It was a seemingly more innocent time when Brian Michael Jenkins, a young analyst at the Rand Corp., first asked himself whether terrorists would ever use nuclear weapons. The very question bordered on science fiction back in 1975. None of the terrorist organizations du jour -- Northern Ireland's IRA, Spain's ETA, Italy's Red Brigades, Germany's Red Army Faction and a handful of Palestinian groups -- had killed in large numbers. Few scientists worried that the weapon that had destroyed Hiroshima could be miniaturized to fit into a suitcase or backpack. "Terrorists," Mr. Jenkins concluded in 1975, "want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead."
Almost 20 years later, Bruce Hoffman, a Rand alumnus, challenged his mentor's widely accepted maxim. He argued that a new kind of terrorism, replacing purely nationalist or ideological agendas with religious ones, meant new dimensions of slaughter. He pointed to militants eager to kill not only others but themselves in the name of their faith; he adduced the dramatic attack by Islamic terrorists on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the release of deadly nerve gas in the Tokyo subway two years later by Aum Shinrikyo, a religious organization. The "new terrorism," Mr. Hoffman wrote, portended "an even bloodier and more destructive era of violence ahead."
By 1994, Graham Allison, a former Pentagon official at Harvard's Kennedy School, warned that the Soviets had made suitcase-sized nuclear bombs and that the collapse of Russian controls over its nuclear stockpiles, coupled with advances in technology and the global spread of atomic expertise, meant that a nuclear terror strike on America was "more likely than not" in the coming decade. Then came 9/11, giving credence to such apocalyptic scenarios.
By 2006, Mr. Jenkins himself had all but abandoned his original dictum. "Today," he wrote in "Unconquerable Nation," "many (although not all) terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead." In "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" he re-examines the question he posed in 1975 -- now asking not only what terrorists want but what they can actually do.
He concludes that nuclear terrorism, though more likely today than it was 33 years ago, is not inevitable. Yes, he acknowledges, terrorism has become deadlier -- "an order of magnitude increase about every fifteen years." Yes, limits on the use of nuclear weapons have eroded, thanks in part to radical sheiks who justify mass murder against infidel invaders. And, yes, A.Q. Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's rogue nuclear-weapons program, did sell atomic secrets to North Korea, Libya, Syria and who knows how many other nuclear wannabes.
But throughout this grim recitation, Mr. Jenkins remains determinedly upbeat. While Russia's Chechen separatists apparently managed to produce a dirty bomb in 1995, he notes, they made no attempt to detonate it. And although American troops invading Afghanistan after 9/11 found "crude diagrams" describing the basic components of a nuclear weapon, the "critical steps" to making it were missing. Mr. Jenkins regards the terrorist use of a nuclear weapon as a "long-shot possibility."
Thus, in Mr. Jenkins's view, America has overreacted since 9/11, having been sent into a kind of hysteria by "frightened leaders, or leaders whose purpose is to make us very afraid." Politicians, he says, exaggeratedly "declaim that nuclear terrorism is 'not if,' but 'when.' " Meanwhile, a "small industry of terrorism experts" as well as Hollywood producers and even well-meaning journalists intensify public alarm by passing along and discussing terrorism rumors, government alerts and foiled bomb plots. This campaign of "media jihad," Mr. Jenkins says, has resulted in an unsettling paradox: the proliferation of nuclear terror without incidents of nuclear terrorism. The administration has used the fraught atmosphere to consolidate executive power, endorse torture and "chip away at our liberties."
Such panic is both unjustified and counterproductive, Mr. Jenkins claims. For there is much that government can do to protect the nation and reduce casualties in case nuclear terrorists do strike. In a too-brief conclusion, he lists such sensible steps as securing existing nuclear arsenals and reducing their size, removing highly enriched uranium from research reactors throughout the world, strengthening international institutions to monitor and enforce nuclear safeguards, improving terrorism-related intelligence, and enlisting the public into "behaving in ways that will save lives" should the unthinkable occur.
Obviously such measures are much tougher to implement than to recommend. As for the war on terror's domestic front, Mr. Jenkins obviously doesn't like what the Bush administration has chosen to do -- e.g., expanding the government's surveillance powers without court order or warrants and subjecting terrorist suspects to torture. But "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" never tells us just how Mr. Jenkins would strike a balance between preserving liberties and safeguarding national security at a time when, as he concedes, terrorists do seek mass death.
Let it be said that Mr. Jenkins, one of the nation's most influential terrorism experts, shows no mercy for America's foes. Al Qaeda, he writes, "must be utterly destroyed," not only to prevent it from "ever acquiring any weapons of mass destruction" but "as an object lesson to all other groups that would ever dream of using nuclear weapons." But the logic underlying this imperative might well lead to pre-emptive actions of the sort that Mr. Jenkins faults the Bush administration for taking.
As America has discovered, killing Osama bin Laden is hard. So, too, is keeping a democracy secure from even the remote possibility of catastrophic attack without the help of a public that feels politically mobilized -- or, if you will, "terrorized."