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Helpless Against Nuclear Terrorism?

Hansrudolf Kamer There is no telling how long the war against terrorism, or its ramified consequences, will last. But some of the questions and problems raised by it have become clearer. The main problem the vulnerability of open societies is confirmed almost daily, as governments issue warnings about possible terrorist attacks of no-longer-inconceivable magnitude. The idea of the threat of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction or of nuclear, biological and chemical agents is not really new. In almost every democratically governed nation during the past 10 years, committees of experts thought about the unthinkable and issued their reports. But the impact was slight.

The storm of uninhibited aggression on September 11, and attempts by numerous and varied circles of the blind to explain and justify it, have resulted in the various projections and warnings being taken more seriously. In America during the 1990s, mixed committees considered most aspects of the terrorist threat: the proliferation, dismantling and supervision of nuclear weapons and fissionable materials, chemical and biological weapons and agents, state-supported terrorism, missile defense, the vulnerability of nuclear power plants, bridges, tunnels and dams, and many other things. What has changed, however, is the realization that attackers of this ilk will stop at nothing though there are now doubts as to whether all those involved in the attacks on America were privy to the actual objectives. In any case, deterrence can fail; it is not a panacea.

When strategic thinkers made seriously efforts to free themselves from the patterns of cold war thinking, terrorism both private and state-sponsored was always seen as a front-line threat. But despite a whole series of attacks on nearly all the world's continents, it was the collapse of the Twin Towers on the southern tip of Manhattan that made the danger real in people's minds. Writing in The Economist, Graham Allison, who served in the Pentagon during the first Clinton administration, describes what the impact would have been if a simple nuclear truck bomb had exploded on the same site: not only would the World Trade Center have been destroyed, but all of Wall Street and the financial district, as well as the entire southern end of Manhattan up to and beyond Union Square, with hundreds of thousands of people dead, and the fallout subsequently taking many more victims.

It is not primarily a failure of intelligence services when a society does not take dangers seriously because it prefers to occupy itself with the pleasanter things of life and ignores possible countermeasures. Politicians who routinely trivialized such great dangers were elected and will doubtless continue to be. Who wants to vote for prophets of doom? There was no response to the expulsion of UN inspectors from Iraq, whose regime probably still constitutes the greatest danger of terrorist use of nuclear weapons. Instead, nearly all honorable members of the Security Council, with the exception of the USA and Britain, actively tried to subvert the remaining sanctions against Saddam Hussein.

It is by no means certain that al-Qaida or any other terrorist network already has nuclear devices, as was recently reported. But considering the imponderable risks involved, Western governments should behave as though Usama bin Ladin already has his finger on the nuclear fuze. It is commendable that the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, whose public information work prior to the Gulf war did not exactly cover it in glory, has now recognized the signs of the times and unequivocally called attention to the increased danger level. Its Director General Mohammed al-Baradei has declared that there are more than 10,000 sites in the world where a terrorist could acquire radioactive material, from well-guarded militarty bases to completely open civilian facilities.

From this perspective too, there can be no denying that the war against the terrorists must be conducted with all urgency and strength, making use of effective military, political, diplomatic and propaganda means. In this context, an apparently imminent agreement between the Americans and Russians about a reduction of excessive nuclear arsenals is a welcome sign. However, that joint enterprise should not be confined to weapons, but should embrace the entire nuclear complex. Effective controls against a misuse of nuclear materials should be established, and a policy laid down vis--vis other countries, especially those in the Middle East. Instead of photo opportunities, the forthcoming summit in America should be used to tackle a compressed mass of very real tasks.

November 6, 2001 / First published in German, November 3, 2001

-- Martin Thompson (, November 07, 2001


My greatest fear is not Osoma bin Laden, but Iraq. I think bin Laden has already taken his best shot. But, it's state-sponsord terrorism, the kind of which Saddam is capable of, with all its nuclear implications, that give me the shivers.

-- R2D2 (, November 07, 2001.

That's why we should of cooked Hussein's ass long ago.

-- jimmie-the-weed (, November 07, 2001.

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