Preventing a Nightmare Scenario: Terrorist Attacks Using Russian Nuclear Weapons and Materials

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Preventing a Nightmare Scenario: Terrorist Attacks Using Russian Nuclear Weapons and Materials

May 20, 2005 14 min read Download Report
Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen
Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS
Ariel served as the Director of the CENRG and Senior Fellow for IAGS

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Americans have been lucky that there have not been more atrocities on U.S. soil. However, the enemy, while weakened, is far from destroyed.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri continue to issue threats against America from their hideouts. Their strength and support base, while diminished, is not eliminated. Other terrorist organizations inspired by radical Islamist ideology are still at large in Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and (presum­ably) the Americas, and some of them are willing to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to bring down America.

Recent reports about intelligence failures before 9/11 and the Iraq war indicate that there are numerous issues regarding U.S. strategic adversaries that the intel­ligence community did not handle adequately. Under the new leadership of Directors John Negroponte and Porter Goss, the intelligence community must address these challenges with the innovation and creativity that the issues deserve.

Court proceedings and intelligence debriefings have indicated that al-Qaeda and other terrorist orga­nizations planned their operations for up to six years before execution. Several attacks using chemical weapons in Great Britain, France, and Jordan were disrupted just before execution. The current hiatus in attacks against the U.S. homeland may be caused by preparation for massive attacks, possibly involving weapons of mass destruction.

To prevent the "sum of all fears" and to counter nuclear terrorism, the United States should:

  1. Expand its global intelligence network;
  2. Boost cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence communities around the world;
  3. Provide ample funding to and expand the Pro­liferation Security Initiative (PSI), a global effort that aims to stop shipments of WMD, their delivery systems, and related materials;
  4. Expand the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program;
  5. Neutralize those involved in WMD terrorist operations;
  6. Design a supporting public affairs component of the U.S. anti-terrorism policy;
  7. Launch a political warfare component via the intelligence community; and
  8. Consider instituting a monetary reward pro­gram for interception of proliferation opera­tions and nuclear terrorist activities.

    Radical Islam's "Religious Duty"

    Osama bin Laden has called using weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. a "religious duty." He has also declared that undermining America's economic power is his strategic objective. Bin Laden did not confirm or deny pursuit of such weapons in press interviews, but a body of evi­dence indicates that he has actively sought them.

    For example, Ahmad al Fadl, a defector from al-Qaeda, testified in U.S. court that in 1994 he was tasked with procuring a radioactive material, appar­ently highly enriched uranium (HEU), from a South African source.[1] Ayman al-Zawahiri was spotted vis­iting Russia for six months in 1996-ostensibly to assist the Chechens to escalate their hostilities against Russia-and spoke publicly about the ease of procuring nuclear materials from the former Soviet republics. In 2002, Abu Zubaydah told inter­rogators that al-Qaeda knew how to build "dirty bombs" and where to get material for them.[2]

    There are also media reports of al-Qaeda buying or stealing up to 20 nuclear warheads from the former Soviet republics, bin Laden providing $3 million and large commercial amounts of opium to Chechens in exchange for nuclear weapons or material, and four Turkmen nuclear scientists working to create an al-Qaeda weapon.[3] The verac­ity of these reports cannot be independently evalu­ated.[4] In February 2005, Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss testified that al-Qaeda might possess radioactive material of Russian or Soviet origin.

    In 2003, Sheikh Nasir bin Hamid al-Fahd, a prominent Saudi cleric close to al-Qaeda, provided a comprehensive religious opinion (fatwa) justify­ing the use of nuclear weapons against the United States, even it killed up to 10 million Americans, under the pretext that the United States is to blame for the deaths of 10 million Muslims.[5] This cleric and two of his colleagues-Ali al-Khudayr and Ahmad al-Khaladi-have provided "religious" jus­tifications for bin Laden to create mayhem. Bin Laden portrays himself as a pious Muslim who pro­tects and defends other Muslims and wages a jihad (holy war) in their name.[6]

    Al-Qaeda is an organization that is religiously and ideologically committed to the destruction of the United States and Israel, the subjugation of the West, and the overthrow of existing Muslim and Arab regimes throughout the greater Middle East and beyond-from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Indonesia. Its proclaimed goal is establishment of a caliphate (khilafa)-a militarized dictatorship based on the Shari'a (holy law) and dedicated to conquest of the non-Muslim world (Dar al-Harb, literally "Land of the Sword").

