Expert Weighs Whether Terrorists Will Go Nuclear Could terrorists possibly acquire and use nuclear weapons against the United States? NPR's Tony Cox talks with Brian Michael Jenkins. His new book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?, examines both the risks and psychology of nuclear terrorism.
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Expert Weighs Whether Terrorists Will Go Nuclear

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Expert Weighs Whether Terrorists Will Go Nuclear

Expert Weighs Whether Terrorists Will Go Nuclear

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TONY COX, host:

The recent deadly attacks on the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan and the U.S. Embassy in Yemen show global terrorism is still a constant threat. Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior advisor at the Rand Corporation, and one of the world's leading authorities on terrorism.

He says today's number one threat to American national security is nuclear proliferation and terrorism. His new book, "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" examines both the risks and psychology of nuclear terrorism, and says terrorists don't need to have such weapons to perpetrate nuclear terror.

Mr. BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS (Senior advisor, The Rand Corporation; Author, "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?"): Nuclear terrorism is about the very frightening possibility that terrorists could acquire and employ nuclear weapons. Nuclear terror is about the anticipation of that event. Nuclear terrorism is about terrorists' capabilities, intelligence, evidence, our assessment of the threat. Nuclear terror is about our imagination.

The history of nuclear terrorism can be briefly summarized. Fortunately there hasn't been any. Many would hasten to add yet. But nuclear terror has a rich history, and it's deeply embedded in our popular culture and our policy making circles.

COX: One of the other things you mentioned in the book, among many, is that al-Qaeda might become the world's first terrorist nuclear power without possessing a single nuclear weapon. And I suppose the answer to that is in part what you just were describing.

Mr. JENKINS: It is. What's interesting is that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency has said that al-Qaeda is the CIA's top nuclear concern. Now that's a fascinating comment. Obviously, that assessment is based upon intentions rather than capabilities. Insofar as we know, al-Qaeda has no nuclear material, has no knowledge to put together a nuclear bomb, but it is the number one nuclear concern because it is believed that if it had a nuclear bomb, it would use it.

COX: You know, it's been a number of years now, seven since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Two questions. First is, how did Americans view the threat of terrorism back then, and how do they see it now? And how effective have the agencies like the Department of Homeland Security been in preventing another terrorist attack?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, in terms of our perceptions of terrorism, terrorism has been a concern for a long time for Americans. But the concern would spike, of course, in the wake of some spectacular episode, you know. The sabotage of Pan Am 103 in 1988, or the destruction of the American Embassies in Africa in 1998, and then it would quickly diminish.

What happened in 9/11, though, was a fundamental change in our perceptions. That a lot of the more extreme scenarios that previously had been dismissed as the stuff of novels suddenly became operative presumptions. If terrorists could do what they did on 9/11, then who could dismiss any possibility in the future?

Now, certainly in the seven years since 9/11, we have made considerable progress in reducing the operational capabilities of the al-Qaeda, removing some of their key operational planners, dispersing their training camps, keeping them on the run. Although recently they've been able to reestablish themselves along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and that's an escalating insurgency right now. We haven't had a significant terrorist attack in this country, and it's interesting to ask why...

COX: Let me stop to ask you this. Even though we have not had one in this country, wouldn't you say that the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, for example, serves the same purpose?

Mr. JENKINS: It does, to a degree. But it doesn't have the psychological impact of an attack on this country. And in fact, we can't really explain why, we'd like to think that our intelligence is better - and it is - we'd like to think that our security has improved - and it has. But if we look at many of the attacks that have been carried out by the same group since 9/11, they have bombed nightclubs, restaurants, hotels...

COX: Marketplaces.

Mr. JENKINS: Subways, marketplaces. These are vulnerable targets in the United States, too. So we can't claim that it is our security which is preventing those attacks.

COX: Let me ask you about two specific countries, North Korea, and Iran, for example, with regard to the nuclear threat. How would you say the U.S. - how effective, let's put it that way, would you say the U.S. policy has been in eliminating or reducing the nuclear threat involving those two particular nations?

Mr. JENKINS: I'd say first, over all, we have had a measure of success in reducing nuclear proliferation over the years. And so North Korea and Iran are really exceptions to what has been a successful policy. Not simply by the United States, but by the international community. I mean, we can't do this alone. We depend on international cooperation.

North Korea is an exception because it is so difficult to deal with. They have used their nuclear weapons not so much from the standpoint of making military threats, but as an instrument of extortion, to get economic concessions for what in fact is an impoverished country.

COX: Now that leads me to my next question. We're coming down toward the close. And it's this. White-collar terrorism, is that an example of what you just described, of white-collar terrorism, extorting, using the threat to extort money?

Mr. JENKINS: It does have that concept to it, because it does fall in the camp - in the realm of extortion, rather than military strategy. Quickly, with regard to Iran, there is a very difficult issue, because in fact Iran's quest to be a major power, including the possession of nuclear weapons, really precedes the current administration in Iran, and is likely to be a long-term quest that isn't going to be very, very, difficult to stop.

COX: Your book was given a very high vote of praise from someone who knows what they're talking about, presumably, and Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Laureate, who wrote the preface to your book, and says of one of your chapters - the chapter on what-if scenarios - that that chapter should be made available to the next president. Didn't say which party it should be, but the next president, in terms of their dealing and preparing their research, as far as a nuclear threat is concerned. Do you think a president really needs to read that chapter?

Mr. JENKINS: I think that we do have to elevate the understanding, thinking and debate, about what is considered the number one threat to our national security. Nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism have been identified as the number one threat to American national security. And therefore, it is vitally important that the new president, whoever that may be, has a good understanding of what that threat is, and the what if.

What if, in fact, we faced a nuclear explosion in this country? What would we do? How would we respond? How would we prevent national panic? Would we toss the Constitution? Would we retaliate, and against whom, and with what? All of those are the kinds of tough decisions that a president has to make. And in the chapter in the book, the president gets wildly conflicting advice from his advisors, and in fact, all of that advice is based upon real positions taken in the course of that debate. So it brings it together.

COX: Here's my final question. Talking about the threat of nuclear terrorism, this is scary stuff. How do you communicate it without causing undo alarm, or is alarming people the point?

Mr. JENKINS: No. I don't think that's useful at all. So how do we talk about this in a way that does not alarm people? And I think you do it simply by explaining what nuclear terrorism is, what are the possibilities, what is nuclear terror, how does it work? By revealing it, you take away the mystery, you take away the awe, you take away the unreasoning fear. Now the facts are grim enough. If we are going to deal with it, then we're going to have to deal with it in a sensible way and not be driven by demons of our own invention.

COX: This is a yes or no answer. Can it be stopped?


COX: That was Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior advisor at the Rand Corporation and a leading authority on global terrorism. His new book is called "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?"

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