Of all the clues that Osama bin Laden is after a nuclear weapon, perhaps the most significant came in intelligence reports indicating that he received fresh approval last year from a Saudi cleric for the use of a doomsday bomb against the United States.
For bin Laden, the religious ruling was a milestone in a long quest for an atomic weapon. For U.S. officials and others, it was a frightening reminder of what many consider the ultimate mass-casualty threat posed by modern terrorists. Even a small nuclear weapon detonated in a major American population center would be among history's most lethal acts of war, potentially rivaling the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
About This Series|
The three articles beginning today are the culmination of a year-long effort to examine the challenges the United States faces more than three years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Previous articles have ranged from the threat posed by conventional truck bombs to the difficulty of tracking terrorist fundraising. The articles starting today take a detailed look at terrorists' ability to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, biological and chemical.
While the dangers certainly are real, there is considerable disagreement among security experts about the probabilities for "catastrophic terrorism." In the case of nuclear and biological weapons, the subjects of articles today and tomorrow, there are technical and scientific hurdles that have proved daunting, even for nations with sizable budgets and state-of-the-art facilities. Chemical weapons, which will be explored in an article Friday, would be somewhat easier to devise or obtain, but also far less likely to yield huge numbers of casualties. A radiological device would have similar limitations for terrorists.
Each type of weapon presents special challenges for the groups seeking to acquire it, but experts warn that the odds for a successful attack could rise significantly in the future as determined foes intersect with advancing technology.
_____The World After 9/11_____
Attack With Dirty Bomb More Likely, Officials Say (The Washington Post, Dec 29, 2004)
U.S. Unprepared Despite Progress, Experts Say (The Washington Post, Nov 8, 2004)
Va.-Based, U.S.-Financed Arabic Channel Finds Its Voice (The Washington Post, Oct 15, 2004)
Moroccans Gain Prominence in Terror Groups (The Washington Post, Oct 14, 2004)
From a Virtual Shadow, Messages of Terror (The Washington Post, Oct 2, 2004)
Facing New Realities as Islamic Americans (The Washington Post, Sep 12, 2004)
In Search Of Friends Among The Foes (The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2004)
U.S. Eyes Money Trails of Saudi-Backed Charities (The Washington Post, Aug 19, 2004)
Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
Despite the obvious gravity of the threat, however, counterterrorism and nuclear experts in and out of government say they consider the danger more distant than immediate.
They point to enormous technical and logistical obstacles confronting would-be nuclear terrorists, and to the fact that neither al Qaeda nor any other group has come close to demonstrating the means to overcome them.
So difficult are the challenges that senior officials on President Bush's national security team believe al Qaeda has shifted its attention to other efforts, at least for now.
"I would say that from the perspective of terrorism, the overwhelming bulk of the evidence we have is that their efforts are focused on biological and chemical" weapons, said John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. "Not to say there aren't any dealings with radiological materials, but the technology for bio and chem is comparatively so much easier that that's where their efforts are concentrating."
Still, the sheer magnitude of the danger posed by a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands -- and classified intelligence assessments that deem such a scenario plausible -- has spurred intelligence and military operations to combat a threat once dismissed as all but nonexistent. The effort includes billions of dollars spent on attempts to secure borders, retrain weapons scientists in other countries and lock up dangerous materials and stockpiles.
"The thing to keep in mind is that while it is extremely difficult, we have highly motivated and intelligent people who would like to do it," said Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council staff member and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Each type of weapon of mass destruction -- nuclear, biological and chemical -- presents special challenges for the groups seeking to acquire them, but also opportunities that can be exploited by people determined to unleash their awesome destructive powers. This is the first of three articles aimed at exploring those risks and challenges.
Without sophisticated laboratories, expensive technology and years of scientific experience, al Qaeda has two primary options for getting a bomb, experts say, both of which rely on theft -- either of an existing weapon or one of its key ingredients, plutonium or highly enriched uranium.
Nuclear scientists tend to believe the most plausible route for terrorists would be to build a crude device using stolen uranium from the former Soviet Union. Counterterrorism officials think bin Laden would prefer to buy a ready-made weapon stolen in Russia or Pakistan, and to obtain inside help in detonating it.
Last month, Michael Scheuer, who ran the CIA's bin Laden unit, first disclosed in an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" that bin Laden's nuclear efforts had been blessed by the Saudi cleric in May 2003, a statement other sources later corroborated. As early as 1998, bin Laden had publicly labeled acquisition of nuclear or chemical weapons a "religious duty," and U.S. officials had reports around that time that al Qaeda leaders were discussing attacks they likened to the one on Hiroshima.
A week after his CBS appearance, Scheuer said at breakfast with reporters in Washington that he believed al Qaeda would probably seek to buy a nuclear device from Russian gangsters, rather than build its own.
There were as many as a dozen types of nuclear weapons in the hands of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, but Russian officials have said that several kinds have since been destroyed and that the country has secured the remainder of its arsenal. The nature and scope of nuclear caches are among the most tightly held national security secrets in Russia and Pakistan.
It is unclear how quickly either country could detect a theft, but experts said it would be very difficult for terrorists to figure out on their own how to work a Russian or Pakistani bomb.