Who Did It? Using International Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism

By Dunlop, William; Smith, Harold | Arms Control Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview
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Who Did It? Using International Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism


Dunlop, William, Smith, Harold, Arms Control Today


On February 2, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon has formed a nuclear forensics team tasked with identifying the attackers should the United States be hit with a nuclear bomb.1 Adapting nuclear technology to the forensics of exploded nuclear weapons is an old but rapidly evolving field. It dates back to at least 1949, when analysis of airborne debris, retrieved at high altitude off the coast of China, convinced President Harry Truman that the Soviet Union had exploded a nuclear device on the steppes of central Asia. The technology is neither new nor has It been particularly secret, but the formation of a national nuclear fbrensics team is newsworthy and a useful development. An International team, however, would be even better.

Although Washington has naturally focused on preventing a nuclear terrorism attack in the United States, a U.S. city is not necessarily the most likely target for nuclear terrorists. It is doubtful that a terrorist organization would be able to acquire a U.S. nuclear device and even more doubtful that it would acquire one on U.S. soil. Accordingly, If a terrorist organization does get its hands on a fission device, it is likely that it will do so on foreign territory. At that point, the terrorists will have an enormously valuable political weapon in their hands and will be loath to risk losing that asset. Given the risks associated with getting the device into the United States, the rational choice would be to deploy the device abroad against much softer targets. For Islamist terrorists, a major "Christian" capital such as London, Rome, or Moscow might offer a more suitable target.

Among these, Moscow perhaps presents the most compelling case for international cooperation on post-detonation nuclear forensics. Russia has the largest stockpile of poorly secured nuclear devices in the world. It also has porous borders and poor internal security, and it continues to be a potential source of contraband nuclear material and weapons, despite the best efforts of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. If terrorists obtained the nuclear material in Russia and set Moscow as their target, they would not have to risk transporting the weapon, stolen or makeshift, across international borders. Attacks by Chechen terrorists in Beslan and at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow offer ample proof that a willingness to commit mass murder for fanatical reasons rests within Russian borders, and a foreign source of operatives, particularly from the neighboring Islamic states to the south, is by no means inconceivable.2 Moscow is also a predominately Christian dty where local authorities routinely discriminate against Muslim minorities.

Furthermore, extremists might conclude that a nuclear blast in Moscow could inflict damage well beyond that directly stemming from the attack. The Soviet generation that came to power during the Cold War retained a memory of the United States as an ally in the Great Patriotic War. The present Russian generation has no such remembrance but seems to have retained the animosities and suspicions that were a part of the nuclear standoff. Hence, nuclear terrorists may well believe that they could cause another East-West cold war or even encourage Russia to retaliate against the United States. After all, the.sinking of the Kursk was believed by some influential Russians to be the result of U.S. action.3 How much more likely would be such a view if the Kremlin were destroyed? As long as the world is filled with suspicion and conflict, such reactions are to be expected and, more importantly, anticipated.4 One has only to remember the early reactions and suspicions in the United States following the 1996 TWA Flight 800 airline disaster.5

Because the United States is the technological leader in nuclear forensics, its capability will certainly be offered and probably demanded no matter what foreign city is subjected to the devastation of a nuclear explosion.

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Who Did It? Using International Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism
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