DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Graham Allison’s Nuclear Terrorism, Stephen Flynn: The Edge of Disaster ; Randall Larsen: Our own Worst Enemy; David Armstrong and Joseph Trento: America and the Islamic Bomb.; Brian Michael Jenkins: Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? 


Author (or Editor): Graham Allison

Title: Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Times Books, Henry Holt and Company

Date: 2004

ISBN:  0-8050-7651-4

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 263 pgs, indexed

Relevance to doaskdotell:  terrorism and civil liberties


To brush up summarily, nuclear terrorism comprises two kinds of threats. First is actually nuclear explosions based on nuclear fission. The second is the “dirty bomb” threat, where a conventional explosion, probably small, disperses radioactive contaminants. The first threat is obviously the most catastrophic, since it contemplates a bomb probably at least the size of Hiroshima (perhaps a bit smaller) going off in a large city. The second would likely cause few casualties but could make significant areas economically unusable for years.

I grew up during the Cold War, and was living in the DC area during the Cuban Missile Crisis, ground zero. Mutually assured destruction staved off nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, but would not prevent a attack by a terrorist, and sounds all too “easy” for a terrorist (not necessarily just Al Qaeda) to pull off.

Allison goes over a variety of ways that a terrorist could manufacture a crude device, or detonate a stolen small weapon (a shoulder-fired weapon or a so-called “suitcase nuke”). Such small nukes, ready to use, exist at least in Pakistan, and were Musharraf’s government to fall to extremists, the United States would have to intervene militarily just to secure the weapons. And many of them in Russia or the former Soviet republics could have fallen into the wrong hand during the economic chaos since the fall of the Soviet Union. These are likely to be much harder to detonate. However, Graham provides some discussion of the ‘ease” of making a crude device (I won’t repeat the details here) and cites a study done in 1977 by Princeton college student John Aristotle Phillips on the availability of the necessary materials from unregulated and unclassified sources. Such a device (if designed for a 10 megaton yield, as below) would be somewhat larger, maybe the size of a refrigerator, and could fit in a typical rental truck for household moves. A terrorist would be satisfied with one or two crude devices, in comparison to a state which would want reliable weapons to implement a foreign policy. This observation apparently explains why states take so long to develop nuclear weapons programs in comparison to what terrorist organizations might do.

The results of such a blast would be grisly. For a typical crude 10 mgton device, a radius of about 1/3 mile would be vaporized, and ¾ miles would have major building collapses, and up to 1-1/2 miles would be uninhabitable because of fires and radiation, as well as the EMP (electromagnetic or e-bomb) effect that could fry all electronics for some distance. The reader can visit his blastmaps link. In New York City, a device near Times Square on a business day would cause about one million deaths. Of course, during my stint in the Pentagon in the Army in 1968, I recall reading far more grisly scenarios of major hydrogen bomb blasts contemplated by a nuclear exchange with the Soviets.

Furthermore, a lead-shielded nuclear device might be difficult to detect with radiation detectors now in use in some major cities. Allison discusses the potential for diversion of bombs or fissionable materials in detail, including within the United States by corruption or even direct attack.. My general impression is that this sort of incident is, fortunately, more difficult to pull off than the author makes it look.

The dirty bomb gets less attention in the book, although it has from other sources, like PBS documentaries. Al Qaeda has always looked for spectacular destruction and casualties. But it would seem that a carefully executed and sinister plan of small radiological explosions with sufficiently toxic contaminants could make much real property (especially residential units in cities) worthless and undermine the entire real estate market in many areas of the country. A larger dirty bomb with a highly toxic, though hard-to-handle contaminant like Strontium 90 (a PBS documentary once covered an incident with loose Strontium found in the former Soviet republic Georgia) could make several square miles of a large city uninhabitable for centuries.

Allison also points out that the 9-11 hijackers could have caused much bigger catastrophes by flying their planes into nuclear power plants and breaking containment domes, or, worse, buildings than house spent fuel rods.  On October 11, 2001 the United States was faced with an apparent “false alarm” called Dragonfly, in which there were reports of Al Qaeda’s possession of a bomb stolen from Russia in New York City.

