Nuclear Alarmism: Proliferation and Terrorism

  • Nuclear Proliferation
  • Nuclear Terrorism
  • Conclusion
  • Endnotes
  • Related Content

Alarmism about nuclear weapons is common coin in the foreign policy establishment.1 During the course of the Cold War, for example, the chief concern was that the weapons would somehow go off, by accident or by intention, devastating the planet in the process.

In 1960, a top nuclear strategist declared it “most unlikely” that the world could live with an uncontrolled arms race for decades. And in 1979, political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau declared: “The world is moving ineluctably towards a third world war — a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it. The international system is simply too unstable to survive for long.” In the 1980s, variously between 20 and 37 percent of the American population told pollsters that they held the potential for nuclear war to be the most important problem facing the country, even as creative activists at Brown University demanded that their health service should stockpile suicide pills for immediate dispensation in the event of a nuclear attack to those unfortunates who still remained unvaporized.2

In a 1982 New Yorker essay and a best‐​selling book, both entitled The Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Schell passionately, if repetitively, argued the not entirely novel proposition that nuclear war would be terrible, and he concluded ominously: “One day — and it is hard to believe that it will not be soon — we will make our choice. Either we will sink into the final coma and end it all or, as I trust and believe, we will awaken to the truth of our peril … and rise up to cleanse the earth of nuclear weapons.“3 As it happened, both options were avoided: neither final coma nor nuclear cleansing ever took place.

After the United States and the Soviet Union called off their Cold War in 1989, nuclear concerns dwindled, even though thousands of the weapons continued to be retained. Ever resourceful, however, nuclear alarmists quickly shifted their focus. If big countries with large nuclear arsenals were now unlikely to bring about the end of the world, small ones with small arsenals could do the job. Or even tiny groups of diabolical terrorists. After all, it was essentially argued, since a group of them, armed with box cutters and a clever plan, took down two skyscrapers, they might soon advance to nuclear weapons and then use them to topple American society, the ascendency of the modern state, or civilization as we know it, either all at once or seriatim.4

This chapter is devoted to alarmism about the supposed dangers to American national security inherent in the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states and to terrorists.

Nuclear Proliferation

In an influential book, Graham Allison argues that “no new nuclear weapons states” should be a prime foreign policy principle, and analyst Joseph Cirincione very much agrees, insisting that nonproliferation should be “our number one national‐​security priority.“5

There are good reasons to avoid alarmism in this area, however. First, the pace of nuclear proliferation has been far slower than has been commonly predicted primarily because the weapons convey little advantage to their possessor. Second, the consequences of such proliferation that has taken place have been substantially benign: those who have acquired the weapons have “used” them simply to stoke their egos or to deter real or imagined threats.6

And thirdly, the costs of anti‐​proliferation policy have been very substantial: the number of people who have died as a consequence of dedicated efforts to contain nuclear proliferation runs well into six figures.


Alarmists have been wrong for decades about the pace of nuclear proliferation. Dozens of technologically capable countries have considered obtaining nuclear arsenals, but very few have done so. Indeed, as Jacques Hymans has pointed out, even supposedly optimistic forecasts about nuclear dispersion have proved to be too pessimistic.7 Thus, in 1958, the National Planning Association predicted “a rapid rise in the number of atomic powers … by the mid‐​1960s.“8 A few years later, C. P. Snow sagely predicted, “Within, at the most, six years, China and several other states [will] have a stock of nuclear bombs,” and John Kennedy observed that there might be “ten, fifteen, twenty” countries with a nuclear capacity by 1964.9

As part of that forecasting, it has generally been assumed that nuclear weapons would be important status — or virility — symbols; therefore, all advanced countries would want to have them in order to show how “powerful” they were. Thus, France’s de Gaulle opined in the 1960s, “No country without an atom bomb could properly consider itself independent,” and Robert Gilpin concluded that “the possession of nuclear weapons largely determines a nation’s rank in the hierarchy of international prestige.“10 In Gilpinian tradition, some analysts who describe themselves as “realists” have insisted for years that Germany and Japan must soon come to their senses and quest after nuclear weapons.11 Such punditry has gone astray in part because the pundits insist on extrapolating from the wrong cases. A more pertinent prototype would have been Canada, a country that could easily have had nuclear weapons by the 1960s but declined to make the effort.12 In fact, over the decades, a huge number of countries capable of developing nuclear weapons have neglected even to consider the opportunity — for example, Canada, Italy, and Norway — even as Argentina, Brazil, Libya, South Korea, and Taiwan have backed away from or reversed nuclear weapons programs, and Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine have actually surrendered or dismantled an existing nuclear arsenal.13 Some of that reduction is no doubt due to the hostility of the nuclear nations, but even without that, the Canadian case seems to have proved to have rather general relevance.

