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THE ATOMIC TERRORIST?
30 April 2009
THE ATOMIC TERRORIST?2
Alarm about the possibility that small groups could set off nuclear weapons have been repeatedly raised at least since 1946 when atomic bombmaker J. Robert Oppenheimer contended that if three or four men could smuggle in units for an atomic bomb, they could “destroy New York.” Thirty years later, nuclear physicist Theodore Taylor proclaimed the problem to be “immediate,” and explained at length “how comparatively easy it would be to steal nuclear material and step by step make it into a bomb.” At the time he thought it variously already too late to “prevent the making of a few bombs, here and there, now and then,” or “in another ten or fifteen years, it will be too late.”3 Three decades after Taylor, we continue to wait for terrorists to carry out their “easy” task.
In the wake of 9/11, concerns about the atomic terrorist surged even though the attacks of that day used no special weapons. By 2003, UN Ambassador John Negroponte judged there to be a “a high probability” that within two years al-Qaeda would attempt an attack using a nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction. And it is in this spirit that Graham Allison in 2004 produced a thoughtful, influential, and well-argued book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, relaying his “considered judgment” that “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not.” He had presumably relied on the same inspirational mechanism in 1995 to predict that “In the absence of a determined program of action, we have every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear terrorism against American targets before this decade is out.”4 He has quite a bit of company in his perpetually alarming conclusions.
However, thus far terrorist groups seem to have exhibited only limited desire and even less progress in going atomic. This may be because, after brief exploration of the possible routes, they, unlike generations of alarmists, have discovered that the tremendous effort required is scarcely likely to be successful.5
Obtaining a finished bomb: assistance by a state
One route a would-be atomic terrorist might take would be to be given or sold a bomb by a generous like-minded nuclear state for delivery abroad. This is highly improbable, however, because there would be too much risk, even for a country led by extremists, that the ultimate source of the weapon would be discovered. As one prominent analyst, Matthew Bunn, puts it, “A dictator or oligarch bent on maintaining power is highly unlikely to take the immense risk of transferring such a devastating capability to terrorists they cannot control, given the ever-present possibility that the material would be traced back to its origin.” Important in this last consideration are deterrent safeguards afforded by “nuclear forensics,” the rapidly developing science (and art) of connecting nuclear materials to their sources even after a bomb has been exploded.6
Moreover, there is a very considerable danger to the donor that the bomb (and its source) would be discovered even before delivery, or that it would be exploded in a manner and on a target the donor would not approve including on the donor itself. Another concern would be that the terrorist group might be infiltrated by foreign intelligence.7
There could be some danger that terrorists would be aided by private (or semi-private) profiteers, like the network established by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan. However, Khan’s activities were easily penetrated by intelligence agencies (the CIA, it is very likely, had agents within the network), and the operation was abruptly closed down when it seemed to be the right time.8 Moreover, the aid he tendered was entirely to states with return addresses whose chief aim in possessing nuclear weapons would be to deter or to gain prestige he did not aid stateless terrorist groups whose goal presumably would be actually to set the weapons off.
