Forty years ago, the American arms control debate focused heavily on the fear that too many governments would go nuclear and that traditional nonproliferation thinking, focused on governments, still dominates U.S. policy. However, argues Washington Post Associate Editor Steve Coll in Sunday's Outlook section, the bigger threat is the risk of terrorists acquiring -- and using -- nuclear weapons. A growing number of U.S. nuclear and terrorism specialists believe that the threat of a jihadi nuclear attack in the medium term is very serious.
Coll was online Tuesday, Feb. 8, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss his article, What Bin Laden Sees in Hiroshima.
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San Antonio, Tex.:
After reading your latest reporting, it seems the real concerns about a nuclear strike within our borders are two.
First, bin Laden's disaffection for the U.S.'s support of corrupt Arab regimes. I am reminded of Scheuer's "Imperial Hubris," where he discusses this at some length. Second, as you term it, there could exist "a semi-independent cell of self-aggrandizing Islamist scientists." One has only to think of Mike Naisbitt's 1982 book "Megatrends," to understand Naisbitt's projection, more than 20 years ago, of fluid, decentralized -- rather than centralized -- structures for achieving work goals.
So the thrust of my questions are two-fold: What is the likelihood that our nation's Middle East policies will change in any significant ways in the near term? Do you believe a dedicated coterie of nuclear scientists could really coalesce out of failed-state or almost-state sponsorhip? What is the likelihood of these rogue scientists acting completely autonomously of any state support? If, as you say, Los Alamos nuclear waepons desgners helped identify Soviet nuclear weapons scientists after the collapse of communism, are they now indeed working on that same task of identifying Middle East nuclear workers?
Steve Coll: On the Middle East policy question, I don't really know. The U.S. is obviously going to continue with the major planks of its policy: Friendship and close support for Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, a rebuilding Iraq, and so on. Also, it's not as if al Qaeda ever suggests it wants to enter into negotiations over subtle, reasonable shifts in U.S. policy. Nor has it ever been responsive to U.S. policies that most people would agree were supportive of popular Muslim causes, as in Bosnia.
As to the idea of failed-state or almost-state sponsorship, I was trying to suggest it's already happened. That's really what the A.Q. Khan narrative is about. I was just trying to play and extrapolate provocatively with facts that are more or less at hand.
As to the Los Alamos scientists' current work, I don't know what they do in classified compartments. I'm sure they're doing some work on the al Qaeda threat. But my impression is that neither they nor the rest of the labs nor the scientific academies has been drawn into overt and Nunn-Lugar like work in the developing world to any great extent.
Given the importance of this threat, is there a stronger case than ever to internalize the risk-costs in using radioactive material and cut back in its use? The economics of food irradiation, for example, does not include sufficient incentives to protect the Cobalt adequately... and perhaps there needs to be a move away from irradiation. To its credit, the U.S. government has been one of the strongest opponents of the plutonium economy, but the Europeans carry on regardless with their reprocessing... is it time for the U.S. to call in the shots and raise this issue again in its transatlantic demands?
Senior Analyst, British American Security Information Council
Steve Coll: Short answer, yes. There are only two realistic ways for a stateless group to acquire a nuclear weapons or radiological capacity: Purchase a finished weapon, or purchase nuclear materials. It's not realistic to think they could manufacture highly enriched uranium themselves, as some governments have tried to do in secret. So it follows that the more lightly regulated and lightly controlled materials pass through the global economy, the greater the risk that an illicit purchase of this kind could be made.
What about the argument that terrorists realize that a nuclear detonation in the U.S. would generate even more sympathy/support than 9/11 did? The world basically gave us carte blanche to go after al Qaeda then, and only stopped supporting us when we diverted our efforts to Iraq. Isn't this comparable to why the IRA never tried to kill the Queen?
Steve Coll: This goes to the basic problem of whether deterrence works when an adversary is not seeking to acquire or defend geography or other traditional political status. The jihadi movement now is not only trans-national, it has elements that are almost a-national or a-political in the sense that they do not seek to acquire or defend power inside borders, but rather wish to revive and defend a community of believers. It's not only the jihadis who have recently presented this problem. Aum Shuriykio in Japan in the mid-1990s was a similar group. As to how bin Laden et al interpret 9/11, judging from what they've said, I don't think they regard it as a strategic failure at all. This may be hard to understand, given what's happened to their organization. But bin Laden always said he wanted to be the vanguard, the stimulus to a global movement. He never operated as if he was hoping, a la Gerry Adams, that some day he would be standing at a press conference with his enemies celebrating a negotiated peace, or preparing to run for political office.