To begin with, as Stephen Meyer has shown, there is no “technological imperative” for countries to obtain nuclear weapons once they have achieved the technical capacity to do so.14 Moreover, like military prowess in general, the weapons have not proved to be crucial status symbols. As Robert Jervis has observed, “India, China, and Israel may have decreased the chance of direct attack by developing nuclear weapons, but it is hard to argue that they have increased their general prestige or influence.“15 How much more status would Japan have if it possessed nuclear weapons? Would anybody pay a great deal more attention to Britain or France if their arsenals held 5,000 nuclear weapons, or would anybody pay much less if they had none? Did China need nuclear weapons to impress the world with its economic growth? Or with its Olympics? As Jennifer Mackby and Walter Slocombe observe, “Germany, like its erstwhile Axis ally, Japan, has become powerful because of its economic might rather than its military might, and its renunciation of nuclear weapons may even have reinforced its prestige.“16

Decades of alarmist predictions about proliferation chains, cascades, dominoes, waves, avalanches, epidemics, and points of no return have proved to be faulty. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has been far slower than routinely expected because, insofar as most leaders of most countries (even rogue ones) have considered acquiring the weapons, they have come to appreciate several defects: the weapons are dangerous, distasteful, costly, and likely to rile the neighbors. Moreover, as Jacques Hymans has demonstrated, the weapons have also been exceedingly difficult to obtain for administratively dysfunctional countries like Iran.17


Although we have now suffered through two‐​thirds of a century during which there has been great hysteria about the disasters inherent in nuclear proliferation, the consequences of the proliferation that has occurred have been substantially benign. The few countries to which the weapons have proliferated have quietly kept them in storage and haven’t even found much benefit in rattling them from time to time. And even the deterrence value of the weapons has been questionable — the major Cold War participants, for example, scarcely needed visions of mushroom clouds to conclude that any replication of World War II, with or without nuclear weapons, was a decidedly bad idea.18

Moreover, there has never been a militarily compelling — or even minimally sensible — reason to use the weapons, particularly because of an inability to identify suitable targets or ones that could not be attacked about as effectively by conventional munitions. And it is difficult to see how nuclear weapons benefited their possessors in specific military ventures. Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons did not restrain the Arabs from attacking in 1973, nor did Britain’s prevent Argentina’s seizure of the Falklands in 1982. Similarly, the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the enveloping allied forces did not cause Saddam Hussein to order his occupying forces out of Kuwait in 1990. Nor did possession of the bomb benefit America in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan; France in Algeria; or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Proliferation alarmists may occasionally grant that countries principally obtain a nuclear arsenal to counter real or perceived threats. But many go on to argue that the newly nuclear country will then use its nuclear weapons to dominate the area. That argument was repeatedly used with dramatic urgency for the dangers supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein, and it is now being applied to Iran.

Exactly how that domination business is to be carried out is never made clear.19 But the notion apparently is that should an atomic Iraq (in earlier fantasies) or North Korea or Iran (in present ones) rattle the occasional rocket, other countries in the area, suitably intimidated, would supinely bow to its demands. Far more likely, any threatened states will make common cause with each other and with other concerned countries against the threatening neighbor. It thus seems overwhelmingly likely that if a nuclear Iran brandishes its weapons to intimidate others or to get its way, it will find that those threatened, rather than capitulating to its blandishments or rushing off to build a compensating arsenal of their own, will ally with others (including conceivably Israel) to stand up to the intimidation — rather in the way they coalesced into an alliance of convenience to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

It is sometimes said, or implied, that proliferation has had little consequence because the only countries to possess nuclear weapons have had rational leaders. But the weapons have proliferated to large, important countries run by unchallenged monsters who, at the time they acquired the bombs, were certifiably deranged: Josef Stalin, who in 1949 was planning to change the climate of the Soviet Union by planting a lot of trees, and Mao Zedong, who in 1964 had just carried out a bizarre social experiment that resulted in an artificial famine in which tens of millions of Chinese perished.20 It is incumbent on those who strongly oppose an Iranian bomb to demonstrate that the regime there is daffier than these.

