In response to the “bad cards” post about the popular “Corsi 2005” impact to terrorism, many readers requested suggestions for different cards that could be read to support the same basic argument. This is a difficult task; it is unlikely that a terrorist attack—even one using a nuclear device—would result in the extinction of humanity. But if that’s the argument you want to make, Akshay Bhushan from Greenhill School has cut an excellent card that he was nice enough to share here on The 3NR. Defenders of the Corsi evidence now have no excuse to continuing reading that card.
Nuclear terrorism is an existential threat—it escalates to nuclear war with Russia and China.
Robert Ayson, Professor of Strategic Studies and Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies: New Zealand at the Victoria University of Wellington, 2010 (“After a Terrorist Nuclear Attack: Envisaging Catalytic Effects,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 33, Issue 7, July, Available Online to Subscribing Institutions via InformaWorld)
A terrorist nuclear attack, and even the use of nuclear weapons in response by the country attacked in the first place, would not necessarily represent the worst of the nuclear worlds imaginable. Indeed, there are reasons to wonder whether nuclear terrorism should ever be regarded as belonging in the category of truly existential threats. A contrast can be drawn here with the global catastrophe that would come from a massive nuclear exchange between two or more of the sovereign states that possess these weapons in significant numbers. Even the worst terrorism that the twenty-first century might bring would fade into insignificance alongside considerations of what a general nuclear war would have wrought in the Cold War period. And it must be admitted that as long as the major nuclear weapons states have hundreds and even thousands of nuclear weapons at their disposal, there is always the possibility of a truly awful nuclear exchange taking place precipitated entirely by state possessors themselves.
But these two nuclear worlds—a non-state actor nuclear attack and a catastrophic interstate nuclear exchange—are not necessarily separable. It is just possible that some sort of terrorist attack, and especially an act of nuclear terrorism, could precipitate a chain of events leading to a massive exchange of nuclear weapons between two or more of the states that possess them. In this context, today’s and tomorrow’s terrorist groups might assume the place allotted during the early Cold War years to new state possessors of small nuclear arsenals who were seen as raising the risks of a catalytic nuclear war between the superpowers started by third parties. These risks were considered in the late 1950s and early 1960s as concerns grew about nuclear proliferation, the so-called n+1 problem.
It may require a considerable amount of imagination to depict an especially plausible situation where an act of nuclear terrorism could lead to such a massive inter-state nuclear war. For example, in the event of a terrorist nuclear attack on the United States, it might well be wondered just how Russia and/or China could plausibly be brought into the picture, not least because they seem unlikely to be fingered as the most obvious state sponsors or encouragers of terrorist groups. They would seem far too responsible to be involved in supporting that sort of terrorist behavior that could just as easily threaten them as well.
Some possibilities, however remote, do suggest themselves. For example, how might the United States react if it was thought or discovered that the fissile material used in the act of nuclear terrorism had come from Russian stocks,40 and if for some reason Moscow denied any responsibility for nuclear laxity? The correct attribution of that nuclear material to a particular country might not be a case of science fiction given the observation by Michael May et al. that while the debris resulting from a nuclear explosion would be “spread over a wide area in tiny fragments, its radioactivity makes it detectable, identifiable and collectable, and a wealth of information can be obtained from its analysis: the efficiency of the explosion, the materials used and, most important … some indication of where the nuclear material came from.”41
Alternatively, if the act of nuclear terrorism came as a complete surprise, and American officials refused to believe that a terrorist group was fully responsible (or responsible at all) suspicion would shift immediately to state possessors. Ruling out Western ally countries like the United Kingdom and France, and probably Israel and India as well, authorities in Washington would be left with a very short list consisting of North Korea, perhaps Iran if its program continues, and possibly Pakistan. But at what stage would Russia and China be definitely ruled out in this high stakes game of nuclear Cluedo?
In particular, if the act of nuclear terrorism occurred against a backdrop of existing tension in Washington’s relations with Russia and/or China, and at a time when threats had already been traded between these major powers, would officials and political leaders not be tempted to assume the worst? Of course, the chances of this occurring would only seem to increase if the United States was already involved in some sort of limited armed conflict with Russia and/or China, or if they were confronting each other from a distance in a proxy war, as unlikely as these developments may seem at the present time. The reverse might well apply too: should a nuclear terrorist attack occur in Russia or China during a period of heightened tension or even limited conflict with the United States, could Moscow and Beijing resist the pressures that might rise domestically to consider the United States as a possible perpetrator or encourager of the attack?
