Tag Archives: terrorism

The Only Thing Worse

Bomb ExplosionThe only thing worse than a nuclear terrorist attack on US soil may in fact be more likely.

Nuclear terrorism is one of the few issues that almost everyone can agree on – it really is a worst case scenario. A terrorist organization acquiring unsecure nuclear material from a nuclear state – or worse, purchasing nuclear technology off the nuclear black market – is the ultimate unthinkable tragedy and a very difficult enemy. Commensurate retaliation on the attackers would be impossible. The US might choose to retaliate against the nation that supplied the nuclear material or weapon; or against the nation hosting the terrorist organization, but such actions are ultimately ineffective at limiting a future threat.

Consider this scenario: al Qaeda acquires two loose nuclear weapons through sympathetic terrorist organizations in Russia. Al Qaeda then sends its operatives along with the weapons to the port in Los Angeles and to the Boston harbor. Even a dirty bomb (one that merely disperses nuclear material rather than creating a nuclear blast) could kill hundreds of people initially and thousands more from radiation poisoning. But the true terror is from the after effects.

Markets would crash, the port of LA would close – reducing US imports by 45 percent – the current administration’s security policies would be disparaged, and we would be forced to embark on even larger counterterrorism campaign. This is all, of course, in addition to the psychological effect on the American public, the heightened security measures by nations across the globe, and the looming question of whether or not there would be another attack.

But this scenario may, in fact, be a better than at least one alternative.

Imagine again that al Qaeda has acquired two nuclear weapons. It does not have confidence in its ability to bring the weapon on to US soil, so it follows a different path – it detonates one bomb in a remote region of Southern Afghanistan. Nuclear forensics across the globe detect the blast and confirm that it is a nuclear weapon. Relatively few people are thought to be affected, but three hours later a video is released on the internet showing a senior al Qaeda leader positioned next to the second nuclear device. “There are more.” He says. “And you will bow to our demands.”

What would the world do? Certainly the US publicly claims not to negotiate with terrorists, but its own history and that of its allies suggests that negotiating with terrorists may not be too far from the norm. For example, the British did it in Northern Ireland and (depending on semantics) the US did it in Iraq and during the Iran Contra affair, among others. It is true that these “terrorist” organizations were very different from al Qaeda, but the point is the same. And we know from Spain’s example in 2004 that terrorist threats and attacks can and do influence political decisions and the democratic process.

Could the US be forced to withdraw prematurely from Iraq or Afghanistan? Close its embassies in Muslim nations?

Depending on the demands, it may not be up to the US to decide whether or not to negotiate. If the demands were to immediately withdraw all troops from Pakistan or the bomb would be detonated in Islamabad, one can be nearly certain that the either the government or the population of Pakistan would quickly drive US forces out.

So where does that leave us? Not detonating a nuclear device is at least as easy as detonating one. And that means that this even-worse case scenario is more probable. A nuclear attack leaves the US with thousands of dead civilians, a terrified population, but an emboldened sense of determination. Being held at nuclear gun-point leaves the US and its allies mostly crippled – certainly privately, if not publicly –with a terrorist organization effectively dictating foreign policy and still with the possibility of a devastating nuclear attack.

In that situation, what could we do?

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All Roads Lead to Pakistan, But Does the Terrorist Hunt End There?

President Obama’s strategy towards terrorism is understandably Pakistan-centric.  Any honest assessment of terrorist and nuclear threats to the United States finds an intersection in Pakistan.  But the US may be at risk, once again, of agreeing to take on a problem that is neither bound in objective nor time.

Ensuring that Pakistan has the capacity and desire to secure its nuclear arsenal and territorial integrity from militants, particularly terrorists, is certainly in the US’s best interest.  But what does a secure Pakistan look like from the US perspective?  How long will US forces be involved in Pakistan?  Politically, how long can US forces be involved in Pakistan?  And most importantly, is Pakistan really going to be the last frontier in the fight against terrorism?

It’s not difficult to imagine a situation in August of 2011 where ISAF has largely subdued the al Qaeda and Taliban threat in Afghanistan.  What is harder to imagine is a Pakistan whose security puts the US at ease.  A war that started in Afghanistan may very well continue in Pakistan.

But it may not end in Pakistan.  Terrorist activity in Yemen poses a similar problem to the US.  It is politically untenable for the US to engage in overt action to any significant degree, leaving only military aid and training to support the local government and military.  Somalia, too, poses a similar problem. The lack of tangible government in Somalia means that the US could potentially conduct military operations – an enticing prospect that has been realized at least once in the last year.

The relatively recent rise of terrorist safehavens in these areas means that if the US seeks to eradicate terrorism, it may very well do so without rest for the foreseeable future.  These regions do not pose the same nuclear threat that Pakistan does, but they may one day pose the same terrorist threat that Afghanistan did.

At some point the question “what’s next?” has to give way to the question “where is the end?”  What are the costs of playing an endless game of terrorist whack-a-mole?

In the early 1970’s Britain’s Home Secretary said that the IRA may “not be defeated, not completely eliminated, but have their violence reduced to an acceptable level.”  Most Americans would be most comfortable knowing that the terrorist threat as we know it today had been categorically eliminated.  But we must also recognize that the costs and practicality of doing so may be prohibitive.  The question, then, is to decide when we will be satisfied and then communicate that frustrating reality with a nation.

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