    Other radical Islamist organizations share these far-reaching goals and anti-American agendas, including the Lebanese Shi'a Hezballah and Paki­stani Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. Lashkar-e-Tayyiba has links to al-Qaeda, technological sophistication and personnel, and international connections reaching into the U.S. that could help them acquire WMD capabilities.[7] For example:

      All of these organizations attract a number of engineers and technicians who could facilitate their homegrown nuclear weapons programs. With con­siderable financial resources at their disposal, they can also recruit engineers and scientists from the thousands who have received education in related fields in Russia, the West, and the Muslim world. Such clandestine programs would be assisted by the wealth of information about nuclear matters available on the Internet.

      Furthermore, radical Islamists have ideological, organizational, and operational connections to the military and intelligence establishments of Iran and Pakistan. Iran is suspected by both the Bush Administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of managing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Pakistan is a nuclear power, and anti-American Islamists strongly influ­ence its nuclear establishment and military and intelligence services.

      For example, Pakistan was the source of Abdul Qadeer Khan's global nuclear proliferation network, which supplied technology to North Korea, Libya, Iran, and possibly other countries.[9] And there is strong suspicion that prior to 9/11, Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mehmood and Abdul Majid, two senior nuclear scientists from Pakistan who used to work for Khan, traveled to Afghanistan to offer their expertise to Osama bin Laden.[10]

      Experts believe that terrorists are willing to inflict massive casualties using WMD, capable of doing so despite the technical difficulties of execut­ing such an attack, and capable of either stealing or building a nuclear bomb. The IAEA has docu­mented cases of HEU theft.[11]

      Nuclear terrorism presents at least four distinct kinds of threats:

        The Russian Problem

        As sources of unsecured nuclear weapons and material, Russia and the other former Soviet repub­lics remain major proliferation concerns for a num­ber of reasons. First, the Soviet Union was an empire with a strong external perimeter and weak internal safeguards. While the Soviet regime tightly controlled everything that moved across its borders until the late 1980s, internal safety, security mea­sures, and bureaucratic culture were inadequate. This was demonstrated by a series of technological catastrophes in the 1980s and 1990s, the most famous and dangerous of which was the 1986 melt­down of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine.

        Nuclear, chemical, and biological material stor­age facilities often were-and still are-protected by nothing more than a padlock, an impoverished conscript, or a retirement-age guard. Moreover, corruption among general officers, mid-rank offic­ers, and officials is still rampant, and law enforce­ment is highly selective.

        Some generals were removed from the ranks during the Yeltsin Administration (1992-1999) for corruption, gross negligence, and political involve­ment. However, many others who were no less guilty remained in the ranks. Under the Putin presidency, the Kremlin has declared that the mil­itary reform is completed, and even fewer officers were relieved of duty despite major military disas­ters, such as the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk and failed missile tests during major maneu­vers. There is a pervasive sense in the military and security services that nobody is responsible for anything and that justice, accountability, and responsibility are not a part of the bureaucratic culture.

        Corruption is pervasive. Russian officers and offi­cials have been accused of selling weapons to Chechen militants, allowing armed Chechens to pass unmolested through roadblocks en route to terrorist attacks, attempting to sell nuclear materials from decommissioned submarine reactors in the Northern Fleet, selling vital components of military systems and vehicles, and illegally selling food rations and supplies, leading to malnutrition among the ranks. In such an environment, the sale of nuclear equipment and material-even the sale of working individual weapons-is entirely feasible.