Very good article on Sunday. Do the experts believe that the Nunn-Lugar program is not being well-funded (or maybe not effective enough) and could increase the chances of nuclear materials getting into the hands of terrorists?
Steve Coll: I'm really don't know enough about where things stand right now. My impression is that there were times in the past few years where the program looked inexplicably starved for funds, people protested, and the money was restored to pretty high levels. But my impression is that it's a program focused mainly if not exclusively on the former Soviet Union -- important, but not the whole map.
Since there are no "unofficial" sources of weapons-grade
nuclear material, isn't it a bit of a false distinction between
national and subnational or transnational threats? The
solution to both is, I think, more or less the same: to
account for and secure all weapon-usable material in
every nation, and to reduce or destroy excess
infrastructure where appropriate.
Like many people, I think that the U.S. will have zero hope
of leading this effort without dramatically reducing its
nuclear arsenal and the role of nukes in its security
position. So in this less immediate sense, official policies
and infrastructures help contribute to and sustain
nuclear threats across the board.
Steve Coll: An articulate comment.
Securing materials is one part of the equation. Deterring adversaries who acquire the stuff anyway from using it is the other part. That's where I wonder if things are changing as technology disperses, distances shrink, and more stateless groups enter the scene.
Yesterday I read your nuclear terrorism story online and thought it the most comprehensive and penetrating mainstream media piece on the subject I've seen. As someone who lived through the Sept. 11th attacks, I try to follow carefully all the reporting. How closely do you think the Bush Administration is monitoring the variables -- the materials and money, the players and the planning -- that would fuel such a horriying event, given that Karl Rove's theory of lengthy Republican political domination rests almost exclusively on the notion that Republicans are better equipped to keep the country safe?
Steve Coll: I actually think there's a lot more to say and to chew on than I was able to do, but thanks. There's very little information of one sort or another available to the public about the Bush Administration's non-proliferation policies and programs, outside of its coercion of states such as North Korea and Iran. A lot of what they do is highly classified, so it's hard to know what they're not doing that they might be doing, if that makes any sense.
Very interesting article, especially when comparing it to the recent Post article saying that nuclear terror was seen as one of the least likely threats due to the technical hurdles. Is that why you say nuclear terror is a "medium term" problem -- i.e., we probably have a bit of a window to get our ducks in a row on this? I certainly hope so.
Steve Coll: Yes, that's why I chose that phrase. The specialists use the formulation "capability and intent" to evaluate a threat like this. Intent seems clearly established here. Capability does not appear at hand. Of course, one successful purchase of highly enriched uranium or a finished weapon, and you can leap capability pretty quickly. You would still have daunting problems of delivery and detonation, but it's the fissionable material itself that is by far the hardest part of the puzzle. The question is, if you extrapolate present trends, is it likely that motivated stateless groups will find themselves closer to capability or further away? That's what I was trying to wrestle with by synthesizing the views of the specialists I talked with.
Do you think the internal threat, for example terrorist attacks at America's nuclear weapons and power complex, is downplayed too much relative to the discussion about terrorists sneaking a warhead in from abroad?
Steve Coll: It would be a good question to talk about with experts at some length. My impression is that, notwithstanding the current plot of "24," turning commercial nuclear infrastructure into a catastrophe would not be any easier than acquiring and delivering a fission weapon. But I'm sure as soon as I post this someone will write to tell me I'm wrong.
Isn't the most urgent danger here the possibility that a state (North Korea, most likely) would develop a nuclear weapon and then sell it to a well-heeled group of terrorists? I fear that a lot more than I'd fear a rogue physics department at a Jakarta university.
I'm with the optimists in general, but from a public policy point of view, this seems to be all the more reason for us to have a multipronged effort -- against the terrorists' conventional efforts, against the terrorists' nuclear efforts and against other nations' nuclear efforts, particularly if those nations are inclined to sell for cash. (And yes, that's why I'm more worried about North Korea than Iran.)
