Nuclear Attack a Real, If Remote, Possibility ; US Eyes Pakistan, Former Soviet Union as Likely Sources of Weapons- Grade Material

By Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Nuclear Attack a Real, If Remote, Possibility ; US Eyes Pakistan, Former Soviet Union as Likely Sources of Weapons- Grade Material


Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Washington

As the story goes, Osama bin Laden offered criminals in Chechnya $30 million and two tons of opium in return for 20 Russian nuclear warheads.

The chilling account, contained in a 1999 Arab-language news report, may be apocryphal. But what is certain is that for most of the 1990s, Mr. bin Laden has been trying to get materials to make a nuclear bomb. Acquiring weapons of mass destruction, he has said, is a "religious duty" necessary "to terrorize the enemies of God." Some of his associates (now in prison or witness-protection programs) have recounted efforts to obtain weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.

Today, as the United States bombs terrorist sites and other targets in Afghanistan, the prospect of a nuclear terrorist attack looms larger as a domestic security concern. The likelihood of such an attack, government officials and experts say, may be small - but the possible consequences are too horrific to ignore.

Among the major concerns:

* The political instability of Pakistan, a nuclear power in the region that - more so than Russia and former Soviet states - could be Mr. bin Laden's source of nuclear materials. The Pakistani intelligence service used to work closely with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime, and many in Pakistan (including, perhaps, military and intelligence sources) support the Taliban and bin Laden. Last week, Pakistan detained for questioning two of its former senior nuclear-weapons scientists - men who have expressed sympathy with the Taliban cause.

* Knowledge that with relatively little radioactive material - even low-level waste from a power plant or medical facility - terrorists could construct a "dirty bomb" using simple explosives rather than the more sophisticated and difficult-to-build nuclear weapons. Such devices, hidden in a truck or ship-borne cargo container, could inflict considerable casualties followed by widespread radiation poisoning.

* Vulnerability of 10 major nuclear-weapons plants in the US, several of which are near major cities. In mock attacks, the "terrorists" were able to acquire weapons-grade nuclear materials or otherwise achieve their goals in more than half the cases.

In the face of such threats, the US is considering several options.

These include strengthening nuclear-nonproliferation treaties, increasing security at US nuclear-weapons facilities, and buying Russia's leftover nuclear materials. More immediately, some experts suggest preparing US Special Operations Forces to unilaterally disable or seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons. (In the New Yorker magazine this week, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh writes that US military and intelligence agents are training with an Israeli special-operations unit for such a mission.)

In addition, several US lawmakers have said America should be prepared to use its tactical nuclear weapons to prevent or respond to another domestic terrorist attack. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - repeating long-standing US military doctrine - has not ruled that out.

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