A Failure to Imagine the Worst

January 26, 2010
by Graham Allison

Foreign Policy.com

In his first speech to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. President Barack Obama challenged members to think about the impact of a single nuclear bomb. He said: "Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city -- be it New York or Moscow, Tokyo or Beijing, London or Paris -- could kill hundreds of thousands of people." The consequences, he noted, would "destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life."

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, who could have imagined that terrorists would mount an attack on the American homeland that would kill more citizens than Japan did at Pearl Harbor? As then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified to the 9/11 Commission: "No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon ... into the World Trade Center, using planes as missiles." For most Americans, the idea of international terrorists conducting a successful attack on their homeland, killing thousands of citizens, was not just unlikely. It was inconceivable.

As is now evident, assertions about what is "imaginable" or "conceivable," however, are propositions about our minds, not about what is objectively possible.

Prior to 9/11, how unlikely was a megaterrorist attack on the American homeland? In the previous decade, al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000 had together killed almost 250 and injured nearly 6,000. Moreover, the organization was actively training thousands of recruits in camps in Afghanistan for future terrorist operations.

Thinking about risks we face today, we should reflect on the major conclusion of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission established to investigate that catastrophe. The U.S. national security establishment's principal failure prior to Sept. 11, 2001, was, the commission found, a "failure of imagination." Summarized in a single sentence, the question now is: Are we at risk of an equivalent failure to imagine a nuclear 9/11? After the recent attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, this question is more urgent than ever.

The thought that terrorists could successfully explode a nuclear bomb in an American city killing hundreds of thousands of people seems incomprehensible. This essential incredulity is rooted in three deeply ingrained presumptions. First, no one could seriously intend to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single attack. Second, only states are capable of mass destruction; nonstate actors would be unable to build or use nuclear weapons. Third, terrorists would not be able to deliver a nuclear bomb to an American city. In a nutshell, these presumptions lead to the conclusion: inconceivable.

Why then does Obama call nuclear terrorism "the single most important national security threat that we face" and "a threat that rises above all others in urgency?" Why the unanimity among those who have shouldered responsibility for U.S. national security in recent years that this is a grave and present danger? In former CIA Director George Tenet's assessment, "the main threat is the nuclear one. I am convinced that this is where [Osama bin Laden] and his operatives desperately want to go." When asked recently what keeps him awake at night, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answered: "It's the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear."

Leaders who have reached this conclusion about the genuine urgency of the nuclear terrorist threat are not unaware of their skeptics' presumptions. Rather, they have examined the evidence, much of which has been painstakingly compiled here by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former head of the CIA's terrorism and weapons-of-mass-destruction efforts, and much of which remains classified. Specifically, who is seriously motivated to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans? Osama bin Laden, who has declared his intention to kill "4 million Americans -- including 2 million children." The deeply held belief that even if they wanted to, "men in caves can't do this" was then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's view when Tenet flew to Islamabad to see him after 9/11. As Tenet (assisted by Mowatt-Larssen) took him step by step through the evidence, he discovered that indeed they could. Terrorists' opportunities to bring a bomb into the United States follow the same trails along which 275 tons of drugs and 3 million people crossed U.S. borders illegally last year.

In 2007, Congress established a successor to the 9/11 Commission to focus on terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. This bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism issued its report to Congress and the Obama administration in December 2008. In the commission's unanimous judgment: "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."

Faced with the possibility of an American Hiroshima, many Americans are paralyzed by a combination of denial and fatalism. Either it hasn't happened, so it's not going to happen; or, if it is going to happen, there's nothing we can do to stop it. Both propositions are wrong. The countdown to a nuclear 9/11 can be stopped, but only by realistic recognition of the threat, a clear agenda for action, and relentless determination to pursue it.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the author of "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe." The views expressed in this article are his own.

Graham Allison

Graham Allison, director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

"The thought that terrorists could successfully explode a nuclear bomb in an American city killing hundreds of thousands of people seems incomprehensible. This essential incredulity is rooted in three deeply ingrained presumptions."


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