Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 5, 2010

“One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day”

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on November 5, 2010

While the nature of the nuclear threat has drastically changed since the end of the Cold War, that bumper sticker message still rings true.

In contrast to President Obama’s stated belief in nuclear terrorism’s “game changing” nature (made clear in his remarks to Bob Woodward), there have been a number of recent analyses that pushback on the existence of a nuclear terrorist threat.  These include the previously blogged about Bruce Hoffman and Peter Bergen report, Bergen by himself in the CTC Sentinel, former CIA and FBI agent Philip Mudd in that same publication, and Al Mauroni on this website (via Homeland Security Affairs).  Even Noble Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling appears to have reconsidered his earlier prescient warnings about nuclear terrorism during a recent conference.

I do not suggest that all the authors I mentioned make the same arguments or that what follows is an exhaustive analysis.  However, I did want to highlight some of the reoccurring points levied against the risk of nuclear terrorism and provide some small measure of rebuttal (this is a blog posting—not a journal article…).

To be clear, I am not suggesting that a nuclear bomb is more likely to be used by terrorists than conventional bombs (insert target/delivery vehicle here—planes, trains, or automobiles), small arms, or other conventional weapons. However, it seems that the discourse (if not all the official attention) concerning terrorism focuses on certain prevailing memes.  Following 9/11, the conventional wisdom held that the next Al Qaeda attack on the homeland had to trump 9/11.  Combined with the anthrax mailings, this led to a sense of urgency regarding CBRN. This reasoning was often used to explain the absence of a wave of attacks involving shopping malls and other soft targets.  The conventional wisdom began to shift over the years with the lack of subsequent large-scale attacks.  Now it seems overwhelming opinion points toward a wave of smaller attacks, likely homegrown, exemplified by the attempted Times Square and cargo plane bombings.

What I wonder is why shouldn’t we consider a range of possible attacks and orient ourselves appropriately to the chaotic nature of terrorism? An innovative bomb maker in Yemen may not pose a nuclear terrorism risk, but it is possible that a compartmentalized nuclear plot is underway far from circling drone aircraft in Pakistan.  And what about the threat from terrorists not directed, aligned, or even inspired by Al Qaeda?

To the arguments:

Al Qaeda is under too much pressure or lacks a secure base from which to carry out such a complicated plot.

Or put another way, how can Al Qaeda plan and carry out a nuclear attack when they are too busy avoiding drone attacks?

At first blush, this seems like the proverbial candle stick holder in the library next to the dead body of nuclear terrorism (if you don’t get the Clue reference, please just understand that it is a strong argument).

However, then one remembers 9/11.  Did the terrorist pilots learn to fly aircraft in Afghanistan?  No, they went to flight school in the U.S.    The entire operation was planned in those terror training camps, right?  Well….not exactly.  It seems Hamburg (why aren’t we engaged in a COIN vs. CT argument about Germany?) and Kuala Lumpur might also have played a role.

My general point is that even the largest of terrorist plots do not require a safe haven in Afghanistan or even Pakistan to be successful.

Too many complicated steps involved—from obtaining the material through delivery to target—making success unlikely.

This is a particularly popular line of reasoning among skeptics who reference Council on Foreign Relation Senior Fellow Michael Levi’s book “On Nuclear Terrorism.”  Levi examines each step terrorists might need to successfully take to carry out a nuclear attack.  Adding up the probabilities for failure along the way, he concludes a nuclear terrorist attack is possible but not likely.

Yet skeptics should take note before citing him again—he still recommends a range of actions that conform exactly to the steps so-called nuclear terrorism “alarmists” suggest.  These include securing weapons-useable material, the deployment of radiation detectors at well-chosen sites, intelligence and law enforcement work, and even public preparedness.

If one takes all the steps required to successfully pull off the 9/11 attacks and considers the probability of failure at each juncture, and then adds them up, it is unlikely such an attack would have been successful.

Yet it was.

Unobtainable technical expertise.

