Thursday, September 22, 2011

Schelling on Nuclear Terrorism

On Nobel Laureates
Nobel Laureates are the true aristocracy of the meritocracy. I've wondered, why did the Nobel Price became the great international standard of achievement? Other countries issue prizes, why did the Nordic prize become the most prestigious? It would make an interesting PhD thesis, although it won't be mine.

The other interesting thing, at least in the United States, is how accessible they are. Living in Boston I ran into Eli Weisel. I have an uncle in Boston who is a retired school teacher, for fun he takes extension classes at BU. He has taken courses with both Weisel and Saul Bellow. I joked with him, "Isn't America a great country? Anyone can plunk down $75 and hang out with a Nobel Laureate!"

My uncle, a New Englander to the core, grinned, "I get seniah discount, I only paid $55!"

A Nobel on Nukes
Those thoughts were in the back of my mind when I attended a lecture by Nobel Laureate in Economics and University of Maryland Professor Thomas Schelling. Uppermost in my mind however, was the topic of his talk - what happened to nuclear terrorism.

Back in 1982 Schelling wrote an article stating that sooner rather then later a non-state armed group would acquire a nuclear weapon. This became conventional wisdom, gathering steam particularly after 9/11 when we had an all too frightening demonstration of how capable and creative terrorist groups can be.

Schelling, as a towering intellectual figure, has the presence of mind to admit that it hasn't happened and wonder why. Much of the focus on nuclear terrorism is in stealing fissile material and then constructing a weapon. This is not as easy as it seems. He compared it to stealing a Picasso - all respectable figures in the art community would be on the lookout for it so, as valuable as it is in theory, it is very difficult to sell it.

Moving fissile material out of a country, say an FSU state, to a terrorist haven in Pakistan or Yemen requires traveling long distances across many borders and languages. These barriers present multiple opportunities for the nuclear terrorists to be detected. It is an added factor that the people one is likely to interact with are extremely nasty (criminals, murderers etc.)

Schelling went on to speculate, suppose they can get the stuff, a terrorist group would need a highly skilled team to build the device including metallurgists and engineers. There are a limited number of loyal terrorists with needed skills and hiring people would be difficult. People with the requisite skills usually can earn money legitimately, might turn them in after they are approached, and probably wouldn’t want to join the project since they might just be murdered after it was complete.

Schelling’s analysis, tracks with my own analysis that counter-terror is the application of Murphy’s Law, which emphasizes the logistics of terrorism – always good to be on the same page as a Nobel Laureate! (The difficulties Aum Shinrikyo faced in developed chemical and biological weapons provides a telling example of the logistics of WMD terror.) I would add, that trucking in nuclear material across borders might bring the group under additional intelligence

Schelling then asks what would a group do with a nuclear weapon, simply blowing up a city would be a waste – it makes more sense for the group to seek influence. Presumably any organization sophisticated enough to build a weapon is also capable of strategic thought. I am not as certain of this, some terrorist groups are very strategic in their thinking but others are eschatological. For that matter, for some strategy and eschatology are tightly linked! Further, humiliation and revenge are key motives for many terrorists so that simply inflicting pain and destruction may be its own end.

Schelling also discussed the difficulties in proving the possession of a weapon. Detonating one is the best proof, but a terrorist group might only possess one. Another option is showing to experts (perhaps kidnapping them.) This is possible but difficult.

Schelling dismisses the possibility of an insider handing a complete nuke to a group, since it would be impossible to be certain the device was a nuclear bomb that would work without dismantling it – which would render it inoperable.

Finally, Schelling argued that a group that did possess a bomb would be wise to secrete it in an American city – tell the government it was in one of several cities and threaten to detonate it. This would create an enormous panic. But ultimately, such a terrorist group would, Schelling argues, seek to acquire influence and a seat at the table. Schelling doesn’t mention that transporting and secreting a nuke also has logistical challenges. It would probably be easier then acquiring the materials, but there would still be numerous opportunities for things to go wrong. For a related comparison, see my analysis one why a Mumbai style attack in the US would be difficult to undertake.