The few countries to have acquired nuclear weapons programs seem to have done so sometimes as an ego trip for current leaders and, more urgently (or perhaps merely in addition), as an effort to deter a potential attack on themselves: China to deter the United States and the Soviet Union, Israel to deter various enemy nations in the neighborhood, India to deter China, Pakistan to deter India, and now North Korea to deter the United States and maybe others.21 Insofar as nuclear proliferation is a response to perceived threat, it follows that one way to reduce the likelihood of such countries’ going nuclear is a simple one: stop threatening them.

The Costs of Alarmist Nonproliferation Policies

Although the consequences of nuclear proliferation have proved to be substantially benign, the same cannot be said for the consequences of the nuclear nonproliferation quest.

Candidate Barack Obama announced during the campaign of 2008 that he would “do everything in [his] power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — everything,” and John McCain insisted that Iran must be kept from obtaining a nuclear weapon “at all costs.“22 Neither bothered to tally what “everything” might entail and what the costs might be, and both continue to make the same kinds of pronouncements.

Such a mentality was a chief motivator of the 2003 Iraq War, which was essentially a militarized antiproliferation effort. It was sold almost entirely as a venture required to keep Saddam Hussein’s pathetic and fully containable and deterrable rogue state from developing nuclear and other presumably threatening weapons and to prevent him from palming off some of them to eager and congenial terrorists.23 Thus, in an influential 2002 book, Kenneth Pollack strenuously advocated a war whose “whole point” would be to “prevent Saddam from acquiring nuclear weapons,” which Western intelligence agencies, he reported, were predicting would occur by 2004 (pessimistic) or 2008 (optimistic).24 As the Defense Department’s Paul Wolfowitz pointed out, nuclear weapons, or at any rate weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), were the “core reason” for the war.25 For their part, Democrats have derided the war as “unnecessary,” but the bulk of them came to that conclusion only after the United States was unable to find either weapons or weapons programs in Iraq. Many of them have made it clear that they would support putatively preemptive (actually, preventive) military action — and presumably its extensive bloodshed if the intelligence about Saddam’s programs had been accurate.26 Well over 100,000 people have died in this antiproliferation war; the number who perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is often put at around the same magnitude.27 An alarmist mentality was shown by decisionmakers in the Clinton administration in 1994. They were apparently prepared to go to war with the miserable North Korean regime to prevent or to halt its nuclear development.28 A full‐​scale war on the peninsula, estimated the Pentagon, could kill 1 million people, including 80,000 to 100,000 Americans; could cost more than $100 billion; and could do economic destruction on the order of $1 trillion.29 That is a considerable price, one might think, to prevent a pathetic regime from developing weapons with the potential for killing a few tens of thousands — if they were actually exploded, an act that would be suicidal for the regime.30

Nuclear Terrorism

Alarm about the possibility that small groups could set off nuclear weapons has been repeatedly raised at least since 1946, when atomic bomb maker J. Robert Oppenheimer contended that if three or four men could smuggle in units for an atomic bomb, they could “destroy New York.” Thirty years later, nuclear physicist Theodore Taylor explained “how comparatively easy it would be to steal nuclear material and step by step make it into a bomb.” At the time, he thought it variously already too late to “prevent the making of a few bombs, here and there, now and then,” or “in another ten or fifteen years, it will be too late.“31 Four decades after Taylor, we continue to wait for terrorists to carry out their “easy” task.

