The Pursuit of Nukes: No Job for Amateurs

There has been considerable debate in recent years on the threat level to U.S. and allied national security, to public safety, and to global economic stability posed by acts of terrorism, particularly those involving a CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and/or high-yield explosives) incident. Moreover, because threats linked with any of these types of attacks is constantly evolving – several known terrorist groups have been working to acquire CBRNE materials and other groups possess the expertise needed to build such weapons – continued preparedness must be the highest defense priority of the United States and its allies.

Since the early 1970s, terrorist groups have been vigorously searching every way possible to build or buy weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in one form or another. U.S. government intelligence dating back to 1997 has many timesentified al-Qaida as the fundamental group pursuing a long-term and persistent approach to not only acquiring, but also developing WMDs that can be used in a mass-casualty terrorist attack.

Deified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports from 1997 indicate that Osama bin Laden’s intention to carry out hostile acts against the United States in the Persian Gulf region “could be abetted strongly by access to WMD material.” The CIA concluded, among other things, that bin Laden was “taking steps to develop the capability to use weapons of mass destruction – possibly involving chemical agents and biological toxins as well as nuclear material – for terrorist operations, or may plan to give these substances to supporters [of the al-Qaidaeology].” Other CIA reports during the same time frame indicated that bin Laden also was “exploring the possibility” of mounting operations with WMDs developed and built by other organizations. That option developed, apparently, after bin Laden had learned of rogue groups attempting to sell uranium.

An Evolving & Still Growing Threat

CBRNE terrorism is not a new threat. But it is one that has evolved rapidly since the end of the Cold War, and will certainly continue to evolve for the foreseeable future. It is well known to intelligence agencies throughout the entire world that literally hundreds of tons of nuclear material were left unsecured after the fall of communism in the former USSR. The immense and very real threat posed by nuclear terrorism might well come in the form of terrorist organizations acquiring nuclear weapons, which are currently available on the criminal black market, or from pilfering uranium from exposed nuclear facilities and using it to build their own makeshift nuclear device. In a 2004 Associated Press report, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir quoted bin Laden’s then deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, as saying that, “If you have $30 million, go to the black market in central Asia, contact any disgruntled Soviet scientist, and a lot of … smart briefcase bombs are available.”

There have in fact been more than 2,000 confirmed cases of unlawful trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials in the past two decades, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In addition, more than a hundred incidents of theft and other unauthorized activities involving nuclear and radioactive material are reported to the IAEA every year. “Some material goes missing and is never found,” according to Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA, in a Reuters article published on 1 July 2013.

That same month, at a conference on enhancing global nuclear security efforts, Amano warned of possible terrorist attacks involving radioactive material. “The threat of nuclear terrorism is real, and the global nuclear security system needs to be strengthened in order to counter that threat,” he continued. Obviously, if a “dirty bomb” is detonated in any major metropolitan city, and/or there is confirmed sabotage at a nuclear facility, the consequences could be devastating.

More troubling than these fairly recent reports were disclosures that the A.Q. Khan network – a nuclear trading organization – had in 2003 illicitly sold critical nuclear technologies to North Korea and other states of “proliferation concern.” Those illegal transfers were strong evidence of the serious gaps in international export controls that now threaten the peace of the entire world. Former Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan reportedly directed those transfers, and later used a similar network to supply Libya, North Korea, and Iran with designs and materials related to uranium enrichment. Even more alarming is the fact that the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies revealed, in a May 2007 report, that “at least some of Khan’s associates appear to have escaped law enforcement attention and could … resume their black-market business.”

Tracking & Securing Nuclear/Radiological Materials

According to various other reports, al-Qaida also unsuccessfully sought nuclear weapons assistance from the A.Q. Khan network. Although that effort failed, al-Qaida did receive partial help from at least one other group in Pakistan. Among the scientists who may have provided at least some help to the al-Qaida representatives were retired Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission scientists, long-time rivals of Khan, and two high-ranking Islamic fundamentalists – Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudiri Abdul Majeed. According to a 2005 report by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, al-Qaida “had established contact with Pakistani scientists who discussed development of nuclear devices that would require hard-to-obtain materials like uranium to create a nuclear explosion.”

These reports, and an abundance of other evidence, are taken very seriously at the highest levels of the U.S. government. A 2008 news transcript shows that, when then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked, “What keeps you awake at night?” his reply was short and to the point: “The thought of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction.” A 14 March 2012 report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed that the United States continues to encounter gaps in the accounting for and evaluation of security efforts designed to safeguard and protect U.S. nuclear material overseas – at least partly because of problems related to nuclear cooperation agreements.

Even more troubling, perhaps, is the fact that the GAO apparently determined that the agencies responsible for reviewing foreign partners’ security are not doing so systematically. The report acknowledged that there probably had been at least some “fragmentation and overlap among … U.S. programs that played a role in preventing and detecting the smuggling of nuclear materials overseas.” Not incidentally, the same report also indicated that a vital concern in the effort to combat the proliferation of CBRNE elements is that no one federal agency has been assigned the lead role to direct the combined efforts of at least a half dozen or so agencies.

