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What About the Nukes?
Dave Carlson - November 3, 2006


This article considers the chilling possibility that Al Qaeda possesses nuclear weapons. It discusses the disposition of a poorly-controlled Soviet nuclear arsenal and the existence of suitcase-sized nuclear bombs. The discussion evaluates the viability of a terrorist group obtaining materials and knowledge to construct, maintain, and detonate nuclear weapons. The paper theorizes that it would not be difficult for a terrorist organization with sufficient resources to purchase nuclear bomb components along with fully-functional nuclear weapons. Once these weapons were constructed or procured, it would be easy for someone to smuggle them into the United States, hide them in strategic locations, and use them against major civilian population centers of the United States of America.

What About the Nukes?

The U.S. National Intelligence Council held a series of conferences and workshops in 2000 to discuss and analyze alternative futures for the United States. Some of their discussions led to the following conclusion: “Between now and 2015 terrorist tactics will become increasingly sophisticated and designed to achieve mass casualties. We expect the trend toward greater lethality in terrorist attacks to continue” (National Intelligence Council, 2000, p. 30).

This conclusion was supported in November 2001, when the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, recorded the following words from Osama bin Laden: “I wish to declare that if America used chemical or nuclear weapons against us [al Qaeda], then we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons. We have the weapons as deterrent” (Williams, 2005, p. 95). It could be argued that bin Laden’s words “we have the weapons” mean that Al Qaeda has been in possession of chemical and nuclear weapons since at least November 2001.

This paper considers that chilling possibility by discussing the disposition of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and the existence of suitcase-sized nuclear bombs. The discussion will continue with an evaluation of the reality that a terrorist group could obtain materials and knowledge to construct, maintain, and detonate their own nuclear weapons. This paper will conclude with a theory that it is possible for someone with adequate resources to purchase components to construct a nuclear device and fully-functional nuclear weapons, then smuggle those items into the United States.

Soviet Nuclear Arsenal

On August 29, 1949 the United States lost its short-lived nuclear monopoly when the Soviet Union conducted its first successful atomic test at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan (Zenko, 2006, p. 90). For more than forty years the United States and the Soviet Union did their best to convince each other that Mutual Assured Destruction would leave no winner at the end of a nuclear conflict. The countries tried to outdo each other as they continually increased the number and destructive capability of their weapons and counter-fire capability.

Suddenly, it was over. Or was it? Williams (2005) expressed his opinion that “it is incredible to assume that the twenty-two thousand nuclear weapons were moved from strategic sites to arsenals throughout Russia without a single loss” (p. 83). This portentous thought was prompted by a discussion of the agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991 to unilaterally withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed around the world. Accounting for and withdrawing all nuclear weapons posed a problem because the efforts began the same time Russia was falling apart and the second most powerful nation on earth was transforming into a third world country (Williams, 2005, p. 82).

On Christmas Day 1991 the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist, but all of its facilities, assets, and people were still in place. Left behind was an arsenal of more than thirty thousand nuclear warheads (Zenko, 2006, p. 96). These warheads were dispersed throughout eleven time zones in Russia, in all fifteen former Soviet republics, as well as in East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia (Zenko, 2006, p. 96). The CIA’s reaction to this situation in a June 1991 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was that “the prospects of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of some republics, mutinous troops, or radical groups would pose a new set of risks” (Zenko, 2006, p. 96).

Three months later, in September 1991, the CIA wrote another NIE that detailed the real threat: “The disappearance of reliable central control over nuclear weapons in some republics, as well as uncertainty over their disposition, would increase the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands” (CIA, 1991, p. 10). It cannot be determined to what extent this threat may morph into an historical event. However, in late 1994, the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee concluded that “none of these facilities in Russia or other newly independent states had adequate safeguards or security measures by international standards for weapons-useable materials” (Zenko, 2006, p. 97).

