Nuclear terrorism is one type of Weapons of Mass Destruction terrorism and it is one of the gravest threats posed by terrorism today. It entails the terrorists’ acquisition and use or threat of use of nuclear weapons or materials in which a sustained fission reaction takes place.
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Thus, nuclear terrorism is limited to the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium (Pu) bombs; however, some individuals use the phrase in reference to any terrorist weapon using radioactive substances, which entails the use of radiological dispersal devices (RDDs).
Terrorists, with the intention of causing havoc over a wide area, can use RDDs materials such as cesium-137, strontium-90, and cobalt-60. These materials are commonly used in various places around the world. Despite the attempts that have been made to secure nuclear weapons, various gaps remain that may make them available to the terrorists.
As was demonstrated by the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., terrorists desire to cause violence and widespread destruction in the world. Al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist organizations can readily accomplish this by the use of unconventional weapons of destruction, for example, chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear detonation. Among these means of attack, the use of nuclear detonation guarantees the possibility of mass casualties.
A nuclear weapon can lead to widespread destruction in the heart of a city, causing the demise of hundreds of thousands of innocent individuals and making others to suffer from radiation sickness and cancer in the long run (Etzioni, 2004). Moreover, a city’s infrastructure can experience radioactive contamination. This may require several years and a lot of money to decontaminate. The wider economic costs of such an attack can negatively influence the economy of a country.
In this century, the possibility of the occurrence of a nuclear terrorist attack has been increased by the fact that the terrorist groups are not limited to geographical boundaries.
They operate in different places around the world and corporate with other terrorist groups. More so, these terrorists are usually driven by strong religious convictions and they feel that they are heroes when they sacrifice their lives on a ‘godly’ mission causing destruction.
To initiate a nuclear attack, potential terrorists must first acquire the destructive weapons. They can be able to accomplish this in three main ways: accessing them illegitimately, purchasing them, or building them (Ferguson, 2006, p.9). All of these possibilities pose significant difficulties to terrorists. However, it is not in order to discount these possibilities to devastating nuclear terrorism.
Terrorists can illegitimately acquire intact nuclear weapons. Currently, different nations have expressed interests in acquiring nuclear weapons, and about 27,000 of these weapons are in the arsenals of eight nations in the world. This makes the terrorists to have a target-rich environment.
Russia and the U.S. have the largest concentration of nuclear weapons. In these countries, the nuclear weapons are usually under intense security, which makes them difficult to steal. However, being hard to access illegitimately does not imply impossibility. To be specific, the shipment and deployment of these weapons outside the areas that they are under intense surveillance can enhance the vulnerability to illegal access.
In a situation whereby terrorists have succeeded in stealing an intact nuclear weapon, they have to find a way of countering their in-built security devices. These weapons are usually protected by security and arming devices, which must first be activated before they are ready for use.
For instance, specialized security locks referred to as permissive action links (PALs) are needed for activating the United States nuclear weapons and they allow only a limited number of trials in entering the right code. Other countries such as Britain, Russia, China, and France have also adopted the use of PALs.
Even though the majority of Russian nuclear weapons have this protection, some of the older Russian tactical nuclear arms are feared to be lacking this security system since most of them may have been destroyed, are about to be destroyed, or have been deployed to unsafe areas.
It is not known whether some countries like Israel, India, and Pakistan use this security system to protect their nuclear weapons. It is feared that terrorists can collude with army officials to provide them with information concerning PAL unlock codes or any other security information.
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As much as the terrorists’ acquisition of nuclear weapons seems difficult to surmount; however, concerns have been raised about the security of Pakistani and Russian nuclear weapons (Blair, 2001). This is because some of their nuclear weapons are relatively portable, hence may lack in-built security systems, and they may not be kept in secure locations.
Terrorists can acquire nuclear weapons by purchasing them from a nuclear nation. They can also acquire the weapons when a nuclear nation transfers them to them at no cost. Nonetheless, both recognized nuclear powers and nuclear-armed “rogue” states may not be willing to work together with the terrorists in this regard since they are likely to suffer from devastating retaliation if they are found doing this.
The dishonesty in nuclear custodians and the black market are possible ways that the terrorists can employ in acquiring nuclear weapons. In addition, a coup in a country can bring a regime that is ready to cooperate with the terrorists in their acquisition of the dangerous weapons.
In this perspective, Pakistan is notable as a susceptible route that the terrorists can use to acquire the weapons. The country has a fairly new command and control system which the terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, can take advantage of.
More so, these terror groups have a formidable presence in the region and some of the country’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency sympathizes with them. There are attempts that have made to murder Pakistan’s government officials so as to allow the terrorists sympathizers to come to power.
The most notorious nuclear black market started in Pakistan and a metallurgist called Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan ran it. The nuclear distribution network sold nuclear materials and weapons to various nations across Europe, Africa, and Asia. There is no outright evidence that the network supplied terrorists with nuclear weapons or materials.
However, the program supplied blueprints for a nuclear bomb to Libya. Probably, terrorists may have acquired this sensitive information or ultimately they would acquire the information. This black market illustrates that some countries in the world, such as Pakistan, are susceptible to an insider threat.
Terrorists may also possess nuclear weapons by constructing them. At present, no terrorist groups have the capacity to build nuclear weapons and they would need to obtain HEU or Pu to build the weapons. HEU is not present in nature. On the other hand, Pu is present naturally but only in minute amounts.
The uranium that occurs in nature contains less that one percent of the type of uranium that is needed for making nuclear weapons; therefore, it must be enriched to make it effective. The type of technology required to achieve this is beyond the reach of terrorists, except they get state sponsorship.
In absence of the industrial-scale resources to enrich uranium, terrorists may acquire existing caches of HEU. Unfortunately, HEU stockpiles are abundant, with about two thousand metric tons available in the world, and Russia and the U.S. possess almost ninety percent of these.
The HEU stockpiles found in less secure regions are susceptible to theft. Similar to enriching uranium, making Pu is beyond the reach of terrorists, except they receive financial and industrial assistance of a state(s) or they steal from the existing stockpiles. The Manhattan Project constructed a basic type of nuclear bomb called the gun-type device, which is less technically challenging since it simply shoots one lump of highly enriched uranium into another to initiate a destructive chain reaction.
The gun-type bomb can only use HEU for starting an explosive chain reaction. A crude HEU gun-type bomb has the capacity of causing widespread destruction and skilled terrorists are able to build this type of nuclear weapon without state-sponsorship (Baker, 2002, p.2).
In conclusion, most terrorist organizations in the world have expressed their willingness to acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them to cause chaos in the world. This calls for establishment of drastic measures that can prevent them from obtaining or accessing these dangerous weapons.
Baker, R. (2002). Nuclear terrorism. New York: Novinka Books.
Blair, B. (2001). What if the terrorists go nuclear? Center For Defense Information. Web.
Etzioni, A. (2004). Pre-empting nuclear terrorism in a new global order. The Foreign Policy Centre. Web.
Ferguson, C. D. (2006). Preventing catastrophic nuclear terrorism. Council on Foreign Relations. Web.