Editor’s note: Written by the best-selling author of “Unfit for Command,” Jerome Corsi, “Atomic Iran,” WND Books’ latest release, presents clear and convincing evidence of Iran’s goal to acquire nuclear weapons and the risk such a scenario poses to the U.S. and the West. In this second excerpt from his blockbuster, Corsi describes how Iran could help terrorists in the U.S. use an improvised nuclear device to wreak untold havoc.
Suitcase nukes made great television when Congressmen Dan Burton and Curt Weldon held up the mock suitcase nuke. The device looked lethal, but also shiny and professional. The whole deal was a neat package, even if most of us had no idea how the silver-looking apparatus inside really operated. The mechanics of the device were not the point. The packaging was the image.
That a terrorist might carry a suitcase bomb that looked like a photographer’s equipment case and simply leave it in a public location (New York’s Grand Central Station or Washington, D.C.’s Union Station) was a frightening idea. The terrorist could simply walk away, maybe even escape, and the device would explode before any bomb squad could decide what to do first. Even at one kiloton of yield, the image created was that the suitcase bomb could leave at least a minor mushroom cloud in the center of New York or Washington and vaporize a building or two, maybe even a few blocks, spraying the aftereffects of subsequent radioactive death for miles.
The problem was that as serious researchers looked into the question, suitcase nukes were problematic. Maybe the former USSR had let a few get away. Still, their yield was low, and the devices required constant maintenance to remain operational.
What has emerged as a more serious threat, especially with the mad mullahs going nuclear, is what is known as the improvised nuclear device (IND). The IND has become the preferred choice of serious terrorists.
Why? The answer is a simple one. An IND requires the terrorists to get their hands on a quantity of fissile nuclear material for the purpose of fabricating a crude nuclear bomb. The IND does not have to be small enough to fit in a suitcase. The size can be considerably larger, maybe even large enough to fill the back of a truck, to take a page from Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing. A larger mass of fissile material can cause a larger explosion, producing more serious damage. That is important, because terrorists are theatrical and they crave massive destruction for its image value and its shock quotient.
Also important is that the IND can be detonated with a crude mechanism, especially if the bomb relies on enriched uranium, which is much easier to detonate than plutonium. An IND produced on this model can be driven into a major city and parked. If the terrorists are smart enough not to use a rental truck, they might even drive it through the Lincoln Tunnel or over the George Washington Bridge without getting stopped by the police for an inspection.
How realistic is it to assume that terrorists could produce an IND? This is the critical question.
First, there are huge quantities of fissile nuclear material available all over the world, frequently without adequate inventory control or protection safeguards in place. The threat is real simply because “the amount of fissile material that might theoretically be accessible to terrorists is staggering.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines the quantities of fissile material needed to be weapons significant as the amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium needed to make a nuclear weapon roughly equivalent to the explosive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. This translates into the requirement to have available about 25 kilograms of weapons-grade HEU and a much smaller quantity of plutonium, only eight kilograms.
There is “substantial and credible evidence that both terrorist groups and hostile states are actively seeking to acquire stolen fissile material for nuclear weapons.” The U.S. military has uncovered in post-Taliban Afghanistan a significant quantity of al-Qaida writings and drawings illustrating how to construct crude nuclear devices. U.S. analysts believe that al-Qaida’s alleged WMD commander, Abu Khabbab, was focused on efforts to obtain nuclear weapons capability. On Sept. 11, 2002, the first anniversary of 9-11, ABC News smuggled a 15-pound (6.8-kilogram) cylinder of depleted uranium, on loan from the National Resources Defense Council, into the United States and televised the story. On Sept. 11, 2003, ABC News successfully repeated the experiment to smuggle the same cylinder of depleted uranium into the United States; again, the test was nationally televised. ABC News came to a frightening conclusion: “Security procedures at U.S. borders cannot detect highly enriched uranium.”
