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Many more metropolises have been threatened with destruction. The immediate casualties run into the millions, and the resulting contamination will continue to kill for years. The attacks have also had enormous political consequences, provoking regional wars as they were intended to do, but a global nuclear exchange has been narrowly averted. The carnage, bad as it is, would have been much worse were it not for the heroic efforts of a handful of dedicated secret agents, and sometimes maverick ex-agents, who struggled against great odds, often alone, armed with little more than their own determination and often an CQ Press Your definitive resource for politics, policy and people.

Remember me? Back Institutional Login Please choose from an option shown below. Need help logging in? Click here. Don't have access? View purchasing options. A Reappraisal Brian M. Find in this title Show Hide Page Numbers. On This Page. Copy to Clipboard. Brian M. Looks like you do not have access to this content. Click here for free trial login. A Reappraisal View all chapters View fewer chapters. Loading content In the wake of that attack, anyone who had offered to bet that 16 years on there would have been no terrorist attack on the United States that killed more than people would have been able to get odds.

In each of the years since that attack, the annual threat assessment from the U. Polls find that more than 80 percent of Americans expect another major terrorist attack in the near future.

Factors and Actions That Have Increased the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism

How can we square these expectations with what has actually happened? On the record, tree limbs and other falling objects have killed times more Americans than terrorist attacks. As Chart 3 demonstrates, apart from old age and disease, the leading causes of death for Americans here at home have been opioid overdoses 40, ; car accidents 39, ; and suicide 38, Thus, to put it bluntly, it is hard to deny the gap between the expectations of the intelligence and policy analytic community who have been trying to understand terrorism and counterterrorism, on the one hand, and the brute facts, on the other.

Identify actors who have the motivation, means, and opportunity to commit an act of terrorism, and one has the suspect list. Individuals or groups motivated to take an action but lacking the organizational skills to use available means to exploit opportunities remain only potential risks. By invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, and striking targets in many other countries with drones, the United States has created new enemies.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, our counterinsurgency campaigns on behalf of one faction against others have given thousands of other people motives to seek revenge against us. These actions have provided fodder that extremists have used skillfully to recruit and motivate payback. As the Orlando and Las Vegas shootings suggested, in many states in the United States, it is not that hard to buy an assault rifle and ammunition that will allow a shooter to fire 1, rounds in two minutes.

And recent truck attacks by ISIL-inspired fighters in Nice, Barcelona, and New York demonstrate that terrorists recognize that modern life offers them many means by which to carry out their attacks. Web-accessible information about how to make elementary bombs or acquire and use pathogens like anthrax has also increased.

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Opportunities to kill hundreds or even thousands of Americans also abound. Terrorists intent on killing large numbers could find them everywhere: from malls and movie theaters to sports stadiums and churches. He developed the bombs for the failed underwear bomb plot in and cargo hold plot in , as well as the laptop bomb that led the Trump Administration to temporarily ban laptops on flights. In sum, the question about why there has been no nuclear terrorist attack is one piece of the larger puzzle about why there has been no mega-terrorist attack of any kind.

And the deeper question behind that is whether we in the analytic community have a good grasp on the fundamentals of this challenge. Truth be told, I register my doubts. Nonetheless, I am not ready to conclude that my estimate of the odds of a nuclear terror attack was incorrect. And contrary to the claims of a number of critics, as a matter of statistics, the evidence of the past 13 years does not require me to do so.

A brief aside on the logic of betting and odds will explain why. Imagine a coin that was slightly weighted so that it had a 51 percent chance of landing heads and 49 percent chance of tails. From a single toss of that coin that landed tails, what could one conclude?


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Statistically, the answer is—very little. Such a result would be expected to happen 49 out of every times the coin was tossed. If we tossed the coin a second time, and again it landed tails, statisticians would again remind us that the chances of that occurring were 1 in 4.

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Reducing the greatest risks of nuclear theft & terrorism | American Academy of Arts and Sciences

To conclude as a matter of statistics that my estimate was incorrect would take a lifetime of successive decades in which there was no successful nuclear attack. As we all know, dozens of planned terrorist attacks have failed or been foiled—from the Christmas Day underwear bomber to the Times Square bombers.

The issue this article addresses is whether in the past decade we have just beaten the odds, or whether actions we have taken have changed the odds for the better. To address that question, it is necessary to review the array of factors and actions that have reduced the risk of nuclear terrorism on the one hand, and those that have increased the risk on the other. At the pinnacle of his pyramid of destruction was a mushroom cloud enveloping one of the great cities of the world. Destruction of their headquarters and training camps meant that thousands of individuals who would have been planning, training, and then conducting terrorist attacks never got their chance.