Allison’s “prevention” consists of three “no’s” and seven “yeses” as diplomatic steps. Generally, there is nothing surprising in his recommendations. He says that the United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox (the movie 1964 “Goldfinger” notwithstanding), so it should be worldwide with nuclear materials. That sort of reasoning forms the basis of his contention that such an incident is still preventable, although his steps would take years of delicate diplomacy (regardless of who wins any presidential election) to implement. The most serious specific threat may be North Korea, and Allison recommends a carrot and stick approach, with military intervention if necessary. He is critical of President Bush’s haste with Iraq, although I would speculate that Saddam Hussein could have been trafficking materials stolen from the remains of the Soviet Union as well as preparing to make nuclear devices himself—hence maybe no WMD’s would be found.

It would take a number of years to implement Graham Allison’s ideas. In the meantime, we would remain at risk of an unimaginable catastrophe at all times. If even one nuclear weapon went off in a large city, without the reassurance that a future event could be prevented, then I wonder if our financial system could remain intact. One of a very small number of nuclear blasts could decapitate the government or major infrastructure. Outside of a couple of episodes on ABC “Nightline” and some scary columns by Charles Krauthammer, there seems to be little overt public discussion over whether a free society could survive months or years of homeland marital law. Certainly people used to depending on technology and self-expression rather than interaction with other people would be in a bad way. I wonder if the world that was left would have any use for an intellectual “sissy” like me. I do recall a scary campus underground black-and-white film called “The War Game” (not to be confused with the hit 1983 film “War Games”) dating back to Vietnam days of 1967, when a second Cuban missile crisis type scenario is dramatized, along with the fallout of citizens who have no lives they understand to look forward to in the aftermath. “I don’t want to do nothin’,” was one line. Unlike 9/11, as shocking as that day was, repeated nuclear terrorism can bring down a civilization, and it might comport with a Sayy-Qutb-driven idea of jihadist “virtue.”

Graham Allison summarized his argument (especially the “three No’s”) in an article in the March 2005 The American Prospect: “The Gravest Prospect: The president who invaded Iraq citing fear of nuclear blackmail has been cavalier about preventing it elsewhere.” The article focuses some attention on Putin and loose nukes (and raw materials) in Russia.

I’ll note here that an online discussion of the nuclear threat by me at my site (a chapter from my second DADT book) was hacked in April 2002, an disturbing incident never fully explained.


George Will provides a chilling book review of Allison’s opus in an op-ed column “Holocaust in a Suitcase” in the The Washington Post, Aug. 29, 2004, Outlook section, p. B7.

In conjunction with George Will’s piece, the CBS “60 Minutes” report by Ed Bradley (Aug. 29, 2004) on Department of Energy security specialist Richard Levernier’s audit of nuclear processing facilities (for example, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge) within our own borders, is not reassuring.

On September 12, 2004, “CNN Presents” aired a program called “Nuclear Terror” hosted by Aaron Brown. Graham Allison’s book was discussed and Graham was interviewed, as was Stephen E. Flynn, author of America the Vulnerable: How our Government Is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism (Harper Collins, ISBN 0060571284, July, 2004). Flynn argues that the real Trojan horse for nuclear terrorism is the entire shipping chain, often starting in southeast Asia or near Hong Kong. Drug dealing can conceal the transfer of arms, including tactical suitcase nuclear weapons or HEU uranium. North Korea is likely to be tempted into selling nuclear materials into the black market, and they may be stolen from various weak points, especially in Russia. If the government even found credible evidence of one nuclear weapon being smuggled, all shipping could be stopped for two or three weeks to find it, leading to economic catastrophe. Tracking shipping needs to have as high a priority as tracking aircraft. Another comment was that the actuarial life expectancy of residents in Manhattan and some of Washington, DC may be reduced by the expected cumulative probability of a nuclear detonation eventually. For the company that I retired from at the end of 2001 (ING ReliaStar) this sounds like a big deal, potentially, since that company took a big hit from its reinsurance in the World Trade Center.

