Nuclear terrorism

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

In the context of intensified anti-terrorism operations, the possibility of desperate terrorists launching unconventional methods of attack is distinct. How prepared are the governments to face this emerging challenge?

PERHAPS the most significant success in the offensive against Al Qaeda since September 11 has been the recent arrest in Rawalpindi of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, described as the mastermind of the organisation's deadly acts. Even the 1993 explosion at the basement of the World Trade Centre is attributed to him. He has since been handed over to the U.S. authorities and is being questioned. While his exact role in all that has happened on U.S. soil and elsewhere is yet to be unravelled in full, his capture cannot but be a great setback to Osama bin Laden.

Sheikh Mohammad's arrest comes against the backdrop of two other significant happenings. First is General Pervez Musharraf's grudging admission that bin Laden was still alive, although the General is emphatic that bin Laden is not in Pakistan, an assertion that does not carry conviction with many discerning observers. Next is the report that his two sons have been picked up in south-eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan's Interior Minister has, of course, been quick to deny this. Going by the country's track record, this denial has to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.

The general impression that one gets from all these happenings is that the noose is closing in on bin Laden. This is not without basis if one also considers the speculation that a lot of valuable material has been gathered from the house in Rawalpindi from where Sheikh Mohammad was arrested. If Sheikh Mohammad is such a big catch as is claimed - there are quite a few who dispute it from the low ranking that was given to him in the original list of those wanted by the FBI - the material seized from his house should lead us on to bin Laden's hide-out or its nearabouts. This is why my fear is that, being driven to the wall, Al Qaeda men, spread over many countries, could resort to some "spectacular" action, out of sheer desperation. Many U.S. analysts share this apprehension. Naturally, the focus shifts to the Al Qaeda's capacity to launch a biological, chemical and nuclear offensive. Even if this assessment invites accusations of paranoia or downright derision, it is worth our while to think of the worst case scenario.

General Richard Myers of the U.S. Air Force, who is also the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pinpoints the coalescence of terrorist outfits and nations hostile to America, linked with available weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as a source of utmost danger to his country. I would add that Great Britain and India face no less a threat. While the former's open support to the proposed war against Iraq makes it more vulnerable, our middle-of-the road posture does not eliminate the danger to ourselves because of Pakistan's uninhibited propaganda that we are an anti-Islamic nation which deserves to be taught a lesson. (The Shahi Imam's vitriolic utterances against the U.S. on the Iraq issue during the Friday prayers on March 7 are indicative of the kind of frenzy that can be worked up if India effects a change in stance.) Myers is emphatic that a terrorist can slip into any nation with ease and deploy WMD, which would cause great destruction. In this context, he refers to evidence unearthed in Afghanistan, after the fleeing of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that more than suggests the latter's fascination for WMD. (There is intelligence to the effect that even prior to 9/11, Al Qaeda had acquired small quantities of radiological materials, which was sufficient to make a "dirty bomb" that is normally assembled out of waste byproducts from nuclear reactors and set off through conventional explosives. Also known as a `radiological dispersion bomb', this is reckoned by Dr. Bruce Blair of the Centre for Defence Information as the "most accessible nuclear device for any terrorist".) The redeeming feature is that there are only garbled reports hinting at availability of access to such weapons. This does not, however, provide any basis for optimism because of the widely admitted severe limitations of intelligence gathering in this area.

Professor Graham Allison of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University is one of the many who do not discount a vengeful and reckless Al Qaeda resorting to nuclear warfare. In a recent interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Professor Allison, a former Assistant Secretary of Defence to President Bill Clinton, is reasonably certain that "mega-catastrophic terrorism is staring us in the face." In this context, he points to the vast amount of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that is available in Russia and Pakistan. His estimate is that the quantity available in Russia is sufficient to make 70,000 to 80,000 weapons, and Pakistan can make at least 40 to 50. Is this not forbidding? Going by its track record, Russia is not the best of protectors of such raw material. As for Pakistan, we know how its defence officials and nuclear scientists flirt with the Jamaat, openly after retirement, but possibly furtively even while in active service. And the Jamaat's complicity with Al Qaeda is too well known for our comfort.