In the wake of 9/11, concern about the atomic terrorist surged even though the attacks of that day used no special weapons. By 2003, United Nations Ambassador John Negroponte judged there to be “a high probability” that within two years al Qaeda would attempt an attack using a nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction. And it was in that spirit that in 2004, Graham Allison published a book relaying his “considered judgment” that “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not.” He had presumably relied on the same inspirational mechanism in 1995 to predict that “in the absence of a determined program of action, we have every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear terrorism against American targets before this decade is out.“32

Allison has quite a bit of company in his perpetually alarming conclusions. According to Robert Gates, former secretary of defense, every senior government leader is kept awake at night by “the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.” And on April 11, 2010, President Barack Obama held the atomic terrorist to be “the single biggest threat to U.S. security.“33

However, thus far, terrorist groups seem to have exhibited only limited desire and even less progress in going atomic. That lack of action may be because, after a brief exploration of the possible routes, they — unlike generations of alarmists — have discovered that the tremendous effort required is scarcely likely to be successful.34

Obtaining a Finished Bomb: Assistance by a State

One route a would‐​be atomic terrorist might take would be to receive or buy a bomb from a generous like‐​minded nuclear state for delivery abroad. That route is highly improbable, however, because there would be too much risk — even for a country led by extremists — that the ultimate source of the weapon would be discovered. As one prominent analyst, Matthew Bunn, puts it, “A dictator or oligarch bent on maintaining power is highly unlikely to take the immense risk of transferring such a devastating capability to terrorists they cannot control, given the ever‐​present possibility that the material would be traced back to its origin.” Important in this last consideration are deterrent safeguards afforded by “nuclear forensics,” which is the rapidly developing science (and art) of connecting nuclear materials to their sources even after a bomb has been exploded.35

Moreover, there is a very considerable danger to the donor that the bomb (and its source) would be discovered before delivery or that it would be exploded in a manner and on a target the donor would not approve of — including on the donor itself. Another concern would be that the terrorist group might be infiltrated by foreign intelligence.36

In addition, almost no one would trust al Qaeda. As one observer has pointed out, the terrorist group’s explicit enemies list includes not only Christians and Jews but also all Middle Eastern regimes; Muslims who don’t share its views; most Western countries; the governments of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Russia; most news organizations; the United Nations; and international nongovernmental organizations.37 Most of the time, it didn’t get along all that well even with its host in Afghanistan, the Taliban government.38

Stealing or Illicitly Purchasing a Bomb: Loose Nukes

There has also been great worry about “loose nukes,” especially in postcommunist Russia — weapons, “suitcase bombs” in particular, that can be stolen or bought illicitly. A careful assessment conducted by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies has concluded that it is unlikely that any of those devices have been lost and that, regardless, their effectiveness would be very low or even nonexistent because they (like all nuclear weapons) require continual maintenance.39 Even some of those people most alarmed by the prospect of atomic terrorism have concluded, “It is probably true that there are no ‘loose nukes,’ transportable nuclear weapons missing from their proper storage locations and available for purchase in some way.“40

It might be added that Russia has an intense interest in controlling any weapons on its territory because it is likely to be a prime target of any illicit use by terrorist groups, particularly Chechen ones of course, with whom it has been waging a vicious on‐​and‐​off war for two decades. The government of Pakistan, which has been repeatedly threatened by terrorists, has a similar interest in controlling its nuclear weapons and material — and scientists. As noted by Stephen Younger, former head of nuclear weapons research and development at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “Regardless of what is reported in the news, all nuclear nations take the security of their weapons very seriously.“41 Even if a finished bomb were somehow lifted somewhere, the loss would soon be noted and a worldwide pursuit launched.

Moreover, finished bombs are outfitted with devices designed to trigger a nonnuclear explosion that would destroy the bomb if it were tampered with. And there are other security techniques: bombs can be kept disassembled with the components stored in separate high‐​security vaults, and security can be organized so that two people and multiple codes are required not only to use the bomb but also to store, maintain, and deploy it. If the terrorists seek to enlist (or force) the services of someone who already knows how to set off the bomb, they would find, as Younger stresses, that “only few people in the world have the knowledge to cause an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon.” Weapons designers know how a weapon works, he explains, but not the multiple types of signals necessary to set it off, and maintenance personnel are trained in only a limited set of functions.42

There could be dangers in the chaos that would emerge if a nuclear state were to fail, collapsing in full disarray — Pakistan is frequently brought up in this context and sometimes North Korea as well. However, even under those conditions, nuclear weapons would likely remain under heavy guard by people who know that a purloined bomb would most likely end up going off in their own territory; would still have locks (and in the case of Pakistan would be disassembled); and could probably be followed, located, and hunted down by an alarmed international community. The worst‐​case scenario in that instance requires not only a failed state but also a considerable series of additional permissive conditions, including consistent (and perfect) insider complicity and a sequence of hasty, opportunistic decisions or developments that click flawlessly in a manner far more familiar to Hollywood scriptwriters than to people experienced with reality.43