On the other hand, the failure to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal, as well as the collapse of U. Section II of this article reviews actions taken that have reduced the risk of nuclear terrorism. Section III reviews factors and actions that have increased these risks. A concluding section offers an updated assessment of the risks posed by nuclear terrorism from the perspective of year-end While applauding thousands of actions that have been taken by hundreds of thousands of individuals in the past 13 years to reduce these risks, reviewing all the pluses and all the minuses, my gut tells me that the chances of a successful nuclear terrorist attack in the decade that began in —in effect, the second flip of the coin—are better than even.

Specifically, I believe the odds of a successful nuclear terrorist attack somewhere in the world before the end of are 51 percent or higher. While giving thanks that terrorists have failed to achieve their deadliest ambitions, in my view that is not grounds for complacency, but rather a reason for redoubling our efforts.

Stopping Nuclear Terrorism Is a Game of Odds, Not Certainty

I am aware that on an issue about which I am passionate, I may have slipped from analysis to advocacy. The central point is not whether the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack are 51 percent or 15 percent. Threat equals likelihood times consequences, and in this case, the consequences would be devastating. Since the costs of actions to reduce these risks are modest, prudent policymakers should focus on the feasible agenda of actions. In the past decade, the United States and its international partners have taken literally thousands of specific actions that closed what had been open doors to terrorists acquiring a nuclear bomb, or nuclear materials from which they could have fashioned an improvised nuclear weapon.

On the counterterrorism front, the terrorist groups that sought to attack the United States with nuclear weapons have been decimated. In , ISIL acquired a broad swath of territory across Iraq and Syria—a safehaven in which it could train militants, plot attacks, and compile resources. In addition to these offensive counterterrorism efforts, the United States has taken extensive defensive actions to fortify the American homeland.

An array of new agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, FBI Fusion Centers, and counterterrorism units in major state and local police forces now have tens of thousands of people working every day to keep Americans safe. On the nuclear security front, post—Cold War U.

Detecting Nuclear Terrorism

At the end of the Cold War, 22, tactical nuclear weapons were scattered across 14 of the 15 newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. Moreover, 3, strategic nuclear weapons, most atop missiles that targeted American cities, remained stationed in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.

In December , as the Soviet Union was teetering on the edge of collapse, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was asked on Meet the Press what would happen to these nuclear weapons. This provided the means for the United States to work with Russia and these host nations to ensure that all tactical nuclear weapons were returned to Russia and firmly secured, and that the strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine were eliminated.

Twenty five-years on, not a single loose nuclear weapon has been discovered. Dangerously, these cooperative U. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, co-launched by Presidents Bush and Putin in , encourages states to share best practices and build capacity to detect and respond to terrorist threats on their soils. Through the Proliferation Security Initiative, launched in , the United States, Russia, and more than other states cooperate to prevent the smuggling of WMDs and their delivery systems.


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At the multilateral level, the most consequential nuclear security initiative of the past decade was the series of Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Obama. During the course of his two terms, four summits gathered heads of state from more than 50 countries to spur commitments from these leaders to secure nuclear material.

By focusing the minds of leaders on this threat and the steps they could take to address it, the Nuclear Security Summits created an effective action-forcing process. The agenda, the meetings, the deadlines, and the necessity to stand up and speak up all move governments to act.

The success of this initiative has largely gone unnoticed—but it is worth pausing to consider what could have happened had the Summits never taken place. In , when the Soviet Union collapsed, 52 states had nuclear weapons—usable material.

Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?

By , that number had been reduced to In , when the first Nuclear Security Summit was convened by President Obama, there were 15 nuclear bombs worth of weapons material in Ukraine at sites including Sevastopol and Kharkov. Thanks to the initiative, this threat was identified and a combination of inducements and pressure led then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to act. In , at the second Nuclear Security Summit President Yanukovych announced that all nuclear weapons-usable material had been removed from Ukraine. The armed groups that seized government buildings would now have the means to make nuclear bombs.

And one or another of the various splinter groups could even have decided to sell the core of a bomb to others in the black markets of the world. In addition to risks of terrorists buying or stealing weapons-grade material, there is a further danger of terrorists attacking a nuclear plant in order to cause a Chernobyl- or Fukushima-like disaster.

Thus additional work is required to improve security at these plants, including, for example, requiring armed guards at all sites that hold weapons-grade material or enough low-enriched fuel to cause a major release of radioactivity. Another major success from the summits was the agreement by more than nations to provide additional layers of protection for all nuclear material in their possession, including during storage, transport, and use.