How hard is it to make an IND? Again, the simplest mechanism involves uranium. The Hiroshima bomb was basically a “gun-type” bomb, a design that “involves slamming masses of highly-enriched uranium together in a gun barrel-like tube.” Manhattan Project physicist Luis Alvarez affirms that making such a bomb is not complicated: “With modern weapons-grade uranium … terrorists, if they had such material, would have a good chance of setting off a high-yield explosion simply by dropping one half of the material onto the other half. … Even a high school kid could make a bomb in short order.”
A successful IND would need to have yields in the 10- to 20-kiloton range, which would be equivalent to 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT. A 20-kiloton yield would be roughly the size of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. A bomb of this size would devastate the heart of any major U.S. city and would cause fire and radiation damage over a much wider area.
By comparison, the conventional explosive that Timothy McVeigh used to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 involved five thousand pounds of fertilizer. The truck bomb used in the 1993 attempt to destroy the World Trade Center used about 1,500 pounds of fertilizer. Their TNT equivalent yields were 1.8 tons and 0.5 tons, respectively. “Thus even a nuclear yield of a few tons could, under certain circumstances, cause the destruction of a number of skyscrapers potentially resulting in many thousands of casualties, as well as widespread contamination.”
Critics on the political left have been making a case that the obstacles to successfully creating and detonating an IND make the likelihood pretty remote that a terrorist group could pull off a nuclear explosion in a major U.S. city. The easiest way for terrorists to get their hands on a nuclear weapon would be to steal or buy an existing bomb from the arsenal of some nuclear country, such as Pakistan or Russia. Consider this objection voiced in December 2004 in the pages of the Washington Post:
It is unclear how quickly either country (Russia or Pakistan) could detect a theft, but experts said it would be very difficult for terrorists to figure out on their own how to work a Russian or Pakistani bomb.
Newer Russian weapons, for example, are equipped with heat- and time-sensitive locking systems, known as permissive action links, that experts say would be extremely difficult to defeat without help from insiders.
“You’d have to run it through a specific sequence of events, including changes in temperature, pressure and environmental conditions before the weapon would allow itself to be armed, for the fuses to fall into place and then for it to allow itself to be fired,” said Charles D. Ferguson, science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You don’t get it off the shelf, enter a code and have it go off.”
The argument from the political left continues to examine how difficult it would be for terrorists to get their hands on enough HEU and how technically difficult it would be to create an IND from scratch. For the sake of argument, the critics assume that the terrorists would want at least 50 kilograms of bomb-grade uranium. That would mean buying and smuggling into the United States about 150 pounds of HEU. Reviewing the history of what we know about black market transactions to date, the successful transactions have been for much smaller quantities; besides, most often the terrorists simply get scammed by con artists who see an easy opportunity to make a quick buck. Assembling the IND would require a complex team of chemists and engineers experienced with nuclear technology. Then the assembly team would have to have a secure location where it could work covertly to put the device together.
Even if the IND were pre-assembled, shipping it into the United States represents problems. Conceivably, an IND with about 50 kilograms of bomb-grade uranium could be made small enough to fit into a corner of a shipping container. The device could be transported on an oil supertanker; the thickness of steel used in a supertanker’s hull and the use of double hulls would make detection more difficult. Still, to get through customs, the device would probably have to be packed in a lead-shield container. So getting a prefabricated IND into the United States represents additional problems.
Then critics point to the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, a group that was “intent on world destruction when it began its 1993 quest for a nuclear weapon, [and] had all the means to pull it off, on paper at least: money, expertise, a remote haven in which to work, and most important, a private uranium mine.” Yet the group made so many mistakes in judgment and planning that the plan to develop an IND was abandoned. Instead the group attempted the technically easier task of a chemical attack, which was executed in 1995 when members released the deadly poison sarin on the Tokyo subway.
Yet, given all these obstacles, the same critics acknowledge that a “primitive device could be assembled in a small garage using machine tools readily available at an auto shop and concealed in a lead-plated delivery truck about the size of a delivery van.” The technical problems are, according to the critics, the reason we have not yet seen a terrorist-delivered nuclear explosion in one of our major cities.
As comforting as the critics’ analysis is, one major factor has come upon the scene that fundamentally alters the equation: The atomic mullahs have now come upon the world.
