Withering states with weakening writs, along with the rise of inequality and anger, imply that humanity has to prepare for the possibility of nuclear terrorism.
Terrorism is in the news a lot these days. Beautiful European capitals like Paris and Brussels have been attacked. Historic cities in the Middle East like Baghdad and Aleppo have suffered carnage. A splinter group from the Taliban struck Lahore in Pakistan, once home of the Mughals, at the end of March. Even idyllic places in Africa have not been spared.
Paul Ashley, a retired professional from the British Armed Forces, has mused that 2016 could be the year of terrorism. Many worry about a “dirty bomb” that might combine conventional explosives with radioactive material. Two of the bombers involved in the Brussels attacks appear to have monitored a senior researcher who worked at a Belgian nuclear center.
This week, US President Barack Obama hosted the Nuclear Security Summit and fretted about mad men getting “their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material.” A 2014 report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) estimated that “nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials remain spread across hundreds of sites around the globe.” The NTI report points out that some of these sites are poorly secured and that terrorists might have acquired the ability to build a bomb.
Obama focused on the Islamic State (IS) during his remarks to the summit. He pointed out that IS “continues to lose ground.” The organization is hemorrhaging men, material and money. Incessant pounding by airstrikes have decimated its oil infrastructure, slowing revenues to a trickle. Syrian troops have recaptured Palmyra, the stunning ancient city that IS damaged with fanatic ferocity. The so-called caliphate of the Islamic State is shrinking by the day, but the ideas it represents live on.
Attacks are taking place with disturbing regularity in different parts of the world. It is unlikely that IS operates a global command and control center coordinating attacks. What is definitely true is that many young Muslim men are inspired by this fanatical organization and are emulating its methods.
Disaffected young men who feel marginalized can often be harmless. However, once they feel extreme injustice and are exposed to toxic ideology, they can be deadly dangerous. Once these young men have a belief to live for and die for, they have few limits. This is not a new phenomenon. Maximilien Robespierre launched the Reign of Terror more than 200 years ago in the name of justice and virtue. He was in many ways the father of modern terrorism. By the second half of the 19th century, terror became a political tool for those who were fighting for justice, equality and political change. Rulers continued to resort to repression.
Terrorism increased in the 19th century because of severe political, social and economic strain. It is the same today. A scandal that has been breaking out at the time of writing this demonstrates how the rich and powerful use tax havens to launder money and evade tax. The global economic model is flailing if not failing. A debt crisis and a chronic lack of jobs are hobbling the economy. Inequality is increasing and social contracts are fraying.
There is real and palpable anger among people who feel cheated. In Europe, the far-right is gaining ground. In the United States, Ted Cruz of machine gun bacon fame is exuding machismo. Bailing out of banks resulted in wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. Quantitative easing has increased inequality exponentially. In poor countries, rigged privatizations, politically directed bank loans and crony capitalism have resulted in new societies of masters and slaves. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, thousands of families are mourning their dead and aiming to slake their thirst for revenge.
This is an age of anger. Elites are discredited. They have been deemed to be avaricious, arrogant and asinine. Villains, old and new, are popping up. The lazy Arab, the dirty Jew, the African American welfare queen et al provide potent examples of this phenomenon. Such widespread anger can easily be directed into violence when fanatical faith or millenarian ideology comes into play.
At the same time, many states are withering. Obama’s summit involved more than 50 states but many of them are losing control. Pakistan is a classic example. Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister, could not attend the summit because of the brutal attack on Easter Sunday in Lahore. At least 72 died and more than 200 were injured.
This violence is now endemic in the land of the pure. In 2013, Anwar Akhtar detailed how minorities have faced increasing discrimination and even persecution in Pakistan. Pakistan was founded by a Shia lawyer as a homeland for Indian Muslims who were supposed to comprise one nation. That theory was disproved when East Pakistan broke off to form Bangladesh in 1971. In a more recent ironic twist of fate, Shias are often gunned down in cold blood.
How did things in Pakistan come to such a pass? It all began innocuously enough. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The US decided to support the mujahidin, holy warriors, who were battling the Soviets. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the then dictator ruling Pakistan, signed up for the Afghan adventure. From now on, Saudi money started gushing through Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) used this money to train the Taliban. The ISI also built a sprawling complex of madrassas, mosques, training camps, weapons warehouses and military bases. Today, there are approximately 24,000 madrassas that educate more than 2 million boys. Some of these boys end up joining jihadist groups that operate in Afghanistan and India. These groups now carry out operations in Pakistan as well. The fabled Pakistani deep state has created a Frankenstein it can no longer control.
As of March 2013, Pakistan had lost 49,000 lives in the so-called War on Terror. The violence continues unabated. As a result, the Pakistani state seems to be losing control. In 2014, Rafia Zakaria wrote a chilling article for Dawn, arguably Pakistan’s most famous English-language newspaper, on an increasingly repressive country, “equally unable to deliver freedom or justice.” She observed that Mumtaz Qadri was ruling as a prison king and acting as the arbiter of death sentences. He was ordering the murders of those suspected of blasphemy.
Qadri was no ordinary criminal. He killed Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, for defending a poor Christian woman in jail who had been accused of blasphemy. Qadri was finally hanged a little over a month ago, but more than 100,000 attended his funeral. Pakistan’s post-colonial state is being stretched to breaking point. Its incestuous scotch drinking elite runs a closed club. Social mobility in the country has fallen since independence in 1947 like Isaac Newton’s proverbial apple.
Pakistanis have lost faith in their elites. Institutions no longer matter. Zahid Hussein, a noted Pakistani intellectual, quoted a general under Zia as saying that 25-30% of officers had Islamic fundamentalist leanings. Osama bin Laden spent his last days a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s mythic military academy. More pertinently, devout young Islamists are infiltrating the Pakistani state relentlessly. Hence, Pakistan’s nuclear material is at great risk of theft or misappropriation. Lest we forget, it was none other than Abdul Qadeer Khan passed on nuclear secrets to North Korea as well as Iran and Libya. Khan is the “father of the Islamic bomb” and a national hero in Pakistan.
As a state, India functions much better than Pakistan. Yet its nuclear material is not as safe as it seems. India’s military is in disarray, its intelligence is in shambles and the corruption of its bureaucracy is legendary. Its short-sighted elites care little for strategic matters and India’s nuclear material is not as safe as it seems.
North Korea makes India look good. Russia makes India look angelic. President Vladimir Putin did not even show up in Washington, DC. With the Pakistanis and the Russians not present, Obama’s summit did not quite have the oomph he desired.
The US itself is going through strange times. Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate, has suggested that South Korea and Japan could do well to have nuclear deterrents of their own instead of rely on the US. This flies in the face of nonproliferation efforts by the US for decades and did not leave Obama too pleased. To add to his woes, the summit might be living on borrowed time because no US presidential candidate seems interested in keeping it going.
In his early career in the US Senate, Obama worked with Dick Lugar, a Republican senator, to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. States like Ukraine and Azerbaijan participated. Things have changed since. As stated earlier, many states are declining and their writs are weakening. At some point, some crazy group will acquire the knowledge, ability and material to make a dirty bomb. Of course, states have a duty to prevent the making and using of such a bomb, but at some point they will fail. When this happens, the best response for all decent good people around the world has to be to keep calm and carry on.
Sadly, a nuclear terrorist strike is not merely possible or probable. It is inevitable. It is time to start preparing for it.
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