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The Ultimate Nightmare : Al Qa’ida With the Bomb

April 26, 2011

Wikileak documents that report Al Qa’ida rhetoric about unleashing a “nuclear hell storm” are worth noting in passing. But not to be overlooked is the nightmare that haunts Western civilization, second only to the risk we are taking with our experiment in changing the world’s climate. It is the relatively high risk that a terrorist cell will one day obtain fissile material and detonate it in a Western city.

Compared to this the September 11 attack was a pinprick, an amateur-hour stunt. If the religious fanatics running strategy for the organization had had real patience they would have pursued the nuclear option. Instead they stayed trapped in the old plane highjacking mentality and brought down two buildings at the price of being driven out of their bases in Afghanistan, when with more time they could have wiped out London or New York or, more cleverly still, set off bomb after bomb – Dallas, Phoenix, Detroit, Chicago – while holding America to blackmail. “Get all your forces out of the Middle East or the next one goes off in greater New York.”

This threat was delineated by academic Graham Allison in his 2004 book, Nuclear Terrorism. He warned that, “No other weapon of mass destruction, whether chemical or biological, sits in the same class. Thousands of nuclear weapons and potential nuclear weapons remain vulnerable at poorly secured storage sites throughout Russia.”

He said that if terrorists only got their hands on highly enriched uranium or plutonium they could easily make a bomb operational within a year. America’s porous borders would offer little protection. There is no promise of any technology that would detect fissile material concealed in a container. We are talking here about what might be called a backpack nuclear bomb, easily delivered by a terrorist cell into Times Square.

In weighing all the risks, Allison concluded that, “On the current course, nuclear terrorism is inevitable”. His book makes suggestions for altering course. It pays tribute to two former US Senators, Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar, for hard, unglamorous work in getting better security for Russia’s stockpiles. He concludes that, with more such effort, this nightmare is preventable.

But when you hear nuclear and terrorism uttered in the one sentence think about this reality, the lives at stake and the economic catastrophe that would probably follow. Think about the blow to our civilization of one or more of our great cities being taken out the way the Taliban took out Afghanistan’s great Buddha statues.

  1. Watson permalink
    April 26, 2011 9:26 pm

    Having already demonstrated their capacity to strike at the heart of America, I have to assume that Al Qa’ida would simply threaten to set off such a bomb unless the US or the UN acceded to a range of demands. Their threat gains credibility courtesy of Wikileaks.

    I see little value to the terrorists in slaughtering still more innocents in the name of Islam. Surely such a grotesque act of senseless mass murder would revolt even hardened supporters?
    It will be interesting to see how Obama responds.

    • John permalink
      April 29, 2011 2:04 pm

      I always thought the goal of terrorism was to kill one and scare a million into giving you what you want.

  2. Stephen Hill permalink
    April 26, 2011 10:53 pm

    One minor point, Dick Lugar is still an active senator of Indiana. Although that may not be for long, as the Tea Party are planning to primary him out his seat. Whether he would then run as indepedendent in 2012 no-one knows. With the partisan environment at the moment I have to admit it is sad to see senators with policy expertise gained over many decades being forced to play to the crowds (look at the deflated figure that John McCain has become).

    Mind you could Lugar running as an independent give Obama one more vote towards Cap and Trade. Not knowing how the Senate will be in 2012 (privy to the Dems reclaiming the house)it is going to be a steep-ask garnering the numbers (I can’t see the two West Virginia Democrat senators voting for it), and I’m guessing there will be one or two more nervous nellies that have tough Senate battles in 2014.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 27, 2011 6:50 am

      My understanding is that cap and trade is totally off the agenda, that it wouldn’t come close to a majority.

  3. Peter Pando permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:50 am

    Dear Mr Carr,

    It is sometimes said that every civilisation sows the seeds of its own destruction, and perhaps the western fascination with physics and chemistry has produced that seed. However, this is no longer a purely western civilisational issue. The justifiable love of the sciences is spread like an umbrella internationally, so the assumption that a nuclear device going off in a western city would be the work of specifically religious terrorists is blinkered. There is no requirement that a terrorist must be of any specific religious inclination to seek violent dominance over a civilisation such as the west, because according its cultural leaders the west no longer represents any particular religion. This applies to the so-called ‘atheist’ states as well.

  4. Damien Hogan permalink
    May 2, 2011 11:28 pm

    Certainly a terrorist strike using a nuclear bomb would unimaginably horrific. The subsequent Western reaction would untimely result in further massive deaths abroad as well as massive reductions in personal and political freedom at home.

    But given that nation states, such as Iran and North Korea, have had to divert enormous state resources to even attempt to build the bomb – How exactly could terrorist groups, with no scientific training, living in caves and afraid to look upwards or make mobile phone calls lest they be tracked by satellites, assemble the kind of infrastructure that would be required to manufacture a nuclear bomb? Quite simply they could not. Whole countries can barely do it. So the only bomb they are going to get is one that they are given or that they steal.

    So which country would give them one? No one. North Korea and Iran have spent too much time, money and diplomatic energy to just hand over a significant percentage of their last decade’s GDP (in the form of a bomb) to a group over they have no cannot control and who’s actions they cannot predict and without any clear benefit to them. And which will almost certainly be traced back to them if used (each bomb has a unique radiation signature due to the material used in its manufacture – so even if they did not trace/catch the people who were involved in the delivery, they could ultimately work out the bomb’s original source). Any country found to be supplying terrorists with bombs would cease to appear on global maps not long after. So this is not going to happen either.

    So stealing is the only realistic option. This is hard. How hard? Well again – entire nation states with dedicated security forces haven’t done it. North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, etc… have not stolen bombs from Russia, but have instead determined that it is “easier” to try to build their own.

    Even if Islamic terrorists could somehow infiltrate Russia without sticking out like dog’s proverbials and escape the attention of local and international security forces (who might just have guessed this cunning plan too I’m thinking) – then they have to work out how to use the bloody thing. These guys are experts with airplane timetables and box cutters, not Russian nuclear technology.

    In reality the most likely form of nuclear attack is low level nuclear waste material mixed with traditional explosives. This would be far far easier to obtain and does not require any great scientific skill or infrastructure to build. The effect would still be terrorising – but it would not wipe cities off the map.

    The greatest resistance the general public can provide towards terrorism is simply not to be terrorised – to keep in proportion one’s responses to the actual threat. Let us not unnecessarily assist the terror that these groups create by inflating their capabilities.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 3, 2011 9:01 am

      All your questions are answered in Graham Allison’s book.

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