        Three contributing factors may facilitate the pur­chase of nuclear weapons, material, and compo­nents in Russia: anti-Americanism, the growing Wahhabi-Salafi influence, and organized crime.

        Anti-Americanism pervades the Russian elite from the top down and is escalating in the media. Every international event, from the bombing of Serb forces in Kosovo to NATO enlargement to granting asylum to Chechen militant leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom is inter­preted as directed against Russia and aimed at undermining its power.

        Most recently, the Russian leadership and media have characterized U.S. support of bloodless revo­lutions in Georgia and Ukraine as attempts to push Russia out of its sphere of influence in the Com­monwealth of Independence States and to install pro-American regimes in these former Soviet republics. A former senior Russian official stated that "U.S. behavior [vis-à-vis Russia] is not that of a friend, but of an adversary.… While we need to talk to the U.S., we need to keep in mind that it is an enemy."[13] This attitude is echoed in an incessant stream of media commentary and biased reporting that translates into the results of numerous opinion polls in which the U.S. consistently comes out as Russia's primary adversary.

        The Russian military forces' posture, new weap­ons system development (including nuclear and missile modernization), military maneuvers, and foreign de facto alliances (especially with China and Iran) all indicate that Russia views the United States as an unfriendly power. Such anti-Americanism may facilitate illicit transactions involving nuclear weapons or components in which the Russian seller or thief understands that the U.S. is the likely target.

        The increasing influence of Salafi-Wahhabi Islam in Russia, home to about 20 million Muslims, may facilitate penetration of the Russian military- industrial complex by collaborators and sympa­thizers of terrorist organizations or the use by such organizations of Russian Muslims as intermediaries in illicit transactions. Pro-Salafi organizations and preachers in Russia operate with few restrictions. Leading Russian experts on Islam have stated that Saudi Arabian funding sources expend large amounts of hard currency in Russia to buy political influence among politicians, journalists, and other members of the Russian elite.[14]

        Finally, the influence of organized crime remains pervasive. Russian and post-Soviet organized crim­inal enterprises are more sophisticated and com­mand more educated personnel than almost any other organized crime structures in the world. Recently, the Prosecutor General of Russia stated that 500 large enterprises are controlled by orga­nized crime, including major oil and gas supply and transportation ventures generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. In many cases, organized crime has merged with legal business and has access to state enterprises, government officials, and a broad range of international con­tacts. Russian organized crime may be the conduit through which terrorists acquire and ship nuclear components or weapons to their final destinations.

        Clearly, the safety and security of nuclear weap­ons, technology, and materials in the former Soviet Union leave much to be desired. While strategic warheads and missiles on active duty may be rea­sonably secure, the same cannot be said about tac­tical nuclear weapons, decommissioned weapons, and stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plu­tonium, which can be used to produce improvised nuclear weapons. For example, terrorists could assemble a rather primitive weapon modeled after the bombs that the U.S. used at the end of World War II. Radioactive material from the former Soviet Union-either from nuclear weapons or raw mate­rials for production of weapons-could be used in an RDD.

        The Challenges of Non-Proliferation

        To diminish proliferation threats from Russia and post-Soviet space, Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush undertook a num­ber of steps to secure Soviet-Russian WMD, includ­ing the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and pursuing non-proliferation projects with the Yeltsin and Putin governments. This coop­eration seems to be working to some degree.

        Granted, the U.S. has serious misgivings regard­ing Russian transfer of light-water reactor technol­ogy to Iran, since it may be a cover for more ambitious nuclear weapons manufacturing, but there is little evidence in open sources that Russia proliferates nuclear weapon technology to countries of concern, such as North Korea and Iran. If any­thing, Pakistan seems to be the main culprit, fol­lowed by North Korea and possibly China.[15] Even African countries such as Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo are potential sources of radioac­tive material for dirty bombs.[16] Still, Russia and former Soviet republics top the list of potential pro­liferation sources due to their geographic size and the sheer number of nuclear weapons (which some estimate in excess of 40,000) and hundreds of tons of weapons-grade material that they possess.