Within two years, the Russian Defense Ministry filed over “6,430 reports of stolen weapons, ranging from assault rifles to tanks” (Williams, 2004, p. 44). By 1998, the Defense Ministry “received more than seven hundred reports of nuclear materials being sold to various buyers within and outside of Mother Russia” (Williams, 2004, p. 45).

In November 2001, Hamid Mir, a correspondent for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, asked Osama bin Laden if Al Qaeda had obtained nuclear weapons. While bin Laden refused to answer the original question, he later confessed, “It is not difficult, not if you have contacts in Russia with other militant groups. They [nuclear weapons] are available for $10 million and $20 million” (Williams, 2005, p. 95).

In addition to the various nuclear devices that may have been pilfered by disgruntled military officers and delivered into the hands of terrorist organizations, portable nuclear devices may already have been smuggled into the United States. During a discussion in 1999 about the possibility of portable tactical nuclear devices being hidden in the United States, Curt Weldon (R-PA), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Research, admitted that “there is no doubt that the Soviets stored material in this country” (Williams, 2005, p. 100).

Suitcase Nuclear Bombs

There is no reliable source of information to confirm the number of portable nuclear devices developed by Soviet scientists, but Williams (2004) hints that they constructed more than a thousand “nuclear suitcases” (p. 43). The first generation of these portable devices developed in the 1960s weighed over 800 pounds. The second generation developed during the next decade reduced their weight to more than half and weighed in at around 320 pounds (p. 43).

By the 1980s, both the Soviet Union and United States nuclear scientists and technicians continued to refine the weapons until they could be transported in a case 24 inches by 16 inches by 8 inches and weigh less than sixty pounds (Williams, 2004, p. 44). To put that in perspective, consider that the limit for an air traveler’s carry-on suitcase is fifty pounds for many U.S. airlines. While some people struggle with a fully-stuffed suitcase, it is not a difficult task for most adults to maneuver the item.

Imagine a slightly-overweight suitcase containing fissionable plutonium and uranium sitting on a luggage cart outside a crowded international airport. Next to that cart stands a man getting ready to make a call on his cell phone -- a scene that certainly would not look out of place at any major airport. Within milliseconds of the man pressing the SEND button on his phone, a triggering mechanism inside the suitcase sacrifices its existence to attempt to force the plutonium and uranium to occupy each other’s turf at the same time. The resulting rumble between these unfriendly atomic rivals immediately releases the most destructive force ever created by humans.

It is alleged that, in 1996, members of the Russian mafia in Chechnya purchased a number of Special Atomic Demolition Munitions (SADM) weapons, known as nuclear suitcases (Williams, 2004, p. 41). Williams (2004) identified the suppliers as former KGB officials who were not excited about Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (p. 41). In the words of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri, who is the number two Al Qaeda leader behind Osama bin Laden, “if you have $30 million, go to the black market in central Asia, contact any disgruntled Soviet scientist, and a lot of smart briefcase bombs are available” (Hayden, 2004, ¶ 8).

On August 16, 1998, the London Times broke the story about the sale of twenty suitcase nuclear devices to associates of Osama bin Laden in Grozny, Russia by the Chechen Mafia (Williams, 2004, p. 41). Williams (2004) reported that bin Laden paid $30 million in cash and two tons of heroin from his laboratories in Afghanistan (p. 41). At that time, the heroin had an estimated street value of more than $700 million. Al-Majallah, London’s Saudi weekly, published an update to the story in 2002. Al-Majallah claimed that bin Laden’s collection of suitcase nuclear bomb inventory had risen to forty-eight (Williams, 2004, p. 41). These nuclear devices allegedly came from the Russian Mafia (Daly, Parachini, & Roseau, 2005, p. 23).

Nuclear Bomb Materials

Soviet suitcase nuclear devises are not the only weapons of mass destruction potentially available to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. There is a realistic possibility that these organizations can obtain materials to construct their own atomic and nuclear bombs.

