Securing Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Continuing Challenge

As events of the past week have shown, the 18-month upheaval that has devastated Syria continues to present a major risk that the Syrian government’s caches of CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive) materials might fall into the hands of looters, defectors, opposition groups, and/or terrorist organizations. Moreover, as governments throughout the world continue to combat terrorism, groups with weapons-making capabilities, combined with clear intentions to acquire and use CBRNE materials, particularly nuclear, pose a threat of unprecedented magnitude.

In fact, even after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the once strong but now weakened Al-Qaida organization continues to pose a serious international threat. The group’s targets and methods of attack will likely continue to focus on various “economic” targets such as transportation hubs, commercial aviation facilities, and energy production and distribution centers. In addition, it is uncertain whether current Al-Qaida leaders will seek to acquire CBRNE weapons from the black market, the mysterious “lost” caches in Libya, or similar stockpiles now being pilfered in Syria.

Over the past two decades, Al-Qaida has repeatedly attempted both to purchase stolen nuclear materials and to recruit nuclear expertise. The organization purportedly has conducted tests of conventional explosives for its nuclear program in the Afghan desert and other areas. Moreover, as far back as 1998, Bin Laden himself publicly declared that it was his “religious duty” to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In recent years, there has been no sign that the group has abandoned its nuclear ambitions, but there is also no convincing evidence that Al-Qaida has actually acquired “weapons-usable” nuclear materials – or the expertise needed to incorporate such materials into an actual bomb or missile. Regardless, the possibility that even one terrorist organization may be able to acquire, deploy, and detonate a nuclear weapon is enough to justify the full range of urgent actions needed to reduce and defeat such risk.

The Mitigation of Nuclear Risk

Two months after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, Bin Laden told the mass-circulation Dawn newspaper in Pakistan that Al-Qaida already possessed both chemical and nuclear weapons. “My cause will continue after my death,” Bin Laden said. “They [the United States and its allies] think they will solve this problem by killing me. It’s not easy to solve this problem. This war has been spread all over the world.” Because of Al-Qaida’s frequently expressed interest in carrying out CBRNE attacks of any type, there has been a growing concern that the organization’s current leadership, and/or other terrorist groups, could use the chaotic situation in Syria to steal or buy CBRNE materials from either the struggling Syrian government or from one of several opposition groups.

More than two years ago, in April 2010, the day before a multi-nation summit in Washington, D.C., U.S. President Barack Obama affirmed that, in his opinion, “The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. We know that organizations like Al-Qaida are in the process of trying to secure nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, and would have no compunction in using them.”

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was involved in orchestrating a range of additional plans for: (a) attacks on U.S. nuclear plants; and (b) a so-called “nuclear hellstorm” attack in America – referring to a statement by another senior Al-Qaida commander that the terrorist group had hidden away a nuclear bomb in Europe that could be quickly detonated if Bin Laden was ever caught or assassinated.

It is worth pointing out that Syria is not only a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons but also has supposedly reached a number of broad nuclear safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In September 2007, however – in an attack known as Operation Orchard – Israeli fighter jets destroyed a complex at Al-Kibar in the Syrian Desert believed to be a plutonium-producing reactor. Although the U.S. government became aware as early as 2005 that North Korean and Syrian scientists and engineers were working together in Syria’s eastern region, it was not until the spring of 2007 that intelligence sources confirmed that a nuclear reactor was being built.

In a 24 May 2011 report released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – which encourages the use of nuclear energy, but opposes nuclear weapons – the agency concluded that the building destroyed by the Israelis was very likely a secret nuclear reactor and should have been so declared by Syria itself. The IAEA also found that Syria had breached its obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Nuclear Capabilities Around the Globe

There are eight countries known to have nuclear weapon capabilities: China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is estimated that these nations collectively possess approximately 20,000 nuclear weapons. Moreover, all eight nations also have plans to modernize, upgrade, and/or extend the lives of these nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Pakistan is of particular concern not only because of that nation’s instability but also because of its vulnerability, real or potential, to the Taliban and Al-Qaida bases in Pakistan’s own tribal areas.

Today, even though the international community recognizes the impending dangers posed by nuclear terrorism, it has yet to develop the effective, cooperative, and comprehensive strategy needed to lower the risks. There are, in fact, no globally accepted criteria for effectively safeguarding nuclear materials. Former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn – Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) – stated on 11 January 2012 at The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that there is today “a large supply of plutonium and highly enriched uranium – what we call weapons-usable nuclear materials – spread across hundreds of sites in 32 countries, too much of it poorly secured. There is also greater know-how to build a bomb widely available; and there are terrorist organizations determined to [build such weapons].”