Radiological Dispersal Devices – An Even Greater Threat

The GAO also reported that, in addition to direct nuclear incidents, a significant threat to U.S. national security comes from sealed radiological sources, which are radiological material (including cobalt-60, cesium-137, and strontium-90) that has been sealed in metal to prevent its dispersal. Such sources are routinely used worldwide for many legitimate purposes in various medical, industrial, and agricultural applications. Because many countries do not methodically account for the radiological materials they possess, the total quantity legitimately in use worldwide is unknown. If specific types and quantities of these materials were acquired by terrorist organizations, they could be used to construct radiological dispersal devices. Commonly known as “dirty bombs,” such devices combine radioactive material with conventional explosives and are considered by many experts to be far more likely to be used in a future incident than a nuclear explosive device.

The potential terrorist use of a dirty bomb is plausible because, unlike a nuclear device, the building of a dirty bomb requires only limited technical understanding both to build and to deploy. Because the loss of life from exposure to radioactive materials and shrapnel associated with a dirty-bomb explosion could be considerably larger and more devastating than the after-effects of a conventional explosion, such bombs could incite a massive public panic, adversely affect economic commerce, and necessitate costly decontamination measures. According to the Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group, even “an apple-sized amount of plutonium in a nuclear device and detonated in a highly populated area could instantly kill or wound hundreds of thousands of people.”

Of course, the success of a dirty-bomb attack would hinge on a number of other crucial factors as well, including but not limited to the following: the type of radioactive material used; the size of the particles emitted; how easily they would scatter; the overall volume of the material and explosives used; and the weather conditions in the target area at the time of the attack. On the other hand, an explosive device is not necessarily needed to carry out a radiological attack. Even small amounts of Polonium-210 (an alpha emitter) – spread into a community’s water supply, for example – are considered very deadly, extremely toxic, and relatively easy to smuggle (because Polonium-210 emits only short-range radiation).

“Loose Nukes” & Other Concerns

The senior leadership of al-Qaida has demonstrated an unrelenting commitment to steal, buy, and/or build its own WMD. As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama frequently spoke of the need to keep “loose nukes” out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations. Later, in a 2008 presidential campaign ad, he asserted that, the “single most important national security threat [the United States faces] is nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.” As president, though, he has stated a number of times, particularly since the death of bin Laden, that: (a) al-Qaida is now “a shadow of its former self”; and (b) its capabilities have been “severely diminished.” Although bin Laden’s career with al-Qaida has ended, many followers of hiseology live on. The new leader of al-Qaida, al-Zawahri, an Egyptian whose location has eluded U.S. and allied intelligence officials, recently issued several messages of his own on jihadi websites to the followers of bin Laden.

On 30 July 2013, a particularly ominous message was posted from al-Zawahri to President Obama. That message, translated by the jihadist website monitoring service SITE Intelligence Group, asserted that: “You fought us for 13 years. … Did we soften or toughen up? Did we back out or advance? Did we withdraw or spread out?” The transcript continued with a direct message from al-Zawahri to his followers: “I call on every Muslim in every spot on Earth to seek with all that he can to stop the crimes of America and its allies against the Muslims – in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Mali, and everywhere.”

Al-Qaida’s pursuit of WMDs obviously has not diminished, nor has the organization’s threat against the West. The possibility that terrorists might steal or illegally acquire highly enriched uranium or plutonium and use those materials to create a makeshift nuclear device remains a continuing concern to U.S. national security.

The anthrax letters that killed five people and sickened 17 shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks indicate that new WMD attacks against the United States are plausible at any level. Those attacks, as well as the bombs detonated at the Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013, demonstrated that even a relatively small-scale attack could prompt a disproportionate amount of terror and public panic. Although biological weapons may be more easily obtained and more likely to be used than nuclear or radioactive weapons, there are nonetheless several ominous facts that cannot be easily dismissed: (a) al-Qaida is still attempting to acquire a WMD in some form; (b) more than 2,000 confirmed cases of unlawful trafficking of nuclear and radioactive material have occurred in the past two decades; and (c) several credible reports suggest that both Syria and Libya have lost (or sold) a number of missing WMD components.

President Obama said in a speech on 6 April 2010 that, “The greatest threat to United States and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of States.” It can be safely assumed that terrorist organizations will not stop their relentless plans to inflict harm and spread fear throughout the world. As such, it is particularly important for all nations to heighten and maintain physical security at their nuclear facilities, expand current security efforts and tighten control of nuclear materials, account for all nuclear and radiological materials in their possession, strengthen their combined efforts to combat nuclear and radiological proliferation, and be as fully prepared as possible to mitigate the major risks that still remain.

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 authored numerous scholarly 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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