Subodh Atal provides an article in the April 25, 2005 The American Conservative, “Nuclear Option: Terrorists don’t need state sponsorship to visit atomic devastation on America.” Atal imagines a scenario where at noon EDT on Tues. Sept. 13, 2005 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs go off in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago and abort but spew radiation in Washington and Atlanta. He believes that terrorists could smuggle subcritical masses of HEU (highly enriched uranium) into the country and assemble bombs here, and that this is a greater risk that the explosion of stolen suitcase nukes. He criticizes the Bush neo-conservative policy of “democracy at gunpoint” being imposed especially on Iraq, as a catalyst for terrorists, who often operate in open European cities.

I’ll mention here another book that I have not yet read: The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror by Michael Ignatieff Princeton University Press, 212 pp., $22.95.
Ignatieff provided an essay (extracted from the book) to The New York Times Magazine, May 2, 2004, (also) called “Lesser Evils” He talks about the unthinkable, about “losing” the War on Terror, about the idea of repeated large scale and unstoppable attacks with or without WMDs. The link is
Jay Ambrose discusses this essay in his Oct. 20 op-ed “The nuisance masquerade” in The Washington Times.
 Richard Rhodes has an article “Living with the Bomb” in the August 2005 National Geographic. He gives different numbers for the destruction radius for different kinds of weapons, with a diagram on p. 110. For a Hiroshima-type HEU bomb, total destruction takes place for 0.8 miles; for a hydrogen bomb, 2.2 miles, and for a suitcase nuke, 0.15 miles (something comparable to the World Trade Center attack; but radiation contamination would still be catastrophic).

Stephen Flynn: The Edge of Disaster: Building a Resilient Nation. New York: Random House, 2007. 240 pages, hardbound, indexed, with 21 pages Introduction.

The author introduced this book on a segment of Anderson Cooper's 360 (Feb. 20, 2007) on CNN, described at this blogger link. The author sees the occurrence of disasters as inevitable and a continuum, with terrorism constituting just one kind of catastrophe among many natural possibilities. He does propose a number of scenarios:

(1) terrorists drive trucks into the Sunoco facility near Citizens Bank Stadium in Philadelphia, releasing hydrogen fluoride gas during a baseball game

(2) terrorists attack liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers in the ports of Boston and Long Beach.

(3) An earthquake shreds the levees in the California valley, flooding more people than did Katrina.

(4) As well publicized already, a major avian flu pandemic.

(5) Further major meltdowns of the nation's power grid.

He does not see these as civilization ending events, as the Cuban Missile Crisis might have been. He believes that high value targets can be made safer by increasing background surveillance, making preparations all the more tedious. He does not see softer targets as attractive. He probably could give more attention to the nuclear threat, or explore the economic havoc (especially with urban real estate) that a dirty bomb could pose if a large populated area were made permanently uninhabitable. These grim possibilities have already been widely discussed by others, including Mr. Allison, above.

He sees the "just in time" nature and excessive bottom-line focus of business as the major Achilles heel. He builds his arguments around a concept of strategic redundancy and resilience, with private and government partnerships, probably a concept finding more appeal among Democrats. Certainly his paradigm is useful for dealing with topics like global warming, pandemics, and even making the power grid and cyber infrastructure even more redundant and unbreakable. (He offers an interesting example of the Alaska pipeline, which is cut by the Soviets in the 1982 thriller "World War III".) He offers a metaphor for the changing nature of capitalism: from a sand dune, that never loses its form, to a skyscraper, that could be knocked down. I recall now a roommate when I was in graduate school at the University of Kansas (in the 1960s) who felt that it was "immoral" for people to live bottled up in big cities.

Probably the author should pay more attention to asymmetry and the role of individuals or very small groups. That has already become a lesson of 9/11. Personal preparedness can depend partly of family and community solidarity, which has been weakened in an era of individual sovereignty -- a concept that can ironically unravel because other disgruntled people attack the technological infrastructure upon which individualism now depends, or, more likely (he is right that "nature" can still be the ultimate "terrorist"), an external natural event does so. 

