Stopping Nuclear Terrorism

The Dangerous Allure of a Perfect Defense

Courtesy Reuters

A successful nuclear attack by terrorists would be catastrophic. Intense fears of nuclear terrorism have led to a search for a perfect defense: destroying all terrorist groups that threaten the United States, sealing U.S. borders against loose nukes, or locking up all existing nuclear weapons and materials. Yet none of these strategies is a silver bullet. It is fantasy to believe that terrorism can be eliminated or that thousands of miles of U.S. borders -- not to mention the borders of U.S. allies -- can be sealed. Initiatives to secure nuclear weapons and materials are vital, but they will always fall short, too.

Rather than search for a perfect defense, which will never exist, counterterrorism strategists must use the many imperfect tools at their disposal to confront the many imperfect terrorist groups that they face. To pull off a nuclear attack, a group would need to acquire nuclear materials or a weapon, build a bomb or unlock an existing one, move that weapon to its target, and detonate it. Securing nuclear weapons and materials, although critical, confronts only one part of a plot and cannot eliminate the threat entirely. Strategists must build on this one defense to develop an integrated defensive system that also draws on border security, law enforcement, intelligence operations, military and diplomatic initiatives, and emergency response efforts. To do so properly, they must develop a more realistic picture of nuclear terrorism that draws on a careful understanding of how terrorist groups work and how their plots can fail.


When strategies for preventing nuclear terrorism rely on silver bullets, less dramatic -- but nonetheless crucial -- measures are neglected. The search for a perfect defense is partly driven by outsized fears of terrorists' capabilities and the assumption that a worst-case, or "perfect storm," scenario will occur. But terrorists do not have superhuman powers; their plots are imperfect and contingent and can be derailed. Consider the analogy of a police department seeking to prevent

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