Preventing a nuclear terrorist incident – Some food for thought.

It sounds too pessimistic to think nuclear terrorism inevitable, yet it is probable. There is no other choice but to eliminate nuclear weapons–that is general and complete disarmament. Even peaceful use should have total protection.

I guess the main issue we are facing today is that our world has grown smaller than ever and Western ideas, religion, politics, etc. are just so opposite to what Al Qaeda and similar extremists believe in that we’ll always be hated by them for who we are.

You also have countries, like Iran & North Korea, that hate us for various reasons and they are developing, or will have soon, nuclear weapons. Much of what they do is saber rattling. But, we can’t be sure that will always be the case.

So can the nightmare scenario happen? Well in my opinion anything can happen no matter how prepared and vigilant we are … so how do we go about it? Preventing a nuclear terrorist incident that will literally put an end to Western civilization as we know it.

Well as a starter, I believe the best strategy for avoiding such incident is pouring as much money into diplomacy and developing world education and industrialization as we have put in to defense….Iron fist in a velvet glove taken to the extreme.

I may be pessimistic, but I have reason to believe that a nuclear terrorist incident is likely, largely because of all the nuclear intelligence that resides within Pakistan. While I am less concerned about other potential flash points such as the Korean Peninsula and the Israeli/Iranian fault line, Pakistan has already demonstrated its ability to enrich uranium, to build weapons, and to detonate them in semi-public demonstrations. And whereas the nuclear technology held in the Middle East and the Koreas have big neighbors nearby that have an interest in local deterrence, many of the al-Qaeda type of terrorism that has mushroomed from Pakistani madrassas (which are largely funded by Saudi money) has spread in other areas that have weak governments, most notably Yemen. I realize my assertion here is strictly an opinion here, and that real nuclear concerns exist in the other two areas — it’s just that I believe the greatest likelihood of something happening first will find its origins in Pakistan.

With that said, what can be done, especially if the likelihood is even greater than I’m assuming? Unfortunately, I believe the way to deter this would be very drastic and most likely not condoned by the world community until only after something bad happens. Right now, the United States and other first world countries continue to send aid to Pakistan, and a chorus has been growing for the past 5-8 years questioning that expenditure, especially since many U.S. taxpayers and elected officials believe that the state of Pakistan is harboring these types of actors. I believe that level of aid will decrease, and that the only way to completely deter an attack would require a military coalition going into Pakistan and installing a new regime while simultaneously rooting out those with nuclear expertise. That’s in Pakistan. Outside, the money that flows into Pakistan needs to be better monitored, as well as those who have spent time in Pakistan. Many of those individuals may be in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or other fringe societies where smaller nuclear devices could be deployed. All of these individuals who have contact with nuclear facilities in Pakistan need to be tracked down. It is a daunting challenge, and probably is driving a piece of global intelligence strategy today. Though it’s not an optimal approach, given how long it’s had to incubate, it may be one of the only options — and likely will only be acceptable once it’s too late.

Ideally the problem could be solved by destroying all the material required to actually make a nuclear bomb. Since that doesn’t seem all that likely, one must instead think how a terrorist group would actually go about acquiring needed materials and implementing such a plan. The first step would be getting access to nuclear materials; in truth, this is the biggest hurdle for a non-state actor. Enriching nuclear material to a point where it would be weapons-grade (somewhere around 85% of the correct material, generally U-235 or Pu-239) is not really feasible for non-state actors so terrorist really only have three ways to get the nuclear material required to make a bomb:

1. They can buy it on the black market;

2. They can steal it from a state;

3. They can be given it/buy it from a state.

Of all of these, I believe Option one, buying it on the black market is the option with the highest probability of occurring. States, in this day and age, generally secure their nuclear material reasonably well; the biggest concern with option two is that a government in possession of nuclear weapons, like Pakistan, will collapse and there won’t actually be anyone responsible for securing the weapons (a la the collapse of the Soviet Union and the period of time where their nuclear weapons and unused nuclear material were pretty unsecured). Option three is the most unlikely way for non-state actors to gain access to nuclear material. Nuclear explosions leave “fingerprints,” distinct isotopes that allow for the tracing of nuclear material to a specific processing site, making it unlikely for a state to actually sponsor nuclear terrorism; nuclear retaliation being all but assured in the event that a state sponsored a nuclear terrorist attack, makes any benefits of sponsoring such an attack negligible as the sponsoring country would probably not be long for this earth.

So how do you make it harder for a non-state actor to acquire nuclear material? Basically it comes down to a matter of dollars and emphasis. More money can be spent on identifying and tracking sources of nuclear materials on the black market. With the security of these materials generally being perceived as good, there is less of an impetus to spend a lot of money on a second (and often seen as overly redundant) layer of security. The problem with such an approach (i.e. emphasizing the physical security of nuclear materials) is that far too many of the busts of illicit sales of nuclear material (though I should add a caveat, most of the busts that we know of) have been strokes of luck rather than of hard intelligence.

Once a non-state actor has acquired weapons-grade nuclear material, the next challenge is to make a bomb and get it to where it needs to go. The genie is pretty much out of the bottle on making a nuclear bomb (albeit a crude nuclear bomb); it’s not all that hard in this day in age. Getting the bomb into a country is, unfortunately, not all that hard either (nor is it really ideal to actually find it in a port since terrorists could just blow it up there; ideally it would be stopped before it even got on a ship, but that takes a lot of intelligence, a lot of help, and a fair amount of luck). Port/border security is not what it takes to really stop the importation of a nuclear weapon. Here in the United States, we do use hand-held radiation scanners in port inspections, but only around 2% of shipping containers are actually inspected, and a nuclear bomb could be reasonably shielded to reduce detectable radiation. Lawrence Livermore National Labs has been working on creating a neutron spectrometer that can scan entire ships and penetrate shielding, but something like that takes time (and lots of money) to implement on a large scale.

As JFK used to say: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”

Share your thoughts.

Ziad K. Abdelnour is Founder & President of the US Committee for a Free Lebanon – America’s Pro- Lebanon lobby – and co-Author of Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon.

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I'm a Lebanese American physical commodities trader, financier, and author. The President and Chief Executive officer of Blackhawk Partners, Inc., – a “private family office” that supports highly accomplished operating executives in expanding their companies organically through business acquisitions and physical commodities trades (mostly oil derivatives) around the world.