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"Why States Won't Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists"

Test launching of Pakistan-made Ghaznavi missile at undisclosed location in Pakistan Thursday, May 10, 2012. Pakistan successfully test-fired a short-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, Pakistan's military said.
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"Why States Won't Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists"

Journal Article, International Security, volume 38, issue 1, pages 80-104

Summer 2013

Authors: Keir A. Lieber, Daryl Press

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Quarterly Journal: International Security



Many experts consider nuclear terrorism the single greatest threat to U.S. security. The fear that a state might transfer nuclear materials to terrorists was a core justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, for a strike against Iran’s nuclear program. The logical basis for this concern is sound: if a state could orchestrate an anonymous nuclear terror attack, it could destroy an enemy yet avoid retaliation. But how likely is it that the perpetrators of nuclear terrorism could remain anonymous? Data culled from a decade of terrorist incidents reveal that attribution is very likely after high-casualty terror attacks. Attribution rates are even higher for attacks on the U.S. homeland or the territory of a major U.S. ally—97 percent for incidents in which ten or more people were killed. Moreover, tracing a terrorist group that used a nuclear weapon to its state sponsor would not be difficult, because few countries sponsor terror; few terror groups have multiple sponsors; and only one country that sponsors terrorism, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons or enough material to manufacture them. If leaders understand these facts, they will be as reluctant to give weapons to terrorists as they are to use them directly; both actions would invite devastating retaliation.


For more information about this publication please contact the IS Editorial Assistant at 617-495-1914.

For Academic Citation:

Lieber, Keir A., and Press, Daryl. "Why States Won't Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists." International Security 38, no. 1 (Summer 2013): 80-104.

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