The Washington Post starts a three-part series today on the threat of nuclear terrorism which concludes that the threat of a chemical or biological attack is more likely. Unless al-Qaeda can get high-level assistance from Russian or Pakistani nuclear forces in detonating the devices, nuclear weapons appear to be outside their capability.
Experts have concluded that AQ does not have the capacity to manufacture its own nuclear devices, which means that they would have to steal or purchase one. However, setting off a nuclear bomb requires a high level of expertise, as the weapons have safeguards built into them to avoid such a scenario from playing out:
Newer Russian weapons, for example, are equipped with heat- and time-sensitive locking systems, known as permissive action links, that experts say would be extremely difficult to defeat without help from insiders.
“You’d have to run it through a specific sequence of events, including changes in temperature, pressure and environmental conditions before the weapon would allow itself to be armed, for the fuses to fall into place and then for it to allow itself to be fired,” said Charles D. Ferguson, science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You don’t get it off the shelf, enter a code and have it go off.”
The strategy would require help from facility guards, employees with knowledge of the security and arming features of the weapons, not to mention access to a launching system.
Even the older ordnance has its challenges:
“There is a whole generation of weapons designed for artillery shells, manufactured in the 1950s, that aren’t going to have sophisticated locking devices,” said Laura Holgate, who ran nonproliferation programs at the Pentagon and the Energy Department from 1995 to 2001. “But it is a tougher task to take a weapon created by a country, even the 1950s version, a tougher job for a group of even highly qualified Chechen terrorists to make it go boom.”
Transportation also presents difficulties, although the Post may oversell the point here. Plutonium, which Russian weaponry uses, emits a higher rate of radiation and therefore theoretically would be easier to catch at the secure ports through which they must transit. However, this also leaves out the possibility that AQ could have lower-level infiltration in Russian border security organizations that would negate the safety barrier. After all, the Russians have their own Islamist problem and the borders that would give AQ the best access are part of the Russian areas of unrest.
Dafna Linzer reviews a host of other obstacles to terrorist development of a viable nuclear threat, all of which sound comforting notes. Chief among them is a lack of a stable environment in which to build the weapon, but Linzer leaves until last the reason why AQ has been deprived of such a necessity:
Al Qaeda has been on the run since the United States deprived it of a haven in Afghanistan, making it more difficult for the group to operate on such an ambitious scale.
The war on terror also deprived AQ of three other routes to nuclear capability that Linzer fails to mention in this first installment. First, the alliance with Pervez Musharraf exposed the Khan proliferation network, a resource that would have assisted AQ in both development and detonation, and possibly even delivered fissile material. Khan had no compunction against trading with Islamist zealots, as his connection with the Iranian regime clearly shows. Our removal of Saddam kept the Iraqis’ core nuclear research out of AQ hands; in fact, it delivered it to the Americans. Saddam’s capture convinced Moammar Gaddafi to rid himself of his nuclear-weapons program (as well as chemical and biological WMD) rather than share it with lunatic terrorists.
In short, our forward strategy of engagement against terrorists has kept them on the run and shut down the networks which could have created resources for terrible attacks that would have dwarfed 9/11. Too bad the Post chooses to downplay that and instead credit the idiocy of the terrorists for our safety.