The New Containment

The New Containment

Mini Teaser: Forging a U.S.-Russian alliance to prevent nuclear terrorism should be America's top priority in the post-September 11 world; here is a blueprint for one.

by Author(s): Graham AllisonAndrei Kokoshin

During the Cold War, American and Russian policymakers and citizens thought long and hard about the possibility of nuclear attacks on their respective homelands. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear weapons catastrophe faded away from most minds. This is both ironic and potentially tragic, since the threat of a nuclear attack on the United States or Russia is certainly greater today than it was in 1989.

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's September 11 assault, which awakened the world to the reality of global terrorism, it is incumbent upon serious national security analysts to think again about the unthinkable. Could a nuclear terrorist attack happen today? Our considered answer is: yes, unquestionably, without any doubt. It is not only a possibility, but in fact the most urgent unaddressed national security threat to both the United States and Russia.

Consider this hypothetical: A crude nuclear weapon constructed from stolen materials explodes in Red Square in Moscow. A 15-kiloton blast would instantaneously destroy the Kremlin, Saint Basil's Cathedral, the ministries of foreign affairs and defense, the Tretyakov Gallery, and tens of thousands of individual lives. In Washington, an equivalent explosion near the White House would completely destroy that building, the Old Executive Office Building and everything within a one-mile radius, including the Departments of State, Treasury, the Federal Reserve and all of their occupants-as well as damaging the Potomac-facing side of the Pentagon.

Psychologically, such a hypothetical is as difficult to internalize as are the plot lines of a writer like Tom Clancy (whose novel Debt of Honor ends with terrorists crashing a jumbo jet into the U.S. Capitol on Inauguration Day, and whose The Sum of All Fears contemplates the very scenario we discuss-the detonation of a nuclear device in a major American metropolis by terrorists). That these kinds of scenarios are physically possible, however, is an undeniable, brute fact.

After the first nuclear terrorist attack, the Duma, Congress-or what little is left of them-and the press will investigate: Who knew what, when? They will ask what could have been done to prevent the attack. Most officials will no doubt seek cover behind the claim that "no one could have imagined" this happening. But that defense should ring hollow. We have unambiguous strategic warning today that a nuclear terrorist attack could occur at any moment. Responsible leaders should be asking hard questions now. Nothing prevents the governments of Russia, America and other countries from taking effective action immediately-nothing, that is, but a lack of determination.

The argument made here can be summarized in two propositions: first, nuclear terrorism poses a clear and present danger to the United States, Russia and other nations; second, nuclear terrorism is a largely preventable disaster. Preventing nuclear terrorism is a large, complex, but ultimately finite challenge that can be met by a bold, determined, but nonetheless finite response. The current mismatch between the seriousness of the threat on the one hand, and the actions governments are now taking to meet it on the other, is unacceptable. Below we assess the threat and outline a solution that begins with a U.S.-Russian led Alliance Against Nuclear Terrorism.

Assessing the Threat

A comprehensive threat assessment must consider both the likelihood of an event and the magnitude of its anticipated consequences. As described above, the impact of even a crude nuclear explosion in a city would produce devastation in a class by itself. A half dozen nuclear explosions across the United States or Russia would shift the course of history. The question is: how likely is such an event?

Security studies offer no well-developed methodology for estimating the probabilities of unprecedented events. Contemplating the possibility of a criminal act, Sherlock Holmes investigated three factors: motive, means and opportunity. That framework can be useful for analyzing the question at hand. If no actor simultaneously has motive, means and opportunity, no nuclear terrorist act will occur. Where these three factors are abundant and widespread, the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack increases. The questions become: Is anyone motivated to instigate a nuclear attack? Could terrorist groups acquire the means to attack the United States or Russia with nuclear weapons? Could these groups find or create an opportunity to act?

I. Motive

There is no doubt that Osama bin Laden and his associates have serious nuclear ambitions. For almost a decade they have been actively seeking nuclear weapons, and, as President Bush has noted, they would use such weapons against the United States or its allies "in a heartbeat." In 2000, the CIA intercepted a message in which a member of Al-Qaeda boasted of plans for a "Hiroshima" against America. According to the Justice Department indictment for the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, "At various times from at least as early as 1993, Osama bin Laden and others, known and unknown, made efforts to obtain the components of nuclear weapons." Additional evidence from a former Al-Qaeda member describes attempts to buy uranium of South African origin, repeated travels to three Central Asian states to try to buy a complete warhead or weapons-usable material, and discussions with Chechen criminal groups in which money and drugs were offered for nuclear weapons.

Bin Laden himself has declared that acquiring nuclear weapons is a religious duty. "If I have indeed acquired [nuclear] weapons", he once said, "then I thank God for enabling me to do so." When forging an alliance of terrorist organizations in 1998, he issued a statement entitled "The Nuclear Bomb of Islam." Characterized by Bernard Lewis as "a magnificent piece of eloquent, at times even poetic Arabic prose", it states: "It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God." If anything, the ongoing American-led war on global terrorism is heightening our adversary's incentive to obtain and use a nuclear weapon. Al-Qaeda has discovered that it can no longer attack the United States with impunity. Faced with an assertive, determined opponent now doing everything it can to destroy this terrorist network, Al-Qaeda has every incentive to take its best shot.