The fifth-largest reserve of uranium in the world can be found in Brazil (World Energy Council, 2005, ¶ 46). Additionally, Brazil is home to a large nuclear facility in Resende that could be used for the enrichment of uranium (Williams, 2005, p. 134). Brazil also has two nuclear power plants (Angna I and Angna II). These facts led some analysts to conclude that Brazil represented an ideal location to obtain low-grade uranium for use in dirty bombs (Williams, 2005, p. 134). (Dirty bombs release radioactive material without a nuclear explosion.) Williams (2005) postulated that Brazil also eventually could provide the resources leading to the creation of weapons-grade uranium for use in tactical weapons (p. 134).

Speculation that components for constructing nuclear weapons are available in South America was partially confirmed in August 2004 when police seized a load of 1,320 pounds of uranium and thorium ore seventy-five miles from Mocopa, near the mouth of the Amazon (Williams, 2005, p. 135). It is possible that Al Qaeda could establish laboratories for developing nuclear devices within the thick South American jungles (Williams, 2005, p. 134).

Israeli intelligence reported that Semion Mogilevich sold Al Qaeda agents at least twelve kilos of uranium-235 in March 2001 at an undetermined cost, along with an unspecified number of functional nuclear weapons for an additional $75 million (Williams, 2004, p. 41). Mogilevich is a shadowy Ukrainian-born Jew. He operates a vast crime organization specializing in arms trafficking, money laundering, drug running, and white slavery (Williams, 2004, p. 42).

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) admitted in March 2002 that there are numerous methods to acquire “desirable” radioactive sources (Dodd, 2002, p. 4). The IAEA listed legal purchase, black market purchase and theft as recognized methods to acquire radioactive materials by terrorists (Dodd, 2002, p. 4). Since there are inadequate measures for blocking these methods, the best means to control illegal distribution of nuclear materials is an effective intelligence organization. The IAEA revealed that all significant nuclear materials seized so far have been the result of intelligence operations (Dodd, 2002, p. 4).

Nuclear Technology Knowledge

Even if Al Qaeda were able to collect materials required to construct a nuclear device, they also would need the knowledge to construct and maintain such a device. Some of that knowledge is readily available on the Internet. Searches on Google or Yahoo on the phrases “how to make a nuclear device” and “how to construct a nuclear device” yield some interesting results about Al Qaeda. Carter (2004) shares the fact that “there is no ‘secret’ to the atomic bomb anymore; scientists have little doubt that even a moderately organized terrorist group could fashion a crude bomb if it had the material to do so” (¶ 8). The job of building a nuclear device would be made a bit easier if the terrorist organization were not concerned with the myriad of safety procedures required in legitimate atomic bomb design (Frost, 2004, p. 412).

In November 1979, The Progressive published a magazine dedicated to the development of atomic bombs. Their lead article was entitled The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It—Why We’re Telling It. Morland (1979) entices his readers with the following opening sentence: “What you are about to learn is a secret—a secret that the United States and four other nations, the makers of hydrogen weapons, have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect” (p. 3). He goes on to explain how he found the information: “I discovered it simply by reading and asking questions, without the benefit of security clearance or access to classified materials” (p. 3).

In addition to the availability of do-it-yourself information available on the Internet and other sources, there is a large group of former nuclear scientists and technicians available. Not only was there a possibility that nuclear weapons were leaving the former Soviet Union during the early 1990s, but the region also was hemorrhaging intellectual knowledge. In 1996 the count of unpaid and disillusioned Soviet scientists with detailed knowledge of construction and maintenance of nuclear weapons who had left the country rose to over three thousand (Williams, 2004, p. 44).

“He [bin Laden] has a collection of individuals knowledgeable in activating the [nuclear] bombs and he is looking for and recruiting former Soviet Special Forces in learning how to operate the bombs behind enemy lines” (Williams, 2005, p. 93). This statement was made in 1998 before a congressional committee by Yossef Bodansky, Chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.

