Brian Jenkins, the resident terrorism expert at RAND, has a new book out: Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? It has a preface by Tom Schelling, a foreword by Gary Hart, and blurbs from everyone under the sun (Nunn, Schultz, Hamilton, Tenet, Nye, Scowcroft, Treverton, Gelbard, etc.).
As in his previous book Unconquerable Nation, Jenkins stresses the risk of iatrogenic damage. An act of nuclear terrorism, Jenkins says, remains a purely speculative eventuality. But nuclear terror — the fear of nuclear terrorism — is here and now, and we need to protect ourselves from yielding to it in ways that will harm us, while doing what is prudent to make nuclear terrorism less likely to happen.
It is imagined terror, not the actuality of terrorists with nuclear weapons, that drives our national fears and determines our national policy. Nuclear terrorism and nuclear terror are different domains. Terrorists haven’t detonated a nuclear bomb and are not known to possess nuclear weapons. And building a nuclear bomb is far more difficult than often portrayed in the media. But nuclear terror—the dread that terrorist might go nuclear—has a rich history that even precedes the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
Given my own academic and policy interests, I immediately turned to the chapter on black markets, where Jenkins quite sensibly argues that we should flood the zone with fake purveyors of nuclear weapons, materials, and technology to make it harder for terrorists to connect with actual merchants of death. The flip side of that, unmentioned by Jenkins but directly parallel to undercover activity in the illicit drug markets, is to flood the zone with fake buyers as well, so that the Russian sergeant who manages to steal a weapon is likely to wind up selling it to a fake terrorist group rather than a real one. Given the small number of actual buyers and actual sellers, the cost of making virtually impossible for them to find one another should be modest.
As a Special Forces veteran who could play the part of the commander of a counter-terror strike force in an action-adventure movie, Jenkins likes to bait the testosterone-poisoned World War IV advocates by pointing out that their hyperventilation about the “existential threat of Islamofascism” is the opposite of courageous. My favorite paragraph so far (I’m about halfway through the book):
I have been asked from time to time to edit the speeches of government policy makers. In vain, I have tried to remove displays of affect, eliminating words like “barbaric,” “heinous,” “savage,” “cowardly,” “inhuman,” “insane,” to deliberately craft a more phlegmatic response that would deprive terrorists of any notion that they had moved us. But the politicos inevitably put the podium-pounding rhetoric back in — they knew what their audience wanted to hear, which was not the cool response I wanted to signal to the enemy.