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Deluding Ourselves

Here’s to delusional thinking…where would the U.S. economy and foreign policy be without it?  I’m sure if anyone other than myself was reading this, the reader likely would be happy if the last four years since the Lehman meltdown could turn out to be a bad dream we are just waiting to wake up from–a nightmare gleaned from the mind of some deranged individual.  Unfortunately the roots of our economic malaise reach back at least three full decades, and coincide with strange foreign policy choices.  Because I believe geopolitical situations profoundly effect economic realities, I start with terrorism.
Since a certain Tuesday in September a little over a decade ago, the United States has poured enormous amounts of blood and treasure into the task of destroying a type of warfare.  A type of warfare that invariably is the only means an almost powerless foe has to strike at the powerful.  This is not to defend this type of warfare or to sympathize with terrorists, but an acknowledgement that terrorism has little chance to form an existential threat to any nation-state.  It attracts the incompetent, dare we say nitwits:

[T]he quiet truth is that many of the deluded foot soldiers are foolish and untrained, perhaps even untrainable. Acknowledging this fact could help us tailor our counterterrorism priorities—and publicizing it could help us erode the powerful images of strength and piety that terrorists rely on for recruiting and funding.

Nowhere is the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality more apparent than in Afghanistan, where it’s fair to say that the Taliban employ the world’s worst suicide bombers: one in two manages to kill only himself. And this success rate hasn’t improved at all in the five years they’ve been using suicide bombers, despite the experience of hundreds of attacks—or attempted attacks. In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests. According to several sources at the United Nations, as many as six would-be suicide bombers died last July after one such embrace in Paktika.

But this anecdotal evidence is just that, isn’t it?  We have much to fear from terrorism at large, right?  Not so much:

In sharp contrast, the authors of the case studies, with remarkably few exceptions,
describe their subjects with such words as incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent,
idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled,
amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, and foolish.9 And in nearly
all of the cases where an operative from the police or from the Federal Bureau of
Investigation was at work (almost half of the total), the most appropriate
descriptor would be “gullible.”

In all, as Shikha Dalmia has put it, would-be terrorists need to be “radicalized
enough to die for their cause; Westernized enough to move around without
raising red ºags; ingenious enough to exploit loopholes in the security
apparatus; meticulous enough to attend to the myriad logistical details
that could torpedo the operation; self-sufficient enough to make all the preparations without enlisting outsiders who might give them away; disciplined
enough to maintain complete secrecy; and—above all—psychologically
tough enough to keep functioning at a high level without cracking in the face
of their own impending death.”10 The case studies examined in this article certainly do not abound with people with such characteristics.

The titles of the articles I pull these quotations from, Daniel Byman and Christine Fair’s The Case For Calling Them Nitwits and John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart’s The Terrorism Delusion announce where the authors in question sit on the efficacy of counter-terrorism.  Mueller and Stewart calculate the $75 billion per year the U.S. expends on “enhanced local, state, and federal security expenditures and enhanced intelligence costs since September 11” is sufficient to reduce the risk associated with 333 large-scale attacks per year (damage in excess of $500 million according to the authors).  Considering Mueller and Stewart also cite statistics that all 16 Americans killed in terrorist acts since 2001 were gunned down and that no terrorist has managed to detonate even the crudest of bombs on U.S. soil since the 1990s (September 11 used the momentum and fuel aboard two 757s and two 767s to kill thousands, not traditional explosives such as those used in Oklahoma City in 1995), the efficacy of U.S. counter-terrorism operations almost certainly flies way past “adequate” and deep into “Overkill” territory.

I try to anticipate criticisms to posts like these, and I can already hear the wails that “trillions are a small price to pay to prevent dirty bombs, nuclear weapons and the next September 11th!”  I understand that cost ratios have little effect on something so heinous as terrorism, but I have a response to these fearful emotions, again citing Mueller and Stewart:

If the miscreants in the American cases have been unable to create and
set off even the simplest conventional bombs, it stands to reason that none
of them were very close to creating, or having anything to do with, nuclear
weapons—or for that matter biological, radiological, or chemical ones. In fact,
with perhaps one exception, none seems to have even dreamed of the prospect;
and the exception is José Padilla (case 2), who apparently mused at one
point about creating a dirty bomb—a device that would disperse radiation—or
even possibly an atomic one. His idea about isotope separation was to put uranium into a pail and then to make himself into a human centrifuge by swinging
the pail around in great arcs.