Washington’s early response to a terrorist nuclear attack on its own soil might also raise the possibility of an unwanted (and nuclear aided) confrontation with Russia and/or China. For example, in the noise and confusion during the immediate aftermath of the terrorist nuclear attack, the U.S. president might be expected to place the country’s armed forces, including its nuclear arsenal, on a higher stage of alert. In such a tense environment, when careful planning runs up against the friction of reality, it is just possible that Moscow and/or China might mistakenly read this as a sign of U.S. intentions to use force (and possibly nuclear force) against them. In that situation, the temptations to preempt such actions might grow, although it must be admitted that any preemption would probably still meet with a devastating response.
As part of its initial response to the act of nuclear terrorism (as discussed earlier) Washington might decide to order a significant conventional (or nuclear) retaliatory or disarming attack against the leadership of the terrorist group and/or states seen to support that group. Depending on the identity and especially the location of these targets, Russia and/or China might interpret such action as being far too close for their comfort, and potentially as an infringement on their spheres of influence and even on their sovereignty. One far-fetched but perhaps not impossible scenario might stem from a judgment in Washington that some of the main aiders and abetters of the terrorist action resided somewhere such as Chechnya, perhaps in connection with what Allison claims is the “Chechen insurgents’ … long-standing interest in all things nuclear.”42 American pressure on that part of the world would almost certainly raise alarms in Moscow that might require a degree of advanced consultation from Washington that the latter found itself unable or unwilling to provide.
There is also the question of how other nuclear-armed states respond to the act of nuclear terrorism on another member of that special club. It could reasonably be expected that following a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States, both Russia and China would extend immediate sympathy and support to Washington and would work alongside the United States in the Security Council. But there is just a chance, albeit a slim one, where the support of Russia and/or China is less automatic in some cases than in others. For example, what would happen if the United States wished to discuss its right to retaliate against groups based in their territory? If, for some reason, Washington found the responses of Russia and China deeply underwhelming, (neither “for us or against us”) might it also suspect that they secretly were in cahoots with the group, increasing (again perhaps ever so slightly) the chances of a major exchange. If the terrorist group had some connections to groups in Russia and China, or existed in areas of the world over which Russia and China held sway, and if Washington felt that Moscow or Beijing were placing a curiously modest level of pressure on them, what conclusions might it then draw about their culpability?
If Washington decided to use, or decided to threaten the use of, nuclear weapons, the responses of Russia and China would be crucial to the chances of avoiding a more serious nuclear exchange. They might surmise, for example, that while the act of nuclear terrorism was especially heinous and demanded a strong response, the response simply had to remain below the nuclear threshold. It would be one thing for a non-state actor to have broken the nuclear use taboo, but an entirely different thing for a state actor, and indeed the leading state in the international system, to do so. If Russia and China felt sufficiently strongly about that prospect, there is then the question of what options would lie open to them to dissuade the United States from such action: and as has been seen over the last several decades, the central dissuader of the use of nuclear weapons by states has been the threat of nuclear retaliation.
If some readers find this simply too fanciful, and perhaps even offensive to contemplate, it may be informative to reverse the tables. Russia, which possesses an arsenal of thousands of nuclear warheads and that has been one of the two most important trustees of the non-use taboo, is subjected to an attack of nuclear terrorism. In response, Moscow places its nuclear forces very visibly on a higher state of alert and declares that it is considering the use of nuclear retaliation against the group and any of its state supporters. How would Washington view such a possibility? Would it really be keen to support Russia’s use of nuclear weapons, including outside Russia’s traditional sphere of influence? And if not, which seems quite plausible, what options would Washington have to communicate that displeasure?
If China had been the victim of the nuclear terrorism and seemed likely to retaliate in kind, would the United States and Russia be happy to sit back and let this occur? In the charged atmosphere immediately after a nuclear terrorist attack, how would the attacked country respond to pressure from other major nuclear powers not to respond in kind? The phrase “how dare they tell us what to do” immediately springs to mind. Some might even go so far as to interpret this concern as a tacit form of sympathy or support for the terrorists. This might not help the chances of nuclear restraint.