Or, as former Pakistani President Musharraf is alleged to state, “men in caves can’t do that.”

Yet unfortunately they can.  If they posses the required fissile material.  A simple HEU-fueled bomb was never tested before it was dropped on Hiroshima.  It does not take a Manhattan Project to come up with a workable design—while complete plans cannot be found on the Internet, the physics behind the bomb is well known.  An exercise, referred to as the Nth Country Experiment, took typical physics graduate students and had them design a working nuclear weapon.  And they succeeded (as have a few other publicly known cases). This, supported by technical analysis pointing out the need for a skilled, yet small, team supports the notion that such an attack is possible.

The material required for a nuclear weapon is unobtainable.

In a recent conference, Peter Bergen is reported to have stated, “all of the reported thefts of highly enriched uranium since World War II would add up to only about eight pounds, or roughly a third of the amount needed to construct even the simplest nuclear device, he said, adding that none of the thefts were related to Islamist militants.

So there really isn’t the material let alone the expertise for terrorist groups to create a nuclear weapon.”

Okay.  I accept those figures.  But all, or at least the vast majority, of that intercepted fissile material was never reported missing in the first place.  So either we can rest our hopes on the fact that all the material found in busts does not add up to the amounts required in a nuclear weapon, or we can worry about the potential missing material not reported and not intercepted.

In addition, this is where some point out the lengths that Iran or other countries have gone to in their nuclear ambitions without success.  This simply confuses the issue.  Nation states seeking nuclear weapons have to master the hardest part—producing the highly enriched uranium or plutonium needed for the bomb. States then would want to build a weapon small enough to be delivered by missile or small aircraft.  Terrorists would never be able to produce this material, so they need to acquire it through theft or purchase.  Their weapon could be a crude device requiring a small truck to deliver it to target.

No indication of any nuclear aspirations in previous plots.

This is an argument that is difficult to understand. Again, Mr. Bergen: “In a study of all the jihadist terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, about 172 incidents in all, Bergen said, the think tank found that none involved weapons of mass destruction.”

How many terrorist plots in the 1990s involved crashing airplanes into buildings? Or even attacking U.S. warships? So why should we only consider the type of attacks that have already occurred as the only potential threats?  Terrorists have expressed interest in nuclear weapons.  It is possible, though difficult, for them to acquire nuclear weapons.  And the consequences would be almost unimaginable.  Simply because they have yet to carry out an attack using a nuclear bomb is not a logical argument that they can’t or won’t.

We should focus on the terrorists instead of the potential weapons.

This is a seemingly sound idea popularized by Bruce Schneier.  Except that it is most often used to either argue against security screening measures at airports or any focus on CBRN (strangely, no one uses this reasoning to argue that we should ignore someone with no known terrorist connection living in a large urban area buying hundreds of pounds of fertilizer that could be used in a bomb).  In terms of the nuclear terrorism threat, while a focus on the potential actors is vital, what is the guarantee that we will be 100% successful?  Without such a success rate, it seems the argument against securing potential bomb making material is rather weak.  For example, David Headley was not only involved in scouting out sites for the Mumbai attacks, his activity was brought to the attention of authorities by his wives (yes, plural).  This did not lead to the disruption of the operation and the pieces were only put together afterwards. How confident can we be in our ability to disrupt all potential future terrorist plots?

Again, I am not arguing that nuclear terrorism is likely to occur tomorrow.  Or that it is more likely than any number of conventional attacks.

I am suggesting that it is a threat worthy of serious policy consideration, especially given the potential consequences.  And I welcome comments trying to convince me otherwise.

Further reading:

Rolf-Mowatt Larssen, “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Evolving Forms of the Nuclear Genie.” http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/Evolving%20Forms%20of%20Nuclear%20Genie.pdf

Graham Allison, “Nuclear Terrorism Fact Sheet.”


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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 5, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

Arnold did I misread the bulk of your post?