Operation IND: How the mullahs could detonate a nuclear bomb in New York City
A good reason that the mullahs and al-Qaida might decide to work together is that the mullahs are about to have plenty of enriched uranium, and al-Qaida has the operational network to deliver a bomb. Moreover, as we have seen, there is good reason to believe that both Hezbollah and Hamas have operatives in place today within the United States. This gives Iran some operational resources on the ground to assist the al-Qaida terrorists who may be in charge of actually driving the bomb into the city and detonating it. The Hezbollah- and Hamas-linked individuals indicted to date suggest that both organizations have managed to plant some highly educated individuals who might be able to recruit associates from within the ranks of American companies working right now on nuclear technology.
Studying how the 9-11 plan was executed gives us a blueprint for how the terror masters would put together an operational IND to deliver a nuclear attack on a U.S. city. The 9-11 Commission Report presents a reasonably complete step-by-step summary of how al-Qaida proceeded.
For discussion purposes, we will code-name the plot Operation IND. The mastermind behind 9-11 was Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), whose nephew was Ramzi Yousef, the planner of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. KSM had spent time getting an education in the United States. He was also well traveled, with ties to terrorists in areas of the world ranging from Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, Indonesia and Malaysia. He also had experience with a large selection of different terrorist schemes, including “conventional car bombing, political assassination, aircraft bombing, hijacking, reservoir poisoning and, ultimately, the use of aircraft as missiles guided by suicide operators.”
The 9-11 plot also evolved as KSM studied the 1993 bombing of the WTC and decided he did not want to use a bomb to attack his target. He worked on the “Bojinka” plot to bomb 12 U.S. commercial jets over the Pacific during a two-day span, which triggered his thinking about coordinating multiple simultaneous attacks involving commercial airplanes. KSM considered himself a “terrorist entrepreneur,” and he applied the “one idea leads to another” model as he evolved the 9-11 plot.
A terrorist mastermind planning Operation IND would clearly study the Oklahoma City bombing, the first bombing of the WTC and the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Assume the target city would be New York. The detonation of a nuclear weapon as a follow-up to the 9-11 WTC attack would be sufficiently spectacular. And the economic damage done to the United States by taking out a large part of Manhattan would have a strong appeal to the terrorists. The second-most logical target would be Washington, D.C. The opportunity to destroy major segments of the U.S. government with one bomb blast would compete for top billing in the terrorists’ imaginations.
A weapons team could be assembled in Iran, and a group of operational terrorists could be pulled together from around the world to be dropped in New York. Having access to Iran’s many nuclear facilities already in place eliminates several major problems. The work to create an IND could be carried out clandestinely, almost as part of the daily operations of the sites where the work building the IND needed to be done. No one need know exactly what anyone else was working on; the Operation IND team could blend in with the hundreds of other nuclear scientists and technologists already working at Iranian nuclear facilities.
The weapon would most likely use HEU as fuel, with the design built along the gun-type design. Iran has sufficient uranium enrichment capabilities in place. Any permission granted by the IAEA to keep some enrichment centrifuges running for “research and development” purposes would make a perfect cover for some clandestine uranium enrichment to fuel the IND. When the reactor at Bushehr goes on-line, Iran would have fuel by-products that could be devoted to plutonium production. Still the delivery and detonation of a plutonium device is so much more complicated that it decreases the likelihood of a successful weapons-delivery effort in New York. The principle of “keep it simple” would probably dictate making the first IND a uranium device.
A nuclear Iran could keep in-house every part of the IND fabrication, from fuel enrichment to the weapon’s design and manufacture. Probably the uranium would be produced in a metallic form for maximum power and minimum size and for ease of transportation. The device itself might be designed in a modular structure, so component pieces could be shipped separately and assembled after they arrive on the East Coast. This way the team on-site in the United States would have no fuel-enrichment or manufacturing requirements – just the need to assemble the parts as they arrived.