        The Russian stockpile suffers from a number of security issues that need to be addressed, including:

          In terms of probability, an RDD attack is easier to execute than a full-scale nuclear fission explosion. As for construction of a nuclear device, an HEU bomb is easier to manufacture than a plutonium bomb, and a crude improvised bomb is easier to build than a military-grade weapon.

          That said, however, there is more than a theoreti­cal possibility that terrorists could buy a working warhead and deliver it to the U.S. in one of the mil­lions of shipping containers that enter the country without examination by U.S. Customs. Terrorists could also smuggle such a weapon through a porous land or maritime border, in addition to which they could smuggle components and assemble the weapon in the United States. In terms of who could execute such an attack, al-Qaeda, Hezballah, and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba each may have the necessary technical expertise and motivation to undertake it.

          After 9/11, the U.S. cannot view non-prolifera­tion efforts as an "either/or" proposition between focusing on proliferating states and focusing on ter­rorist organizations. Ignoring either could prove deadly.

          Russia and the post-Soviet states deserve as much watching as other potential sources of prolif­eration such as Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Yet the terrorists have already demonstrated their inge­nuity by using civilian airplanes and box cutters as weapons of mass destruction. Cooperation with Russian, Ukrainian, Central Asian, and other gov­ernments and security services is necessary, but this is difficult for the reasons previously described, including anti-Americanism at the highest levels, corruption, and inefficiency. Nevertheless, realistic policy options need to be developed to prevent nuclear terrorism from taking place.

          What the U.S. Should Do

          To stem the growing nuclear threat facing the United States, it is imperative that policymakers:

          • Hezballah operates Al-Manar, a satellite TV channel, and recently tested a military unmanned aerial vehicle, which flew over Israel. Such low-flying vehicles can deliver war­heads to targets otherwise protected against air attacks.
          • Hamas, another radical Islamist terrorist orga­nization, succeeded in developing rockets and producing Kassam short-range missiles in the technologically primitive conditions of Gaza's metal workshops and garages.
          • Other Palestinian radical organizations have uti­lized hot air balloons and hang gliders, which can be used to deliver a crude bomb or radiation dispersion device (RDD or "dirty bomb").[8]
          • RDDs powered by conventional explosives;
          • Attacks on nuclear installations such as nuclear power plants;
          • Seizure and detonation of intact nuclear weap­ons; and
          • Theft or purchase of nuclear materials to build a nuclear bomb.[12]
          • The lack of reliable accounting and electroni­cally updated (and up-to-date) databases that cover all weapons systems, including tactical nuclear arms, shells, and warheads;
          • The mystery surrounding so-called suitcase bombs;[17]
          • Poor security of some nuclear weapons sys­tems, especially tactical and stored/decommis­sioned charges;
          • The lack of modern means of monitoring, such as closed-circuit TV and motion sensors linked to a computerized monitoring system;
          • Inadequate security of highly enriched ura­nium and plutonium stockpiles; and
          • Insufficient security of radioactive materials used for research, medical, and industrial purposes.
          • Develop a comprehensive global intelligence network from the current cooperative bilateral arrangements with European, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian states. Such a net­work should mesh intelligence gathering, counter-proliferation measures, and special operations to thwart proliferation. It would provide ample warnings to neutralize terrorist organizations at the early planning stages of a WMD attack. The U.S. intelligence community should boost cooperation with law enforce­ment and foreign intelligence communities to include joint counterterrorist operations. Such operations would include deep, on-site, and long-term penetration of terrorist organizations and neutralizing those involved in WMD ter­rorist operations through covert action.
          • Task the Pentagon with developing deterrence against high-value and symbolic targets that terrorists and their sponsors value.
          • Provide ample funding for joint non-prolifera­tion programs, such as the Proliferation Secu­rity Initiative.
          • Cooperate with Russia and the other former Soviet republics by expanding Nunn-Lugar funding while boosting the accountability and transparency of these programs.
          • Design a supporting public affairs component of the U.S. anti-terrorism policy through the State Department Public Diplomacy structure, through the Board of International Broadcast­ing, and through the nonprofit sector to explain the importance of joint anti-terrorism actions to the Russian elites, media, and gen­eral public.
          • Launch a political warfare component, through the intelligence community, to encourage mod­erate Muslim clerics to issue fatwas forbidding terrorism in general and attacks using WMD in particular. This component should be expanded to include Muslim media in major markets, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
          • Consider a program instituting monetary rewards for interception of proliferation opera­tions and nuclear terrorist activities through U.S. law enforcement and intelligence organi­zations without creating a prize for unscrupu­lous foreign officials to simulate such activities.


