Dore Gold Iran, Mid-East Strategy & Arab-Israeli Diplomacy
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Averting Nuclear Terror

President Barack Obama's nuclear summit in Washington largely focused on how the international community can prevent nuclear terrorism. Since the 9/11 attacks, this has been a special preoccupation of the US intelligence establishment for good reasons. One month after the attacks, George Tenet, the head of the CIA, told President Bush that one of his agents, who had the codename "Dragonfly" reported that al-Qaeda possessed a ten kiloton nuclear bomb, that had been stolen from the Russians, which had slightly less the explosive force of the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima.

Worse still, Tenet reported that his agent had evidence that the bomb had already been smuggled into the US--specifically, he added that it was in the city of New York. American electronic monitoring of internal al-Qaeda conversations in the previous six months picked up references to an "American Hiroshima." Prof. Graham Allison, the former dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard University, reported the story of the US nuclear alert from an al-Qaeda bomb in his book, Nuclear Terrorism. He tells how the Bush administration hid Vice President Cheney for weeks, because it feared that al-Qaeda had the capacity to kill off the entire top leadership of the US with a nuclear terror attack.

In the end the report by "Dragonfly" to the CIA turned out to be false, but it caused enormous efforts to study the nuclear threat to the US from terrorist groups. There were other disturbing reports that Allison shares in his book. The Soviet Union had manufactured 132 miniaturized atomic bombs that could fit into a suitcase. The Russians admitted that 84 suitcase bombs were missing. And just one month before the 9/11 attacks the US had hard intelligence that two Pakistani nuclear scientists met with Osama bin Laden in a secret al-Qaeda headquarters outside of Kabul. Both had worked on the Pakistani nuclear program. Only after the US pressured the Pakistani leadership were the two scientists arrested and interrogated.

Meanwhile the only state to have been threatened by a nuclear terrorist attack has been Russia. In November 1995, Chechen terrorists produced a crude dirty bomb--which spread radioactivity but does not cause a nuclear explosion. They placed the dirty bomb in a Moscow city park but did not explode it in order to warn the Russians what they could potentially do. According to the CIA, in 2004, roughly two dozen international terrorist groups were seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction. It should not be difficult to build a global consensus against nuclear terror, considering the many states it could affect.

Yet, President Obama faces certain difficult dilemmas in dealing with the threat of nuclear terror. On April 6, he decided to revise the military doctrine of the US regarding the use of nuclear weapons. In his announcement he specifically said that states that signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and comply with their treaty obligations will not be threatened by US nuclear forces. The US public response to the new nuclear doctrine did not appear to be supportive. Three days after the doctrine was announced  Fox News published a disturbing poll that 74 per cent of Americans now felt that the US was weaker than it was ten years ago. Perhaps they felt that the US was pulling back from its global role.

In this spirit, Obama's critics quickly pointed out that there were many scenarios in which the US nuclear deterrent had contributed to security in the past, but would no longer be affected by US nuclear forces. A state that attacked the US with biological weapons could not be threatened with nuclear retaliation any longer. Previously, the US had been ambiguous about such situations, but now Obama wanted to clarify what US nuclear deterrence covered and did not cover. During the Cold War, US nuclear policy was based on "extended deterrence"--that a conventional attack on US NATO allies or on South Korea might lead to a nuclear response by the US. It was no longer clear what now happens to those former security guarantees.

The new Obama doctrine has implications for the threat of nuclear terrorism. What if a state has not formally crossed the nuclear threshold, but it gives sanctuary to an international terrorist group planning to use nuclear weapons against the US and its allies? When the US was more ambiguous about how it would react, even under such situations states would fear that if terrorist groups that operated on their soil engaged in such activity, then they might face a retaliatory response from the US. Now that ambiguity has been removed, and the number of cases in which the US would use its nuclear power has been severely narrowed.
Obama is hoping by reducing the role of nuclear weapons he will help make them irrelevant and thereby strengthen nuclear non-proliferation. The underlying assumption of his policy is that rogue states seek nuclear weapons because other states like the US have them. But what if Iran wants nuclear weapons in order to establish its hegemony in the Middle East and not because of the size or use of the US nuclear arsenal?

In fighting global terrorism, in general, it is difficult to create deterrence against groups like al-Qaeda, especially if they believe in martyrdom and are willing to sacrifice their lives for religious reasons. In order to contain terrorism, the states that sponsor terrorist organizations must be firmly threatened if they give sanctuary to groups, like al-Qaeda. For this reason, the US attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan, after 9/11.

Right now, the barriers that once existed for transferring state-of-the-art conventional weapons to terrorist groups are dropping away; for example, both Iran and Syria are providing long-range rockets and even Scud ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. The next leap for these states--to provide weapons of mass destruction--to terrorist groups is getting far less far fetched.
In order to prevent al-Qaeda and other organizations from moving to the adoption of nuclear terrorism, the strongest forms of pressure must be applied against the states that provide it with assistance of any sort. This is especially important because there are states that have murky ties to al-Qaeda, like Pakistan and Iran. If states know that they might risk full retaliatory response by the US, then they will be more prone to firmly use their security forces to root out the terrorist infrastructure. But if they are confident that US and Western military force is totally irrelevant to their situation, then the danger of nuclear terrorism unfortunately might well increase.

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