Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

It's Time to Take Domestic Nuclear Terrorism Seriously

| Jan. 27, 2021

Why the Biden administration needs to re-conceptualize terrorism and act quickly

How can the new Biden administration address the threat of domestic terrorism, most vividly illustrated by the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? Last week, 20,000 members of the National Guard were deployed for the inauguration to protect the new administration from far-right extremist violence, but a more serious threat looms. Nuclear and radiological terrorism has prominently appeared in "apocalyptically minded" white-supremacist ideology for decades.

The policy community perceives the threat of nuclear terrorism as almost uniquely emanating from outside of U.S. borders, specifically from Islamist terrorism networks such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their splinter groups. But in fact, U.S. far-right extremist groups have a history of attempted procurement of nuclear weapons and radiological materials to use against the federal government. Members of neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division, which literally means "atomic weapons" in German, and the National Socialist Movement have attempted in the past to access nuclear materials with the intent to cause harm.

Fears of nuclear terrorism among U.S. policymakers go back at least to the 1970s, when armed insurgencies intensified in the Middle East. The 1972 Munich massacre by the Palestinian group Black September and the 1973 oil price shock that suddenly empowered petroleum-exporting countries fueled concerns of a violent, non-White, Muslim world. India's 1974 nuclear explosion, Pakistan's nuclear weapons acquisition in response and new nuclear energy programs funded by petrodollars in Iran, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere further fanned fears of nuclear materials falling into "rogue" hands. In 1979, as the Iran hostage crisis played out on national television for over a year, the idea of radical Islam as a security threat became entrenched in U.S. political culture.

But nuclear terrorism was also a domestic threat in the 1970s. Nuclear power was expected to grow that decade, and a large amount of plutonium (a radioactive material used in nuclear weapon design) was feared to be widely available. By the end of the decade, white-power activists, many of whom were Vietnam War veterans hardened by military training, had organized for a violent armed struggle of "leaderless resistance" against the federal government. To them, the government was the source of unacceptable societal change that hurt White Christian Americans....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sarkar, Jayita.“It's Time to Take Domestic Nuclear Terrorism Seriously.” The Washington Post, January 27, 2021.

The Author

Jayita Sarkar