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Can Nuclear Terrorists Be Deterred?

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THE DEPROLIFERATOR -- As you no doubt know, deterrence is the product of a balance of power -- nuclear arsenals, in other words, that are roughly equal. Constrained by the eye-for-an-eye principle, but to the umpteenth power, states armed with nuclear weapons, such as the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and India and Pakistan today, keep their nukes holstered.

But terrorists, according to conventional thinking, are immune to deterrence. If they ever obtained nuclear weapons, they'd suffer few qualms about using them. First, they're secure in the knowledge that they're ostensibly stateless. It's unlikely that the state which they've attacked with nuclear weapons, such as the United States, would retaliate against the state which served as their command center for the attack. (Can't speak for another possible target, Israel, though.)

Second, not only don't they fear retaliation, were it to occur they'd welcome it. To terrorists, runs this line of thinking, an apocalypse is just an expressway to heaven for their martyred souls. Thus, according to these scenarios, turning their back on deterrence and mounting a nuclear attack is a win-win proposition for terrorists.

More likely, if terrorists were to obtain nuclear weapons, they would be as domesticated by their acquisition as states are that develop them. The better part of the power of nuclear weapons lies in their potential, not their kinetic energy. Intact, they can be used to bargain for goods, respect, and security.

For instance, Islamic terrorists might offer to turn over their nuclear weapons if Israel turned over its half of Jerusalem. Of course, when they're inevitably denied, they'll find themselves painted into a corner as sure as the United States and the Soviet Union did during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We in the West think of terrorists, especially Islamic, as a homogeneous mass. But as with any such group, there are those on the margins of, say, al Qaeda or maybe Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Mumbai attackers), who are almost as crucial to their operations as those on the inside. Among them are individuals who provide transport and shelter; nuclear scientists and technicians, should their services be sought, fall under the same category. Since any ideological motivations on the part of the outsiders may be secondary to the financial, they may be more vulnerable to deterrence that threatens their families and people.

In fact, some believe, a deterrent to the command structures of terrorist groups does exist -- and it's self-imposed. . .

For terrorist organizations that would want to take credit for a nuclear event, failure, not discovery, is likely to be the main deterrent. ... Present evidence shows that [they] prefer to carry out actions where the odds of success are high even if those actions are less destructive than they might prefer. [Emphasis added.]

That's from Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, and Program Needs, an undated (most likely 2007 or 2008) report by the Joint Working Group of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Wait, what does forensics have to do with a nuclear attack? Setting off a nuclear weapon isn't like stabbing a stranger in an alley. Isn't the perp even more self-evident than a criminal who has an ongoing beef with someone who turns up dead?

While that's true of a state, what makes a nuclear attack by terrorists unique is not that we wouldn't know who pulled it off or why. Chances are they'd be willing to be the bearer of both those glad tidings. Instead, the question becomes: "Who supplied them with the weapon?"

CSI: Ground Zero

Nuclear differs from criminal forensics in not only its emphasis on the chemical, but in that it's working for much higher stakes: attempting to prevent or solve the greatest mass murder in history. Specifically, according to the Joint Working Group paper, it determines questions such as:

Was the event really a nuclear explosion? What was the yield. ... Were [substances] present, which would denote the presence of [shudder -- RW] thermonuclear reactions? ... What can be inferred about provenance and history? ... What was the most probable device design?

Much of this, the paper explains, depends on the creation of a "comprehensive international database of nuclear material fingerprints." Even better would be an international program for making "the nuclear materials more easily identifiable by tagging them with distinctive markers."

It's not easy to convince states that are understandably "hesitant to internationalize the most sensitive parts of their nuclear infrastructure" to take part in these programs. But those that don't would be the first towards which suspicious eyes were cast in the event of an incident.

An alternative means of encouraging reluctant states to cooperate could be the implementation of a "negligence" doctrine. In another work on the subject, "Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence" (not online) in the March 2007 Nonproliferation Review, Michael Miller reports on a writer named Anders Corr. He argues that the U.S. Cooperative Threat (Nunn-Lugar) program, which helps secure loose nukes in Russia, as well as dismantle designated Soviet era nuclear weapons, is a double-edged sword.

Some of its funding, Corr believes, is siphoned off for corruption. Thus, lest the flow dry up, Miller writes:

. . . there is very little incentive within [Russia] to actually secure material. [Corr advocates] a harsh form of deterrence where those who permit nuclear theft, especially the leaders of the state, would be held completely accountable. ... A negligence doctrine dealing with nuclear weapons material is necessary for deterrence [lest] a negligent state. . . think that it will pay only a small price for 50 kg of lost HEU.

But, with a ploy straight out of a spy thriller, nuclear forensics could conceivably be thwarted. Here's the Joint Working Group on what it refers to as "spoof," though the term hardly does justice to its gravity:

States or terrorist organizations, for reasons that might range from protecting secrets to preventing attribution, may attempt to spoof any later investigation by mixing material from different sources.

Also, as Steve Hynd of Newshoggers points out, a spoof could conceivably by used by one state, such as Pakistan, to frame another, such as India (or vice versa), in order to invite retaliation against its enemy. Miller again:

How easily could [nuclear] signatures be falsified? It would be relatively simple for an expert nuclear weapons designer to create a weapon that looked improvised or that was made of reactor fuel instead of an alloy designed for weapons. The tradeoff would be settling for a larger chance of failure and a smaller yield.

Finally, to improve the odds that "the perpetrators of a nuclear terrorist act will fail and be apprehended and prosecuted," the Joint Working Group writes, credible forensic capability must be "demonstrated by successful attribution of intercepted materials." [Emphasis added.] In other words, proving the provenance of interdicted nuclear materials can serve as a trial run that demonstrates how nuclear forensics might succeed in the event of a nuclear explosion. It's true that nuclear forensics suffers from staffing and funding problems. But the greatest obstacle to its effectiveness deterring states that are either careless about their nuclear materials and know-how or that are willing to trade them with terrorist groups may be a simple lack of publicity. Miller writes:

While recent academic treatments have begun to explore the technology, few government documents describe any of the specifics of post-explosion attribution. This may be intentional, to make the attribution more difficult to spoof, but it can also give the impression that the technology is less-than-ready. [But attribution capabilities] are probably good enough to publicize the technology with the aim of deterring state leaders.

Besides, "More important than technology [is its] perception. ... Thus, rather than worry that the technology will not be successful, the United States should fear that it has not been demonstrated well enough."

In the long run, in tandem with international cooperation and spelling out exactly what retribution awaits the offending state, nothing is more critical than advertising the capabilities of nuclear forensics to determine the origins of a nuclear bomb.

The emergence of a sophisticated form of deterrence that doesn't rely on that most blunt of all forces -- "mutual assured destruction" -- is a hopeful development for the future of humankind. But, however encouraging nuclear forensics is, the sheer bulk of the infrastructure and apparatus dedicated to deterring or determining a perpetrator has come to resemble those surrounding domestic crime, which costs the United States over $100 billion a year.

Some day we may learn that it's a lot cheaper to make humankind economically and, thus, psychically secure. Perhaps then we'll stop looking for security in all the wrong places -- such as in weapon systems poised to blow up in our faces at a moment's notice.

First posted at the Faster Times.