One individual who may be working with bin Laden and Al Qaeda is Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, a metallurgist trained in Germany. Williams (2005) reveals that Dr. Khan stole plans for enriching uranium to weapons-grade strength in gas centrifuges from Urenco, a top-secret atomic energy plant in the Netherlands (p. 106). Kahn may have used those plans at the A. Q. Kahn Research Laboratories, a nuclear testing facility he established in his native Pakistan near Islamabad. “For the next twenty-eight years, he worked to build ‘the Islamic bomb’ with the assistance of Chinese technicians and scientists” (Williams, 2005, p. 106).

On May 28, 1998 Pakistan joined the elite club of nuclear nations with the first in a series of tests of nuclear devices. At the conclusion of their successful testing on May 30, 1998 Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nowaz Sharif declared, “No matter we are recognized as a nuclear weapons power or not, we are a nuclear power” (Ahmed, 1999, p. 178).

This achievement by Pakistan was possible because of Khan’s thievery and technical work (Williams, 2005, p. 106). Williams (2005) tells us that the successful test of five nuclear devices beneath the scorched hills of the Baluchistan desert elevated Dr. Khan to the status of a Pakistani national hero (p. 106).

In the United States and Western Europe, Dr. Khan was not viewed as a famous scientist from Pakistan. Rather, he was “viewed as a rogue scientist, a nuclear madman, and an individual far more dangerous than Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri” (Williams, 2005, p. 107). In addition to sharing his stolen centrifuge plans with Pakistan, he also struck a sinister deal with North Korea which led to the plans finding their way to Pyongyang. In exchange for the plans Khan received at least twelve ballistic nuclear-capable missiles which he modified to produce Ghaudi missiles for Pakistan (Williams, 2005, p. 107).

Dr. Khan sold the same nuclear blueprints a third time to Iran in 2001. He also offered the plans to Saddam Hussein and Libyan president Muammar Gadhafi (Williams, 2005, p. 107). Williams (2005) reported that Khan also sold his centrifuge technology to Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Nigeria, and Brazil (p. 108). In addition, Khan traded his centrifuge technology for China’s advanced implosion-style nuclear bomb designs (p. 108). He also sold nuclear technology to Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Algeria, Kuwait, Myanmar, Abu Dhabi, and possibly other countries and organizations. There is no known list of all his customers (Williams, 2005, p. 115).

A proponent of radical Islam and outspoken critic of the United States, Dr. Khan professed his opinion that “all Western countries are not only the enemies of Pakistan, but, in fact of Islam” (Williams, 2005, p. 109). Dr. Khan’s link to Osama bin Laden was revealed on March 2, 2003 when Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s military operations chief, was arrested in Karachi. During the investigation surrounding Mohammed’s arrest, U.S. intelligence officials discovered digital evidence on his laptop about meetings between Dr. Khan and Osama bin Laden in a Kabul safe house (Williams, 2005, p. 113).

During a CIA interrogation, Khalid Mohammed confirmed that one of bin Laden’s stated goals was to create a “nuclear hell storm” within the United States (Williams, 2005, p. 113). Mohammed further revealed that the chain of command for this mission reported directly to bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and an unknown scientist called Dr. X (Williams, 2005, p. 113).

Nuclear Weapons Smuggling

Before bin Laden could create a “nuclear hell storm” in the United States, he would need to find a way to get his weapons into the country. Assuming bin Laden’s claim to possess chemical and nuclear weapons, many analysts believe it would not be a difficult task for him to smuggle them into the country. There are many ways a terrorist organization could get weapons of mass destruction inside the borders of the United States. Common sense indicates that, given the United States is unable to stop the flow of illegal drugs; their efforts would yield no more success at blocking the illicit import of weapons of mass destruction.