There are two known methods by which terrorists can set off nuclear warfare. The first is a direct attack on nuclear power plants, like the one on the WTC. According to Professor Blair, such an attack, either by ramming a plane into a nuclear plant or through heavy munitions, can have the same effect as a radiological bomb. There are two distinct scenarios as a fall out. There will either be a meltdown of the reactor core (similar to what happened in Chernobyl) or there could be a dispersal of the spent fuel waste. Both would cause extensive loss of lives. Another course of action that is available to the terrorist is to make an atomic bomb himself, through managing a diversion (a euphemism for theft) of fissile material. Do not reports of a renowned Pakistan atomic scientist's fascination for the Jamaat a few years ago make some sense? (There was a report in the past of at least one meeting between bin Laden and Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a renowned nuclear scientist who played a key role in developing the Pakistan's bomb.) The accepted fact that such material is generally very well protected all over the world because of sheer instinct for self-protection cannot make us complacent. The "theoretical possibility" that Prof. Blair speaks of warrants a debate and serious action to enhance security. Notwithstanding the Russian position that no nuclear material has been stolen from the country, there are conjectures that the paper trail for many bombs has been lost. Prof. Blair puts it graphically: "The infamous Russian accounting system using hand receipts stored in shoe boxes provides ample grist for this theory." Also a matter for concern is the reliability of those scientists in Pakistan who control nuclear material. Infiltration of religious fundamentalists is a distinct possibility and very little data is available on this subject.

IN this ambience, control over fissile material and protection of nuclear plants become tasks of immense magnitude. Nuclear proliferation is no doubt a matter for great concern. It has rightly attracted scholarly attention in most parts of the world. Stanford University's Centre for International Security and Cooperation has done work of note in this area. Recent lectures in Chennai of the Centre's Co-Director, Professor Scott D. Sagan, were a treat. His major research interests include nuclear security in South Asia and ethical norms concerning the use of force. Sagan stands for extreme moderation and restraint, not only in the use of nuclear weapons but in deliberate attempts to bring about a proliferation across the globe on the somewhat specious plea of deterrence. The facile belief is that no major war has taken place between India and Pakistan because, being nuclear nations, they are conscious of the danger of conventional warfare, under extreme provocation, degenerating into a nuclear exchange that would wipe out most of the two nations. Sagan also pleads for the U.S. and Russia retaining only small nuclear capabilities which are under civilian command rather than military control. He further assigns a role for the U.S. to educate the world on the limits to nuclear safety.

Restraint in speech is another theme of Sagan's writings. These are days when not a day passes without nations hurling threats at one another. Threats of cutting off water and electricity supply and various forms of economic assistance are no doubt a great cause for concern. Their impact can, however, be exaggerated on occasions. For instance, the sanctions imposed on a recalcitrant Iraq have not broken that country's morale. But the threat of use of nuclear weapons, especially in retaliation to a threat of chemical and biological warfare, is far more serious. This is because very often nations are tempted to execute such a threat, even under circumstances when this is not required, merely under a perceived obligation to live by earlier pronouncements. This "commitment trap" is disastrous, for it introduces an avoidable ambiguity in a country's foreign policy. Terrorist exploitation of such a delightfully vague situation is something that peace-loving nations should bear in mind.

In practical terms, the current possibilities of terrorist infiltration into nuclear establishments dictate an enhancement of the security arrangements at such locations. There is here a need for synergy between scientists and law enforcement agencies. During the past few decades there have been several happenings in nuclear installations all over the world that have passed off as "accidents". Whether they were actually so is a matter for conjecture. September 11 has introduced new dimensions not only to security in general but to protection of hazardous material. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is visibly exercised over this. It has launched several initiatives taking into account the fact that nuclear material is scattered over a mind-boggling number of sites. Basically, the situation calls for the severest possible access control and a foolproof background check of those who have legitimate access to such material. Without these two precautions, terrorist machinations to steal dangerous material for spreading panic and causing large-scale damage cannot be thwarted.

We wait with bated breath over what is going to happen in Iraq. Will the U.S. opt for a full-fledged war against Saddam Hussein is anybody's guess. What is clear, however, is that when war breaks out, there will be several players at several theatres. What kinds of weapons will be used is again a matter for conjecture. Amidst this welter of confusion, it will be naive to believe that Al Qaeda will be a mute spectator. With its presence in neighbouring Pakistan proved beyond doubt, and possibly also in Bangladesh, insidious manoeuvres against India using terrorist mechanics is a distinct possibility. That there will be a desire to use unconventional weapons against India, with the blessings of Pakistan, is not an unrealistic forecast. The need to enhance security in our nuclear power stations looms larger than ever before.

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