing nuclear terrorism is government's responsibility, defeating nuclear terror is the task of every citizen. Rejection of unfounded fear together with decisive steps to secure the nation from real threats ensures the survival of our country and all it stands for, most important, our dedication to liberty for all time.

-James S. Gilmore III, former governor of Virginia and chairman of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction


Excerpted from WILL TERRORISTS GO NUCLEAR? by BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS Copyright © 2008 by Brian Michael Jenkins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Joseph S. Nye
Any one interested in a careful evaluation of the dangers of nuclear terrorism should read this timely and well written book by one of America's leading experts. Brian Jenkins not only provides careful assessments of the risks posed by al Qaeda and others, but warns that a good deal of the damage from nuclear terror comes from our own inappropriate reactions. (University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and author of The Powers to Lead)
Carolyn Tanner Irish
There are things that rightly terrify us in this world, and Jenkins names them carefully. But fear is also used to control us. Beyond manipulation, this saps our strength and our spirit, leaving us immobilized, not fully human at all. Learning to distinguish the two is the gift of this book. (Episcopal Bishop of Utah)
Sam Nunn
Brian Michael Jenkins is one of the world's most renowned experts on terrorism. With an instructive, provocative book that reads like a novel, Jenkins combines cool analysis with common sense to describe the threat of nuclear terrorism. He also shows that we must guard against nuclear terror --corrosive fear that prevents sensible action and weakens our democracy. Jenkins makes a powerful case that we must take strong steps against both to make each less likely. (Co-Chairman and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative)
George P. Shultz
Deep knowledge about terrorists combined with common sense about nuclear weapons equals a book that is sobering and educational. Help yourself and learn! (Former Secretary of State, currently Distinguished Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University)
Brent Scowcroft
A clear-eyed and elegantly written analysis that builds to a gripping finale that thrusts the reader into the Oval Office at a moment when no one would envy the president. Jenkins' book is at once informative, entertaining, disturbing, yet reassuring. (Former National Security Advisor to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford)
Daniel Byman
Jenkins provides an invaluable corrective to a topic that has generated much heat but little light. His expertise, attention to detail, and common sense shine through on every page. (Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution)
George Tenet
Jenkins shows us how we must confront our fears with thoughtful and diligent action. We can afford to do no less. A must read. (Former director of the CIA)
Victor Gilinsky
This is the book to read if you want an expert and sensible guide to lead you past the mind-numbing hype of nuclear terror--purveyed by self-serving officialdom and sensationalist media--to the facts of nuclear terrorism, which are grim enough. (Former Commissioner, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and nuclear physicist)

Meet the Author

Brian Michael Jenkins (Los Angeles, CA), one of the world’s leading authorities on terrorism, is a senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, director of the National Transportation Security Center of the Mineta Transportation Institute, and a member of the board of Commercial Crime Services of the International Chamber of Commerce. He is frequently quoted in the media, including Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, the New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications.

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