Foreign Policy Terrorism War

Why Nuking ISIS is a Really Bad Idea

By Barbara F. Walter.


Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Antonio Ponte.

After every terrorist attack on a major Western city I hear the same thing: “why don’t we just nuke them?” Donald Trump was asked this question two days ago by a reporter for the Washington Post. My very smart brother-in-law asked me this question after he survived the 9/11 attacks.

Wanting to use our superior fire-power on an enemy like ISIS, especially after attacks like the ones on Brussels, Paris, or New York, is tempting. Our large military makes us believe that we can easily defeat our enemy if only we had the political will.

But the reality is that nuclear weapons – or any massive retaliation – won’t work. In fact, it would just play into the hands of ISIS.

ISIS’s strategy of bombing countries like Belgium works based on how the world responds to these attacks. Right now, ISIS needs powerful countries in the West to do one of two things. It needs them to stop bombing ISIS targets in Syria, Iraq, and Libya so that it can re-gain territory lost since the airstrikes began last summer. Or it needs them to go in the other direction and launch heavier, more indiscriminate attacks against innocent Muslims that radicalizes them.

Western countries aren’t going to stop bombing ISIS. No politician of a democratic state that’s been attacked by ISIS will survive in power if they fold in the face of an attack. That means that the only way ISIS wins is if countries like Belgium, France, Russia, and the US start killing lots of innocent Muslims. Nothing radicalizes people faster than having someone try to kill them, especially with nuclear weapons.

So how should countries like Belgium respond?  First and foremost, they should continue to carefully target ISIS with airstrikes – something that has been very effective in hurting the organization to date. Second, and more importantly, they should resist the urge to escalate or widen the attacks in any way that could harm civilians. The more civilians that are killed, the more popular ISIS is likely to become.

Eliminating ISIS with one nuclear bomb may seem appealing, but it’s a pipe-dream, and one that would only turn the rest of the Muslim world against us.


  • Dear Prof. Walter,

    It was not just a major European town targeted by ISIS recently, but also Istanbul and Ankara, two semi-European (if you prefer so) that were also attacked by ISIS. So, it is not just that “western societies” are suffering from fundamentalism, but also non-western ones.

  • It is very easy to cast aside the response “let’s just nuke’em” in any circumstance because it is an extreme and entirely arbitrary. A principle of modern warfare is the concentration of force and the discrimination between civilian and military persons/assets. The tactic of nuking them fits neither principle and therefore has no place in any discussion on a military response. But I also fear that you have taken this obviously ignorant statement and used to to make your own conclusion appear all of the more better, that isn’t appropriate either. If Belgium and the Western ilk should continue their “successful” bombing campaign, why then are terrorist acts still happening? If they are successful, where are the results? How is bombing with a precision weapon better than a carpet bombing campaign when even just one civilian dies? The fact of the matter is that ISIS and their ilk will capitalize on every death– civilian, armed combatant or otherwise– regardless of the method of death used by the Western force. So the argument really falls apart here. We do not pick the guns we will go to war with based on the response from our enemy. If you are going to war in the first place, the only response you want is an end to fighting in your favour.

    We shouldn’t walk in and nuke the Middle East in an effort to clear out ISIS because it is not in accord with Western principles of warfare. These principles are what sets us apart from most of these cowards. We also shouldn’t continue to justify the current air campaigns in light of the fact that we are not nuking them. It is not and either or situation, and making it seem that way is somewhat dishonest.

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