In addition, al-Qaeda is unlikely to be trusted by just about anyone. As one observer has pointed out, the terrorist group’s explicit enemies list includes not only Christians and Jews, but all Middle Eastern regimes; Muslims who don’t share its views; most Western countries; the governments of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Russia; most news organizations; the United Nations; and international NGOs. Most of the time it didn’t get along all that well even with its host in Afghanistan, the Taliban government.9
Stealing or illicitly purchasing a bomb: loose nukes
There has also been great worry about “loose nukes,” especially in post-Communist Russia—weapons, “suitcase bombs” in particular, that can be stolen or bought illicitly. However, both Russian nuclear officials and experts on the Russian nuclear programs have adamantly denied that al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group could have bought such weapons. They further point out that the bombs, all built before 1991, are difficult to maintain and have a lifespan of one to three years, after which they become “radioactive scrap metal.” Similarly, a careful assessment conducted by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies has concluded that it is unlikely that any of these devices have actually been lost and that, regardless, their effectiveness would be very low or even non-existent because they (like all nuclear weapons) require continual maintenance. Even some of those most alarmed by the prospect of atomic terrorism have concluded that “It is probably true that there are no ‘loose nukes’, transportable nuclear weapons missing from their proper storage locations and available for purchase in some way.”10
It might be added that Russia has an intense interest in controlling any weapons on its territory since it is likely to be a prime target of any illicit use by terrorist groups, particularly Chechen ones of course, with whom it has been waging a vicious on-and-off war for well over a decade. The government of Pakistan, which has been repeatedly threatened by terrorists, has a similar very strong interest in controlling its nuclear weapons and material—and scientists. Notes Stephen Younger, former head of nuclear weapons research and development at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “regardless of what is reported in the news, all nuclear nations take the security of their weapons very seriously.”11
Even if a finished bomb were somehow lifted somewhere, the loss would soon be noted and a worldwide pursuit launched. And most bombs that could conceivably be stolen use plutonium which emits a great deal of radiation that could relatively easily be detected by sensors in the hands of pursuers.12
Moreover, as technology has developed, finished bombs have been outfitted with devices that will trigger a nonnuclear explosion that will destroy the bomb if it is tampered with. And there are other security techniques: bombs can be kept disassembled with the component parts stored in separate highsecurity vaults, and things can be organized so that two people and multiple codes are required not only to use the bomb, but to store, to maintain, and to deploy it. If the terrorists seek to enlist (or force) the services of someone who already knows how to set off the bomb, they would find, as Younger stresses, that “only few people in the world have the knowledge to cause an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon.” Weapons designers know how a weapon works, he explains, but not the multiple types of signals necessary to set it off, and maintenance personnel are trained only in a limited set of functions.13
There could be dangers in the chaos that would emerge if a nuclear state were utterly to fail, collapsing in full disarray—Pakistan is frequently brought up in this context and sometimes North Korea as well. However, even under those conditions, nuclear weapons would likely remain under heavy guard by people who know that a purloined bomb would most likely end up going off in their own territory, would still have locks (and, in the case of Pakistan would be disassembled), and could probably be followed, located, and hunted down by an alarmed international community. The worst case scenario in this instance requires not only a failed state, but a considerable series of additional permissive conditions including consistent (and perfect) insider complicity and a sequence of hasty, opportunistic decisions or developments that click flawlessly in a manner far more familiar to Hollywood script writers than to people experienced with reality.14
Building a bomb of one’s own
Since they are unlikely to be able to buy or steal a useable bomb and since they are further unlikely to have one handed off to them by an established nuclear state, the most plausible route for terrorists would be to manufacture the device themselves from purloined materials. This is the course identified by a majority of leading experts as the most likely to lead to nuclear terrorism.15
Because of the dangers and difficulties of transporting and working with plutonium, a dedicated terrorist group, it is generally further agreed, would choose to try to use highly enriched uranium.16 The idea would be to obtain as much of this stuff as necessary and then to fashion it into an explosive. To cut corners, the group would presumably be, to the degree possible, comparatively cavalier about safety issues such as radiation exposure.
The likely product of this effort would not be a bomb that can be dropped or hurled since this would massively complicate the delivery problem. Rather the terrorists would seek to come up with an “improvised nuclear device” (IND) of the most simple design, one that could be set off at the target by a suicidal detonation crew. The simplest design is for a “gun” type of device in which masses of highly enriched uranium are hurled at each other within a tube. At best, such a device would be, as the deeply concerned Graham Allison acknowledges, “large, cumbersome, unsafe, unreliable, unpredictable, and inefficient.”17
The process is a daunting one even in this minimal case. In particular, the task requires that a considerable series of difficult hurdles be conquered and in sequence. The following discussion attempts to lay out these in a systematic manner.
Procuring fissile material
To begin with, at the present time and likely for the foreseeable future, stateless groups are simply incapable of manufacturing the required fissile material for a bomb because the process requires an effort on an industrial scale. Moreover, they are unlikely to be supplied with the material by a state for the same reasons a state is unlikely to give them a workable bomb.18 Thus, they would need to steal or illicitly purchase this crucial material.
