(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In October, 2001, just weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, a tense drama unfolded in New York City. Unknown to the public, a team of scientists was walking the city's streets with disguised equipment to detect the radioactivity of an atomic weapon. On October 11, George Tenet, head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), informed President George W. Bush that the CIA had received word through an agent code-named Dragonfly that al-Qaeda had smuggled a 10-kiloton nuclear device into New York City. The team of scientists attempting to locate the weapon found themselves searching for something more difficult to find than a needle in a haystack. It was, they said, more like looking for a needle in a haystack of needles—practically impossible. Fortunately, the agent's message was a false alarm.

That a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is a clear and present danger is a terrifying thought, but just this possibility is the focus of Professor Graham Allison's arresting jeremiad,Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. It might be called, with little exaggeration, the most important book calling the American public to action since Thomas Paine published Common Sense in January, 1776. Allison, founding dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, lays out a painstaking and thoroughly convincing case that a nuclear attack on American soil is not only possible but, if present policies persist, inevitable. Such an attack would not emanate from a rogue state launching intercontinental ballistic missiles but from terrorists smuggling nuclear weapons from abroad or even constructing them within the United States.

How is it that such a nightmarish claim can be made by a figure of academic stature and credibility, a former Defense Department official? Why does the author declare nuclear attack to be inevitable if present U.S. policies remain unaltered, and what, if anything, can be done to avoid catastrophe? These questions occupy the substance of Allison's book.

First, who might be plotting such attacks? The obvious answer is al-Qaeda, especially in view of the many credible reports of its interest in using nuclear weapons against the United States. Al-Qaeda's second-highest-ranking official, Ahyman al-Zawahiri, has publicly boasted that the organization possesses nuclear weapons, though his boast may be empty. While empty one day, however, such boasts may be true the next.

Al-Qaeda is hardly the only terrorist organization interested in reducing American cities to radioactive rubble. Another is the Asian al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, which has perpetrated terrorist outrages in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore. In October, 2002, this organization carried out the bombing of a Bali nightclub, killing 202 people, mostly Australian tourists. Such threats merely represent the tip of the iceberg. Chechen gangsters could also acquire nuclear weapons on the Russian black market. Their target of choice would be Moscow, but the Chechens might provide weapons to their Islamist brethren in al-Qaeda.

Next on the list of potential nuclear conspirators is what Allison calls “the A-team” of Islamic terrorists: Hezbollah, the powerful, supremely violent Middle Eastern Islamist terrorist organization centered in Lebanon. Hezbollah was responsible for the attack on the Marine barracks near Beirut in October, 1983, that killed 241 American personnel. Hezbollah's primary target is Israel, which it seeks to destroy. A secondary target is Israel's friend and protector, the United States.

Finally, there is a welter of doomsday cults around the world, some of which would relish the opportunity to bring about the “end of days” and which might target the United States. In the 1980's one such group, the Japanese cult Aum Shinryko, scoured Soviet Russia, loaded with cash, searching for a nuclear warhead to detonate in Japan. Allison believes there are a large number of such organizations, mostly under the radar of public knowledge but potentially extremely lethal. After all, for those seeking universal fame and supreme excitement, a nuclear attack meets all requirements.

Second, what weapons might be used? On this subject the news is especially grim. Since the days of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, nuclear weapons have been substantially miniaturized. Allison includes photographs of the diminutive American battlefield “Davy Crockett” tactical nuclear weapon, two thousand of which were once deployed in Europe. Each of these devices delivers the punch of 100,000 sticks of dynamite—a quarter-kiloton. The Soviet Union deployed some twenty-two thousand small battlefield weapons of various...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)