Russia also faces adversaries whose objectives could be advanced by using nuclear weapons. Chechen terrorist groups, for example, have demonstrated little if any restraint on their willingness to kill civilians and may be tempted to strike a definitive blow to assert independence from Russia. They have already issued, in effect, a radioactive warning by planting a package containing cesium-137 at Izmailovsky Park in Moscow and then tipping off a Russian reporter. Particularly as the remaining Chechen terrorists have been marginalized over the course of the second Chechen war, they could well imagine that by destroying one Russian city and credibly threatening Moscow, they could persuade Russia to halt its campaign against them.

All of Russia's national security documents-its National Security Concept, its military doctrine and the recently-updated Foreign Policy Concept-have clearly identified international terrorism as the greatest threat to Russia's national security. As President Putin noted in reviewing Russian security priorities with senior members of the Foreign Ministry in January 2001, "I would like to stress the danger of international terrorism and fundamentalism of any, absolutely any stripe." The illegal drug trade and the diffusion of religious extremism throughout Central Asia, relating directly to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, threaten Russia's borders and weaken the Commonwealth of Independent States. The civil war in Tajikistan, tensions in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, and the conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh-all close to the borders of the Russian Federation-provide feeding grounds for the extremism that fuels terrorism. Additionally, Russia's geographical proximity to South Asia and the Middle East increases concerns over terrorist fallout from those regions. President Putin has consistently identified the dark hue that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) give to the threat of terrorism. In a December 2001 interview, in which he named international terrorism the "plague of the 21st century", Putin stated: "We all know exactly how New York and Washington were hit. . . . Was it ICBMs? What threat are we talking about? We are talking about the use of mass destruction weapons terrorists may obtain."

Separatist militants (in Kashmir, the Balkans and elsewhere) and messianic terrorists (like Aum Shinrikyo, which attacked the Tokyo subway with chemical weapons in 1995) could have similar motives to commit nuclear terrorism. As Palestinians look to uncertain prospects for independent statehood-and never mind whose leadership actually increased that uncertainty in recent years-Israel becomes an ever more attractive target for a nuclear terrorist attack. Since a nuclear detonation in any part of the world would be extremely destabilizing, it threatens American and Russian interests even if few or no Russians or Americans are killed. Policymakers would therefore be foolish to ignore any group with a motive to use a nuclear weapon against any target.

II. Means

To the best of our knowledge, no terrorist group can now detonate a nuclear weapon. But as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stated, "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Are the means beyond terrorists' reach, even that of relatively sophisticated groups like Al-Qaeda?

Over four decades of Cold War competition, the superpowers spent trillions of dollars assembling mass arsenals, stockpiles, nuclear complexes and enterprises that engaged hundreds of thousands of accomplished scientists and engineers. Technical know-how cannot be UN-invented. Reducing arsenals that include some 40,000 nuclear weapons and the equivalents of more than 100,000 nuclear weapons in the form of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium to manageable levels is a gargantuan challenge.

Terrorists could seek to buy an assembled nuclear weapon from insiders or criminals. Nuclear weapons are known to exist in eight states: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan. Security measures, such as "permissive action links" designed to prevent unauthorized use, are most reliable in the United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom. These safeguards, as well as command-and-control systems, are much less reliable in the two newest nuclear states-India and Pakistan. But even where good systems are in place, maintaining high levels of security requires constant attention from high-level government officials.

Alternatively, terrorists could try to build a weapon. The only component that is especially difficult to obtain is the nuclear fissile material-HEU or plutonium. Although the largest stockpiles of weapons-grade material are predominantly found in the nuclear weapons programs of the United States and Russia, fissile material in sufficient quantities to make a crude nuclear weapon can also be found in many civilian settings around the globe. Some 345 research reactors in 58 states together contain twenty metric tons of HEU, many in quantities sufficient to build a bomb. Other civilian reactors produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material to pose a proliferation threat; several European states, Japan, Russia and India reprocess spent fuel to separate out plutonium for use as new fuel. The United States has actually facilitated the spread of fissile material in the past-over three decades of the Atoms for Peace program, the United States exported 749 kg of plutonium and 26.6 metric tons of HEU to 39 countries.

Terrorist groups could obtain these materials by theft, illicit purchase or voluntary transfer from state control. There is ample evidence that attempts to steal or sell nuclear weapons or weapons-usable material are not hypothetical, but a recurring fact. Just last fall, the chief of the directorate of the Russian Defense Ministry responsible for nuclear weapons reported two recent incidents in which terrorist groups attempted to perform reconnaissance at Russian nuclear storage sites. The past decade has seen repeated incidents in which individuals and groups have successfully stolen weapons material from sites in Russia and sought to export them-but were caught trying to do so. In one highly publicized case, a group of insiders at a Russian nuclear weapons facility in Chelyabinsk plotted to steal 18.5 kg (40.7 lbs.) of HEU, which would have been enough to construct a bomb, but were thwarted by Russian Federal Security Service agents.

In the mid-1990s, material sufficient to allow terrorists to build more than twenty nuclear weapons-more than 1,000 pounds of highly enriched uranium-sat unprotected in Kazakhstan. Iranian and possibly Al-Qaeda operatives with nuclear ambitions were widely reported to be in Kazakhstan. Recognizing the danger, the American government itself purchased the material and removed it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In February 2002, the U.S. National Intelligence Council reported to Congress that "undetected smuggling [of weapons-usable nuclear materials from Russia] has occurred, although we do not know the extent of such thefts." Each assertion invariably provokes blanket denials from Russian officials. Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev has claimed categorically: "Fissile materials have not disappeared." President Putin has stated that he is "absolutely confident" that terrorists in Afghanistan do not have weapons of mass destruction of Soviet or Russian origin.

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