Steve Coll: Good comment. I was not trying to suggest that states don't matter. Your comment explains one reason why they do. I was just trying to write about the relatively neglected problem of stateless actors. And really, if you were to just analyze probabilities based on past occurence, states have been the culprits. The U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cuba crisis, and more recently, the several near misses between India and Pakistan -- those are clearly the times the world has come closest to witnessing nuclear detonations in anger. Bin Laden has been out trying to buy nuclear materials and weapons, but so far as is known, he's only been ripped off for big money so far.
You answer the question "What to do?" by saying that "Helpful above all would be to elevate these issues ["the jihadi nuclear threat"] to the prominence accorded Iran and North Korea."
But how is this to be done and who will do it? The Bush Administration is not emphasizing this threat. Neither are most Democrats. This, in turn, gives the press little to cover. Your own story is raising the alarm, but even you will have difficulty following up regularly unless there are more than grave anxieties to cover.
So how to elevate these issues? Thanks very much.
Steve Coll: I'm not sure. I've been writing about nuclear proliferation on and off since the early 90s. It's what they call DBI in the media business -- dull but important. You're writing about something that hasn't happened yet. It's not very active or full of conflict or specificity. Where it does emerge into plain view, as in the A.Q. Khan story, it's a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a shroud. Read Time's story this week about Khan. Another very good entry in the coverage. If they're correct, do you realize that he amassed a $400 MILLION fortune while selling off Pakistan's nuclear knowledge? Four hundred million! And they didn't notice, in a country with per capita annual income of $800 or so? Which is worse, that they really didn't notice, or that they colluded? Really one of the amazing stories of our time.
Question about deterrence: it's often said that the concept
does not really apply to terrorist groups who have no real
geographic base or infrastructure. But I wonder to what
degree it applies to states as well. How effective can it be
to remind a North Korea or Iran that they have so much to
lose, when it is this sense of vulnerability that propels
them toward the nuclear option in the first place? Maybe
this is beyond the scope of your article, but to the extent
there is this Catch-22, how can it be addressed?
Steve Coll: The only thing you can really say confidently about deterrence among states is that so far, it's worked. Barely, but it's worked. There's some scholarship coming out this spring about the recent India-Pakistan crisis, where they came very close to war, that suggests deterrence played a major part, even a decisive part, in preventing a conventional war. So that's one reason why some states want nuclear weapons -- to deter a conventional attack that they might not otherwise be able to prevent or withstand.
What kind of intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities does the U.S. need to combat the possibility of the scenario you describe? While it is obviously important to worry about the threat of nuclear devices in the hands of radicals, it also seems equally necessary to worry about the competence (or lack thereof) among our intelligence and counterterrorism communities. The aftermath of 9/11 and what has been exposed about those communities does not exactly inspire confidence, and the apparent increased politicization of those capabilities at present does not seem to augur well for any great improvements in the near term.
Steve Coll: That is a very important question. If not this, you might ask as a taxpayer, then what? I think there's some conceptual recognition of the threat and how difficult the target is. But is it the kind or priority, and do we have the kind of capacity that is needed? I don't know. And it's not just the jihadi movement. I was talking about this with Peter Bergen, the terrorism analyst and author of Holy War, Inc., one of the few Western journalists to have met Osama bin Laden. He reminded me that when Aum Shirikyo (sp.?) surfaced with its attack on the Tokyo subway in the mid-1990s, it was discovered that they had built up an entire private, corporate infrastructure to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction without ever being accurately observed and assessed by any intelligence service. Kinda scary.
On the lessons some analysts and reporters have noticed is that Osama bin Laden is very good at telling people what he is going to do before he does it. He does not gives the details of when and where his followers will strike, but he does like to warn a particular (to him) aggressor, and he always then strikes somewhere against that aggressor within a few days of such a warning. Assuming you accept this premise, do you believe Osama bin Laden would provide any warning if he possessed a nuclear weapon, or do you believe you would strike without warning?
Steve Coll: Interesting. He presumably does this to prove to his followers that he's the Man, the Conjurer. He might wish to ensure credit to himself if he was aware of another big attack of any kind. Of course, it might be that the next big attack, whatever it's character, will be carried out independently, even if it is inspired by bin Laden in some way. That's been the prevailing pattern.
