The emergence of jihadists known to be searching for nuclear and radiological (NR) material has lent a tone of urgency to the debate about ways to prevent nuclear terrorism.
At the same time, the supply side of the equation has grown from inchoate attempts at smuggling to a more organized market in NR material. This combination of factors has arguably increased the probability of spectacular attack in the not so distant future. The reason for this assessment is based on a straightforward calculation: a nuclear or radiological device is the ultimate force multiplier and a NR attack is considered “spectacular” enough for jihadists to fulfill their divine mission.
Though not publicized, anxiety about the threat of individuals acquiring sufficient materials to perpetuate such an attack intensified after September 11, 2001. When immediately after the attack, a source codenamed “Dragonfly” informed American intelligence that al-Qaida had smuggled a nuclear device into the United States, National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice described it as a “problem from hell,” evoking a previous comment referring to the “sum of all our fears.”
Producing nuclear weapons, including the required materials – plutonium and uranium – is beyond the skills of terrorist groups. The level of skills needed for the fabrication of a sophisticated weapon are judged to pose a barrier for terrorists. However, terrorists may seek to weaponize radiological materials in other ways.
Though there is a large selection of radioactive isotopes, only a few are good candidates for terrorism: cobalt-60, strontium-90, yttrium-90, cesium-137, iridium-192, radium-226 and plutonium-238.
Two types of radiological attack are possible. First, the Simple Radiological Device (SRD) involves placing a radioactive material in a public place to create an aerosol or burning it to trigger vaporization. Second, a “dirty bomb” uses conventional explosives to disperse radiological material.
While the problem has been well articulated, preventing terrorists from shopping for illicit material has been difficult. In spite of decades of US effort to institute safeguards, the supply side of the terrorism equation has actually expanded. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a haphazard business in stolen nuclear materials emerged.
The IAEA data represents only about 20 percent of all probable illicit traffic; the true number is impossible to calculate.
More worrisome, the decline in the number of cases reported may merely indicate more sophisticated operations of a maturing market. In the past two decades, criminal gangs have incorporated terrorist supplies into their traditional business such as narcotics and human trafficking.
In the realm of NR smuggling, these global networks bring together “suppliers, intermediaries and end-users.”
While the terrorism-crime nexus is global in scope, certain regional hubs hold a particular attraction for the Islamists.
The Pakistani node plays an important role for terrorists. Pakistan boasts one of the world’s fastest-growing arsenals, with weapons stored at bases spread across the country. In addition, Pakistan had embarked on the production of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW), highly prized by terrorists because of their compact size and sophisticated assembly. The prospect of an “inside job” within the nuclear establishment cannot be ruled out and is high on the list of dangers.
Next in line are the conflict zones of Chechnya, Abkhazia and North Ossetia where conditions for the terrorism- crime nexus are particularly fertile. Geographical proximity to the Russian Mafia turned the region into a high-profile route in NR trade.
Criminal organizations have established sophisticated mechanisms for smuggling narcotics that could be simply adapted to trafficking NR material. Experience in avoiding detection, knowledge of safe routes and protection by corrupt officials would all assist them in the smuggling of radiological material.
Finally, with its well-established drug smuggling networks, the Turkish node offers easy access to NR shoppers. In the years up to 2009, Turkish authorities recorded 75 seizures of radioactive materials, including weapon-grade uranium (HEU), cesium-137, americium, antinomy, bismuth and scandium.
Theft of radiological material provides another opportunity. According to the IAEA, as of 2013, 2,477 incidents were reported to the agency, of which 664 involved the theft of NR material. Although stockpiles of HEU are better guarded today, they are not beyond reach of terrorist organizations.
The record of the Islamist terrorist groups demonstrates their deep commitment to creating an doomsday- style event. In this sense, terrorist organizations can be conceptualized as rational players akin to state proliferators.
On the one hand, Islamists can carry out a NR attack to cause mass casualties, create widespread economic havoc and inflict profound psychological trauma on the target population. On the other hand, jihadists consider such an attack an ideal way to precipitate Armageddon.
Abu Musab al-Suri, strategist of the jihadist movement, offered a similar postulate to establish a caliphate.
Al-Suri wanted to bring about the largest number of human casualties possible for America and its allies, a plan that involved obtaining WMD.
Influenced by al-Suri, Abu al-Harith al-Sawahiri, a member of al-Qaida in Yemen, published step-by-step instructions on a do-it-yourself plan to make a dirty bomb on the group’s Internet site.
Under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State moved closer to fulfilling its plan of a spectacular NR attack. At the theological level, through Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi was in tune with the Islamist revivalists who sought to create a caliphate and who proclaimed the coming apocalypse.
Apocalypse aside, violence against the West is considered an essential part of IS strategic thinking, an idea first articulated by Abu Bakr Naji who provided a strategy that jihadists could follow to create a new Islamic caliphate. Naji also advised al-Baghdadi to attack the West to draw it into a counteroffensive in a wide swath of Muslim land, a conflagration expected to generate masses of jihadi volunteers.
But al-Baghdadi was under no illusion that small-scale terrorism would provoke the West, since even 9/11 was not big enough to trigger war between the civilizations. In any event, al-Baghdadi became convinced that nothing short of a NR attack would befit the caliphate.
Writings in the IS magazine Dabiq reflected this thinking. The article “The Perfect Storm,” apparently written by the captive journalist John Cantlie, declared that IS had every intention of striking the United States using a nuclear device, surpassing all past attacks. Indeed, Abdullah Ahmed al-Meshedani, a member of IS’s highly secretive six-man war cabinet, issued a manifesto proclaiming WMD to be a high priority for the group. The document, seized by an Iraqi special forces unit, was apparently distributed among top commanders to familiarize them with the IS’s NR doctrine.
Compared to its “sister” organizations, IS is well positioned to implement its apocalyptic plans. After occupying Mosul, IS confiscated 40 kg. of low-enriched uranium (LEU) from Mosul University. While LEU is not suitable for an SRD per se, IS claimed that the group had used it to construct a dirty bomb.
Whatever strategy IS uses to obtain its doomsday weapon, “The Perfect Storm” article and other sources indicate that the organization has amassed a considerable fortune of approximately 2 billion dollars.
According to Cantlie, IS has more than enough resources to purchase NR materials from traffickers or corrupt officials in Pakistan or elsewhere.