Excellent New Terrorism Impact Card

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.

19 thoughts on “Excellent New Terrorism Impact Card

  1. CChessman

    I feel like this card falls short in the same way other terror impact cards do.

    The language is uncertain and not predictive ("could", "maybe", "possibly"), relies massively on other unrelated factors ("a backdrop of existing tension" and "threats already traded between these major powers"), it uses weasle-words to avoid actually doing analysis ("some might even go as far"…. well who, and more importantly, why?) and lacks historical precedence in that it is highly speculative; the entire card sounds like a giant "what-if".

    But I don't see him justifying many (any) of his assumptions. Given American leadership, I doubt we would respond with *hostility* if a country was attacked with a nuclear weapon, especially by a terrorist group. Those who disagree can look to the international consensus generated by the 9/11 attack; and that wasn't even nuclear.

    It seems that even a cursory analysis leaves this card in shambles and the team that read it with little accomplished.

  2. Whit


    Only the Sith and complete morons speak in absolutes. The fact that the card qualifies its claims and speaks in the language of probability should enhance its credibility in your eyes. It probably means the author isn't a hack. The 'truth' is that the chances of nuclear terrorism are extremely low, and chances that the U.S. (or any other country) would respond in kind are even lower.

    One time I debated this parli kid who was trying his hand at policy debate. He spent the whole round making fun of the probabilistic language of cards and making 'I need to call Ms. Cleo' jokes. He was actually really funny, but he lost because that argument has limited strategic utility and will only get you so far.

  3. Josh Gonzalez

    Main problem is that the first paragraph of the card says that intentional war still hella outweighs. Insofar as nuclear terrorism could, accepting a number of other conditional possibilities, lead to US-Russia exchange, it's as bad. But still not as bad as intentional exchange between nuclear powers.

    I mean, this isn't rocket science – the ONLY reason that terrorism might be as bad as superpower nuclear war is because it COULD lead to . . . superpower nuclear war?

    Whit is right – only Sith and complete morons speak in absolutes – which means that people who think that this evidence proves that nuclear terrorism definitively leads to major nuclear exchange are either Sith or complete morons. Which, I will leave to the reader to decide…

    (just being TIC – clearly, nobody here is a moron. I reserve judgment on Darth Whit)

  4. Bill Batterman Post author

    Whit nailed it. This card is good precisely because it provides a clear-headed analysis of the impact of nuclear terrorism. The common debate arg that "Terrorism = Extinction" is obviously stupid, but this is the first card/article I've read that makes a reasonable version of this claim. I'm *more* concerned about the potential consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack than I was before I read this, and I think a persuasive case can be made based on this evidence that a policy analyst or policymaker should take very seriously the threat of nuclear terrorism. The risk is still very low, but a low risk is still something to be taken seriously.

    I certainly agree that the "terror = extinction" argument is still quite weak, but this card actually makes a reasonable argument whereas the other popular cards (Corsi, Alexander, et al.) are utterly stupid.

  5. Scott Phillips Post author


    I don't get your position at all. Because the card acknowledges its unlikely, it may be an "accurate" card, I don't see why that makes it a "good" card. In what context would you want to read such a card in a debate?

  6. Bill Batterman Post author

    @Scott Phillips

    In a context where accuracy matters.

    Stronger claims about the probability that terrorism results in extinction are easily defeated. You could read the Corsi card or the Alexander card instead, hope the other team drops it, and then "extend" the conceded argument that "terrorism = extinction" because "that's what our ev says". So I guess if you expect your opponents to be stupid and for everyone to suspend their disbelief while evaluating your arguments, it doesn't make sense to read more level-headed impact cards. But if you expect your opponents to be smart and you want to construct a compelling argument, I think you're in a much better position if you read this card than if you read a more hyperbolic one.

    This doesn't make sense, obviously, if you view hyperbole as *increasing* the utility of a card. I think hyperbole *decreases* the utility of a card (for reasons that have been discussed before and explained best, I think, by Tim Alderete). For most people, the conceded Corsi card will be more persuasive than the conceded Ayson card. I don't think that's an intelligent default setting, but it's certainly the dominant one. But viewing hyperbole as persuasive is most definitely a choice on the part of the judge reviewing the evidence and not just a neutral stance.