I recall a 1950s Parker Brothers board game called "Star Reporter," which considered a "disaster" less horrible than a "catastrophe," which ended the game.   

CNN "Special Investigations Unit" with Anderson Cooper presented "Edge of Disaster" on April 29, 2007, with particular attention to dirty bombs, LNG, smallpox, power grids, and floods (here, near Sacramento CA, in conjunction with an earthquake and weak levees).  

A blog entry mentioning some 2007 links about the possibility of nuclear terrorism is here.

Randall J. Larsen, Colonel, USAF (Ret). Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions About Security to Protect You, Your Family, and America. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007. ISBN 0-446-58043-0, 302 pages, indexed, hardcover, Foreword and 10 Chapters. The author, director of the Institute for Homeland Security, presents a sobering picture of our vulnerability to a determined enemy. He uses a Drake equation to predict the likelihood of severe damage to our way of life from various threats, with the nuclear and biological threats being by far the worst. (The tends to pooh-pooh the extreme economic chaos -- like with real estate values -- that a dirty bomb attack in a major city might cause.) A determined bioterror attack might be the most difficult to stop. He takes a sidetrip to examine the anthrax letters in the fall of 2001, and offers evidence that they were associated with 9/11 and Al Qaeda, and not from the domestic source suggested by the FBI, which has a build in interest in criminal prosecution. (Along those lines, it's good to look at David Tell 's article "Remember Anthrax" from The Weekly Standard, April 2002, link here.)  

What Colonel Larsen proposes is a conceptual paradigm. Horrific attacks have to be stopped strategically, not tactically. He is like a chess player who prefers positional openings rather than gambits and quick attacks. The emphasis on the nuclear threat has to rest overseas (Nunn and Allison would agree). He thinks that domestic security should be overseen operationally and conceptually by NGO's or quasi-agencies, with considerable citizen involvement, expanding the usual volunteer programs (and even national service agendas) to the level of conceptualization. He talks about bringing back the concept of posse (not vigilante) in a modern sense. He does provide considerable detailed advice to families, as to how they could "shelter in place" even after a nuclear attack (not as in the movie "Right at your Door").   Blogger discussion

David Armstrong and Joseph Trento. America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise. A Project of the National Security News Service.  Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2007. ISBN 1-58642-137-9;  292 pages, hardcover, indexed with endnotes. Has an Introduction, ten chapters, and Epilogue. 

The book maintains that American administrations have been careless with nuclear weapons policies, all the way back to the Truman days were conceptual questions of how to deal with the Soviets existed at the getgo. Ensuring developments, such as the Atoms for Peace program in the 50s, would actually encourage nuclear proliferation. In modern times, current administrations (all the way back to Carter) have been careless with Pakistan's nuclear program and with handling the A. Q. Khan nuclear scandal. Later Reagan pretended to be denying Pakistan access to nuclear technology and then looked the other way, during the Afghanistan and Iran crises. The current administration has had to look the other way in order to get Pakistan's (Musharraf 's) cooperation after 9/11.  There is some interesting discussion of connections in Libya (despite Reagan's success in handling Libya) and even Dubai. As a result of all of this, there are many contacts (between A. Q. Khan operatives, including past) with Al Qaeda and other potential terrorist outlets around the world.  Blogger discussion

Brian Michael Jenkins. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?  Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59102-656-3. Hardcover, 457 pages, indexed. 4 Parts, 19 Chapters.  A former Rand official traces the history of the psychology of mass terrorism back to the early 1970s, when it was felt that Communists could actually use terror tactics, as could Palestinians. Thought experiments were conducted even then. The book is somewhat equivocal, wary of the possible threat but often noting that it is more difficult to pull off than supposed and maybe not as effective sometimes. The Chechens almost exploded a dirty bomb in the 1990s. Chapter 17, "A Brilliant Yellow Light" simulates a suitcase nuke attack on New York City. Blogger discussion.   




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