Nuclear terrorism

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Nuclear terrorism denotes the use, or threat of the use, of nuclear weapons or radiological weapons in acts of terrorism, including attacks against facilities where radioactive materials are present. In legal terms, nuclear terrorism is an offense committed if a person unlawfully and intentionally “uses in any way radioactive material … with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or with the intent to cause substantial damage to property or to the environment; or with the intent to compel a natural or legal person, an international organization or a State to do or refrain from doing an act”, according to 2005 United Nations International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.[citation needed]

The notion of terrorist organizations using nuclear weapons (especially very small ones, such as suitcase nukes) has been a threat in American rhetoric and culture. It is considered plausible that terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon.[1] In 2011, the British news agency, the Telegraph, received leaked documents regarding the Guantanamo Bay interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The documents cited Khalid saying that, if Osama Bin Laden is captured or killed by the Coalition of the Willing, an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell will detonate a "weapon of mass destruction" in a "secret location" in Europe, and promised it would be "a nuclear hellstorm".[2][3] [4][5][6]



Nuclear terrorism could include:

  • Acquiring or fabricating a nuclear weapon
  • Fabricating a dirty bomb
  • Attacking a nuclear reactor, e.g., by disrupting critical inputs (e.g. water supply)
  • Attacking or taking over a nuclear-armed submarine, plane or base.[7]

U.S. President Barack Obama calls nuclear terrorism "the single most important national security threat that we face".[8] In his first speech to the U.N. Security Council, President Obama said that "Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city -- be it New York or Moscow, Tokyo or Beijing, London or Paris -- could kill hundreds of thousands of people". It would "destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life".[8]


As early as December 1945, politicians worried about the possibility of smuggling nuclear weapons into the United States, though this was still in the context of a battle between the superpowers of the Cold War. Congressmen quizzed the "father of the atomic bomb," J. Robert Oppenheimer, about the possibility of detecting a smuggled atomic bomb:

Sen. Millikin: We... have mine-detecting devices, which are rather effective... I was wondering if anything of that kind might be available to use as a defense against that particular type of use of atomic bombs.
Dr. Oppenheimer: If you hired me to walk through the cellars of Washington to see whether there were atomic bombs, I think my most important tool would be a screwdriver to open the crates and look. I think that just walking by, swinging a little gadget would not give me the information.[9]

This sparked further work on the question of smuggled atomic devices during the 1950s.

Discussions of non-state nuclear terrorism among experts go back at least to the 1970s. In 1975 The Economist warned that "You can make a bomb with a few pounds of plutonium. By the mid-1980s the power stations may easily be turning out 200,000 lb of the stuff each year. And each year, unless present methods are drastically changed, many thousands of pounds of it will be transferred from one plant to another as it proceeds through the fuel cycle. The dangers of robbery in transit are evident.... Vigorous co-operation between governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency could, even at this late stage, make the looming perils loom a good deal smaller."[10] And the New York Times commented in 1981 that The Nuclear Emergency Search Team's "origins go back to the aftershocks of the Munich Olympic massacre in mid-1972. Until that time, no one in the United States Government had thought seriously about the menace of organized, international terrorism, much less nuclear terrorism. There was a perception in Washington that the value of what is called 'special nuclear material' - plutonium or highly enriched uranium - was so enormous that the strict financial accountability of the private contractors who dealt with it would be enough to protect it from falling into the wrong hands. But it has since been revealed that the physical safeguarding of bomb-grade material against theft was almost scandalously neglected."[11]

This discussion took on a larger public character in the 1980s after NBC aired Special Bulletin, a television dramatization of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States.[12] In 1986 a private panel of experts known as the International Task Force on the Prevention of Terrorism released a report urging all nuclear-armed states to beware the dangers of terrorism and work on equipping their nuclear arsenals with permissive action links. "The probability of nuclear terrorism," the experts warned, "is increasing and the consequences for urban and industrial societies could be catastrophic."[13]

