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Nuclear Terrorism: The threat within or without?

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Message Siddharth Ramana

On 25 May 2008, a video titled “Nuclear Jihad: The Ultimate Terror” was posted on the Al-Ekhlass and Al-Hesbah forums. Each of the mentioned forums is recognized as publicity fronts for Al-Qaeda. The video’s message which encouraged militants to use nuclear weapons against western interests was later refuted to be a fan made presentation as opposed to an actual Al-Qaeda message. Authorities were quick to point out that the image shown on the tape was taken from a video game and that the video lacked Al-Qaeda’s media logo- As-Sahab.

Surprisingly, a FBI press release, issued two days after the video’s launch, discussed the impending release of a videotape that would urge for a nuclear jihad against the West (Reuters, 27 May 2008). This delayed response has led to speculation about their alertness in dealing with the situation. Al-Qaeda has increasingly relied on the internet as a medium for propagating its messages, especially since its falling out with the Qatari television channel Al-Jazeera.  There has been a surge of Al-Qaeda activity on the internet and should be noted that significant statements, including the threat preceding the Danish embassy bombings in Pakistan, were released on the internet. Although the nuclear threat video has been dismissed; its viral spread to other militant forums is cause for concern.

A terror group’s use of such a weapon would make it nearly impossible for a retaliatory strike because of their non-state nature, thereby magnifying the threat.  However, owing to the large financial and material resources involved in the maintenance and use of nuclear material, it would make it extraordinarily difficult for a terror group to use such a device. It is therefore feared that nuclear states which are recognized as state sponsors of terrorism would facilitate the transfer of such technology to terror groups. The only terror group outside state sponsorship capable of remotely capable of organizing such infrastructure and expenses would be Al-Qaeda. .

In an interview, Osama Bin Laden admitted to having nuclear materials. In what may be inferred as a rejection of a first strike option, he said “we have chemical and nuclear weapons as a deterrent and if America used them against us we reserve the right to use them” (Dawn, November 9 2001).

According to Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official responsible for investigating Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden’s organization displayed an extraordinarily sophisticated and professional attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). At the end of 1996, it is believed Al-Qaeda had successfully managed to buy radiological materials which could be used in an attack.

Bin Laden has even gone to the extent of securing religious approval for the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. In a treatise signed by Saudi sheik Hamid bin Fahd, it is argued that using such weapons is justified as a result of the American atrocities resulting in the deaths of millions of Muslims worldwide (CBS, 14 November 2004).

However, as mentioned the use of nuclear material in a terrorist attack would require sophisticated technology which is difficult even for Al-Qaeda to possess. In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Charles Allen explained to American lawmakers, in a discussion on nuclear terrorism, that “there is a choke point in a terrorist effort to develop a nuclear capability- It is impossible to build a nuclear weapon without fissile material” (Rediff, 5 April 2008).  However, the current radiological material available would allow for the production of a dirty bomb.

There is evidence to show that potential dirty bomb attacks have been successfully foiled in various parts of the world. In November 2001, a Turkish ambulance driver was arrested after a sting operation nailed him attempting to sell over a kilogram of uranium to undercover policemen (Guardian, 7 November 2001). In 2006, a British court learned of an Al-Qaeda cell which was exposed in London. Salahuddin Amin had information passed to him about a "radio- isotope bomb" while he was in Pakistan (The Daily Telegraph, 24 March 2006).

Pakistan is a key link in the study of the threat of nuclear terrorism. Disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q Khan is the primary accussant in the sale of information relating to making of a nuclear device in the proliferation market.  In late 2001, Federal investigators looking into the proliferation racket discovered that Al-Qaeda had sought the services of two Pakistani nuclear scientists Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid. Mahmood was not a low-level scientist. In fact, he was one of Pakistan's foremost experts in the nation’s secret effort to produce plutonium for atomic weapons. In 1999, Mahmood publicly stated that Pakistan should help other Islamic nations build nuclear weapons. He also made public statements supporting the Taliban movement. On questioning, both Mahmood and Majid admitted to consultations with Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri during their visits to Afghanistan, during which long "theoretical" discussions on nuclear weapons were held (Asia Times, 4 June 2004).

The widespread belief that the easiest source for nuclear know how would be from Pakistan would be particularly unsettling for India. According to Professor Stephen Cohen, “There is a hard-to-quantify risk of nuclear theft. Pakistan has a homegrown personnel reliability program, but even this could be circumvented in a determined conspiracy. There is some small chance that should Pakistan unravel, its nuclear assets will be seized by remnant elements of the army for political, strategic or personal purposes.” (Times of India, 17 June 2008).

For India, the threat of nuclear terrorism is manifested, considering that Dr. Khan was a member of Lashkar E Tayeeba, a terrorist group responsible for the deaths of many Indians. It is also known that Khan attended the last known openly known Lashkar moot in April 2001. Incidentally, the dais was shared by Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood as well (Asia Times, 4 June 2004).

India’s fear of nuclear proliferation to terrorists led to its participation in the international convention on the security of nuclear material. Known as the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the agreement includes provisions that require states to protect nuclear material from being stolen while in international transport. The fear of a nuclear terror attack has forced even undeclared nuclear powers to such as Israel to join the group (IAEA, 28 January 2002). More recently, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh outlined the fear of nuclear material moving into the hands of terrorists. Shortly after, India signed an agreement for cooperation with other nations to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism (Times of India, 17 June 2008).

Analysts are now focusing on Al-Qaeda’s rationale for the use of nuclear weapons and if it would serve its larger political objectives. While it is recognized that Al-Qaeda holds material that can be used in a dirty bomb, the technical intricacies of such an attack would be very high even for Al-Qaeda. Viewed through the prism of Bin Laden’s statement regarding nuclear weapons use, it can be argued by his sympathizers that the American use of Depleted Uranium in the recent conflicts would warrant action. Depleted Uranium shells which have been used by the American military are suspected to be responsible for the high number of cancer cases in the regions where they have been used. Military officials dismiss such concerns. America has loathed a ban the use of such weapons against insurgents because as Colonel James Naughton of US Army Material Command said “they want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them” (BBC News, 18 March 2003).

Al-Qaeda is not known to adopt an apocalyptic view in its attacks, despite its glorification of suicide bombers and martyrs in its’ battle against the west. If inferred rightly, Bin Laden views nuclear weaponry as a deterrent as opposed to an offensive weapon at this stage. Details of the recent plots which were unearthed do not indicate the possibility of an imminent nuclear attack.

Furthermore, Bin Laden has attempted to explain his actions and those of his followers worldwide by trying to reach out to the people in the democratic countries. He acknowledges that the democratic system would help Al-Qaeda achieve its purposes and has on more than one occasion appealed directly to the citizens for a ceasefire (BBC News, 15 April 2004). It would seem unlikely that Bin Laden would contemplate the use of nuclear weapons at this point of time considering the lethality and purposefulness of contemporary terror attacks.

 Even U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has downplayed concerns that Al-Qaida inspired elements might use WMDs in attacks against the West. He states that “in the immediate or near term, the focus is on conventional weapons which can still be quite damaging” (The Hindu, 28 May 2008).

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Siddharth Ramana is an MscEcon in Intelligence and Strategic Studies. A student of peace and conflict studies, he is presently pursuing an additional Masters in Counter Terrorism (Israel). He has worked as a research assistant for the Institute of (more...)
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