Building a Bomb of One’s Own

Because they are unlikely to be able to buy or steal a usable bomb and because they are further unlikely to have one handed off to them by an established nuclear state, the most plausible route for terrorists would be to manufacture the device themselves from purloined materials. That is the course identified by a majority of leading experts as the one most likely to lead to nuclear terrorism.44

The simplest design is a “gun” type of device in which masses of highly enriched uranium are hurled at each other within a tube. Such a device would be, as Allison acknowledges, “large, cumbersome, unsafe, unreliable, unpredictable, and inefficient.“45

The process of making such a weapon is daunting even in this minimal case. In particular, the task requires that a considerable series of difficult hurdles be conquered and in sequence.

To begin with, now and likely for the foreseeable future, stateless groups are incapable of manufacturing the requisite weapons‐​grade uranium themselves because the process requires an effort on an industrial scale. Moreover, they are unlikely to be supplied with the material by a state for the same reasons a state is unlikely to give them a workable bomb.46 Thus, they would need to steal or illicitly purchase the crucial material.

A successful armed theft is exceedingly unlikely, not only because of the resistance of guards but also because chase would be immediate. A more plausible route would be to corrupt insiders to smuggle out the necessary fissile material. However, that approach requires the terrorists to pay off a host of greedy confederates, including brokers and money transmitters, any one of whom could turn on them or — either out of guile or incompetence — furnish them with stuff that is useless.47 Moreover, because of improved safeguards and accounting practices, it is decreasingly likely that the theft would remain undetected.48 That development is important because if any missing uranium is noticed, the authorities would investigate the few people who might have been able to assist the thieves, and one who seems suddenly to have become prosperous is likely to arrest their attention right from the start. Even one initially tempted by, seduced by, or sympathetic to, the blandishments of the smooth‐​talking foreign terrorists might soon develop sobering second thoughts and go to the authorities. Insiders tempted to assist terrorists might also come to ruminate over the fact that, once the heist was accomplished, the terrorists would, as analyst Brian Jenkins puts it none too delicately, “have every incentive to cover their trail, beginning with eliminating their confederates.“49

It is also relevant to note that over the years, known thefts of highly enriched uranium have totaled fewer than 16 pounds. That amount is far less than that required for an atomic explosion: for a crude bomb, more than 100 pounds are necessary to produce a likely yield of one kiloton. Moreover, none of those thieves was connected to al Qaeda, and, most arrestingly, none had buyers lined up — nearly all were caught while trying to peddle their wares. Indeed, concludes analyst Robin Frost, “There appears to be no true demand, except where the buyers were government agents running a sting.” Because there appears to be no commercial market for fissile material, each sale would be a one‐​time affair, not a continuing source of profit such as drugs, and there is no evidence of established underworld commercial trade in this illicit commodity.50

If terrorists were somehow successful in obtaining a sufficient mass of relevant material, they would then have to transport it out of the country over unfamiliar terrain, probably while being pursued by security forces. Then, they would need to set up a large and well‐​equipped machine shop to manufacture a bomb and populate it with a select team of highly skilled scientists, technicians, and machinists. The process would also require good managers and organizers. The group would have to be assembled and retained for the monumental task without generating consequential suspicions among friends, family, and police about their curious and sudden absence from normal pursuits back home. Pakistan, for example, maintains a strict watch on many of its nuclear scientists even after retirement.51

Some observers have insisted that it would be “easy” for terrorists to assemble a crude bomb if they could get enough fissile material.52 However, Christoph Wirz and Emmanuel Egger, two senior physicists in charge of nuclear issues at Switzerland’s Spiez Laboratory, conclude that the task “could hardly be accomplished by a subnational group.” They point out that precise blueprints are required, not just sketches and general ideas, and that even with a good blueprint, the terrorist group “would most certainly be forced to redesign.” They also stress that the work, far from being “easy,” is difficult, dangerous, and extremely exacting and that the technical requirements “in several fields verge on the unfeasible.“53

