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Nuclear Threat: High or Highly Exaggerated

A REPORT FROM the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Proliferation and Terrorism, called World At Risk, asserts that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”

Several experts at a conference on counterterrorism strategies questioned whether the risk was really that high.

The commission report urged the president and Congress “to pay particular attention to Pakistan, as it is the geographic crossroads for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.”

The dangers posed by extremists operating in Pakistan are exemplified by the commission’s own “near miss,” a story that prefaces its report. At an airport in Kuwait City, awaiting a flight to Islamabad, the group learned that a truck bomb had devastated the Islamabad Marriott, the hotel in which they planned to stay.

The Terrorism Index 2008, a survey from Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress of 100 foreign-policy experts, reiterates this position. It found that 51 percent of respondents thought Pakistan would become the next al Qaeda stronghold. The majority, 69 percent, said Pakistan was the country most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists in the next three-to-five years.

The focus on Pakistan is warranted, says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank specializing in terrorism issues. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has embedded itself in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which would be a key place to plan for a WMD attack, he told Security Management.

The possibility, however slight, of an Islamic revolution in Pakistan and the fact that its military and intelligence agencies—or elements within them—are suspected of aiding extremist Islamist groups, exacerbates concerns.

Among those taking an opposing viewpoint was Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, which sponsored the panel discussion on the report. Friedman said the report offers no analysis to justify the claim that there will be a WMD attack somewhere in the world within the next five years. The claim “seems to have been made largely to change policy by generating alarm in headlines,” he added.

Panelist John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said that “the chances of terrorists getting nuclear weapons is almost vanishingly small.”

Mueller maintained that each step of the process—acquiring plutonium or highly enriched uranium, obtaining the knowledge and equipment, building a bomb, and then transporting it to the attack site—is too difficult and expensive to make the risk probable. He also rejected the idea that countries would give the bomb to “somebody they can’t control,” and said stealing a nuclear weapon was just as unlikely.

Other participants at the event expressed a more moderate view. “Advocates of nuclear terrorism prevention say that it’s a near certainty there will be a nuclear terrorist attack; the skeptics say it’s a near impossibility, and I think it’s somewhere in between,” said Jim Walsh, a research associate in the Security Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To help the administration prioritize resources, World At Risk provides 13 recommendations to deal with proliferation risks in an increasingly dangerous world.