Deterring Islamic Extremists

Published on November 26, 2003 by

This entry by Stephen Den Beste brought to mind some thoughts I’ve had over the past couple of years about Islamic extremists and deterrence, so I figured I might as well blog those thoughts.

There are two elements that are necessary for deterrence to work.

One is that the threat of retaliation must target something that the party being deterred is unwilling to lose. The other is that the threat of retaliation must be credible.

During the Cold War, deterrence worked because the leaders of the USSR realized that massive nuclear retaliation by the US would leave them with nothing worth leading.

The leaders of the USSR believed that if they launched an attack against the USA, the USA would retaliate against the USSR in kind, since such retaliation was the announced policy of the USA, supported by Presidents of both parties. Even if there were some moral problems with the targeting of civilian populations, the threat was credible on the tit-for-tat basis.

However, in the case of al-Queda and similar groups, deterrence is much more problematic.

First, since they officially have no territory and no cities, we cannot nuke an al-Queda city in response to them nuking one of ours. And even if we could, I’m not sure that the prospect of creating hundreds of thousands or even millions of “martyrs” is something that would deter al-Queda.

Second, we have no announced policy on what our retaliatory response would be if a terrorist nuke exploded in an American city. I believe it quite possible that we would respond by nuking a city belonging to whatever government supplied al-Queda with the nuke, but unless such retaliation was unleashed almost immediately after the attack (as it would have been during the Cold War), try to imagine the debates that would go on.

Given the care that the US military has exercised to minimize civilian casualties during the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think many people would find it hard to believe we would nuke a city full of innocent people. Which means our retaliatory threat is not very credible.

Overall, our deterrent against a nuclear attack by al-Queda is very weak. I have no doubt that if al-Queda got ahold of a nuke, they would use it.

(As a side note, I think our invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein works as a deterrent to leaders of other nations that might be tempted to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.)

So, what deterrent threat could we make to stop al-Queda from using a nuke if they got one?

The only thing I can think of as being of sufficient value that al-Queda would not risk it is the city of Mecca.

Fortunately, for our purposes, it is the city itself, not the population, that is vlaued.

So I think we should announce that, if Islamic terrorists detonate a nuke on American soil (or the soil of any of our allies, except maybe France), we will give one week of notice so that anyone who wishes to leave Mecca may do so, and then we will nuke Mecca until there is not left one stone upon another. And we will do it with the dirtiest nukes we can devise, so that a pilgrimage to Mecca will be deadly for the next three generations.

By allowing innocent people to leave, we make the threat more credible because it is in keeping with our desire to avoid civilian casualties where possible. And, with the one week deadline, we also make it possible for idiots who wish to martyr themselves in the destruction of Mecca to do so.

Of course, the announcement of such a policy would be greeted with howls of protest from Islamic nations. And our response should be to point out that it is therefore in the interest of every Islamic nation to ensure that terrorists never obtain a nuclear device.

Our only long-term hope of preventing a nuclear terrorist attack is a credible deterrent threat. Right now, we don’t have one.

(Note: This entry was originally published on my now-defunct political blog,

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4 comments on “Deterring Islamic Extremists”

  1. Paul says:

    The core problem for such extremism lies in the very teachings of the Koran, which exorts true believers to have nothing to do with Christians and Jews (infidels)and offers rewards to those that kill Jews or Christians. Muslim extremist do not seek to convert others to Islam, nor do they care if you do, their goal is to destroy all non believers (including luke-warm Muslims). Their goal is to establish a muslim nation that will reign over the whole world. They feel they were close to doing it, if not for the Crusaders. But now they feel they have a greater weapon they can use- oil, if only all the Arab nations were united. But in the mean-time they will spare no means to achive the end.

    I think you were in the right track on deterrence by bombing Mecca, something they value so much they are willing to die for. But perhaps a better approach might be to attack the core teachings of Islam. Islam fears the Christian teachings because it knows that standing side by side it would not stand a chance. This is why Muslim countries prohibit proselitizing, even with the threat of punishment and death. They will not even allow you to bring a Bible into their country. Because they are afraid the people might see the truth.

  2. Pretorian-Gladiator says:

    Actually I am an ATHEIST…I am thinking how about US nukes not only MECCA but JERUSALEM and VATICAN completely…it’s very interesting whether God will save these Holy [expletive deleted — EJS]. These hatred religions Islam,Christian, and Jews are sources of ETERNAL HATE…so dangerous for Earth Future…Prove it God exist now !!

  3. I allowed Pretorian-Gladiator’s comment above to be posted, although I later removed a modified expletive he used to get past the profanity filter.

    Why did I allow it? Because to me it looked like a good example of a self-refuting comment. He calls for nuking three religious cities because religions are sources of hate, and yet he, as an atheist, seems to be full of hatred. I left the comment here as proof that atheists are not necessarily more rational and less hateful than religious people.

  4. Rosalie says:

    Good point, Eric. The atheist–hoist by his own petard.