Los Alamos research director Younger makes a similar argument, expressing his amazement at “self‐​declared ‘nuclear weapons experts,’ many of whom have never seen a real nuclear weapon,” who “hold forth on how easy it is to make a functioning nuclear explosive.” Information is available for getting the general idea behind a rudimentary nuclear explosive, but none is detailed enough for “the confident assembly of a real nuclear explosive.” Younger concludes, “To think that a terrorist group, working in isolation with an unreliable supply of electricity and little access to tools and supplies” could fabricate a bomb “is far‐​fetched at best.“54

Under the best of circumstances, the process could take months or even a year or more, and it would all, of course, have to be carried out in utter secret even while local and international security police are likely to be on the intense prowl. In addition, people, or criminal gangs, in the area may observe with increasing curiosity and puzzlement the constant comings and goings of technicians unlikely to be locals.

The process of fabricating a nuclear device requires, then, the effective recruitment of people who at once have great technical skills and will remain completely devoted to the cause. In addition, a host of corrupted coconspirators, many of them foreign, must remain utterly reliable; international and local security services must be kept perpetually in the dark; and no curious outsider must get wind of the project over the months, or even years, it takes to pull off.

The finished product could weigh a ton or more. Encased in lead shielding to mask radioactive emissions, it would then have to be transported to, as well as smuggled into, the relevant target country. Then, the enormous package would have to be received within the target country by a group of collaborators who are at once totally dedicated and technically proficient at handling, maintaining, and perhaps assembling the weapon. Then, they would have to detonate it somewhere under the fervent hope that the machine shop work has been proficient, that no significant shakeups occurred in the treacherous process of transportation, and that the thing — after all that effort — doesn’t prove to be a dud.

The financial costs of the extended operation in its cumulating entirety could become monumental. There would be expensive equipment to buy, smuggle, and set up, as well as people to pay — or pay off. Some operatives might work for free out of dedication, but the vast conspiracy also requires the subversion of an array of criminals and opportunists, each of whom has every incentive to push the price for cooperation as high as possible. Any criminals who are competent and capable enough to be an effective ally in the project are likely to be both smart enough to see opportunities for extortion and psychologically equipped by their profession to be willing to exploit them.


In addition, the evidence about the degree to which al Qaeda has pursued, or even has much interest in, a nuclear weapons program is limited and often ambiguous. For example, in 2004, the 9/11 Commission insisted that “al Qaeda has tried to acquire or make nuclear weapons for at least ten years.” The only substantial evidence it supplies for that assertion comes from an episode that supposedly took place around 1993 in Sudan, when Osama bin Laden’s aides were scammed when they tried to buy some uranium.55 Information about that caper apparently comes from a man who defected from al Qaeda in 1996 after he had been caught stealing $110,000 from the organization. He tried selling his story around the Middle East, but only the Americans were buying. In his prize‐​winning The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright relays the testimony of the man who allegedly purchased the substance for bin Laden, as well as that of a Sudanese intelligence agent. Both assert that, although there were various other scams going around at the time, the uranium episode never happened.56

Various sources suggest that radical elements in bin Laden’s entourage were interested in pursuing atomic weapons or other WMDs when the group was in Afghanistan in the 1990s. However, the same sources indicate that bin Laden had little interest in that pursuit and essentially sabotaged the idea by refusing to fund it, or even to initiate planning for it.57 Analyst Anne Stenersen notes that evidence from a recovered al Qaeda computer indicates that only some $2,000–$4,000 was earmarked for WMD research, all of it apparently for (very crude) chemical work with some potentially for biological weapons. For comparison, she points out that the millennial terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo appears to have invested $30 million in its sarin gas manufacturing program alone.58 There are also reports that bin Laden had some “academic” discussions in 2001 about WMDs with some Pakistani nuclear scientists who did not, actually, know how to build a bomb.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the apparent mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, reportedly says that al Qaeda’s atom bomb efforts never went beyond searching the Internet.59 After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, technical experts from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Energy examined information uncovered in Afghanistan and arrived at conclusions generally supportive of that assertion. They found no credible information that al Qaeda had obtained fissile material or a nuclear weapon, and no evidence of “any radioactive material suitable for weapons.” They did uncover, however, a “nuclear‐​related” document discussing “openly available concepts about the nuclear fuel cycle and some weapons related issues.“60 Physicist and weapons expert David Albright is more impressed with the evidence, but he concludes that any al Qaeda atomic efforts were “seriously disrupted” — indeed, “nipped in the bud” — by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and that after the invasion, the “chance of al Qaeda detonating a nuclear explosive appears on reflection to be low.“61