Radiological weapons

It is feared that a terrorist group could detonate a radiological or 'dirty bomb'. A 'dirty bomb' is composed of any radioactive source and a conventional explosive. The radioactive material is dispersed by the detonation of the explosive. Detonation of such a weapon is not as powerful as a nuclear blast, but can produce considerable radioactive fallout. There are other radiological weapons called radiological exposure devices where an explosive is not necessary. A radiological weapon may be very appealing to terrorist groups as it is highly successful in instilling fear and panic amongst a population (particularly because of the threat of radiation poisoning), and would contaminate the immediate area for some period of time, disrupting attempts to repair the damage. The economic losses could be enormous - easily reaching into the tens of billions of dollars.[citation needed]

Nuclear weapons materials on the black market are a global concern,[14][15] and there is concern about the possible detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon by a terrorist group in a major city, with significant loss of life and property.[16][17]

According to leaked diplomatic documents, Al-Qaeda is on the verge of producing radiological weapons, after sourcing nuclear material and recruiting rogue scientists to build "dirty bombs".[18]

Alleged nuclear terrorism attempts and plans

In June 2002, U.S. citizen Jose Padilla was arrested for allegedly planning a radiological attack on the city of Chicago; however, he was never charged with such conduct. He was instead convicted of charges that he conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas.

In November 2006, MI5 warned that al-Qaida were planning on using nuclear weapons against cities in the United Kingdom by obtaining the bombs via clandestine means.[1]

In June 2007, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released to the press the name of Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah, allegedly the operations leader for developing tactical plans for detonating nuclear bombs in several American cities simultaneously.[19]

The Alexander Litvinenko poisoning with radioactive polonium "represents an ominous landmark: the beginning of an era of nuclear terrorism," according to Andrew J. Patterson.[20]

Security specialist Shaun Gregory argued in an article that terrorists have attacked Pakistani nuclear facilities three times in the recent past; twice in 2007 and once in 2008.[21]


After several incidents in Pakistan in which terrorists attacked three of its military nuclear facilities it became clear that there emerged a serious danger that they would gain access to the country’s nuclear arsenal, according to a journal published by the US Military Academy at West Point.[22] In January 2010 it was revealed that the US army was training a specialised unit "to seal off and snatch back" Pakistani nuclear weapons in the event that militants would obtain a nuclear device or materials that could make one. Pakistan supposedly possesses about 80 nuclear warheads. US officials refused to speak on the record about the American safety plans.[23]

A study by Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University titled 'Securing the Bomb 2010', found that Pakistan's stockpile "faces a greater threat from Islamic extremists seeking nuclear weapons than any other nuclear stockpile on earth".[24]

According to Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former investigator with the CIA and the US Department of Energy, there is "a greater possibility of a nuclear meltdown in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world. The region has more violent extremists than any other, the country is unstable, and its arsenal of nuclear weapons is expanding."[25]

Nuclear weapons expert David Albright author of 'Peddling Peril' has also expressed concerns that Pakistan's stockpile may not be secure despite assurances by both Pakistan and U.S. government. He stated Pakistan "has had many leaks from its program of classified information and sensitive nuclear equipment, and so you have to worry that it could be acquired in Pakistan," [26]

A 2010 study by the Congressional Research Service titled 'Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues' noted that even though Pakistan had taken several steps to enhance Nuclear security in recent years 'Instability in Pakistan has called the extent and durability of these reforms into question.'[27]

United States

President Barack Obama has reviewed Homeland Security policy and concluded that "attacks using improvised nuclear devices ... pose a serious and increasing national security risk".[28] In their presidential contest, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry both agreed that the most serious danger facing the United States is the possibility that terrorists could obtain a nuclear bomb.[29] Most nuclear-weapon analysts agree that "building such a device would pose few technological challenges to reasonably competent terrorists". The main barrier is acquiring highly Enriched uranium.[30]

