Schelling on Nuclear Terrorism

On Nobel Laureates
Nobel Laureates are the true aristocracy of the meritocracy. I’ve wondered, why did the Nobel Price became the great international standard of achievement? Other countries issue prizes, why did the Nordic prize become the most prestigious? It would make an interesting PhD thesis, although it won’t be mine.

The other interesting thing, at least in the United States, is how accessible they are. Living in Boston I ran into Eli Weisel. I have an uncle in Boston who is a retired school teacher, for fun he takes extension classes at BU. He has taken courses with both Weisel and Saul Bellow. I joked with him, “Isn’t America a great country? Anyone can plunk down $75 and hang out with a Nobel Laureate!”

My uncle, a New Englander to the core, grinned, “I get seniah discount, I only paid $55!”

A Nobel on Nukes
Those thoughts were in the back of my mind when I attended a lecture by Nobel Laureate in Economics and University of Maryland Professor Thomas Schelling. Uppermost in my mind however, was the topic of his talk – what happened to nuclear terrorism.

Back in 1982 Schelling wrote an article stating that sooner rather then later a non-state armed group would acquire a nuclear weapon. This became conventional wisdom, gathering steam particularly after 9/11 when we had an all too frightening demonstration of how capable and creative terrorist groups can be.

Schelling, as a towering intellectual figure, has the presence of mind to admit that it hasn’t happened and wonder why. Much of the focus on nuclear terrorism is in stealing fissile material and then constructing a weapon. This is not as easy as it seems. He compared it to stealing a Picasso – all respectable figures in the art community would be on the lookout for it so, as valuable as it is in theory, it is very difficult to sell it.

Moving fissile material out of a country, say an FSU state, to a terrorist haven in Pakistan or Yemen requires traveling long distances across many borders and languages. These barriers present multiple opportunities for the nuclear terrorists to be detected. It is an added factor that the people one is likely to interact with are extremely nasty (criminals, murderers etc.)

Schelling went on to speculate, suppose they can get the stuff, a terrorist group would need a highly skilled team to build the device including metallurgists and engineers. There are a limited number of loyal terrorists with needed skills and hiring people would be difficult. People with the requisite skills usually can earn money legitimately, might turn them in after they are approached, and probably wouldn’t want to join the project since they might just be murdered after it was complete.

Schelling’s analysis, tracks with my own analysis that counter-terror is the application of Murphy’s Law, which emphasizes the logistics of terrorism – always good to be on the same page as a Nobel Laureate! (The difficulties Aum Shinrikyo faced in developed chemical and biological weapons provides a telling example of the logistics of WMD terror.) I would add, that trucking in nuclear material across borders might bring the group under additional intelligence

Schelling then asks what would a group do with a nuclear weapon, simply blowing up a city would be a waste – it makes more sense for the group to seek influence. Presumably any organization sophisticated enough to build a weapon is also capable of strategic thought. I am not as certain of this, some terrorist groups are very strategic in their thinking but others are eschatological. For that matter, for some strategy and eschatology are tightly linked! Further, humiliation and revenge are key motives for many terrorists so that simply inflicting pain and destruction may be its own end.

Schelling also discussed the difficulties in proving the possession of a weapon. Detonating one is the best proof, but a terrorist group might only possess one. Another option is showing to experts (perhaps kidnapping them.) This is possible but difficult.

Schelling dismisses the possibility of an insider handing a complete nuke to a group, since it would be impossible to be certain the device was a nuclear bomb that would work without dismantling it – which would render it inoperable.

Finally, Schelling argued that a group that did possess a bomb would be wise to secrete it in an American city – tell the government it was in one of several cities and threaten to detonate it. This would create an enormous panic. But ultimately, such a terrorist group would, Schelling argues, seek to acquire influence and a seat at the table. Schelling doesn’t mention that transporting and secreting a nuke also has logistical challenges. It would probably be easier then acquiring the materials, but there would still be numerous opportunities for things to go wrong. For a related comparison, see my analysis one why a Mumbai style attack in the US would be difficult to undertake.

This summary is pretty dry, Schelling is very funny and – having been deeply engaged in these issues for decades – has some illuminating anecdotes about these issues.

Finally, unaddressed was the question of a nuclear state being taken over by terrorists or a state with nuclear weapons supporting terrorism. These are different issues. Schelling examines the nightmare scenario of an unaccountable terrorist group acquiring nukes and finds it unlikely. There are many potential nuclear dangers in the world, but this one in particular, while it cannot be dismissed, does not need to be the focus of enormous government resources.

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