Nuclear Terrorism—How Great is the Threat?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 11, 2002

In November 2001, as the skies over Afghanistan filled with U.S. warplanes, Osama bin Laden made a chilling pronouncement to Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir: Al Qaeda had access to nuclear weapons and would not hesitate to use them for "self-defense."

Was it the boast of a desperate fugitive or a statement of intent?

In the aftermath of September 11, governments around the world must ponder the once unthinkable: Could terrorist groups acquire and use nuclear devices?

Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and serving Senator Richard Lugar are the architects of the "Nunn-Lugar" programs, which provide the former Soviet nations with financial and technical assistance to prevent nuclear proliferation. Their work is featured in a National Geographic EXPLORER documentary that airs in the United States on MSNBC on October 13.

Nunn explained to National Geographic Television why the issue of nuclear nonproliferation is one of paramount importance. "We have an arms race going on right now," he said, "it's not between the U.S. and Russia, it's between the world and terrorist groups who are trying to get weapons of mass destruction."

Who is winning this crucial contest? It's a difficult question to answer, but some clues may be found in the former al Qaeda strongholds scattered throughout Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda's Quest for Nuclear Weapons

Journalist Peter Bergen was one of the first Western television journalists to interview Osama bin Laden—at a time when few Americans knew of the terrorist leader. Since then he's been investigating the nuclear ambitions of the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan.

"One of the best outcomes of the war in Afghanistan was severely interrupting this nuclear research program that al Qaeda had," Bergen told National Geographic News this week. "Left alone for five years, who knows what they might have done."

The fall of the Taliban allowed U.S. officials, and journalists like Bergen, access to former al Qaeda safe houses. The documents they found there left no doubt that Osama bin Laden was actively seeking information about nuclear weapons.

Al Qaeda was wealthy and determined, but Bin Laden recognized the need to acquire scientific expertise in the area of nuclear weapons, according to the evidence that was found. Bin laden apparently met at least once with Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood—a Pakistani nuclear expert who was a key player in the development of that Islamic nation's nuclear bomb.

What occurred at those meetings remains unknown, but the fact that they occurred indicates Bin Laden's determination to become a nuclear player.

Continued on Next Page >>


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