Rumors and reports that al Qaeda managed to purchase an atomic bomb, or several, have been around now for well over a decade, beginning around 1998. One alleges, for example, that bin Laden gave a group of Chechens $30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for 20 nuclear warheads. If any of those reports were true, one might think the terrorist group (or its supposed Chechen suppliers) would have tried to set one off by now or that al Qaeda would have left some trace of the weapons behind in Afghanistan after it made its very hasty exit in 2001.

Bin Laden pronounced on the nuclear weapons issue a few times, talking about an Islamic “duty” or “right” to obtain the weapons for defense. Some of those oft‐​quoted assertions can be viewed as threatening, but they are rather coy and indirect, indicating perhaps something of an interest, but not acknowledging any sort of capability. And as Louise Richardson concludes, “Statements claiming a right to possess nuclear weapons have been misinterpreted as expressing a determination to use them,” feeding “the exaggeration of the threat we face.“62

When examined, the evidence of al Qaeda’s desire to go atomic and about its progress in accomplishing that exceedingly difficult task, even in the comparative safety of its Afghan haven of the 1990s, is remarkably skimpy, if not completely negligible. The scariest stuff — a decade’s worth of loose nuke rumor, chatter, and hype — seems to have no substance whatever.

After an exhaustive study of available materials, Stenersen concludes that, although al Qaeda central may have considered nuclear and other nonconventional weapons, there “is little evidence that such ideas ever developed into actual plans, or that they were given any kind of priority at the expense of more traditional types of terrorist attacks.“63 And there is no reason to believe things got better for them after they were forcefully expelled from their comparatively unembattled base in Afghanistan.

In 1996, one of terrorism studies’ top gurus, Walter Laqueur, insisted that some terrorist groups “almost certainly” will use WMDs “in the foreseeable future.“64 Presumably any future foreseeable in 1996 is now history, but in contrast, terrorists in effect seem to be heeding the advice found in a memo on an al Qaeda laptop seized in Pakistan in 2004: “Make use of that which is available … rather than waste valuable time becoming despondent over that which is not within your reach.“65 That is, keep it simple, stupid. Although there have been plenty of terrorist attacks in the world since 2001, all (thus far, at least) have relied on conventional destructive methods. There hasn’t even been much in the way of the occasional gas bomb, not even in Iraq where the technology is hardly much of a secret.


Concerns about the dangers inherent in nuclear proliferation and in nuclear terrorism certainly seem overwrought.

It would be desirable that a number of variously designated regimes (and quite a few others) never obtain nuclear weapons. Accordingly, there is nothing wrong in making nonproliferation a high priority. Indeed, if the efforts successfully dissuade Iran from foolishly launching a nuclear weapons program, they would be doing it a favor — though, quite possibly, the Iranians wouldn’t notice.

However, if new nations acquire the costly weapons, they are most likely to put them to use — if that is the term — the same way other nuclear countries have: to stoke their collective egos and to deter real or perceived threats. Even countries that once seemed to be hugely threatening such as Communist China in the 1960s have been content to use their weapons for those purposes. Accordingly, history suggests that the proliferation of nuclear weapons scarcely presents a major danger to the word.

Moreover, any anti‐​proliferation priority should be topped with a somewhat higher one: avoiding militarily aggressive actions under the obsessive sway of worst‐​case‐​scenario fantasies, actions that might lead to the deaths of tens — or hundreds — of thousands of people.

If the potential for atomic terrorism is indeed the single most serious threat to the national security of the United States as many maintain, that potential could actually be viewed as a comparatively cheering conclusion. Sensible cost‐​effective policies designed to make that probability even lower may be justified, given the damage that can be inflicted by an atomic explosion. But any notion that terrorist groups will come up with nuclear weapons, even if they wanted to and tried hard, looks extremely unlikely. There may be reason for concern, or at least for interest and watchfulness. But alarm and hysteria (not to mention sleeplessness) are hardly called for.

John Mueller

John Mueller is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.