Nuclear Terrorism: How to Respond?

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By Maciej Lempke, Columnist

The threat of nuclear terrorism should not be underestimated. The main reason for concern is not only the possibility of a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear device, but also the inability of responding to such an attack. This issue should be addressed by policymakers who ought to be ready for all possible contingencies in an event of a nuclear terrorist attack. Governments should be aware of the best available options for responding to a nuclear terrorist attack, as inaction in these circumstances would not be a viable alternative.

Nuclear terrorism is officially viewed as one of the greatest threats to a state’s security.[1] A number of policymakers and academics argue that despite the technological difficulties surrounding the construction of a nuclear device, a determined terrorist group is capable of acquiring and transporting one across state borders.[2] Many indicate that once possessing the appropriate means, the transfer of nuclear material and assembly of a gun-type nuclear device made from highly enriched uranium is relatively straightforward.[3] This has been supported by a number of studies examining what it would take to build a nuclear weapon by a non-state actor.[4] A scenario presented by Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Zimmerman revealed that with an estimated budget of 10 million dollars and a highly skilled team of 19 people, the engineering work required to construct a nuclear device could be easily done – particularly since most of the essential parts are available online.[5]

Contrary to the aforementioned views, some argue nuclear terrorism is an overstated threat. In their view, nuclear weapons are not the most effective mean of achieving the ends of terrorist groups, and their acquisition requires unique skills, organization, and secrecy that are out of reach for any non-state actor.[6] Nevertheless, state leaders view nuclear terrorism as a plausible scenario, investing heavily in preventive measures such as international oversight of nuclear materials, detection systems of radioactive materials, and improvement of intelligence activities.

However, current debates on the issue of nuclear terrorism pay little attention to a state’s ability to mount a punitive response to a nuclear attack from a non-state actor. The 2014 Department of Defense Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) “defines four principal objectives for countering the threat of nuclear terrorism: reduce incentives to pursue, possess, and employ WMD; increase barriers to the acquisition, proliferation, and use of WMD; manage WMD risks; and deny the effects of current and emerging WMD threat through defenses”.[7] While it is important to discuss measures that could mitigate the threat of nuclear terrorism and tackle its domestic consequences, it is also worth examining whether states are prepared to respond to it militarily. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence indicating that governments are ill prepared to respond in these circumstances.

The first step in the process of attributing a nuclear terrorist attack is tracing the origins of nuclear materials used in the device. This would require the application of nuclear forensics, which includes analyzing radioactive debris and identifying their unique characteristics that could lead to the country from where the material was obtained.[8] However, this procedure does not guarantee that the source of the nuclear material would be discovered.[9] The information might indicate that the source was 40% North Korean, 30% Pakistani and 30% Russian. In that case, how does one judge which state is to be blamed for facilitating the attack? However, most importantly, even if the result of nuclear forensics were able to trace the origins of the nuclear material, response options would be limited. If a terrorist organization operating from Pakistan were found responsible for a nuclear attack in Washington DC, would it be legal and just for the United States to attack Pakistan? What would be a proportionate and legitimate target to strike? Would a nuclear terrorist attack justify the use of nuclear weapons against the country that supported the offending organization or supplied it with nuclear materials? Finally, how would one prove that the government of Pakistan was willingly and intentionally sponsoring nuclear terrorism?[10] Answers to these questions remain unclear since there has been no comprehensive governmental study outlining US military response to a terrorist nuclear attack.

The difficulty in devising an effective response to an act of nuclear terrorism also stems from the fact that, in these circumstances, classical deterrence loses its relevance. One of its basic principles is that both sides know the punishment would be unacceptable if either side decided to use nuclear weapons. However, these assumptions do not stand with regards to terrorist groups, which cannot be deterred by the threat of retaliation. As some indicate, these groups are not making the same cost-benefit calculations as states, making the prospect of reprisal less significant in influencing their actions.[11]

Ultimately, the threat of nuclear terrorism should not be neglected and governments should be made aware of the difficulties in devising a response to such an eventuality.



[1] “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense”, Department of Defense (2012), p.3, available from:, “National Security Strategy”, The White House (2010), p.23, available from:

[2] “The U.S-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism”, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Institute for U.S and Canadian studies, (2010), pp.19-20, available from:

[3] Ibid, pp.19-20,

[4] Stuart Casey-Maslen, “Armed non-state actors and ‘nuclear terrorism”” in Nuclear Weapons Under International Law, edited by Gro Nystuen, Stuart Casey-Maslen and Annie Golden Bersagel, (Cambridge, Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2014), p.420, Carson Mark, Theodore Taylor, Eugene Eyster, William Maraman, Jacob Wechsler, “Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons? International Task Force on the Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism – Nuclear Control Institute, Washington D.C 1996, available from:

[5] Peter D. Zimmerman, Jeffrey G. Lewis, “The Bomb in the Backyard”, Foreign Policy, 16 October 2009, pp.5-9, available from:, Steve Coll, “The Unthinkable: Can the United States be made safe from nuclear terrorism”, The New Yorker, p.23, available from:

[6] John Mueller, “Radioactive Hype,” National Interest, September/October: 63, John Mueller,

“The Costs and Consequences of Efforts to Prevent Proliferation,” paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, August 2008,

[7] “Department of Defense Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction”, Department of Defense (2014), p.7, available from:

[8] Kenneth G.W. Inn and Jacqueline Mann “Nuclear Forensic Reference Materials (RM) for Attribution of Urban Terrorism”, National Institute of Standards and Technology U.S Dept. of Commerce, pp. 3-4, available from:

[9] Ibid, p.17,

[10] Meggaen Neely, “Doubting Deterrence of Nuclear Terrorism”, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, available from:,

[11] Ibid

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