Terrorists detonating a nuclear device in a major city is the kind of nightmare scenario that has troubled emergency planners and world leaders for decades. The resulting destruction could be catastrophic, and in the age of extremist Jihadiism, is no longer unthinkable. The question now is whether a terrorist cell could successfully conduct such an attack.


“At 0700hrs a detonation occurred in the City of Indianapolis with an estimated yield of 1KT, resulting in total devastation over a 20 block area. Robert D. Orr, Governor of Indiana, requested that the President declare a major disaster for Indiana as a result of a nuclear device being detonated in Indianapolis, Marion County. The Vice President and the Director of FEMA are en route to survey the damaged area.”

The above is an extract from an exercise conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the National Security Council in an exercise codenamed ‘Mighty Derringer’, which was carried out in 1986 and remained classified until 2012. In the exercise, terrorists obtain two improvised nuclear devices, one of which was intercepted by a Delta Force strike team in a fictitious country bordering the U.S. called ‘Montrev’, while the second remained unaccounted for until the detonation.

The report states that the physical damage inflicted by a 1kT nuclear device being detonated in an urban area could cost as much as $229million for clean-up alone. In the exercise, Congress appropriated $645million in emergency funds from the Treasury to organise a response to the attack. This does not account for the costs to the local economy inflicted by the long-term paralysis of business. One square mile at the epicentre of the blast was left to burn uncontrolled due to the unacceptable risk to fire-fighting personnel. Approximately 900 people are killed and 1000 people are injured as a direct result of the blast.

The scenario envisioned for Mighty Derringer involved a small yield by modern standards, and American journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave comments that, “If a 10-kiloton nuclear device goes off in mid-town Manhattan on a typical work day, it could kill more than half a million people… Ten kilotons is a plausible yield for a crude terrorist bomb”.

Such a scenario is not unrealistic. Al Qaeda expressed a desire to deploy nuclear weaponry as early as 1998. In Osama Bin Laden’s essay ‘the nuclear bomb of Islam’, he proclaimed, “It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God.” The architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also threatened a ‘nuclear hell-storm’, should Bin Laden ever be arrested or killed; a threat which has not yet been executed over five years after his death. The Islamic State has also shown an interest in weapons of mass destruction, including firing crude mustard agent weapons at U.S. troops deployed in Iraq. There have also been worrying reports in Europe, in particular Belgium, with two employees at a nuclear power plant reportedly defecting to IS and travelling to Syria, and a security guard at a nuclear research facility having been found murdered with his security pass missing, although terror links to the murder were later denied by the Belgian authorities.

Whilst it is the primary threat today, it is important to note that terrorism in the twenty-first century will not necessarily consistently be Islamist in nature. Terror groups of the future could be radical eco-terrorists who see humanity as a threat to the world, or apocalyptic cults like Aum Shinrikyo, who carried out the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. What these ideologies and Islamist terrorism have in common is that killing civilians isn’t necessarily a means to generate attention for their cause as with traditional nationalist-terrorists such as the IRA. Mass casualties are an end in and of itself for such groups, and as a result, the old adage of terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead no longer holds water to explain away the threat of nuclear terrorism.

In order to produce a crude nuclear device, a group would require as little as 25kg of highly enriched Uranium, 35kg of Plutonium Oxide, or 13kg of Plutonium Metal. This is the most challenging step, as once nuclear material is obtained much of the remaining process is a relatively simple matter of engineering. A post-graduate engineer, with help from those with post-graduate knowledge of physics and chemistry, could theoretically assemble such a device provided they also had access to a stock of high explosive ; something militant groups such as the Islamic State have in plentiful supply.

If building a crude device was deemed too difficult a task, there are also a number of nuclear arsenals of questionable security, particularly in Pakistan, North Korea, and, potentially in the future, Iran. Rumours have also long circulated of nuclear devices being available on the black market as a result of thefts and losses from former Soviet Union armouries.

At the height of the Cold War the nuclear arms race had led the U.S. and the USSR to not only build extensive nuclear arsenals, but to build smaller warheads. This miniaturization race led to the Soviets producing so-called ‘suitcase nukes’, which could be armed and left in urban centres by special forces operatives. Former Soviet General Alexander Lebed claimed that as many as 100 of such devices remain unaccounted for, though some have questioned his credibility.

In addition to these potentially missing miniature devices, following the fall of the Berlin Wall Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of all 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons from Soviet-occupied Europe in 1991-1992. Although Moscow insists that all devices were impeccably accounted for, the chaos of the collapsing and retreating superpower would have made the theft or loss of such a device not impossible. Pakistan has also long had issues with the security of its nuclear arsenal that it now stores its arsenal in a ‘de-mated’ state, where the nuclear cores are stored separately from the warheads. This is a significant security measure, but the fact that such a step is deemed necessary demonstrates the insecurity of the arsenal.

Having somehow acquired or produced a nuclear device, the next hurdle for an aspiring nuclear terrorist cell would be transporting the device. International borders tend to be more porous than we think, as demonstrated by the success of the global narcotics trade, and a small nuclear device could realistically be delivered through the same channels given adequate preparation.

The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency  evaluation department, David Kay, said in a 1996 interview that, “My preferred method for delivering a nuclear device is, I would hide it in a bale of marijuana, contract it out to the drug lords and move it. Marijuana is a good shielder actually for radiation. The drug lords have a superb record for delivery. They’re not Fed Ex, but they’re awfully close to it.”

This issue becomes especially dangerous in the post-Cold War world because, as Christopher Clary of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School notes, “For the first time in history all of the keys to a nuclear weapon—the supplier networks, the material, the enrichment technology, and the warhead designs—were outside of state oversight and control.”

Now that weapons of mass destruction are becoming ‘commodified’ as Philip Bobbitt aptly puts it, we can no longer rely on the Cold War doctrines of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction. These measures enforced restraint on nuclear powers through the fear of an annihilatory response, however transnational groups and sub-state actors are non-sovereign and lack clearly demarcated geographical areas, rendering traditional nuclear deterrence almost wholly impotent.

In summary, there are several reasons why the issue of nuclear terrorism remains a significant threat: the miniaturization of weapons during the Cold War; a radical change in terrorist aims and intent; the proliferation of nuclear technical knowledge; and the existence of increasingly vulnerable nuclear arsenals, particularly in Pakistan.

This threat requires a worldwide effort to counter, with curbing the availability of nuclear material being the primary objective.  This is virtually the only true barrier left for keeping this genie in the bottle.


Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow and Acting Director at the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.


Photo Credit: Sgt. Adam Fischman, Illinois National Guard Joint Force Headquarters

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