This summary is pretty dry, Schelling is very funny and – having been deeply engaged in these issues for decades – has some illuminating anecdotes about these issues.

Finally, unaddressed was the question of a nuclear state being taken over by terrorists or a state with nuclear weapons supporting terrorism. These are different issues. Schelling examines the nightmare scenario of an unaccountable terrorist group acquiring nukes and finds it unlikely. There are many potential nuclear dangers in the world, but this one in particular, while it cannot be dismissed, does not need to be the focus of enormous government resources.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9/11s Past

With 9/11’s tenth anniversary approaching, I thought I’d quickly re-post my past anniversary posts. I’ll write something longer soon – although I keep thinking of Zhou Enlai, saying it is too soon to assess the impact.

Here is a link to what I wrote on 9/11 that was published in NRO. It was entitled Freedom First and argued that promoting freedom through active diplomacy was in our national security interest. It noted the mad ideologies and conspiracy theories that prevailed throughout the greater Middle East and how they were propagated by the region’s dictatorships. I concluded writing:
These are just a few of the options available to the United States to promote freedom — there are many other programs. These important programs are relatively inexpensive — budgets are in the tens of millions of dollars. None of them will bring quick results, but given time they can — combined with a robust and assertive U.S. diplomacy supporting human rights — ameliorate some of the prevailing anti-American ideologies. The war against terrorism promises to be a long one, and expanding freedom is an essential strategy that will undercut terrorism's base of support. While it cannot replace the necessary military response, an offensive for freedom is a deadly weapon against tyranny and the terrorism it spawns.

Two years ago, on 9/11 I wrote an analysis arguing that we have had tremendous counter-terror success at preventing major attacks in the west. The fact that national security experts were so worried about “lone wolves” shows the relative decline of the threat. But the danger of terrorism destabilizing important countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia (for starters) and that this could have important repercussions geopolitically (as well as sparking civil conflicts that could take thousands of lives.) I finish, echoing my first response to 9/11:
Sending troops to all of these hotspots is both unfeasible and would probably only make things worse. Developing the levers to maintain stability and ameliorate some of the underlying conditions that create the instability is a tall order. That is the hard part.

Where I Was on 9/11 in NRO

National Review Online is running a series of posts of 9/11 memories. You can read mine here, but check out the others. The feelings from that day are still raw.

Here is what I remember:
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, my wife and I were sleeping in a hotel room in Los Angeles during one of our regular family visits. My mother-in-law called and told us to put on the TV: “Some planes have crashed into some buildings.”

We watched, first in our room and then downstairs at the breakfast bar. Talk was muted, everyone was stunned. We decamped at my in-laws’ where, like everyone in America, we watched the television. I plugged my laptop into the phone to monitor news online and check in with friends, particularly those working at the Pentagon. Back at home on the East Coast, friends were rushing home. In L.A., my in-laws live on a flight path where the drone of jets and the buzz of helicopters are so frequent that the noise passes unnoticed. But that day, the city was silent.

Months later, during the Super Bowl half-time ceremony, I realized we had also taken a cross-country flight from one of the airports the hijackers had used. But we had carefully scheduled our flights so that we would be home in time for the Jewish new year.

In the months and years that followed, I heard from friends who had happened to be visiting New York that day. They talked about helping to organize on-site blood drives. Another friend, who raises rescue dogs, volunteered in the weeks afterwards and commuted up to New York.

On 9/11, I wrote. It was a short article for NRO, calling for countering terror with a diplomatic offensive for freedom and human rights. It wasn’t much (although the article holds up), but in a small way I felt as though I could do something besides watch.

What stays with me, exemplifying the divide between pre- and post-9/11, is what I told my wife when she relayed her mother’s words to me: “Tell your mom to turn off the cartoon channel.”