Although there is legitimate concern that some fissile material, particularly in Russia, may be somewhat inadequately secured, things have improved considerably on this score, and Pakistan keeps exceedingly careful watch over its bomb-grade uranium. Moreover, even sleepy, drunken guards will react with hostility (and noise) to a raiding party. Thieves also need to know exactly what they want and where it is, and this presumably means trusting bribed, but not necessarily dependable, insiders. And to even begin to pull off such a heist, the terrorists would need to develop a highly nuanced street sense in foreign areas often filled with people who are congenitally suspicious of strangers.19
But outright armed theft is exceedingly unlikely not only because of the resistance of guards, but because chase would be immediate. A more plausible route would be to corrupt insiders to smuggle out the required fissile material. However, this approach requires the terrorists to pay off a host of greedy confederates including brokers and money-transmitters, any one of whom could turn on them or, either out of guile or incompetence, furnish them with stuff that is useless.20
Because of improving safeguards and accounting practices, it is decreasingly likely that the theft would remain undetected.21 This is an important development because once it is noticed that some uranium is missing, the authorities would investigate the few people who might have been able to assist the thieves, and one who seems suddenly to have become prosperous is likely to arrest their attention right from the start. Even one initially tempted by, seduced by, or sympathetic to, the blandishments of the smooth-talking foreign terrorists might well soon develop sobering second thoughts and go to the authorities.
Insiders might also come to ruminate over the fact that, once the heist was accomplished, the terrorists would, as analyst Brian Jenkins puts it none too delicately, “have every incentive to cover their trail, beginning with eliminating their confederates.” He also points out that no case of a rogue Russian scientist working for terrorists or foreign states has ever been documented.22
It is also relevant to note that over the years, known thefts of highly enriched uranium have totaled less than 16 pounds or so. This is far less than required for an atomic explosion: for a crude bomb, over 100 pounds are required to produce a likely yield of one kiloton.23 Moreover, none of these thieves was connected to al-Qaeda, and, most arrestingly, none had buyers lined up—nearly all were caught while trying to peddle their wares. Indeed, concludes analyst Robin Frost, “there appears to be no true demand, except where the buyers were government agents running a sting.” Since there appears to be no real commercial market for fissile material, each sale would be a one-time affair, not a continuing source of profit like drugs, and there is no evidence of established underworld commercial trade in this illicit commodity.24 Consequently sellers need to make all their money on the single transaction.
Of course, there may also have been additional thefts that went undiscovered.25 However, the difficulty of peddling such a special substance suggests that any theft would have to be done on consignment—the thief is unlikely to come across likely purchasers while wandering provocatively down the street like a purveyor of drugs or French postcards. Even a “theft on spec” requires that the sellers advertise or that they know where and how to contact their terrorist buyer—presumably through middlemen trusted by both sides, all of whom have to be paid off. Moreover, it is likely that no single seller would have a sufficient amount of purloined material, requiring multiple clandestine buys.
If terrorists were somehow successful at obtaining a sufficient mass of relevant material, they would then have to transport it hundreds of miles out of the country over unfamiliar terrain and probably while being pursued by security forces.26
Crossing international borders would be facilitated by following established smuggling routes and, for a considerable fee, opium traders (for example) might provide expert, and possibly even reliable, assistance. But the routes are not as chaotic as they appear and are often under the watch of suspicious and careful criminal regulators.27 If they became suspicious of the commodity being smuggled, some of these might find it in their interest to disrupt passage, perhaps to collect the bounteous reward money likely to be offered by alarmed governments if the uranium theft had been discovered. It is not at all clear, moreover, that people engaged in the routine, if illegal, business of smuggling would necessarily be so debased that, even for considerable remuneration, they would willingly join a plot that might end up killing tens of thousands of innocent people.
To reduce dangers, the atomic terrorists might decide to split up their booty and smuggle it out in multiple small amounts. In this, however, they would have to rely on the hope that every single container would escape notice and suspicion.
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