You state at the end “I am suggesting that it is a threat worthy of serious policy consideration, especially given the potential consequences. And I welcome comments trying to convince me otherwise.” but the major portion of the post seems to argue for the probability of a nudet or RDD strike?

My position is simple! Nuclear surety and safeguards programs and efforts are much more tecnically driven than might be expected. The use of so-called PAL {Permissive Action Links} coded locks might in fact cause some delays in accessing a stolen weapon. There is no question that the more nation-states with nuclear weapons the more likely the violation of safeguards and surety. Will it happen? Unknown but I still think it is the top of the list for DHS and others to do what can be done within resource limits to prevent use of a nuclear device in any circumstance. No government is long to survive in my judgment that allows a nuclear device to be set off in that nation-state without being held accountable either through elections or otherwise.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

November 5, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

Bill, you read correctly. I just wrote poorly.

I was welcoming counter-arguments from nuclear terrorism skeptics to better sharpen my own thoughts.

Comment by Art Botterell

November 5, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

Not sure how useful it would be to frame this as a binary will-they-or-won’t-they debate between two extreme positions. Seems like the only honest answer to that has to be “we can’t really know.”

The practical problem seems to be not a simple debate over whether we should or shouldn’t consider the threat of nuclear terror, but the more complex and nuanced one about how best to deal with that among all the other hazards we face.

And the sub-debate is about whether an all-hazard philosophy is or isn’t preferable to a scenario driven one. The EM community had largely decided it was, but after 9/11 a lot of new folks came to the field and went the other way. Maybe they were right, or maybe they just needed time to deepen their understanding.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 5, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

There is a basic conumdrum in the anti-proliferation scenario that goes back to Dr. Oppenheimer’s instant reaction when viewing the explosion of the first bomb at Almagordo, N.M. specifically the “I have seen death destroyer of worlds” comment based on HINDU literature.

The concept of power cheaper than water [and of course we all will be learning this century as posted previously on this blog that water is NOT cheap] driven from guilt and need for useful and peaceful purposes of the atom was from the beginning a two edged sword. Few new in the early years of nuclear power generation that in fact only certain reactors could not have as a product of their operations fissonable material that might well in some cases lead to bomb making. Yet the US consistently has refused to recognize that it is the leading proliferator of nuclear weaponary either from lax surety, safeguards, secrecy, other factors. The fear generated by nuclear issues is still largely based on ignorance. After all since about 1940 think of the medical professions use of radiation for oncological treatments and other things and the knowledge base developed there [of which I am a beneficiary]! Yet the production of radiation oncologists and the profession of health physics is almost again as much of a priesthood as the weapons world. I am convinced that life on earth may well be saved by knowledge of the atom and nuclear physics but it is like James Burkes “The Axemakers Gift” a two edged sword. A difficult and demanding technology that exists but must have the highest standards of safeguards and surety.

Comment by Tom Bielefeld

November 7, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

Great job! I salute you on your effort to set a couple of important points straight. This is a serious issue that deserves sober analysis and your post is a valuable contribution in this regard.

I would like to add a few remarks, both in reference to the quotes attributed to Peter Bergen. I don’t have the transcript of the press conference you mentioned, so I cannot say whether he was misquoted or not. I hope he was, because the two important statements highlighted in this blog are factually wrong.

(1) The statement that “all of the reported thefts of highly enriched uranium since World War II would add up to only about eight pounds” is simply untrue. In fact, counting only the confirmed cases since 1991, the numbers add up to about 17 kilograms (37 pounds) of HEU as well as about half a kilogram of plutonium.

Those who find these numbers still somewhat unimpressive should bear in mind that it is extremely difficult to assess what fraction of the total number of smuggled fissile materials they represent. In other words: is this just the “tip of the iceberg”?