Does the U.S. government still purchase nuclear fuel from Russia and store it at the DOE plant in Tennessee called Y-12? Also, you didn't mention much in the article dirty bombs. Do the Los Alamos scientists think radioactive dirty bombs are less likely to be obtained and used by bin Laden? Finally, do the "optimists" in the group you interviewed think at all about what could be called the "economic warfare" component of bin Laden's struggle against the U.S.? Namely getting us to spend ourselves into a financial crisis via large budget and trade deficits?
Steve Coll: Not sure on the first question. I think everyone believes that a "dirty bomb" is many many times more likely than a fission bomb. The radioactive material needed to construct a dirty bomb is much more commonly available than the material needed to make a fission bomb. Plus, it's much easier to construct and detonate. But generally speaking, experts say the radioactivity dispersed by such a device would not be very lethal. It would damage the environment, it might have some long-term health effects, and it could render areas around the strike uninhabitable for a long while. But that's a far cry from the effects of a fission bomb.
Do you think the jihadi movement could be placated? If it was simply a matter of withdrawing U.S. forces from the Middle East, would that end the threat or is it broader. Is Western "influence" the real issue? If so, that could mean almost anything, such as buying oil or making movies that are shown in the region.
Steve Coll: The jihadi movement is not a monolith. There are many different elements within it, and it is dynamic, always changing. Many of its elements probably are susceptible to normal politics, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has been enticed into parliament seats in Kuwait and Jordan. Other elements -- bin Laden himself, I guess I would argue -- have moved far beyond politics and negotiation into meglomania.
Your article did an excellent job on describing some of the potential dangers that an enemy without borders and without a government could make an attack resulting in enormous loss of life. The question now is: how can we best monitor these hard to define organizations of terrorist groups and what should we be doing to best detect when and if these dangerous weapons are smuggled into our country?
Steve Coll: The monitoring part goes back to the question earlier about intelligence. That's the harder part. A lot of what we're doing to protect borders and cities from radioactive material isn't publicly disclosed, but you get the impression that they're working on it and have made some progress. There was a great anecdote published in the Washington Post some time back about a guy who had a heart procedure in town, a routine checkup that involved injecting him with some radioactive material. As he was driving back to his office he was pulled over by very anxious Secret Service types. He had beeped their equipment, apparently. So that's reassuring, I suppose.
What about securing the U.S. domestic nuclear arsenal? Funny that you were at Los Alamos, a place riddled with security failures. Do you think the U.S. focuses enough on preventing terrorists from penetrating our nuclear facilities?
Steve Coll: That's the sort of question that newspapers and other journalists might want to explore.
Do you think a dirty bomb in a major U.S. city is more likely than an all out nuclear device?
Steve Coll: See earlier, yes.
Could you expand on the availability of fisionable material. Would the physicists group have to have to get enriched U from another group? Or would they participate in its theft with technical info but never have custody of the device? Is your assumption that material is relatively easy to get if you know what you want and how to deliver it?
Is the key "tradecraft" knowing where, when, and how to get an existing bomb?
Steve Coll: Fortunately it's not very easy to get. Unfortunately most specialists think that if you're out there waving around five or ten million dollars or more, you could get yourself into business. The specific problems you would face in constructing a successful weapon would depend on what precisely you were able to buy. But if you seek a fission bomb, it would'n't be worth your money, if you weren't able to get a certain amount of highly enriched uranium at least. The trouble is that in the former Soviet Union, for instance, there is concern about stocks of heu originally developed in civilian facilities that remain lightly managed or poorly accounted. And there is always the concern that even where security is fair to good, in a troubled society, a group might be tempted by the sale price. This fear has been around since the Soviet Union broke up; what's been added since the mid- to late-1990s is a rising community of motivated buyers.
Do you think the Bush admin has put approrpiate funding behind detection of a nuke that terrorists might try to smuggle into the U.S.?
I know this is not the case with shipping containers. Please comment.
Steve Coll: Good question. I think a lot of these detection programs are classified so unfortunately neither the Congress nor the public routinely inspects or debates the decisions that are being made. The shipping container issue is a problem but at least we know about it, do journalism about it, debate in Congress. Presumably we have a chance to get better as a result. On detection, I really don't know quite where we are.
Steve Coll: Well I better go. Thanks for tuning in.