Author: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
Publication and Teaching Notes
by Charles D. Ferguson
The Council on Foreign Relations’s Special Report on Preventing Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism was designed, in part, with collegiate teaching in mind, and it may also be useful in some advanced high school courses. These teaching notes offer some suggestions for using the special report in four types of courses:
- general courses on international relations and security
- general courses on terrorism;
- specialized courses on nonproliferation, arms control, or threats from weapons of mass destruction;
- specialized courses on nuclear technology and security.
This Council Special Report (CSR) argues that the threat of nuclear attack by terrorists has never been greater because of the increasing levels of violence committed by terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda that covet weapons of mass destruction. The likelihood of this attack has also increased because traditional deterrence—threatening assured destruction against a valued asset such as a national territory—does not work against these terrorist groups. Despite this growing threat, the United States and many other governments have yet to raise prevention of nuclear terrorism to a high priority. To launch a nuclear attack, terrorists must first acquire a nuclear bomb. They could do this in three ways: by stealing it, buying it, or building it. All three pathways pose significant constraints to terrorists, but one cannot discount any of these possible routes to catastrophic nuclear terrorism. Securing and eliminating vulnerable nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials offer the points of greatest leverage in preventing nuclear terrorism.
General Courses on International Relations and Security and Terrorism
The threat of nuclear terrorism underscores the perceived increased dangers of the post-9/11 world. While many terrorism experts believe that a new breed of terrorist that covets weapons of mass destruction has arisen over the past ten to fifteen years, others disagree and believe that the so-called “new terrorism” is more of a matter of degree rather than a different kind of terrorism. In fact, the vast majority of terrorist acts to this day involve conventional weapons. Still, a few terrorist groups have expressed strong interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
Nuclear terrorism is a complex scientific and political issue. Students will have to understand the basic physics behind nuclear bombs. The CSR provides this essential background information. In weighing the various threats to national and international security, students (and government officials) have to consider carefully where to invest limited government resources. Experts agree that an act of nuclear terrorism is an extremely high consequence but very low probability event. Students could discuss how many and what type of resources governments should allocate to combat this threat compared to less consequential but more likely means of attack. Students could debate whether the threat of nuclear terrorism has been hyped and whether the reaction to it has shortchanged action on other international security threats. Conversely, students could consider why governments have not devoted more attention to the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Multiple layers of defenses can provide an increasingly effective way to dissuade terrorists from launching a nuclear attack. While the CSR focuses on defensive actions that secure and reduce nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials, students and instructors in these courses could consider how much governments should spend on these and other layers of defense. The CSR on page 9 provides a list of several references that examine the multiple layers of defense, including disrupting and destroying terrorist cells, blocking terrorists from the sources of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials, developing and deploying radiation detection equipment, and improving intelligence assessments of when and where terrorists will launch a nuclear attack.
1. Terrorists and Their Motivations and Constraints
- What is the “new terrorism”? How many terrorist groups really covet weapons of mass destruction? Aren’t most terrorists inclined to use traditional techniques of improvised explosive devices or other types of conventional weapons? Why would terrorists be disinclined to use weapons of mass destruction? What are the psychological impediments to employing weapons of mass destruction? What resource constraints would terrorist groups confront in deciding whether to acquire and use these types of weapons?
2. Government Resources, Constraints, and Responses
- Should governments devote more money to prevent very high consequence but very low probability attacks? Or should they concentrate more on combating the more likely attacks? What is the proper allocation of government resources in dealing with low and high consequence threats? Have governments done enough to prevent nuclear terrorism? If not, what more can and should they do? How much money and other resources should governments invest in each layer of defense against nuclear terrorism?
Specialized Courses on Nonproliferation, Arms Control, or Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction
An important question in this type of course is:
- Do nuclear-armed countries or nuclear-armed terrorists pose a greater threat to international security?
Other issues to debate and analyze are:
- What role does or can the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty play in preventing nuclear terrorism?
- How have nuclear arms control agreements and treaties affected the likelihood of nuclear terrorism?
Students should not assume that these measures would always reduce the probability of nuclear terrorism. For instance, as weapons are dismantled, weapons-usable materials can become more vulnerable to theft and use by terrorists unless governments maintain tight controls over these materials.
- What actions have the United States done unilaterally, bilaterally, and multilaterally to combat nuclear terrorism? What else should the United States do?
The CSR offers unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral recommendations for the U.S. government. These recommendations can provide a starting point for further class discussion and debate:
- What are the different government responses to the different weapons of mass destruction threats: nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons?
- How have arms control and nonproliferation tools been used to combat these different threats?
- Why have international treaties completely outlawed chemical and biological weapons but not nuclear weapons?
Specialized Courses on Nuclear Technology and Security
Specialized courses will wrestle with issues as nonproliferation, arms control, and weapons of mass destruction. In addition, a course on nuclear technology can focus on the physics of nuclear weapons as well as the linkage between other nuclear technologies such as nuclear power plants, uranium enrichment plants, and plutonium reprocessing facilities and nuclear terrorism. It could also explore in depth what skills terrorists would need to make their own nuclear bombs and what governments can or cannot do to block terrorists from acquiring those skills and the materials needed to make nuclear weapons.
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