Williams (2005) alleges that “by 2002 the most notorious terrorist organization in the world [al Qaeda] came to a financial agreement with the most violent street gang on the American continent [Mara Salvatrucha]” (p. 160). It has been reported that as little as $30,000 would buy safe passage from Mexico to the United States, a safe place to stay in America, and a fake official Mexican identification card (marticula consular) for each Al Qaeda sleeper agent (Williams, 2005, p. 160).

Williams (2005) estimates that between 2002 and 2004, thousands of Special Interest Aliens (SIAs), with the help of Mara Salvatrucha gang members, infiltrated the United States (p. 161). There continued to be reports about large numbers of terrorists entering the United States. “The most alarming was the report that Adnan el-Shukrijumah, the appointed Mahammad Atta for the next 9/11, had secured the services of Mara Salvatrucha to reenter the United States after a series of all-out alarms had been issued for his arrest” (Williams, 2005, p. 165).

Seper (2004) reported that a police spokesman confirmed an important Al Qaeda lieutenant came to an agreement with the head of a violent Salvadoran criminal gang for help infiltrating across the U.S.-Mexico border” (¶ 1). It is beyond the scope of this paper to detail the extent of illegal infiltration of the U.S.-Mexican border, but numbers reported by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Border Patrol tell the story. In 2000, the Census Bureau estimated there were about 8.7 million illegal immigrants in the United States (Knickerbocker, 2006, ¶ 4). The U.S. Border Patrol in Tucson, AZ estimates the total number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. today is 12-15 million (Knickerbocker, 2006, ¶ 5).

Not all of these illegal immigrants are in fields picking beans; some of them came to plan nefarious schemes. In 2004, several members of the American Border Patrol demonstrated the ease with which a terrorist organization could conduct lethal operations. On numerous occasions, border patrol members crossed the border with a backpack concealing a simulated weapon of mass destruction. This simulated weapon was delivered to the front of the Tucson Federal Building. According to Williams (2005), no law enforcement officer stopped to question members of the group about the ‘weapon’ as it crossed the border (p. 164).

Something that illustrates the extent of smuggling operations within the United States is a program by the Pennsylvania State Police started in 1990 to try to control smuggling in that commonwealth. In 2005, the State Police expanded their anti-smuggling program to include techniques for identifying potential terrorists and finding weapons of mass destruction (Anonymous, 2005, p. 3). The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is worried about the presence of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction on their highways. The rest of the United States should take note of this and share the concern about the possibility of terrorists with nuclear weapons lurking in their home towns.

In reviewing the history of known intelligence estimates of the threat of nuclear terrorism, several important themes emerge: the proliferation of interest among nonstate actors to obtaining a bomb, the acknowledged ease with which terrorists could assemble a crude nuclear device, the ease with which any malicious actor could smuggle it into the United States, and the continued surprise of the U.S. government that this threat has persisted over a half century. (Zenko, 2006, p. 99)

There exist many opinions about the possibility of Al Qaeda possessing nuclear weapons. This paper presented one side of the argument: it is a viable possibility that Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization possess nuclear weapons. It might not be too difficult for someone with the right resources to purchase nuclear bomb components and fully-functional nuclear weapons.

This article presented the possibility that various forms of nuclear weapons, including portable suitcase-sized nuclear devices, could have found their way from the arsenal of the former Soviet Union into the hands of terrorist organizations. You read about the availability of materials required to develop a nuclear device and the existence of scientists and technicians with the knowledge to construct such a devastating device.

Given the documented record of the United States’ inability to secure its borders, there exists a viable possibility that a terrorist organization in possession of a nuclear device could smuggle that device into the United States. Once the device is successfully moved into the country, there are dozens of likely scenarios for its location and employment. This cycle of smuggling and emplacement in major civilian population centers by a resourceful and determined enemy can be repeated as many times as desired. When all the terrorist’s nuclear devices are in place, someone gives the word and . . . KA-BOOM!


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