Tuesday, February 08, 2005

All for One and One for All

Steve Coll of the Washington Post (hat tip: Little Green Footballs) was at a conference on the future of nuclear terrorism at Los Alamos and asked the 60 weapons scientists in attendance to indicate, by show of hands, who thought a Hiroshima-class attack on the US was less than 5%. About four did. That doesn't tell us about the distribution of the degrees of belief of the rest. But Coll's point is made: the possibility of a nuclear attack on the US can't be dismissed.

Although Coll admits that Al Qaeda itself is much reduced, he argues that the sheer proliferation of knowledge has reached the point where a small band of Islamic professionals, inflamed by the idea of Jihad can plot and carry out an attack on their own.

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. ...

[But] Imagine the faculty lounge in the theoretical physics, metallurgy and advanced chemistry departments of an underfunded university in Islamabad or Rabat or Riyadh or Jakarta. The year is 2015. Into the room walk a group of colleagues -- seven or eight talented scientists, some religiously devout, all increasingly angry about events abroad. At night, between sporadic electricity outages, they watch satellite television and chat in cyberspace, absorbing an increasingly radical, even murderous outlook toward the United States. By day, as they sip coffee and smoke furtively in each other's company, these scientists spontaneously form a bond, and from that bond emerges a resolve to act -- by launching a nuclear or biological attack on American soil.

Unlike states, which so far have proved deterrable by the threat of retaliation even when led by madmen, this faculty cell may be utterly indifferent to and beyond the reach of the traditional mechanisms of nuclear deterrence.

It is debateable whether al Qaeda was ever deterrable and the hypothetical Islamic faculty cell would be no different. What the GWOT did was deter the states which may have considered supplying al Qaeda-like organizations with the material for building nuclear weapons with the threat of collective responsibility. Deterrence has always, from its inception, been based on this immoral principle and it isn't necessary to approve to recognize it was the case. For most of the Cold War, opposing nations held each other's civilian populations hostage. Early delivery systems were too inaccurate to target the threatening military assets themselves. With the so-called "counterforce" strategy unavailable, only "countervalue" was available. That meant, in effect, that America was prepared to incinerate every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union in response to a nuclear attack. In most Cold War-game scenarios enemy leaders buried deep in bunkers or circling in command aircraft would be the last to die. Some believed they should not be targeted at all in order to preserve a command structure with which one could negotiate a post-holocaust peace.

To the question 'who might America retaliate against if a shadowy group detonated nukes in Manhattan' the probable answer is 'against everyone who might have stood to gain'. The real strategic effect of the GWOT was been to convince many states that this would indeed happen to them. That the decline in Al Qaeda is possibly due to the implicit threat of collective punishment on the Islamic world is a sad commentary on human nature. But there it is. Yet 'Islamic faculty cell' example of Coll suggests a day when even the threat of collective punishment will not be enough to obviate the WMD threat. With the proliferation of knowledge and the increasing sophistication of commercially available devices a time will eventually come when small groups can build nuclear or biological devices without state assistance. When private and personal WMD attacks become possible deterrence will lose effectiveness entirely.

But the situation will be even more dangerous than Coll suggests. Long before a faculty lounge in Islamabad or Riyadh realizes it can build a bomb alone and secretly, the same thought will have occurred to individuals in Tel Aviv, New Delhi or Palo Alto. Any Islamic group that believes it can attack New York deniably should convince itself that no similar group can nuke Mecca at the height of the pilgrim season. In fact, the whole problem that Coll describes should be generalized. The only thing worse than discovering that New York has been destroyed by persons unknown is to find that Islamabad has been vaporized by a group we've never heard of.

Perhaps in the long view of history it will be President Bush's commitment to "return humans to the moon by 2020 and mount a subsequent human expedition to Mars" that will prove prescient.