Contemplating about this question, one needs to keep in mind the following points:
– in some cases, the seized material had been “marketed” by the traffickers as “samples” from a larger stash, and the following investigations remained inconclusive;
– with (possibly) one exception, none of the confirmed seizures of HEU or plutonium were due to detection of the materials at border crossings. Rather, they were the result of “classical” intelligence and law enforcement work. Detectors at borders are good for finding radioactive materials like contaminated scrap metal. They perform much worse when it comes to detecting shielded uranium;
– particularly worrisome is the fact that the seizures of HEU in Georgia in 2003 and 2006 appear to be connected. If it turns out that the HEU seized in Georgia in 2010 is again from the same source, well, draw your own conclusions…

(2) The statement about the findings of an analysis of “all the jihadist terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, about 172 incidents in all” is, as presented, grossly misleading. The related sentence in the 2010 report, which Mr. Bergen co-authored, refers to a “survey of the 172 individuals indicted or convicted in Islamist terrorism cases in the United States since 9/11”. In other words, we are only talking about cases (involving 172 individuals, not “incidents”), in which suspects were indicted or convicted in the United States – NOT all jihadist terrorist attacks or plots worldwide.

Before I go on too long, let me just say that setting the bar for relevant terrorist CBNR activities at the formal indictment or conviction in the United States (and focusing entirely on cases in connection with militant Islamists) excludes some relevant and credibly documented incidents which never made it into a US court. Incidentally, the actual report avoids this mistake. But it still argues that previous amateurish attempts, for instance the chlorine attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq, are a good indicator of the network’s overall CBNR capabilities, an assessment with which I happen to disagree.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

November 8, 2010 @ 4:01 pm


I agree about avoiding a simple binary debate. My aim was to push back against “they won’t” opinion to make the case to consider nuclear terrorism a real possibility. From that point, it is up to practitioners in various fields (government leaders, intelligence, law enforcement, emergency management) to incorporate that in their planning. I would argue that planning for a nuclear terrorist attack can fit in all hazards planning (with some obvious specific additions, like plume modeling connected with fallout, that still has general advantages such as an increased ability for quick public communication). With budgets already tight and just getting tighter, I fear catastrophic planning for any event that will be overwhelming will be ignored in favor of the everyday emergency. And that is a different argument.

Tom, thanks for the clarification. I was too quick to accept Bergen’s numbers (or at least what was reported by the press, as I was not present at the conference) at face value. I should have clarified that I accept that enough material for a bomb has yet to be recovered, but that by itself is not a good argument against the existence of further potentially loose or vulnerable material that has yet to be intercepted.

Comment by Jason

November 9, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

I would take exception to your arguments, but as you say, this isn’t a journal article you’re defending. I’ll just say that getting 20 guys armed with boxcutters to simultaneously grab four planes is a cakewalk compared to the concept of building a nuke (or stealing one) and successfully bringing it to the United States for detonation.

Here’s the real deal. Yes, it’s possible. There, I said it. Now what do you want to do about it? There used to be this guy named Chertoff who talked a good game about “risk-management-based strategy.” That is to say, you have to prioritize your vulnerabilities with the understanding that you have limited funds and personnel to execute a comprehensive, all-hazards homeland security program. How much money are you going to divert to the lowest probable threat to prevent that consequence, at what cost to the much more likely (PETN, AK-47s, IEDs, etc etc) threats that are in play right now?

The moderate strategy of securing fissile material, promoting nonproliferation agreements, retaining a NEST capability, keeping your intel community alert for any indications, these are sound and reasonable countermeasures for nuclear terrorism. Creating a Maginot line of detectors in every large and small port and airbase and city is not.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 10, 2010 @ 1:58 am

The bottom line is the “genie” is out of the bottle and unlikely to be put back in before some castrophic act occurs. So the only question is what effort should be made to deal with that result?
Today I would argue US efforts have not been designed properly or for preventing high probability of severe consequences should such an event occur.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

November 18, 2010 @ 2:20 am

Bill, I absolutely agree with you.

In fact, going beyond nuclear terrorism, I worry that our efforts for any non-notice, mega-event are woefully inadequate.

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