On Nuclear Terrorism

Drawing from our long experience with terrorism, Michael A. Levi proposes new principles for understanding and defending against nuclear threats.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Nuclear terrorism is such a disturbing prospect that we shy away from its details. Yet as a consequence, we fail to understand how best to defeat it. Michael Levi takes us inside nuclear terrorism and behind the decisions a terrorist leader would be faced with in pursuing a nuclear plot. Along the way, Levi identifies the many obstacles, large and small, that such a terrorist scheme might encounter, allowing him to discover a host of ways that any plan might be foiled.

Surveying the broad universe of plots and defenses, this accessible account shows how a wide-ranging defense that integrates the tools of weapon and materials security, law enforcement, intelligence, border controls, diplomacy, and the military can multiply, intensify, and compound the possibility that nuclear terrorists will fail. Levi draws from our long experience with terrorism and cautions us not to focus solely on the most harrowing yet most improbable threats. Nuclear terrorism shares much in common with other terrorist threats--and as a result, he argues, defeating it is impossible unless we put our entire counterterrorism and homeland security house in order.

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Defense and Security

As long as we live in a nuclear age, no defense can completely eliminate nuclear terrorism. But this book reminds us that the right strategy can minimize the risks and shows us how to do it.

A Council on Foreign Relations Book

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Defense and Security

Reviews and Endorsements

Named to the LA Times' 2008 Wish List

[I]f only policy makers would heed Levi's insightful advice and fully adopt this multilayered, integrated, wide-ranging approach.


[A] careful, meticulous, balanced and dispassionate reflection on the subject.

Arms, Arms Control and Technology

Highly valuable ... makes essential reading for policy makers and informed analysts alike.

Nonproliferation Review

On Nuclear Terrorism is a must.

Martin van Creveld, Nature

[A] valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on catastrophic terrorism.

William C. Potter, Arms Control Today

[T]he problem with uncontrolled worst-case analysis, as Michael Levi argues so persuasively in On Nuclear Terrorism, is that the terrorist adversary becomes ten feet tall, omnicompetent and bound to succeed, while governments in the West become obsessed with this or that defensive measure in the expectation (or hope) that it will guarantee protection. ... Effective consequence management will require participation of an informed public, and for that reason alone, On Nuclear Terrorism should have the widest possible readership.

Paul Cornish, Times Higher Education Supplement

This book offers the best insights for a coordinated defense system against nuclear terrorism I have seen, as well as a perceptive survey of the opportunities and difficulties nuclear terrorists would face. Well written and carefully researched, it is a must for every counterterrorism planner as well as for any interested citizen.

Michael M. May, former director, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and professor emeritus, Stanford University

Michael Levi shows that defending against nuclear terrorism requires confronting every aspect of a terrorist's plot. Thoroughly researched, thoughtfully argued, and well written, On Nuclear Terrorism examines the most important security problem the world faces today.

William Perry, former secretary of defense and professor, Stanford University

This is serious stuff. If you want to know how a terrorist organization might manage to mount a nuclear attack—or how to stop them—you need to read this book.

Thomas C. Schelling, 2005 Nobel laureate in economics

Levi's is the most comprehensive, up-to-date, and technically informed treatment of nuclear terrorism. This important book makes a big contribution to public understanding and to public policy on nuclear terrorism, which might yet—despite the daunting odds—prevent it from ever happening.

Ashton B. Carter, former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy and professor, Harvard University

In this comprehensive and accessible book, Levi effectively challenges many popular assertions about how easy it would be for terrorists to fabricate and deliver a nuclear weapon. He then outlines an integrated defense strategy from prevention to detection to mitigation. This should become the basic reference for nuclear terrorism. Recommended for anyone interested in the topic. Mandatory for policymakers.

Brian M. Jenkins, senior adviser, RAND Corporation

Michael Levi presents a strong case for why we need to do everything we can to keep the world's most dangerous weapons and materials out of the hands of the world's most dangerous people. He focuses on the broad range of today's nuclear threats and provides unique insights into how terrorist groups work. He also makes important specific recommendations to address these dangers—the most critical security issue facing our nation and the world.

Sam Nunn, former U.S. senator and co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative

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