            Fighting against WMD-armed terrorist groups is possibly more challenging than any Cold War task. During the Cold War, there were only two blocs- NATO and the Warsaw Pact-led by strong nation-states with strong chains of command. Now there are multiple players, including transnational move­ments and other diffuse non-state entities driven by ideologies and religious interpretation that many Americans do not comprehend.

            The United States and its allies have no alterna­tive but to combat and destroy these evildoers while preventing them from obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction.

            Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a divi­sion of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

          [1]Kimberly McCloud and Matthew Osborne, "WMD Terrorism and Osama bin Laden," CNS Reports, at reports/binladen.htm (April 11, 2005).

          [2]Smita P. Nordwall, "Detainee Said to Link al-Qaeda, 'Dirty Bomb,'" USA Today, April 23, 2002, p. A8.

          [3]Adam Dolnik, "America's Worst Nightmare? Osama bin Laden and Weapons of Mass Destruction," PIR Center, Septem­ber 12, 2001, at's%20Worst%20Nightmare%20%20Osama%20bin%20Laden%20and%20Weapons%20of%20Mass%20Destruction.pdf (April 11, 2005).

          [4]McCloud and Osborne, "WMD Terrorism and Osama bin Laden."

          [5]Nasir bin Hamid Al-Fahd, "A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels," May 2003, at (April 13, 2005).

          [6]Kelly Uphoff, "Osama bin Laden's Mandate for Nuclear Terror," Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, December 10, 2004, at
          (April 13, 2005).

          [7]Audrey Kurth Cronin, Huda Aden, Adam Frost, and Benjamin Jones, "Foreign Terrorist Organizations," Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, February 6, 2004, p. 55.

          [8]Ibid., p. 74.

          [9]Anton La Guardia, Ahmed Rashid, and Alec Russell, "The Nuclear Supermarket: Race to Shut Networks Supplying Rogue States," The Daily Telegraph (London), February 6, 2004, p. 1.

          [10]"Atom Scientists Talked to Bin Laden," December 12, 2001, CBS News, at main315627.shtml (May 16, 2005).

          [11]Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, "The Seven Myths of Nuclear Terrorism," Current History, March 2005, p. 153.

          [12]William C. Potter, Charles D. Ferguson, and Leonard S. Spector, "The Four Faces of Nuclear Terror and the Need for a Pri­oritized Response," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 3 (May/June 2004), at (May 16, 2005).

          [13]Former Russian official, interview with author, Moscow, March 2005.

          [14]Interviews with author, March 2005.

          [15]La Guardia, Rashid, and Russell, "The Nuclear Supermarket" p. 1.

          [16]Francois-Xavier Harispe, "U.S. Experts to Analyse Uranium Seized by DR Congo Authorities," Agence France-Press, March 24, 2004.

          [17]Two senior Russian officials-the late General Alexander Lebed, President Yeltsin's Secretary of Russia's National Security Coun­cil, and Yeltsin's science adviser, Professor Alexei Yablokov-said publicly and testified that such devices were commissioned by the Soviet KGB (Committee for State Security), but their fate is unclear due to the limited time span of such weapons.


          Ariel Cohen
          Ariel Cohen

          Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS