Biological terrorism is no longer theoretical. It is a practical reality. The message is simple: Anyone can be reached. America is ill prepared. This is unlikely to change. We knew there were serious problems 20 years ago but did little to counteract the danger. We may never know with “legal certainty” who is responsible or what nations are involved. What has happened so far is trivial compared with what may be coming.
The problem of nuclear terrorism differs only in that no terrorist nukes have yet been exploded. Nevertheless, it is still a very real problem. Most people are beginning to recognize its seriousness, yet none of the most obvious countermeasures have been taken, nor is U.S. intelligence any more alert than they were to the likelihood of an attack just prior to Sept. 11. More information is becoming available, but facts are few, and unsubstantiated rumors abound.
The realities of the situation are relatively simple.
Do terrorist nukes exist?
Yes. They range in weight from roughly 30 pounds to 150 pounds. Heavier, larger weapons exist, but do not seem needed from a terrorist perspective.
Warheads in the above weight range could have yields as low as 50 tons (high explosive equivalent) to tens of kilotons, several times the size of the first nuclear weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The most available warheads and easiest to manage would be in the 100 ton to 1 or 2 kiloton range. Insofar as size is concerned, an implosion nuclear warhead could be as small as a soccer ball and weigh less than 50 pounds. The “Davy Crockett” warhead was developed in the early 1950s as the warhead for an Army bazooka. It had yields in the tens to hundreds of tons and weighed only 40 pounds. A good warhead design team such as the Soviets undoubtedly have at their Arzamov-16 laboratory could probably pack ten kilotons or more into an even smaller package.
How are they delivered?
Because of their very low weight and small size, terrorist delivery presents few problems. The warheads described above could be carried in a backpack, canvas travel bag, or small wheeled carry-on suitcase. Because these are all common, none would be suspect. Who would think to question any individual carrying or wheeling such a container in a subway, in the middle of any city, or leaving a parked car or garage. Because of the destructive nature of these warheads, they need not be placed in a targeted building, just anyplace in a city would thoroughly terrify the population.
How destructive are they?
There are three different destructive effects: the blast wave, the thermal radiation, and the prompt nuclear radiation. The most significant effect from a psychological point-of-view would be the prompt radiation or, if burst on the surface, the extensive accompanying radioactive fallout.
From a military perspective, even the smallest of these warheads, say 50 to 100 tons, would be more than enough to disable an aircraft carrier just because of the radiation, if only a terrorist in a fast “cigarette” boat such as those used by drug smugglers could get reasonably close, say a few hundred yards.
For the urban terrorist, one of these could certain topple the Sears Tower if it were resting next to the building. It would be more than adequate to take out San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge or New York’s George Washington bridge, which are the types of targets they were designed to destroy.
Do terrorists have them?
There have been many claims or rumors that terrorists have at least three and possibly as many as 100 plus. The source of these warheads is uniformly regarded as Russia – an unfortunate result of the confusion and economic strife following the breakup of the Soviet Union. No responsible official would deny the above possibility.
Moreover, there are others who could provide warheads to a terrorist group or camouflage their own operatives to mimic a suspect terrorist group. Such countries are South Africa, Israel, China, India, Pakistan and, of course, France, Britain and the United States. Also, there are countries that might relish the opportunity to use a U.S. city as a test-bed for a newly-developed warhead – countries like Iraq or North Korea.
The real answer to the question is, no one knows for certain. Certainly, the Russians are not to be believed – not for one second. Those who have studied Soviet nuclear stockpile controls were most surprised at the alleged sudden collapse of their formerly sound security system. They are simply not ones to let nuclear warheads “go walking.”
For a decade now, there has been a constant barrage of concerns, fueled by informal comments by Russian officials, that some Russian nuclear weapons are missing and that representatives of terrorist organizations may have purchased these weapons from Russian organized crime groups. This may be.
It also may be deliberate subterfuge.
The largest organized-crime groups in the world today are Russian. They did not suddenly spring into existence. The decision for the KGB to form and manage organized-crime groups was made in 1955. Since that time, the KGB penetrated hundreds of existing groups and, with their satellites, formed hundreds of their own organized crime groups. The Russian organized-crime operations around the globe are the product of these operations and are still run by KGB intelligence. It is highly unlikely that such groups are stealing and selling nuclear weapons.
There is also a history of “independent” criminal groups in Russia going back many decades, if not centuries. Under communism, and post-communism we can assume, these groups were penetrated by the KGB and monitored. They could have been closed down at any time, but were not. Rather, they were tolerated because the black markets they ran performed valuable economic functions within an economy that was unable on its own to function adequately. But, they were carefully watched. The idea that these groups have been stealing and selling nuclear warheads is also highly suspect. That is, the whole idea of unwanted proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations may be a deliberate deception and, at any rate, is unsupported by any facts that are in the public domain.
Further, there are excellent reasons why the Russians would want to create the image of weapons being stolen and sold on the black market. The loss of a warhead amounts to instant proliferation. Every time the problem of Russian-related proliferation is voiced, Congress approves another hundred million dollars or more to send over there in the hopes that it will help mend the leak in the Russian nuclear dike. That is, the image of an insecure stockpile provides a steady flow of money.
The second reason is more serious. Once the image of nuclear theft or underground organized crime sale of a weapon to a terrorist group is solidified in the Western mind – which is the situation we face today – the Russians are free to provide a warhead through their military intelligence units to a terrorist group to explode in a U.S. city with minimal risk of disclosure.
If four warheads detonated within an hour of each other in four major U.S. cities tomorrow, who would be blamed? In such a case, there would be no evidence left for the FBI to sift through. No one would dare suggest the Russians or Chinese. The same possibility exists for other countries or terrorist groups who have a few nuclear warheads to spare and who might relish the opportunity to see them go off in a U.S. city if they could avoid being caught.
Can anything be done?
The problem described above, all aspects of it, has been known for many years. One would hope that something had been done, but as in the case of biological and chemical terrorism, until it becomes a reality, little more than nothing has been done.
It is only in the past week that the realities – in the case of anthrax bio-terrorism – have begun to “sink in.” These are:
- We are tremendously vulnerable;
- No serious thought has been given to the problem of defending our country (virtually 99.9 percent of what little attention there has been has been focused on the defense of military forces);
- Although there has been a full three weeks or more of anthrax attacks, there is no evident knowledge of where the anthrax came from nor who has been responsible for its dissemination; and
- We can not fight back even if we wanted to because we do not know who to blame. Indeed, there is no indication that any attention is even being directed towards the countries that because of capability and past practices should be most suspect – Russia, China and Cuba – or any search for related data.
Exactly the same likely would be the case if one (or more) suitcase nuclear weapons were to go off in the middle of several major U.S. cities. We would have no one to blame and there is no indication of serious efforts to collect related data. At precisely the time when intelligence towards Russia should have been intensified, it was drastically cut back.
There also are several defensive actions that should have been undertaken. The most obvious action is to crack down hard on illegal immigrants and those with citizenship acquired over the past decade who provided false information on their citizenship papers. Estimates of terrorists and foreign-intelligence agents illegally in the United States exceed 10,000. This is insane. It contributed to the problem we experienced on Sept. 11. Still little has been done or probably will be done to correct this situation. The real question is how much does it take to wake people up? President Bush has just announced a crackdown on visa violations, but how about all the millions of illegal immigrants in our country?
There are also technical defensive options. The weapons described above are all rather old technology and all have radiation signatures that can be detected by appropriate sensors. These sensors have been available and used for finding lost nuclear weapons and for tracking nuclear weapons for over 30 years. If the U.S. government were only slightly concerned about this problem they might position such sensors to detect warhead radiation in regions where attacks are deemed most likely to take place.
There is almost no limit to the ways in which such sensors could be used to help counter the “suitcase” nuclear weapon problem. If they were part of the equipment on police cars and mail delivery vehicles, who knows what might be detected. The former Russian military intelligence officer, Col. Stanislav Lunev, wrote that, in his opinion, the Russian Spetsnaz forces already had suitcase nuclear warheads in the United States. There are other estimates that are even higher. If there is a stockpile of nuclear warheads already in the United States, there should be radiation signatures that are detectable.
The last set of items deserving some attention is the role played by our own policies. There are numerous long-standing U.S. policies that deserve critical examination: sending money and weapons technology to enemies and terrorist nations, sweeping terrorist activities under the rug to avoid embarrassment, using U.S. military forces as “hired guns” for non-U.S. defense actions, and a wide variety of actions and programs do not reflect U.S. interests or principles.
When might nuclear terrorism become a reality?
Like it or not, it already is a reality. The question is, when might they be used? That, is anyone’s guess. We simply do not know.
The object of terrorism is not just to cause terror, but, more importantly, to cause the people to lose faith in their government and begin to believe that any government that can promise safety, peace and security is more desirable than the one in place. Nuclear terrorist weapons might be used as the straw that breaks the camel’s back and makes the country vulnerable to revolution, internal or external, or to invasion, or anarchy.
We all hope this event will never come, but the best way to prevent it from happening is, first, to take the necessary cautions and countermeasures, such as those identified above. But, that is only part of the story. What is equally important and equally unlikely to happen, is that all people stop and ask, “Why is this terrorism happening, and why now?”
More precisely, what have we done to invite these attacks? That question is one that no one wants to ask because it implicitly suggests that somehow we, or our policies, are complicit. As things now stand, nuclear terrorism seems inevitable and a serious reappraisal of the reasons why seems most unlikely.
However, we cannot give up hope. Perhaps President Bush might take the unusual step to be the first American president in a long time to think first about removing the plank in our own eye before trying to remove the speck from our brother’s eye.
Sam Cohen, a retired nuclear weapons analyst, is the author of Shame: “Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb.” Joseph D. Douglass, Ph.D., is a defense analyst, and author of “Red Cocaine: The Drugging of America,” and coauthor of “CBW: The Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb.”