On Sept. 11, 2001 19 hijackers armed only with box cutters launched the deadliest
terrorist act in history. Although low-tech in its approach, the sophisticated,
coordinated nature of the attack has sparked intelligence and security experts
to reevaluate al-Qaida's stated goal of developing a nuclear weapon for use in
the United States.
Two months after the attacks, President Bush declared
that America's "highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons
of mass destruction."
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic
Energy Agency, also called nuclear terrorism the most urgent threat and said the
ruthlessness of the Sept. 11 attacks alerted the world to the very real possibility
of radical groups launching an atomic attack.
The greatest nuclear threat
is if criminals or terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida, were able to obtain enough
nuclear material to create a bomb, according to security analysts. Once a terrorist
group possessed a weapon, deterring a nuclear strike would be virtually impossible.
Al-Qaida, the 9/11 Commission warned in its final report, has tried to
acquire or make nuclear weapons for at least ten years. According to the commission,
al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's associates "thought their leader was intent
on carrying out a 'Hiroshima.'" In 1988, he called it a religious duty for al-Qaida
to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
More recently, in 2003, "Osama
bin Laden had a young Saudi cleric issue a ruling to provide religious justification
for Muslim groups to use WMD against the United States," said Charles D. Ferguson,
a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of "The Four Faces
of Nuclear Terrorism."
"There have been scouting missions of al-Qaida operatives
going out and trying to find highly enriched uranium (HEU). It's not just an idle
threat," Ferguson told the Online NewsHour.
Al-Qaida, in fact, has tried
to buy HEU at least once. Former al-Qaida operative Jamal Ahmad Al-Fadl testified
in U.S. courts that in 1994 he agreed to pay $1.5 million for a cylinder that
he believed contained HEU. The deal turned out to be a scam and the cylinder held
nothing but radioactive junk.
Despite these discomforting reports, there
have been mixed signals about how aggressive al-Qaida is in its pursuit of a nuclear
weapon since acquiring fissile material is incredibly difficult, Jim Walsh, executive
director of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University's Belfer Center
for Science and International Affairs told the Online NewsHour.
group, no matter how determined or how well funded, could not make the nuclear
material for a bomb by itself. Instead, terrorists would have to steal the material
or a nuclear weapon -- most likely from the stockpiles of smaller, tactical nuclear
weapons in Russia or from Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, according to Joseph Cirincione,
director for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's program on nonproliferation.
Furthermore, a terrorist attack with a "radiological dispersal device"
(RDD), or "dirty bomb," is more feasible than a nuclear terrorist strike, since
the device itself is easier to assemble and the sources are more available than
the HUE or plutonium needed for a nuclear bomb, Cirincione said.
security analysts warn that the nuclear terror threat is not some vague notion
more relevant to a Hollywood movie than real life.
"If we do not increase
our efforts to block terrorists from getting nuclear weapons or materials, sooner
or later some group will detonate a nuclear device," Cirincione told the Online
obtaining enough dangerous fissile material to create a crude bomb is not an easy
feat, statistics show that existing nuclear materials are vulnerable to theft.
And even that slight possibility carries tremendous consequences, according to
Since 1993, the IAEA has recorded roughly 630 incidents
of trafficking of nuclear or other radioactive material through its Illicit Trafficking
Database (ITDB). Of that total, at least 17 cases involved the most dangerous
kinds of nuclear material: HEU and plutonium.
Both HEU and plutonium
could be directly used in an improvised nuclear explosive device, and weapons-grade
HEU -- a much greater threat -- would require little or no additional processing
and little technical know-how.
The total amount of trafficked HEU documented
by the IAEA equaled between 8 to 10 kilograms --far from the amount needed to
produce a nuclear bomb, according to Ferguson.
"Then again, a terrorist
group would need as little as 25 kilograms, or about 55 pounds, of weapons-grade
HEU to easily build a crude nuclear device," Ferguson told the Online NewsHour.
That amount could fit into a two-liter soda bottle, carried secretly in a suitcase
shielded by lead and would be powerful enough to destroy the Empire State building,
Such a device is relatively low-yield compared to a bomb made
from 40-kg of weapons-grade HEU that could have catastrophic results and inflict
damage commensurate with the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Ferguson noted.
terrorists would need a much smaller amount of plutonium, about 4 kilograms, roughly
the size of a grapefruit, but it would be much more difficult to develop it into
a bomb as it is highly volatile and requires sophisticated scientific training.
Although reported cases of nuclear smuggling involve far smaller amounts
of material, Ferguson caution the IAEA's recorded records cover only those incidents
that countries have reported to the agency and "could be just the tip of the iceberg".
of the IAEA's documented thefts have had any known connection to terrorist organizations
or to the clandestine black market trade, but instead involved disgruntled employees
and other individuals seeking financial gains -- many of them Russian.
and the former Soviet Republics possess one of the largest stockpiles of HEU and
plutonium and have been the sites of recorded thefts and international illegal
trafficking incidents. There are approximately 600 metric tons of vulnerable stockpiles
of HEU and plutonium, not including actual nuclear weapons, located in Russia
and other states of the former Soviet Union, Cirincione estimated.
the United States and Russia have been working to secure these materials for more
than a decade, officials have improved security for only 22 percent of the weapons-grade
material at vulnerable facilities, according to Cirincione.
Dangers of New and Nascent Nuclear States
Another danger is the emergence
of new nuclear states, notably Pakistan, and nascent nuclear states, specifically
North Korea and Iran.
U.S. officials have recently expressed concern that
North Korea would trade nuclear technology for hard currency, as it has in the
past with other weapon systems like ballistic missiles, according to a declassified
CIA report from December 2003.
Graham Allison, director of Harvard's
Belfer Center, has said that Pakistan and North Korea have been running "proliferation
bazaars" for some time.
These countries, he said, could potentially become
a source of nuclear materials or weapons for al-Qaida or other terrorist groups,
either through direct sale, theft or diversion.
"What worries me most is
that these countries could become nuclear Wal-Marts," Ferguson said.
about nuclear terrorism have grown sharply since the Pakistani government confirmed
that the father of its nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been selling
nuclear materials for decades to the highest bidders, including some of America's
But even more than instability in new nuclear states,
smuggling networks could pose the most profound threat of nuclear terrorism, according
"Once a private entity is running nuclear materials, that is
the most likely route for a terrorist to acquire and create a nuclear bomb. It's
the best bet terrorists have -- it's much easier to get it that way than to steal
it or get a state to give it up," he said.
"We believe Khan's network purely
had transactions with other governments, but what would have prevented them from
dealing with private entities. Or, what would prevent a similar network from dealing
with private entities, like al-Qaida?" Walsh added.
Security analysts agree that securing existing stockpiles
is the best method to prevent such a catastrophe.
"The greatest possible
effort must be devoted to draining the nuclear swamp, to eliminating and securing
the supply side of the nuclear terrorist equation," Cirincione said.
guarding uranium and plutonium the way "the U.S. guards gold at Fort Knox, we
could make it virtually impossible for a terrorist group to attack us with nuclear
weapons," he added.
Both the United States and Russia have taken steps to
secure these materials.
The 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program,
authored by Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., focused
on securing and dismantling weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union
(FSU). As a result of international cooperative efforts under CTR, Ukraine, Belarus
and Kazakhstan are free of nuclear weapons.
But, Cirincione, along with
other nonproliferation advocates, says that work under CTR is "going much too
slowly, inching along at only $1 billion a year."
American officials have also stepped up efforts to
detection and intercept efforts to proliferate weapons or nuclear technology.
President Bush in May 2003 launched a new plan, called the "Proliferation
Security Initiative" (PSI), designed to promote international cooperation against
the nuclear terror threat. Under the informal arrangement, 11 countries -- Australia,
Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain,
and the United States -- have agreed to stop and search vessels in their territories
suspected of carrying banned weapons or technology in order to stop the transfer
of such items.
Many credit the PSI for enabling Italian authorities in
October 2003 to seize a German ship headed for Libya carrying 1,000 centrifuges
produced in Malaysia. It was this shipment that, analysts say, ultimately convinced
Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi to end his country's WMD programs and allow international
The PSI is just part of the United States' broader, multi-pronged
approach, which includes diplomacy through the United Nations and the IAEA, detection,
export controls of nuclear-related technologies and the ongoing work under the
Nunn-Lugar CTR program.
On the diplomatic front, the Bush administration
in April 2004 lobbied the United Nations to approve Resolution 1540, which requires
all member nations to toughen their export control laws, criminalize the proliferation
activities of individuals and to enhance the security of all nuclear materials.
Perhaps the most important actions against nuclear terrorism, experts say,
is the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), unveiled by the U.S. Energy
Department in May 2004. Over the next decade, the GTRI will work to secure and
convert high-risk nuclear materials from some 40 nations into non-weapons grade
material, according to Cirincione.
In announcing the plan, then-Secretary
of Energy Spencer Abraham said that the GTRI would coordinate with the IAEA and
allies "in order to ensure that such nuclear and radiological materials do not
fall into the hands of terrorists or other rogue actors."
The GTRI's projects
will be prioritized by the potential threats to the world's most vulnerable facilities
storing high-risk fissile materials.
Congress in late November 2004 approved
$30 million for GTRI and other related programs to secure vulnerable materials
for the 2005 fiscal year. The Bush administration has recommended $450 million
be spent on GTRI over 10 years.
Still, Walsh and others -- including former
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Mass. -- have criticized
the Bush administration for not doing enough to bolster security and detection
at the borders and ports, which many consider a key step to defending the homeland
from a nuclear attack.
"Unlike most problems in life, this problem is solvable.
But, everyone must act as though it is a top priority. It's a low possibility,
high consequence event. When it happens, the question will be why didn't we take
care of this beforehand? The answer seems so logical," Walsh said.