At a conference on the future of al Qaeda sponsored by Los Alamos National Laboratory last month, I posed a dark question to 60 or so nuclear weapons scientists and specialists on terrorism and radical Islam: How many of them believed that the probability of a nuclear fission bomb attack on U.S. soil during the next several decades was negligible -- say, less than 5 percent?
At issue was the Big One -- a Hiroshima-or-larger explosion that could claim hundreds of thousands of American lives, as opposed to an easier-to-mount but less lethal radiological attack. Amid somber silence, three or four meek, iconoclastic hands went up. (More later on the minority optimists. They, too, deserve a hearing.)
(Al-jazeera Via Aptn /ap)
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• Outlook Section
Tuesday, Feb. 8, 10 a.m. ET: Washington Post Associate Editor Steve Coll discusses his article about the increasing risk of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons.
This grim view, echoed in other quarters of the national security bureaucracy in recent months, can't be dismissed as Bush administration scaremongering. "There has been increasing interest by terrorists in acquiring nuclear weapons," Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's chief nuclear watchdog, said in a recent interview, excerpts of which were published in Outlook last Sunday. "I cannot say 100 percent that it hasn't happened" already, he added, almost as an afterthought.
Worried yet? Then you might agree that there is too little specific, rigorous, apolitical discussion of this threat available to the public. In an era when Americans know they have reason to be afraid -- yet seem at times to know more fear than reason -- even the unthinkable requires transparent debate. Here's a provocation, in service of the cause of inspiring such debate: In focusing all-out on nuclear aspirants such as Iran and North Korea, the United States may be distracting itself from an even graver problem.
A time machine traveler tuning in to the American discussion about nuclear proliferation early in 2005 might think the dial had been set to 1965 by mistake. Then as now, American arms control debate focused heavily on the fear that too many governments would go nuclear. The Bush administration recognizes that catastrophic terrorism has changed the context in which states own or seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet traditional nonproliferation thinking, focused on governments, still dominates U.S. policy. When President Bush mentioned nuclear dangers in his State of the Union address last week, he referred only to the problem of governments seeking weapons. That challenge remains urgent, but it does not explain the gloom at Los Alamos.
A startling number of U.S. nuclear and terrorism specialists I have talked with during the last year believe that the threat of a jihadi nuclear attack in the medium term is very serious. They recognize that as a technical and scientific matter, such an attack can be very difficult for private groups to pull off. They fear it anyway. They may have professional incentives to conjure the worst case, but I believe this to be their honest assessment.
At the center of their pessimism stands the unique figure of Osama bin Laden, still at large, still espousing his ideology of mass-casualty attacks against Americans, with a special emphasis on nuclear weapons -- an ideology that seems destined to outlive him.
Some of these analysts, confronting uncertainty, may lean toward pessimism because, with the stakes so high, they would rather be wrong than fail to anticipate a preventable attack.
Back in 1998, when he was still an obscure White House aide, Richard Clarke was accused of scaremongering about a little-known terrorist named Osama bin Laden in order to win budgetary funds from Congress.
"I would be delighted three or four years from now to say we've wasted money," he replied. "I'd much rather have that happen than have to explain to the Congress and the American people why we weren't ready, and why we let so many Americans die."
September 11 taught us that Chicken Little sometimes gets it right. But the failures to correctly assess Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction showed that he sometimes gets it wrong.
Once again, the stakes are very high and once again, the adversary is hidden and dynamic. Among other difficulties, the al Qaeda near the heart of the current nuclear threat is not the same al Qaeda feared by Clarke seven years ago.
At its birth in 1988, al Qaeda was a poorly equipped summer camp for volunteer soldiers near Khost, Afghanistan. By the summer of 2001, it had a formal headquarters, management committees, a dozen or more training facilities, global recruiting centers, a few thousand sworn members and thousands of other followers.
Today al Qaeda is no longer much of an organization, if it can be called one at all. Its headquarters have been destroyed, its leadership is scattered or dead or in jail. Osama bin Laden remains the chairman of the board, increasingly a Donald Trump-like figure -- highly visible, very talkative, preoccupied by multiple wives, but not very effective at running things day-to-day.