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Super terrorism after Osama bin Laden

By Marko Beljac - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2012

From the end of the cold war to the death of Osama bin Laden the prospect of acts of super or mass casualty terrorism, by means of weapons of mass destruction, has been one of the most salient global security issues.

The death of the founding emir of al Qaeda serves as a useful reference point to review just how significant this prospect really was. Much could be said in any such analysis, but surely a discussion of the terrorists own ideology and grand strategy would figure highly.

The interesting thing here is that the existing literature on the topic is dominated by works coming from the arms control and non-proliferation community. Unsurprisingly this literature focuses on the analytical strength of non-proliferation studies, namely nuclear and biological security. What it does not focus on is the terrorists themselves.


Most of the discussion on this score in the existing literature thereby has a tendency to be rather bland and, at worst, hyperbolic. For example, it is often stated that terrorists with "global reach" are predisposed to super terrorism but there exists no discernible logical correlation between the geographical scope of a group's terrorist activities and the scope of violence employed by that group.

To be sure it might be possible to argue that terrorists with "global reach" are more capable of super terrorism than geographically circumscribed groups, but even here there is no real correlation why this must be so in reason and, plainly, this observation should not be used, in slippery slope like fashion, to conflate capability with intent.

The overriding reason why the terrorists have been neglected is that intention has been, for the most part, simply assumed. Doing so enables analysts to quickly move on to discuss plutonium disposition strategies, neutron cross sections and the like. These are the bread and butter issues of non-proliferation studies, all of which are critical and quite interesting.

It is rare, nonetheless, to come across a study in the genre that seeks to closely grapple with the question of intent.

Thankfully, the terrorists have been studied thoroughly within political science and this for the most part, within our context, with respect to nuclear terrorism. It is possible to discern three waves of anxiety about nuclear terrorism during the nuclear age.

Those being during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, concerns about the implication of an expansion in the use of nuclear power in the 1970s and the supposed advent of a new terrorist age in the 1990s, a wave that has especially achieved prominence since the September 11 attacks.


We still very much find ourselves situated within the third wave. The 9/11 attacks did not usher in the third wave, although they did have the effect of elevating the level of concern and entrenched a new consensus in the political study of terrorism.

The main analytical virtue of the second wave of concern about nuclear terrorism is that as the debate on the topic progressed the terrorists themselves, especially their most basic drives and motives, became the focus of discussion. That is not how matters began, however.

Initially the concern revolved around implications that a perceived imminent wide scale expansion in the use of nuclear energy would have for nuclear security. It was the repercussions that a widespread expansion in the reprocessing and recycling of plutonium would have for nuclear security that exercised the imagination. It was feared that a "plutonium economy" would eventuate where large stocks of weapons-usable plutonium would accumulate and be transported globally. Given the operative assumption that nuclear weapons are relatively easy to design and construct, and that safeguards and physical protection measures were weak, it did not take much of a leap to conclude that the prospect of nuclear terrorism was very real should nuclear materials proliferate.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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