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.

But just how far did he get?

"I think that they were nowhere," Dr. Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies told National Geographic News. Samore is a former special assistant to President Clinton and senior director for Nonproliferation and Export Controls at the National Security Council.

"I think they were totally unsuccessful," he continued, "and their capability to produce or design nuclear weapons is amateurish at best."

Former UN nuclear inspector David Albright, in a discussion with Peter Bergen aired on EXPLORER, summarized his own investigation of al Qaeda. "I think they were just beginning to pull a program together," Albright said. "By trying to get help, I would say they were trying to create a quasi-state nuclear weapons program. They were learning how to make a nuclear explosive itself. They do need the highly enriched uranium and that would have to come from someplace else."

Nuclear Materials—Are They Secure?

Highly enriched uranium, the type necessary to make a nuclear bomb, is very difficult to acquire. The most likely source of such material would be Russia or the independent states of the former Soviet Union.

The demise of the U.S.S.R. left the security of such materials in doubt, but as yet there is no evidence that any has fallen into the wrong hands.

"In the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union," Samore told National Geographic News, "there is no documented case that we know of where a substantial quantity of weapons-grade material was offered for sale on the black market. As far as we know, no one has been able to acquire a substantial quantity of the material—much less create a weapon itself. Of course, one has to allow for the possibility that it's happened and we don't know about it, but so far it seems to be a horrible scenario that hasn't yet taken place."

Because the stakes are so high, securing nuclear materials is a global priority of the highest order, and the process has been underway for years.

Nunn estimates that Russia, working with help and financial assistance from the United States, has secured about 40 percent of the former U.S.S.R.'s nuclear materials in the last decade. The other 60 percent are not yet secured to American standards, but work continues.

"It's a very good use of taxpayer money to help Russia secure this stuff," said Bergen. "The situation has dramatically improved since the end of the Cold War, but there is a lot of work to do."

Samore agrees that the situation, while still a matter for concern, has improved. "Risk assessment is very, very difficult, but my personal view is that the risk of materials leaking out of Russia is lower now than it was in the early 1990s when there was a real collapse of their facilities, security, and economy. I attribute that to the Russian government taking stronger efforts to secure materials, and the second phase of Nunn-Lugar which is focused on securing nuclear materials—it's made a substantial impact."

Because weapons-grade nuclear materials are difficult to acquire, a more pressing nuclear concern is the possibility of a terrorist group creating a radiological device that could be used as a "dirty bomb." These devices require only low-grade materials, like nuclear waste, which could be obtained from power plants or medical facilities.

"Dirty bombs" would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material, but their effect is more psychological than physical. While they would not cause mass casualties, they could be effective in spreading terror and panic.

Numerous thefts of this type of nuclear material have been documented, and the spoils have been offered for sale on the world's black markets.

Bergen suggests some of that material found it's way into al Qaeda's hands. "Osama bin Laden almost certainly acquired some [low-grade] materials, nuclear waste," he suggested, "the kind a dirty bomb would use. I don't for a second doubt that they have those materials. Bin Laden's statements have been a pretty reliable guide to his actions."

While Bin Laden may or may not have acquired these materials, Samore cautions that other terrorists are likely to do so. "I don't think you can stop terrorists from getting radioactive materials for a dirty bomb," he said. "There is just too much of it out there. The good news is that their use would not have nearly the consequences [of a nuclear bomb]. Atomic weapons are a different story, but acquiring that material still remains quite a task."

Defending B.U.S. Orders from Nuclear Attack

If terrorists do manage to obtain a nuclear device, U.S. authorities could be hard-pressed to uncover it in time.

"Once you lose the material, I think you've lost 90 percent of the battle," said Samore. "You could run the risk of having a country or even a terrorist group having a nuclear weapon for which I don't think there is any defense."

The amount of material needed to make a nuclear bomb is roughly the size of a softball—not difficult to hide. Some six million containers arrive in U.S. ports by sea each year. Custom agents use a series of criteria to identify and inspect containers that raise "red flags"; still, only about 2 percent of all containers are inspected.

The U.S. Department of Energy, in conjunction with the FBI, has established the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST). This crack squad is trained to respond to a nuclear emergency at a moment's notice anywhere in the United States. If a nuclear device does enter the country, it's their job to employ high-tech equipment and track it down. The group is armed with helicopters sporting detection devices, vehicles, and even individuals on foot with radiation detectors. Still it's a bit like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, and even if a device is discovered—it may be too late.

That's why the best defense is a global effort to make sure that nuclear material does not fall into the wrong hands. "Every single depository of nuclear material has to be treated as if it were a bomb," Nunn told National Geographic. "Even if it's not weapon-grade, that's the psychology. …Every country, every nuclear power plant, every nuclear medicine facility and hospital, all of them have to say to themselves, 'this material under my stewardship could be used as a weapon to destroy people and to terrorize the world.'"

National Geographic EXPLORER airs in the United States Sunday nights on MSNBC. Check local listings for details.

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