Volume XX Number 1 Fall 2000

Book Reviews

Cameron, Gavin. Nuclear Terrorism. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

Many fear that the dissolution of the Soviet Union has led to an increase in the availability of fissile materials to both governments and non-state actors and, consequently, to the heightened danger of nuclear coercion and terror. Gavin Cameron, exploring the impetuses, tactics and changing nature of terrorism, attempts in this book to more accurately gauge the present-day likelihood of nuclear terrorism.

Cameron begins by treating the commingling of the individual and group psychologies of terrorism in general, focusing on identity, the role of violence and the perpetuation of the group. Highly disaffected individuals, perceiving rejection by society and often experiencing a palpable break with it (der sprung), join terrorist groups to obtain a sense of identity and to channel the aggression resulting from alienation. Viewing the group as what sets them apart from society, individual terrorists make continued membership their priority. The group, recognizing both its own importance to the individual and its ultimate political purpose, provides psychological justification for terrorism by dehumanizing victims and absorbing responsibility. Violence is portrayed to the needy members as the most important factor in the survival of the group. Violence can even come to act as a substitute for the group's substantive goals, especially if it is struggling for survival and needs additional publicity and membership. This central role of violence can, in some instances, make mass-destructive, including nuclear, terrorism more likely.

As the psychological treatment shows the use of terrorist violence to be instrumental (and not the work of "mad bombers"), Cameron applies its conclusions to the tactical and targeting decisions of terrorists. Implementing a typology of terrorism (national-separatist, anarchic-ideological and religious), the author explores the differing degrees to which rational considerations inhibit or facilitate mass destruction. Nationalist-separatist groups, such as the IRA and ETA, anarchists like Narodnaya Volya in nineteenth-century Russia and most ideologues appear self-moderating in nature; massive, indiscriminate killings are often ruled out by these terrorists because of the perceived lack of proportionality and popular alienation such attacks would cause in domestic and international audiences. For religious and some radical right-wing terrorists, however, the "good versus evil" portrayal of missions, the often unconditional support of surrounding communities, the role of martyrdom and the perception of an "other-worldly" audience mitigates, but not always eliminates, the constraints of proportionality and audience response, and mass violence is more probable. These constraints are further diminished in messianic or millenarian sects, where the mass-murder of infidels may be viewed as a religious duty. Religious terrorism has recently increased drastically, and this is linked to the increased lethality of terrorism in general. Cameron posits that this trend adds to the increasing danger of mass-destructive terrorism.

Cameron then turns specifically to the feasibility of nuclear terrorism. The author identifies two key constraints on the use of nuclear devices by terrorists: terrorist groups' proclivity toward technological conservatism, and the production and credibility difficulties associated with high yield nuclear explosives. Further, the comparatively more common threat and use of chemical or biological agents by terrorist groups - most notably, Aum Shinrikyo - would indicate the relative supremacy of these forms of mass-destructive terrorism. The uncertain effects of chemical and biological weapons, however, combined with the allure of nuclear possession and its attendant status and coercive power, makes the use of more accessible, low-level, radiological contaminants or "dirty bombs" attractive to mass-destructive terrorists. Cameron concludes by positing that mass-destructive threats and usage are most likely to increase; specifically, because of increased availability, chemical/biological agents are more likely to be used for mass killing, while low-level nuclear devices, because of the intangible advantage they provide, would be used for purposes of publicity and coercion.

Cameron's survey of terrorist psychology and instrumentality, culminating in his description of the impetuses of the various types of groups and general expectations given the shift toward religious terrorism, is superb. It appears, however, that he only loosely connects his discussion on the feasibility of nuclear terrorism to this survey. First, after providing sound reasons why the overwhelming majority of groups that would rationally choose mass destruction would be religious in nature, and directly associating the increasing lethality of terrorism with the increase in the number of religion-based groups, Cameron later backs off from this strict association. He instead proposes reasons such as the "professionalism of terrorism" as additional explanations for the increase in general lethality. The only purpose this seems to serve is to allow for terrorist groups who do not fit the profile of mass-destructive terrorism to be considered as such.

Additionally, when observing the characteristics of religious terror, Cameron, while maintaining that religious terror groups experience some of the constraints facing secular terrorists, posits that these constraints are much less pronounced for the former than for the latter; indeed, it would appear that this is the most decisive difference among the groups. Yet, his estimation of the reasons why low-level nuclear terrorism will be increasingly prevalent concludes that such devices will be used as "leverage." If religious terrorists have few worldly audiences to which to appeal, are not very concerned about proportionality and, most importantly, can be placated only by unlikely concessions (dissolution of government, mass conversion to their faith), why would leverage be so important to them? Instead, if they are looking to make an impression, and mass killing would serve that purpose, they would seem more likely to use chemical or biological weapons for the very reasons Cameron outlines.

But, in sum, Nuclear Terrorism is a coherent and compelling work about the potential for mass-destructive terrorism. As with other books that attempt to make headway in any field, its initial analysis and conclusions can serve as an invaluable starting point for future work on the subject.

Dennis M. Foster
The Pennsylvania State University