Nuclear Terrorism, Deterrence, and the Social Construction of Risk

Whatever one may think of the quantification and ontology of risk surely it is a fascinating exercise to compare the way society perceives risk through a consideration of contrasting cases. When there is a mismatch between the perception of risk and the reality of risk we can be sure that social, political and economic forces are responsible for the construction of that perception of risk.

Nuclear terrorism is a classic case. When Obama came into office nuclear terrorism was presented as the leading security threat facing the United States, and Obama pledged that he would do more to combat the threat and so we had the periodic nuclear security summits that have marked his period in office, the next of which kicks off tomorrow. Now the leading security threat, we are told, is Putin’s Russia, although, ironically, Putin’s stabilisation of Russia has improved the security of nuclear materials and facilities.

The risk of nuclear terrorism, from Bush the Idiot onward, has been vastly inflated. Graham Allison had the probability of a nuclear jihadi attack, more than a decade ago already, at greater than 50% and others had it levels that could considered to be relatively high. I have always felt the probability of nuclear terror to be low, even minuscule, and I believe the historical record has bared this out. Nuclear terrorism is best studied as classic case example of the social construction of risk.

Compare all this with climate change. The probability of global warming exceeding 2 degrees C be hardly trivial, and the consequences far exceed those of nuclear terrorism. Yet states have done more, for example invading Iraq, to mitigate nuclear terrorism than they have to combat climate change. Something that affects the poor and which can be shunted to future generations, or to the public at large as with systemic financial risk isn’t too risky, but something that can be inflated to secure the interests of the rich, for instance nuclear terrorism with the invasion of Iraq, is to be presented as an awesome risk.

Jihadi terrorists are often presented as being interested in the bomb because they possess a certain irrational mindset born of an almost millenarian ideology. This leads to the supposition that if they could acquire a bomb they would unhesitatingly use it against a vulnerable Western urban-industrial target, to borrow the lingo of nuclear strategy. Jihadi groups are rational strategic actors, and a key objective of jihadi strategy has always been the acquisition of territory, in the very heart of the Middle East, in which they could build a state. Islamic State managed to achieve this long cherished goal, ironically on the back of the invasion of Iraq consent for which was built on the hyped threat of nuclear terrorism, and state building and administration has been an important IS preoccupation.

If jihadists do ever seriously make a stab at getting the bomb it will be because of the familiar, rational, logic of deterrence. It will be because they would seek to deter an attack, through possession of the bomb, on an enclave or territory that they have acquired in the heart of the Middle East, not out of an irrational and a priori desire to kill as many people as possible. In this sense nuclear terrorism wouldn’t be a sui generis nuclear security issue as it would revolve around the familiar logics of state based nuclear deterrence and nuclear proliferation.