Mohamed Atta was the team leader of the operational terrorist group that implemented the 9-11 plan. Similarly, Operation IND would need to select an equally competent team leader. Like Atta, the team leader for Operation IND would have to speak English and have reasonable familiarity with the United States and American customs. Additional requirements would be for the person to be skilled at people management. Keeping a team of terrorists motivated and on purpose, yet comfortable enough to blend in, takes considerable talent not commonly found.
The 9-11 team members had different skill sets and command responsibilities. Some were selected to pilot the planes, others were selected to be the “muscle terrorists” who would subdue passengers and overpower the crews in the cockpits. Operation IND would need terrorists who knew New York and were comfortable presenting themselves as drivers and crew of the types of commercial trucks found every day on the streets of Manhattan. Depending on where the IND was to be delivered and how it was to be made “live,” the operational team might need a member with some technical or engineering skills.
The weapon could be shipped to the United States via commercial carrier. Given the embargo currently blocking trade between the United States and Iran, components of the IND would have to be transported from Iran to countries where the pieces could be included in ship cargoes sailing to ports in New York or Newark. Given the Hezbollah and Hamas ties already established in the United States, operatives who could be used in Operation IND might already be working at the ports or in banks where commercial shipping financial records could be created to finance and cover the component shipment. If bribes needed to be paid, the mullahs would wire funds through intermediaries in other nations to fraudulent bank accounts in the United States that had been set up to fund Operation IND, using fake personal identification or “front companies” equipped with business registration papers that made them appear legitimate.
The New York field team would have to be in place some months ahead of H-hour. Providing a sufficient window for arrival time would give terrorist operatives enough time to make one or more attempts at entry into the United States. Operatives would probably be assigned different methods of entry and their attempts staggered so that discovery of one might not tip off U.S. authorities to anticipate the arrival of a team or the beginning of a plot. Team members might not even be told in advance what they were doing or who else was on the team. Lists of arrival locations or Hezbollah-Hamas contact operatives to contact once in the United States might be all the information required prior to transit.
Operation IND would have some go, no-go decision points. These would key on whether all the components arrived on time and were delivered to the assembly point as predetermined. The plan might even involve some redundancy where more than one set of components might be scheduled for shipment, limited only by not wanting to send more redundant parts than absolutely necessary. There would be a trade-off between wanting to send the minimum number of shipments to reduce the odds of detection and wanting to send enough parts so the IND could be assembled even if everything did not arrive on time as anticipated.
Several days or weeks before H-hour, the truck planned to deliver the weapon would begin making scheduled runs into New York to establish a pattern of being seen and known. More than one truck could be used, so even the terrorist operatives would not themselves be sure who was “live,” just to reduce nervousness or overreaction during the operation. Also, using more than one truck would always permit an advance truck to go over the delivery route so the mission could be called off if security were especially tight on the day planned for H-hour. Logistics could be made more secure by having components delivered to a location within Manhattan, so the fully assembled IND would not have to be driven through a bridge or across a tunnel for placement as planned at H-hour.
The mullahs may be the driving force behind Operation IND, but the action itself would combine skills sets from across different terrorist organizations. Al-Qaida may be best equipped to provide the delivery team on-site in New York. Hezbollah and Hamas would have responsibility of selecting and coordinating the activities of operatives already on-site in the United States. The nuclear scientists and engineers working at the nuclear facilities in Iran may come from nuclear operations in Iraq or Pakistan, possibly even North Korea.
Iran’s involvement as a state-sponsor removes key barriers that critics have identified with IND operations as previously imagined or possibly even attempted. A rogue terrorist group no longer has to go on the black market to purchase HEU or to buy a weapon from an existing arsenal. Instead, the required HEU and the manufacture of the weapon itself would be undertaken as another task to be completed by Iran’s state-operated ongoing nuclear operation. Nor would a complex team need to be positioned within the United States. At most, one or two operatives with scientific or engineering skills would need to be included on the U.S. operative team. The U.S. field team for Operation IND would have responsibilities limited to final weapon assembly, weapon delivery and weapon detonation.
Tomorrow: Corsi provides a second-by-second description of the effects of a terrorist nuke attack in Manhattan.
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