Nuclear Terrorism: Not Gonna Happen

That’s a simplified version of the conclusion reached by Chris McIntosh and Ian Storey in a “paper”: that they were gracious enough to allow me to post.

[*Update:* The title and date are posted “here.]”:

I’m still reading through it, but I think these excerpts sum it up:

*The arguments made in favor of the probability of the nuclear terrorism rely on a series of false equivalences and a fundamental misreading of the way that recent events implicate our broader understanding of terrorist strategy.* Building on a combination of organization theory and recent empirical work on the basic rationality of terrorist groups and strategies, we propose an approach to terrorist strategy that describes in formal and informal terms the process of strategic choice (and particularly choice of certain strategic tools over others, a variable almost universally neglected in current approaches) during terrorist campaigns and suggests that *nuclear terrorism remains improbable in the extreme.* Although the names of actors have changed and terrorism has come to dominate strategic thought across the globe, *America’s metropolitan centers have no more to fear than they ever have from the possibility of nuclear terrorism.*

The one-sided appearance of the current debate over terrorist nuclear attack is sustained by a theoretical elision that has gone largely unnoticed even among those who find the scenario unlikely. *Since the ‘80s, the debate has largely centered around the probability of acquisition; if a terrorist organization successfully acquires a nuclear capacity, proponents of the nuclear terrorism scare believe it is only a matter of time before that weapon will be used in an attack on the United States. This conventional formulation assumes that a terrorist organization has only two choices once acquisition occurs—either to use it or not.* Presumably an organization wouldn’t desire such a capacity unless they wished to use it, so there is an implicit equation between acquisition and use. As such, most literature and by extension most foreign policy initiatives focus on the supply side.

In this paper we will argue that *the likelihood of nuclear terrorist attack is so slim as to render it virtually unthinkable. Contrary to contemporary conventional wisdom, our theorizing demonstrates that there is no one-to-one linkage between acquisition and “use”.* This paper will proceed in four parts. In the first section, we establish that even if certain individual terrorist behavior cannot be modeled or explained strategically, internal and external pressures push terrorist organizations to behave in a strategically rational manner. The deductive models made possible by this intuition are
also pragmatically necessary, given the lack of access to data on terrorist organizations and the very real need to heighten understanding of these organizations’ behaviors. Our next section will criticize the current understanding of nuclear weapons “use” as a binary between attack and nothing. Despite decades of Cold War theorizing on the ways that a nuclear weapon can be utilized strategically short of literal attack, little to none of this literature has been applied to terrorist activity. In this section we will offer an alternative taxonomy of choices that terrorist organizations with a nuclear capacity possess as well as a model that articulates the dynamics involved in these strategic choices. We will also offer a rough expected utility model that reflects the variables that would go into any organizational decision regarding how to use their newfound capacity. In the final section, we will offer *three sets of arguments undermining the case for the likelihood of nuclear attack: opportunity costs, the value placed on organizational survival, and the conflation between capitulation and surrender.*

You can download a copy “here.”: Share it with your friends, if you have any.

One thought on “Nuclear Terrorism: Not Gonna Happen

  1. Stephen Schwartz

    I’m not sure what format that file is supposed to be in, but it’s nothing my computer recognizes as text.


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