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dr strangelove nuclear terrorism

The Madmen and the Bomb: A Love Story

No, we're not talking about Don Draper.

Words: Vivian Hagerty and Madeline Dement
Pictures: Dr. Strangelove

Nuclear terrorism is the ultimate boogeyman. It’s like a game of Clue: pick the most powerful weapon, give it to the nastiest player, and watch them set the game board on fire (bye Colonel Mustard). You know what they say, it’s all fun and games until everyone has radiation sickness. Sure, the Cold War kept us all on tenterhooks and brought humanity close to extinction, but those guys were rational! Terrorists are crazy, right?! This all sounds terrible and I’d like to go home now.

But how much do we really know about the likelihood and feasibility of a nuclear terrorist attack? Our answer is, “Not much. Yet.” We’re trying to change this by providing analysts, scholars, and policymakers with a framework that functions as a calculator to provide a “more realistic picture” of this threat. Don’t worry, you don’t have to dig out the manual for your behemoth TI-84 – we provide instructions (more on that later). Through months of conducting research, interviewing and surveying experts in the field, and meeting for hours at Noodles & Company to spitball ideas (“well, if I was a terrorist…”), our framework provides users with quantitative measures of likelihood that actually mean something. After filling out the framework, a user will be presented with four values:

  1. The likelihood that a group will decide to pursue a nuclear capability;
  2. The likelihood that they will choose to either buy, build, or steal said capability;
  3. Their likelihood of success in buying, building, or stealing — and subsequently utilizing in an attack — said capability; and
  4. The likelihood that the group will actually follow through to the end of this operation (which we’ve dubbed “measure of perseverance”).

Thus, instead of the framework telling you that Terrorists“R”Us is 75% likely to carry out a nuclear terrorist attack (…what do I do with that information?), users will see insights into the group’s propensities toward a general nuclear capability, which path they might choose to acquire it, how capable they are of doing so, and whether they can actually close the deal.

The spreadsheet-based framework includes a graphic representation of a simplified nuclear terrorism attack cycle for all of us visual learners out there. This cycle (and thus the framework itself) includes three phases: the “Conventional vs. Nuclear Decision” phase, the “Build, Buy, or Steal Decision” phase, and the “Likelihood of Success” phase. (To clarify, this project explicitly focuses on nuclear explosive terrorism and does not consider radiological events or attacks/acts of sabotage on nuclear power plants or reactors.) Within each of these three phases, the user will fill out the framework by considering qualities of the violent non-state actor (VNSA) being considered, the device that they are seeking to acquire, and the environment in which their endeavor will be occurring. Within these three categories there are characteristics and sub-characteristics, which the user will score according to the situation for which they are filling out the framework. The score you can give a sub-characteristic depends on its weighted scale, which helps to ensure that more important sub-characteristics contribute an appropriate amount to the overall score. Users will also assign each score a level of confidence based on the user’s assessment of the credibility of their information and certainty of their analysis. Given the framework’s “calculator” functionality, a user can go back and hypothetically increase or decrease the score given to a certain sub-characteristic and immediately see how the final values are impacted. As a result, a user could see that, if only Terrorists”R”Us had a more technically-minded leader, they might be overall more likely to succeed in building that pesky nuke.

We considered crucial characteristics of violent non-state actors that spoke to their capabilities and decision-making, including the nature of their leadership, their history of innovation and organizational learning, and their risk tolerance (among many, many [many] more). With respect to these qualities, literature tells us that groups whose leaders who are likely to allow adequate time for research, and who value knowledge and practice over immediate action, will be more likely to implement new technology. For this “‘debugging’ process – the development of the tacit knowledge needed to use the technology well” – to occur, a leader must also foster an environment that allows for constructive criticism. For example, if you are a terrorist leader and you kill your only nuclear scientist because they told you to stop playing with the uranium, your group probably isn’t going to successfully carry out a nuclear attack.

In building this framework, our philosophy was to show that a large problem can be tackled by a small team with limited resources (but very big hearts), and that the field of nuclear terrorism threat assessment needs a shot of fresh thinking. Our core tenets include consciously rejecting the assumption that every group wants to acquire a nuclear weapon, which allowed us to engage in an in-depth exploration of what qualities a group might possess that would make it more likely to decide to pursue a nuclear capability.

Complementarily, we approached this problem not only from the “supply side,” i.e. securing nuclear materials and weapons from the prying eyes, deep pockets, and thieving hands of the baddies, but also from the “demand side,” i.e. deterring those baddies from desiring and seeking to acquire this stuff in the first place. Oh yeah, and we believe the latter is possible because terrorists actually are rational actors that can be deterred. While increases in materials security do contribute to preventing nuclear terrorism (no nukes, no nuclear terrorism), so too do improvements in counterterrorism (no terrorists, no nuclear terrorism). As Michael Levi wrote almost a decade ago, innovations in counterterrorism can present hurdles such that, “if terrorist groups must make sacrifices in one part of their plot in order to enhance their chances of success in another, an approach that squeezes them from every side will substantially reduce their ability to evade defenses – or their willingness to even try.” We believe this “willingness” hasn’t been given enough consideration in the threat assessment space, and our framework addresses this problem.

In addition to the Excel-based calculator described above, our written report will provide instructions for completing the framework, as well as present research on each of the characteristics that go into the framework, how those characteristics should be viewed in the context of the framework, how to interpret the results that the framework spits out, and some of the lessons learned during the framework-building process.

In June, we will launch the framework and report at a workshop bringing together established experts, up-and-comers, and current students. Designed to break down barriers, the workshop will include a small-group break-out session as well as a traditional panel discussion. Collaboration and engagement are key to innovation, and to combat these threats we need everyone to show up (physically and mentally). There will probably be goodie bags.

Nuclear terrorism is a threat worth taking seriously and working diligently to combat. But we should not pull our hair out with worry until we take time to realistically and systematically consider what the threat actually is. If you use our framework — or another that is even better than ours — and you determine that a nuclear terrorist attack is almost certain to occur, then you have our blessing to resume your hair-pulling (we’ll probably join you). But until that point, we argue for calmly determining the nature of the problem. Only then can we efficiently allocate resources toward effectively defeating the boogeyman.

Vivian Hagerty is a Consultant with Valens Global and a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. Madeline Dement is a Research Fellow at Valens Global and is completing her studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This project was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York provided to Valens Global. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Vivian Hagerty and Madeline Dement

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