  7. Bill Batterman Post author

    @Scott Phillips

    Disagree. Nuclear terrorism is a good impact—"nuclear terrorism escalates to global nuclear war and extinction" is probably a bad impact. But this evidence lends credibility to the claim that a nuclear terrorist attack might catalyze a global nuclear conflict between great powers (that's the thesis of the article). Ayson admits that this is unlikely, but he thinks it is a serious threat and therefore something that his audience should care about.

    If you have a nuclear terrorism impact and want to weigh it against an economy impact, for example, I think you should focus on the immediate consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack (lots of people would die) and the effect the attack would have on the global economy (not good); *then* you should argue that this also risks escalation (the Ayson card), especially if you're right that the immediate economic effects of the attack result in an atmosphere of global tension (the other team's economy argument).

    Winning that your "nuclear terrorism = extinction" impact outweighs a more probable impact is an uphill battle. But it can be an important/useful part of an impact assessment… just not the highlight of that impact assessment.

    Am I wrong?

  8. Scott Phillips Post author

    Essentially you have said escalation is unlikely/improbable, so the other team can defeat that argument. Then you have said, since it is improbable, you should read a piece of evidence that admits its improbable instead of a card that assumes it is probable, thus reading a card that makes a silly argument AND makes the other teams args for it.

    Why not just ditch the silly argument and read a card that says nuclear terrorism would kill people, and then indict the superpower conflict of the negs DA as being improbable.

    This middle ground of saying "yes its unlikely, but we are going to say it anyway while simultaneously admitting how improbable it is" makes no sense to me.

  9. Bill Batterman Post author

    @Scott Phillips

    That approach relies on winning that probability trumps magnitude. That's obviously goal #1, but it's not always a winning argument. It is self-evidently important that policy analysts and policymakers consider existential threats, and it is at least arguable that they should care a lot about even very small risks of those existential threats (there is a lot of strong evidence to support this impact frame). And of course, sometimes you just get outdebated on the impact framing issue.

    If you're defending a nuclear terrorism impact against a larger (existential threat) impact, I think it's prudent to argue not only that probability is more important than magnitude (and that the small risk of an existential threat should be considered acceptable given the high probability of the opposing impact(s)), but also that nuclear terrorism itself poses an existential threat. Ayson is definitely not arguing that this is improbable in the sense that it should not be considered, only that it is improbable in the same way that all debate impacts are improbable: it is still a legitimate threat, just not one that is very likely to happen.

    Reading this Ayson card on your nuclear terrorism impact prevents the opposing team from relying on the "we control the direction of the only existential threat and any risk of infinity is infinity so our impact outweighs" script.

  10. Scott Phillips Post author

    If you are not dedicating substantial time to probability outweighs, your/alderete's view on evidence seems very counterproductive.

    If you are just hedging your bets, it seems better to read a much shorter, more definite card.

  11. Whit

    @Scott Phillips
    Perm – Do Both.
    Our terrorism advantage outweighs and turns your conflict da –
    Probability – States not led by George Bush are averse to fighting wars, terrorists aren't. The higher probability of lives lost and economic destruction from a terrorist attack should outweigh the higher magnitude of an international conflict. …and Turn – Terrorism spurs international conflict – iraq and afghanistan prove and insert/cross-apply Ayson card.

    …and you would read the Ayson card over Corsi (which isn't really that short, just highlighted down) because Ayson isn't a stark raving lunatic who posts racist homophobic comments in online blogs. You would read Ayson over Alexander because there isn't anything resembling a warrant in the Alexander card. Best solution is to just highlight down the Ayson card.

  12. TimAlderete

    Scotty is way ahead on this one – this card goes far beyond saying "This isn't absolutely guaranteed to occur." It more accurately says "It is Very Unlikely that this will occur, but it is not impossible to imagine." This may increase the credibility of the author, but undermines the probability of the impact.

    Chessman is also right – it says it would only escalate if the US and Russia and China were already in armed conflict.

    Highlighting down the Ayson card would get rid of these caveats – I'm not sure that this is the "best solution"…

  13. usingthisformyessay

    I used to debate, I would not use this in a round. However, this card is good for writing a university essay….if you already have cards proving the probability of nuclear terrorism occurring (with historical evidence backing you up) then you theoretically can use some of these scenarios as generalized 'potential' implications. My course is ONLY on wars of the future…so this evidence works. But relying on this card to prove that nuclear terrorism will happen (trying to get a SPECIFIC link out of the card itself to the SPECIFIC impacts outlined in the card) is a bad idea because of what Tim just said (the author says it's unlikely about 1000x in the entire article if read through…from page 1 actually).

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