Despite a number of claims,[31][32] there is no credible evidence that any terrorist group has yet succeeded in obtaining a nuclear bomb or the materials needed to make one.[29][33] In 2004, Graham Allison, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration, wrote that “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not".[34] Also in 2004, Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information stated: "I wouldn't be at all surprised if nuclear weapons are used over the next 15 or 20 years, first and foremost by a terrorist group that gets its hands on a Russian nuclear weapon or a Pakistani nuclear weapon".[17] In 2006, Robert Gallucci, Dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, estimated that “it is more likely than not that al Qaeda or one of its affiliates will detonate a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city within the next five to ten years".[34]

Detonation of a nuclear weapon in a major U.S. city could kill more than 500,000 people and cause more than a trillion dollars in damage.[16][17] Hundreds of thousands could die from fallout, the resulting fires and collapsing buildings. In this scenario, uncontrolled fires would burn for days and emergency services and hospitals would be completely overwhelmed.[29][35][36]

The Obama administration will focus on reducing the risk of high-consequence, non-traditional nuclear threats. Nuclear security is to be strengthened by enhancing "nuclear detection architecture and ensuring that our own nuclear materials are secure", and by "establishing well-planned, well-rehearsed, plans for co-ordinated response".[28] According to senior Pentagon officials, the United States will make "thwarting nuclear-armed terrorists a central aim of American strategic nuclear planning".[37] Nuclear attribution is another strategy being pursued to counter terrorism. Led by the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center, attribution would allow the government to determine the likely source of nuclear material used in the event of a nuclear attack. This would prevent terrorist groups, and any states willing to help them, from being able to pull off a covert attack without assurance of retaliation.[38]

In July 2010 medical personnel from the U.S. Army practiced the techniques they would use to treat people injured by an atomic blast. The exercises were carried out at a training center in Indiana, and were set up to "simulate the aftermath of a small nuclear bomb blast, set off in a U.S. city by terrorists".[39]

Recovering lost weapons and material

In August 2002, the United States launched a program to track and secure enriched uranium from 24 Soviet-style reactors in 16 countries, in order to reduce the risk of the materials falling into the hands of terrorists or "rogue states". The first such operation was Project Vinca, "a multinational, public-private effort to remove nuclear material from a poorly-secured Yugoslav research institute." The project has been hailed as "a nonproliferation success story" with the "potential to inform broader 'global cleanout' efforts to address one of the weakest links in the nuclear nonproliferation chain: insufficiently secured civilian nuclear research facilities."[40]

In order to reduce the danger of attacks using nuclear waste material, European Union Commissioner Loyola de Palacio suggested in November 2002 the creation of common standards in the European Union, especially in the new member states operating Soviet-era reactors, for subterranean nuclear waste disposal.[citation needed]

In November 2007, burglars with unknown intentions infiltrated the Pelindaba nuclear research facility near Pretoria, South Africa. The burglars escaped without acquiring any of the uranium held at the facility.[41][42]

