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Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: 

filler.gif (854 bytes)Terrorism and Nuclear Disarmament


Alyn Ware
September 2001 


On 11 September 2001, three airplanes, commandeered by terrorists, slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon ripping huge holes in the financial stability of the US and the world, and tearing apart the veneer of security from attack held by the US – the world's pre-eminent nuclear power. Nuclear deterrence, the cornerstone of US security policy, was supposed to deter any power from attacking the USA or its allies. But it failed completely in preventing these attacks.

The Pentagon, in an attempt to restore some security value to nuclear weapons, have recommended that their use be an option in what appears will be a long drawn-out "war against terrorism."

Most military analysts argue that such use would be counter-productive. It would create inexcusable civilian casualties and generate considerable anti-US sentiment, possibly encouraging the use of weapons of mass destruction in return against the US and its allies.

In addition, it would be highly unlikely that any use of nuclear weapons could destroy or disable the infrastructure of a terrorist organisation. Such organisations do not have their personnel or military equipment concentrated in geographical locations that can be destroyed by large explosive devices. Rather they are spread out in cells interspersed in urban and rural locations around the world. Many of the terrorists in the attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for example, were living and operating in cities in the US.

In addition, the use of nuclear weapons against a terrorist organisation, or a direct threat of such use, would be unlikely to deter it from using nuclear weapons or WMD, but would rather have the opposite effect. Terrorists are often prompted by a psychology of "heroic" response to perceived aggression, including the acceptance of personal death in the battle against evil. A threat of nuclear weapons against them would likely increase their perception of the evil of the state they are fighting against, and give them justification for responding in kind.

Jayantha Dhanapala, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament for Disarmament Affairs, has warned that the use of nuclear weapons has become more likely: "We need to be aware of the fact that this situation could have been much worse than it has been -- consider for example if weapons of mass destruction were used by these terrorists." (UN TV, September 19, 2001)

A report released by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1996, "Crude Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and the Terrorist Threat," concluded that, "unless radical steps are taken urgently, it will not be a question of whether terrorists can acquire or build a nuclear device, but when."

But the question is - what steps should be taken to prevent terrorist use of nuclear weapons? Relying on military force or international cooperation to eliminate the terrorist groups themselves is unlikely to be successful, at least not in the short-to-medium term. President Bush himself has acknowledged that the "war against terrorism" will be long and drawn out. And this "war" itself will likely encourage more daring and inhumane counter attacks by terrorist organisations against the countries participating. This is particularly true if there is no movement to address issues which are stimulating people to join the ranks of the terrorist organisations - including the ongoing armed conflict in Palestine and the continued civilian casualties from the sanctions against Iraq.

Under-Secretary-General Dhanapala argues that the only way to prevent terrorists acquiring or using nuclear weapons is to eliminate nuclear arsenals and secure stocks of fissile material. "We need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction because they could fall into the hands of terrorists. We don't want to give terrorists more tools than they have at the moment."

Other authorities agree. IPPNW, in its report calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons under a negotiated Nuclear Weapons Convention which would establish stringent international controls on fissile material to prevent it getting into the hands of terrorists.

Datan and Ware in Security and Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, note that "The verification systems established under a nuclear weapons convention would make it easier to discover a potential terrorist threat from diversion of fissile material or technical expertise in time to prevent the building of a bomb."

In addition, a nuclear weapons convention would reduce or remove the political power of nuclear weapons for a terrorist organisation. Terrorists commit terrorist acts either to retaliate against perceived aggression, or to gain support for their cause through maximising publicity. Once nuclear weapons have been prohibited, there could be no perceived aggression requiring a nuclear response, and any threat or use of such a weapon would be condemned universally – including by potential supporters of the terrorist's cause - thus reducing or eliminating support for the cause.

The same would be true of states which support terrorist organisations or themselves are interested in a nuclear option. The Indian and Pakistani governments received considerable internal support for their nuclear tests of 1998 as their citizens saw it as evidence of them joining the powerful countries of the world. Also the nuclear weapon states were somewhat muted in their condemnation, as they could not genuinely criticise India and Pakistan for adopting nuclear policies and practices which they themselves argue are necessary for their own security. If nuclear weapons were prohibited the situation would be completely different and a government heading down a nuclear path would likely be condemned and prevented from developing the nuclear option by both internal and external opposition.


Crude Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and the Terrorist Threat, IPPNW, Cambridge 1996.
Security and Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, Merav Datan and Alyn Ware, IPPNW, Cambridge 1999.

Alyn Ware is consultant-at-large for LCNP and Coordinator of the Parliamentarians Network for Nuclear Disarmament.


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