Saturday, July 20, 2024

Nuclear what?

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Peter Knoope, Director ICCT.

A most eventful meeting took place in The Hague. All of your staff have most likely been extremely busy preparing for the visit of your own dignitaries. Let’s face it is “a hell of a job” to program the visit of a VIP in such a way that it fits with expectations on all sides, and with logistical as well as security requirements at the same time. So the question “was it worth it?” must have sprung to your mind. This questions was also uttered by critical voices in the Dutch press. So let me try and answer that question.

Is it worth the millions of Euros invested, is it worth to take all those measures and prepare not just the city, but almost the whole country for such an event with all the unpleasant side effects like traffic jams and with very visible and sometimes annoying security measures? The answer is without a doubt in the affirmative, but conditional: “It depends”.

What is at stake? According to an inventory that we at ICCT have done, most international terrorism experts reckon that the use of CBNR (Chemical, Biological, Nuclear or Radiological) material for terrorist purposes is potentially a realistic future scenario.  However, we do not know what the analytical basis for this fear is. Fact is that international terrorists seek to make themselves heard and do not shy away from tough and rough modi operandi. We know that some of them will do just about anything to get their message across. I can simply remind you, reader, of individuals like Breivik in Norway (2011) or the tragedy at the school in Beslan, North Ossetia (2004) to indicate the willingness of terrorists to harm and dehumanize victims, including children. These examples show that once the frustration level rises above a certain limit and the opponent is sufficiently drained of its human characteristics, angry individuals are capable of just about anything.

Still, the examples also show something else: The Beslan massacre also marked the start of international public outrage over the Chechen rebels. Whereas some level of sympathy may have existed internationally for their cause prior to the attack, these sentiments disappeared fully after the incredible atrocities that were committed by the members of the rebel group within the walls of that school. The same is true for Breivik.[1] His concerns about identity and culture may be shared by others, but his methods were harmful for his cause. Very few people want to be associated with him and his message. Although he tried to regain some of his credibility during the trial, he lost almost all of his potential support base because of the attacks on Utøya.

Increasingly, we see this consideration at play in some of the arenas in which international terrorist groups are active. Winning hearts and minds has become part of the strategic approach of these groups. It happens in Yemen where  Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) has been seen active in the area of service and justice delivery systems. It happens in Syria where some of the AQ affiliates are amongst the only ones that effectively give out humanitarian assistance. It was an activity instructed to terrorist organisations active in West Africa from higher command structures, as can be derived from documents captured in Mali.

Public support and a building support base are relevant strategic considerations for terrorist organizations.  The use of CBRN material for terrorist purposes is not very helpful in that respect – on the contrary. Very few people will support an organization that uses materials with the widespread impact of an atomic bomb. Nobody sane will be attracted to an organization that deems it necessary to use chemical weapons. Regardless how much a terrorist may want to be heard, he or she will also want to have some level of public support after the attack.  And why should a terrorist organization use CBNR material anyway? The handling is risky and complex, the impact is out of control and most importantly, the same impact can be obtained with much less of an effort. The Boston marathon attack and the murder in London of a British soldier are examples of how high the impact can be of relatively small scale terrorist operations.  Hence the fact that is claimed by many of my colleagues: CBRN attacks have a “low probability but a high impact”.

We might ask ourselves: then why have the Nuclear Security Summit? Why did you go through all this trouble to organize your incoming visit? There is some underlying logic to this. That is the fact that not all terrorists are rational individuals. Not all terrorists operate from strategically governed groups.  We have lately seen an increase in activity of the so-called “lone actors”. Now, again, this concept can be understood in different ways. But one way of understanding it is that a confused individual takes the initiative to make a statement.  It has happened and it will happen again. The problem with confused individuals is that they are unpredictable in their behavior. And here, the availability issue becomes seriously relevant.  One does not want waste products of nuclear facilities, medical facilities and other dangerous materials readily available to the potential lone actor.  Dangerous materials are dangerous; they should be treated that way to prevent any abuse, or the possibility of them falling into the hands of angry or confused minds.  This is not because the probability is high, but because the potential impact is high.

We had the summit; the participants reached a common understanding of the required actions. We owe it to ourselves that we treat dangerous substances with care. Technology produces great results, but sometimes also unpleasant products. Nuclear material is one of those by products of technological developments that we could have done without, if you ask me. But it is there. Now it is our leaders’ responsibility to “handle with care”. The fact that they do should be applauded. I would claim I want “more, more, more” specifically in terms of follow-up.  Now that we have had the summit, the work starts. If not, the answer to the question “was it worth it”? is still in the negative.



[1] See also on the wider implication of the Breivik trial the ICCT Research Paper The Anders Behring Breivik Trial: Performing Justice, Defending Democracy (August 2013),

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