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Perspectives 104

April 8, 2010

The Armageddon Scenario:
Israel and the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

by Chuck Freilich

EXECUTIVE SUMMERY: The Iranian nuclear threat has obscured the possibility of waging nuclear terrorism against Israel. There is a clear rationale for employing nuclear terrorism and countering it needs calibrated policies of prevention and possibly US-Israeli cooperation. The time to prepare for the Armageddon scenario is now.

For the past 15 years, Israel's focus on the Iranian nuclear threat has been nearly all-encompassing, eclipsing virtually all other threats. While understandable, this preoccupation may have distracted Israel from a threat which may be no less likely and actually far more dangerous; nuclear terrorism. Unlike "traditional" terrorism, nuclear terrorism poses a catastrophic threat to the state.

Moreover, those most likely to conduct nuclear terrorism (al-Qaeda, Hizballah, Hamas, Iran, and others) may be fundamentally nihilistic and thus undeterrable. As millennial movements who believe that Israel's destruction is a sacred mission, they may view a nuclear attack, even assuming a devastating Israeli response, to be a worthy means of ushering in a messianic era.

A nuclear terrorist threat against Israel might be designed for:

  • Actual Use – to deal Israel a devastating blow
  • Deterrence – to counter Israel's conventional superiority and purported nuclear capability, to deter Israeli attacks, or to conduct attacks with relative impunity
  • Compellence – to exert a decisive influence on Israeli decision making during crises or over fundamental issues, holding it hostage by the threat of an attack
  • Weakening – to severely erode Israel's national resilience due to the ongoing need to live in the shadow of nuclear terrorism
  • Back Up – to strengthen the deterrent value of a state-based (Iranian or Syrian) capability
  • Decapitation – to remove the Israeli political and/or military leadership

The potential means of conducting nuclear terrorism against Israel would be similar to those applicable to other countries (sea, air, and land-based), with one important addition: rockets. Rockets, such as those already in Hizballah's possession, could be fitted with nuclear warheads. Though unsuited for ordinary military purposes, they could be effective weapons of terror.

Policy Options

Prevention

Prevention includes a variety of intelligence, interdiction, and other offensive measures to detect and prevent a nuclear terrorist capability from being developed or used. If still under development, Israel will have sufficient time to pursue a range of preventative options, alone and in conjunction with the US, from targeted to massive military operations. Once a capability exists, the window for action will be severely attenuated and preventative efforts will have to include any and all capabilities to guarantee success at all costs. While a unilateral Israeli operation might be sufficient if the capability is still being developed, the need for immediate and guaranteed success to thwart an operational capability may require American involvement. The challenges posed by detection and elimination of a terrorist nuclear weapon are hugely difficult.

Deterrence

Deterrence is commonly thought to be ineffective against nuclear terrorism, due to the presumed nihilistic nature of potential perpetrators. However, Hizballah and Hamas, while certainly extremist, have populations for which they take responsibility and have proven over the years to be deterrable. Although their acquisition of a nuclear capability would pose severe threats, such as the ability to terrorize Israel's population with relative impunity, it does place them in the appropriate context.

Iran would presumably be willing to suffer great losses in pursuit of Israel's destruction, but would have to take into account that Israel is considered by the international community to be a nuclear power and that a nuclear crisis could lead to a devastating exchange. While a precise assessment of Iran's cost-benefit analysis is unknowable, it does appear to be fundamentally rational and thus deterrable.

The biggest question mark is in regard to al-Qaeda, whose presumed nihilism may indeed make it undeterrable. It is questionable whether this would truly be the case in the face of threats of annihilation of their leadership and families, Muslim population centers, and sites of major importance to the Muslim world.

Potential perpetrators of nuclear terrorism must be convinced that Israel will preempt/retaliate devastatingly. For Israel, this means a “shoot first, no questions asked” policy. Both those clearly responsible for an actual attack (if any) and those reasonably suspected of involvement must be held accountable, and Israel must retaliate with all the means at its disposal. In the absence of irrefutable and immediate evidence to the contrary, Israel’s retaliatory policy should hold Iran and/or al-Qaeda responsible with an absence of irrefutable and immediate evidence to the contrary. In the event of a declared nuclear terrorist capability, a stated intention to acquire one, or an advanced suspected one, the known or suspected perpetrator and host country should be attacked in advance with the amount of all of the force necessary to prevent the threat’s materialization.

As a global power, the US will be unlikely to adopt such a “no questions asked” policy and will require nuclear forensics. Nevertheless, American determination to prevent nuclear terrorism and retaliate devastatingly against those responsible must be beyond question. US declaratory policy on the nuclear terrorist threat to Israel would not need to be significantly different from its posture on nuclear terrorism generally, but could be further elucidated.

US-Israeli Cooperation

As with so many other areas of Israeli national security, cooperation with the US is a primary option for dealing with nuclear terrorism. In this case, however, the US would only be able to provide limited assistance. “Extended deterrence” would have little if any value in the face of nihilistic terrorists. Heightened cooperative preventative efforts, while important, may not suffice when the US lacks a satisfactory response to nuclear terrorism.

Conversely, global American efforts to minimize the threat of nuclear terrorism might be of significant indirect benefit for Israel. These efforts include, inter alia: heightened diplomacy to make better international use of existing diplomatic tools and to adopt new ones; intensified pressure on states to deny terrorists assistance and sanctuary; improvements in control over nuclear facilities, stockpiles and personnel; strengthening the NPT; heightened international cooperation regarding border security, export controls, intelligence sharing, and interdiction; and a variety of covert operations.

Ending Nuclear Ambiguity

Israel is widely thought by foreign observers to be nuclear and any potential perpetrator of nuclear terrorism must take this into account. It is doubtful whether ending nuclear ambiguity would be of significant deterrent value.

Defensive Measures

Israel has an extensive operational homeland security system (Arrow and Iron Dome) and an attacker must consider the probability of interception and massive retaliation. However, if “only” one nuclear warhead got through, this would constitute unacceptable failure for Israel, rendering defensive measures an insufficient option.

Conclusion

To date, no terrorist group has apparently acquired a nuclear weapon or the materials needed to make one. Al-Qaeda has tried repeatedly, but currently the technical challenges are daunting. This good news comes with a crucial caveat; it is true only “as far as we know.” Even if the risk may be low at this time, the potential costs are monstrous and the threat assessment is likely to change significantly in the coming years. Israel must take into account that a nuclear terrorist threat could emerge in the foreseeable future and therefore devote greater attention and resources to it, in order to develop the necessary doctrine and undertake the preparations possible. The time to act is now.

Chuck Freilich is a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, an Adjunct Professor at New York University, and a former Deputy National Security Adviser in Israel. This perspective is based on a more comprehensive study to be published by the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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