Nuclear Terrorism – the greatest threat to international security?

Nuclear terrorism poses a great threat to international security in the post-Cold War era. Though a host of political commentators maintain that the prospect of nuclear terrorism is implausible, until the idealistic goal of ‘global zero’ is met and nuclear weapons are abolished the threat of nuclear terrorism will exist regardless of its improbability. This fear is elucidated in the USA’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review stating that “today’s most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism… We must assume they would use such weapons if they managed to obtain them”. This adoption of the precautionary principle in assuming that terrorists have the capacity to overcome practical, strategic and even moral obstacles to deliver a nuclear bomb is indicative of the risk society we live in.

It has been widely remarked amongst academics that the probability of nuclear terrorism transpiring has been amplified by the advent of ‘new terrorism’. According to a host of critics, terrorism in today’s world is ‘new’ because it has no cogent political motives, instead it has become synonymous with religious extremism and militant Islam which rationalizes destruction, vengeance, and punishment as instruments to achieve an improved world. This transformation in the nature of terrorism is most often cited by the attacks of 9/11, and invariably the threat of nuclear terrorism is filtered through this experience. Therefore, although the concept of ‘new terrorism’ is highly contestable it has affected the way we perceive the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Most importantly nuclear terrorists would render traditional ideas of deterrence obsolete because non-state actors have no territory or property to protect. This explains why the international community cannot afford to neglect the threat of nuclear terrorism regardless of whether terrorists have shown little movement in acquiring a nuclear bomb or conceptual disputes that“terrorists want a lot of people listening, not a lot of people dead.

Hypothetically, how would a terrorist organisation go about acquiring a nuclear bomb?

Firstly there are anxieties that non-state actors could devise a rudimentary bomb by manufacturing a “gun-assembly” nuclear explosive device as used in Hiroshima. The technology is over 60 years old and the majority of non-nuclear mechanisms are obtainable in everyday international commerce. However, despite this it is still broadly assumed to pose insurmountable difficulties for non-state actors:

  1. Documented thefts of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) have totalled at approximately 16 pounds, yet 25-40 kilograms of HEU is required to fashion an elementary bomb, therefore multiple covert purchases of HEU would be required.
  2. The terrorist organisation would have to hire a group of highly skilled scientists and technicians
  3. It would have to guarantee the loyalty of its members
  4. Locate a secure area to covertly produce a weapon
  5. Ensure that the materials and equipment are smuggled across state borders and delivered on site covertly
  6. Attain the extensive technical blueprints
  7. Make certain the safety and stability of nuclear device all whilst evading increasingly sophisticated intelligence activities that polices nuclear terrorism and monitors fissile material.

Arguably the most likely avenue terrorists could exploit, relative to building a bomb, is by stealing a nuclear weapon in less secure nuclear nations. Predominantly, there are suspicions regarding “loose nukes” in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has increased the likelihood of terrorists being able to obtain a nuclear weapon. Sagan argues that some new nuclear states lack the organizational and financial resources to implement mechanisms that ensure the safety of its nuclear weapons. Particularly Pakistan is a volatile mixture of religious fundamentalism and domestic instability making them a vulnerable nation to terrorist infiltration. Furthermore, given the vastness of international trade coupled with the current limitations of radiation detection systems to identify fissile material masked by led casing the chances of terrorists delivering a nuclear device via smuggling operations is increased.

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