The capabilities of the U.S.’s terrorist “adversaries” clearly are overstated, but so is the threat from uranium (with one exception).  I’ll let Joe Cirincione from Foreign Policy explain:

Dirty bombs (which have never been used) are very different from nuclear bombs, which trigger a chain reaction in a small core of fissile material — highly-enriched uranium or plutonium — to produce a massive explosion. The explosion produces heat, blast, and radiation that all cause catastrophic damage.

The key here is that dirty bombs do not use fissile material. They do not use enriched uranium or plutonium — the fissile material that Gov. Romney cites. The reason is simple: These materials, perhaps counter-intuitively, are not radioactive enough. Their radioactive emissions don’t travel far and are blocked by simple barriers, including skin and clothing. A dirty bomb would use small amounts of highly radioactive materials such as cesium or cobalt, not uranium. Even specks of these elements send out deadly gamma rays that penetrate walls and bodies causing immediate injury.

The Federation of American Scientists has calculated that a mere 41 grams (1.4 ounces) of cesium-137 in a dirty bomb could contaminate most of Manhattan. By contrast, it would take 1,460 tons of low-enriched uranium to get the same levels of radiation. That pretty much tells you all you need to know. Iran does not have any plutonium, so getting “a little fissile material to Hezbollah” would mean shipping them some 1,400 tons of uranium — when all Iran has now is 6 tons total.

As to the threat from enriched weapons-grade uranium or plutonium, well:

Few of the sleepless, it seems, found much solace in the fact that an al-Qaida
computer seized in Afghanistan in 2001 indicated that the group’s budget for
research on weapons of mass destruction (almost all of it focused on primitive
chemical weapons work) was $2,000 to $4,000. In the wake of the killing of
Osama bin Laden, officials now have many more al-Qaida computers, and
nothing in their content appears to suggest that the group had the time or inclination, let alone the money, to set up and staff a uranium-seizing operation,
as well as a fancy, super-high-technology facility to fabricate a bomb. This is a
process that requires trusting corrupted foreign collaborators and other criminals,
obtaining and transporting highly guarded material, setting up a machine
shop staffed with top scientists and technicians, and rolling the heavy,
cumbersome, and untested finished product into position to be detonated by a
skilled crew—all while attracting no attention from outsiders.

Overall, the threat from terrorism is largely overblown, but for that one nagging exception.  I really hate to end on a sour note, but an astute reader (like myself) might ask: what about cesium-137 and a real dirty bomb?  Joe Cirincione again has the goods on this topic as well, and he is less than reassuring:

That is not to say that dirty bombs are not a serious problem. The closest we have every come to seeing one used was in November 1995, when Chechen rebels placed a cache of cesium in a trash can in a Moscow park as a warning of what they could do. Neither the Chechens nor the original source of the cesium was ever identified. Experts worry that it is just a matter of time before some group actual set off a dirty bomb.

The problem is that there are hundreds of sources of highly radioactive materials. They are found in minute quantities in doctors’ offices, mining operations, and smoke detectors. They have literally scores of civilian uses. Terrorists could steal the ounces of material required for a bomb from one of the manufactures of these civilian devices, or simply purchase it through a covert operation. The basic solution is to reduce the usage of radioactive material (most applications have non-radioactive alternatives) and better secure those supplies that remain.

But perhaps we can sleep at night.  A dirty bomb is still a bomb, and since 1995 terrorists seem extremely inept with explosives.   Cirincione’s last statement is key.  Unsecured cesium, cobalt, and actual military-grade nuclear weapons are the existential dangers to this nation, not deranged wannabe killers like Jose Padilla.

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One thought on “Deluding Ourselves

  1. Pingback: Negra | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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