See also


  1. ^ Nuclear Terrorism: Frequently Asked Questions, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, September 26, 2007, 
  2. ^ Hope, Christopher. "WikiLeaks: Guantanamo Bay terrorist secrets revealed". Retrieved April 27, 2011. 
  3. ^ Gould, Martin. "WikiLeaks: Al-Qaida Already Has Nuclear Capacity". NewsMax. Retrieved April 27, 2011. 
  4. ^ "'Nuclear hellstorm' if bin Laden caught - 9/11 mastermind". April 25, 2011. Retrieved April 27, 2011. 
  5. ^ "'Nuclear hellstorm' if bin Laden caught: 9/11 mastermind". 2011-04-25. Retrieved April 27, 2011. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Ruff, Tilman (November 2006), Nuclear terrorism,, 
  8. ^ a b Graham Allison (January 26, 2010). "A Failure to Imagine the Worst". Foreign Policy. 
  9. ^ Alex Kingsbury, "History's Troubling Lessons", U.S. News and World Report (February 18, 2007).
  10. ^ "Nuclear Terrorism," The Economist (January 25, 1975) p. 38.
  11. ^ Larry Collins, "Combating Nuclear Terrorism," New York Times (December 14, 1980) Sec. 6 pg. 37.
  12. ^ Sally Bedell, "A Realistic Film Stirs NBC Debate," New York Times (March 17, 1983) B13; Sally Bedell, "NBC Nuclear Terror Show Criticized," New York Times (March 22, 1983) C15; Aljean Harmetz, "NBC Film on Terror Wins Prize," New York Times (July 8, 1983) C19.
  13. ^ D. Costello, "Experts Warn on Nuclear Terror," Courier-Mail (June 26, 1986).
  14. ^ Jay Davis. After A Nuclear 9/11 The Washington Post, March 25, 2008.
  15. ^ Brian Michael Jenkins. A Nuclear 9/11?, September 11, 2008.
  16. ^ a b Orde Kittrie. Averting Catastrophe: Why the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is Losing its Deterrence Capacity and How to Restore It May 22, 2007, p. 338.
  17. ^ a b c Nicholas D. Kristof. A Nuclear 9/11 The New York Times, March 10, 2004.
  18. ^ "Al-Qaeda moving world towards 'nuclear 9/11'". The Age. February 3, 2011. 
  19. ^ "Feds Hoped to Snag Bin Laden Nuke Expert in JFK Bomb Plot". Fox News. June 4, 2007.,2933,277614,00.html. 
  20. ^ "Ushering in the era of nuclear terrorism," by Patterson, Andrew J. MD, PhD, Critical Care Medicine, v. 35, p.953-954, 2007.
  21. ^ Rhys Blakeley, "Terrorists 'have attacked Pakistan nuclear sites three times'," Times Online (August 11, 2009).
  22. ^ Blakely, Rhys (August 11, 2009), "Terrorists 'have attacked Pakistan nuclear sites three times'", Times Online (London), 
  23. ^ "Elite US troops ready to combat Pakistani nuclear hijacks"
  24. ^ Pakistan nuclear weapons at risk of theft by terrorists, US study warns, The Guardian, 2010-04-12
  25. ^ Could terrorists get hold of a nuclear bomb?, BBC, 2010-04-12
  26. ^ Official: Terrorists seek nuclear material, but lack ability to use it, CNN, 2010-04-13
  27. ^ Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues, Congressional Research Service, 2010-02-23
  28. ^ a b The White House. Homeland Security
  29. ^ a b c Matthew Bunn. Preventing a Nuclear 9/11 Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2005, p. v.
  30. ^ Charles D. Ferguson. Preventing a nuclear 9/11 : First, secure the highly enriched uranium The New York Times, September 24, 2004.
  31. ^ Paul Williams (2005). The Al Qaeda Connection : International Terrorism, Organized Crime, and the Coming Apocalypse, Prometheus Books, pp. 192–194.
  32. ^ Nuclear 9/11: Interview with Dr. Paul L. Williams Global Politician, September 11, 2007.
  33. ^ Ajay Singh. Nuclear terrorism — Is it real or the stuff of 9/11 nightmares? UCLA Today, February 11, 2009.
  34. ^ a b Orde Kittrie. Averting Catastrophe: Why the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is Losing its Deterence Capacity and How to Restore It May 22, 2007, p. 342.
  35. ^ Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials p. 16.
  36. ^ Bleek, Philipp, Anders Corr, and Micah Zenko. Nuclear 9/11: What if Port is Ground Zero? The Houston Chronicle, May 1, 2005.
  37. ^ Thom Shanker and Eric Scmitt. U.S. to Make Stopping Nuclear Terror Key Aim The New York Times, December 18, 2009.
  38. ^ Richelson, Jeffrey. "U.S. Nuclear Detection and Counterterrorism, 1998-2009". George Washington University. 
  39. ^ Deborah Block. US Military Practices Medical Response to Nuclear Attack Voice of America, 26 July 2010.
  40. ^ Philipp C. Bleek, "Project Vinca: Lessons for Securing Civil Nuclear Material Stockpiles," The Nonproliferation Review (Fall-Winter 2003) p. 1.
  41. ^
  42. ^ Washington Post, December 20, 2007, Op-Ed by Micah Zenko

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