Near the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the Soviet Union was believed to possess an estimated 22,000 nuclear weapons, most of them in storage sites across Russia and in neighboring states such as Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there have been serious international doubts that “all” of the weapons-usable materials were recovered and/or otherwise accounted for during the lengthy period of time when countless warheads were dismantled. Those doubts developed partly because of the political turmoil at the time and the lack of meticulous record-keeping, but there might also have been some “diversion” of materials and/or outright theft as well.

Today, while terrorist groups are looking for ways to acquire nuclear materials, stable and conscientious governments are seeking better ways to secure those same materials. The amount of material needed for a relatively small nuclear weapon would be very difficult to detect in any case. Therefore, attempts to halt nuclear smuggling, and/or to recover nuclear materials that have been stolen, would be extremely difficult and, in some circumstances, perhaps impossible. The principal focus for reducing the risk, therefore, must be to secure nuclear material and weapons by continually improving the several levels of security involved.

Preventing, Detecting, Locating & Securing Nuclear Materials

According to an earlier (2010) NTI report, there have been 18 confirmed thefts of weapons-usable nuclear materials. Such stolen nuclear material has intermittently been known to be “for sale” on the black market. Most currently known black-market seizures originated from sites in the former Soviet Union or in Eastern Europe. According to a 15 March 2012 New York Times report, the Moldovan police disrupted a smuggling ring in 2011 that had been attempting to sell enriched uranium – one member of that ring is still at large and is believed to possess a full kilogram of the material. Other nuclear trafficking seizures have been recorded in Georgia – in 2003, 2006, and 2010.

Although international collaboration is the crucial factor in thwarting the sale or transfer of nuclear materials, responsibility for the response to a specific nuclear incident remains with the individual nation(s) directly involved. Prevention and detection are key elements in any response actions, but preparedness is the paramount consideration. The nuclear threat itself, as well as the damage to property and to the public, from CBRNE incidents can be minimized to at least some extent through a combination of the following: (a) use of a risk-based methodology in developing security plans; (b) the continuing and effective protection of CBRNE materials; (c) an improved exchange of security-related information between nuclear-capable nations; (d) the continuing development, advancement, and use of CBRNE detection systems; and (e) establishment of the political and operational tools needed to quickly and effectively manage CBRNE incidents.

Moreover, implementation of a comprehensive global plan should and would necessarily involve all of the stakeholders involved, and should focus primarily on prevention, detection, and preparedness. First, prevention involves the use of accurate risk assessments to prioritize the high-risk CBRNE materials, along with the security systems and measures needed to maintain effective control of nuclear materials and the facilities where they are stored. Second, universal and modern detection is an essential complement to prevention and absolutely necessary to mount an effective response. For that reason, it is particularly important that universal and modern detection systems be available to all nations possessing nuclear weapons, not only to those that can afford such systems. Third, preparedness – at every level of government – is vital in mitigating the risk of an actual nuclear catastrophe by ensuring that proper training has been carried out, and that effective workable equipment is available, in the quantities needed.

The probability of a nuclear terrorist attack is, or at least seems to be, reasonably low – but, on the other hand, the price of such an attack would be extremely high. Continued cooperation and collaboration between countries with nuclear stockpiles, however, will improve global as well as local security, and also help maintain an aggressive stance against nuclear smuggling. Identifying and thwarting potential plots are among the key steps needed to reduce the danger of nuclear terrorism.

Even so, as long as terrorist organizations pursue the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, there will continue to be problems for nations seeking to secure the nuclear materials already available. Coordinated efforts and a unilateral agreement between and among the United Nations, the IAEA, and the current nuclear-capable countries will not only help secure the illicit nuclear materials on the market (and the facilities where they are stored), but also assist in locating the currently missing “weapons-usable” nuclear materials that may be available on the black market. In short: prevention and detection are key elements; preparedness is paramount; and locating and securing all nuclear material is essential.


For additional information on: The 2010 quote by President Obama, “Obama takes non-nuclear pledge to world leaders,” by Anne Gearan, Associated Press, 11 April 2010, visit

The 24 May 2011 report by the IAEA Director General, visit

Bin Laden’s discussion with Dawn, “Osama claims he has nukes: If US uses N-arms it will get same response,” by Hamid Mir, Dawn, 9 November 2001, visit

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visit

NTI’s “Securing the Bomb” reports, 2010, visit

Nunn’s remarks at The National Press Club, visit

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 



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