Nuclear Terrorism

Briefcase bombs pose a new threat

The Statesman | Nov 21, 2001

The US may get around the basic premise of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that binds the five recognised nuclear weapons states not to attack non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons by claiming that the possession of nuclear warheads even by terrorist organisations being hosted by a state makes the state a nuclear-armed entity.

The age of terror has spawned a new threat — the awesome power of the brief case nuke. A few years ago, General Alexander Lebed had gone public with the startling admission that a number of Russia’s atomic demolition munitions (ADMs), popularly known as brief case bombs, were missing. Since then fears have been.expressed that some of them may fall into the hands of terrorist organisations. After the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, scenarios that were considered alarmist have now assumed nightmarish proportions.

Osama bin Laden has threatened retaliation by all means for US attacks against the Taliban. The ongoing wave of anthrax bio-terrorism has further reinforced the belief that nuclear terror 1S now a credible threat. Speculation that extremists in the Pakistan army may overthrow General Musharraf and that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons may fall into jehadi hands has also heightened tensions. With the retreating Taliban finding it expedient to cross over the Durand Line into Pakistani territory, these apprehensions now seem even more real. Terrorists can acquire briefcase nukes either by purchasing them on the blackmarket, if General Lebed’s disclosure is credible and such a market exists; by stealing them from a nuclear-armed nation’s arsenal; or, by assembling them after acquiring the raw materials.


These mini-nukes could have low (single digit) or even sub-kiloton yields. Even if a terrorist group manages to buy or steal a brief case nuke, it would find it extremely difficult to unlock modern safety devices like Permissive Action Links and specially designed tamper-proof seals whose sole purpose is to prevent the accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons.

Activating the weapon would require special technical skills and intimate knowledge of sophisticated electronic codes. Only a few nuclear scientists with experience in the assembly of ADMs could be expected to have the skills necessary for the purpose. Overcoming the hurdles of breaking electronic locks would be infinitely more difficult and, besides state-of-the-art super computers and personnel trained to operate them, would require a highly advanced intelligence gathering system. Neither Osama bin Laden’s AL Qaeda, nor any of the other large terrorist organisations supporting it, 1s likely to have acquired the ability to trigger a modern brief case nuke that it may have bought or stolen, specially if the Tritium triggers needed to ignite them have decayed.

However, it is possible that these terrorist organisations may have themselves developed and assembled a crude mini-nuke or may do so in the near future. Such an effort would need hundreds of million dollars to procure the ingredients, the ingenuity of volunteer or mercenary nuclear scientists and oodles of luck. Though the development of a practically usable nuclear warhead presents a complex challenge, it would be irresponsible to assume that it cannot be done. Ever since the break up of the Soviet Union, there have been credible reports of many out of work nuclear scientists having gone missing. While some of them have doubtlessly been employed by North Korea and other states of concern, the erstwhile rogue nations, others may have had no compunction in loaning their skills to whoever asked if the right amount of money was on offer — preferably in US dollars.

Also, Pakistani nuclear scientists with a jehad) inclination may have volunteered to work for Al Qaeda, as has been recently reported. The arrest of three Pakistan) nuclear scientists and their subsequent handing over to US intelligence agencies for questioning has an ominous ring about it. Two of the three are senior scientists who had set up an NGO called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (Reconstruction of the Muslim Ummah) in Afghanistan after retirement. This NGO, with its membership comprising mainly nuclear scientists and military officers, is known to have had close links with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Reports of joint US-Israel plans to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if General Musharraf is overthrown in a coup by jehadi forces have made headlines the world over. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of Watergate fame wrote in New Yorker magazine last week that commandos of Israel’s elite Unit 262 and US special forces have been rehearsing a contingency plan to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear warheads do not fall into the hands of Islamist fundamentalists within and outside the Pakistan army in case Musharraf is overthrown in a widely anticipated coup by hardliners.


Such a development would pose a grave danger to international security. India would be particularly vulnerable to nuclear terrorism if the lunatic fringe of Pakistan’s jehadi forces were to lay their hands on nuclear warheads. However, as defence minister George Fernandes has stated, nuclear weapons in Pakistan are firmly in the army’s control. Pakistan has a National Command Authority chaired by the head of government. The NCA is responsible for policy formulation and exercises employment and development control over all nuclear forces and strategic organisations. The NCA comprises the Employment Control Committee and the Development Control Committee. A new Strategic Plans Division, headed by a Lieutenant General, has been established at the Joint Services Headquarters to provoke secretariat support for the NCA and its committees.

The ECC is the apex body for nuclear decision-making and is chaired by General Musharraf. The committee has the foreign minister as its deputy chairman and includes the defence and interior ministers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee, the three chiefs of staff, director general strategic plans division and representatives from Pakistan’s strategic organisations. The DCC supervises the actual development, not just of the nuclear and missile forces, but also of the auxiliary command, control, communications, and intelligence systems.

The actual custody of Pakistan’s two dozen nuclear warheads would have been entrusted to specially selected elite units of the Pakistan army. Personnel connected with the safety and security of nuclear weapons are likely to nave been thoroughly screened and would be constantly under watch. Military regimes have and the Musharraf regime would have ensured that jehadi hardliners are ruthlessly weeded out from the nuclear security detail. Also, it could be assumed that the fissionable nuclear core of each warhead, comprising highly enriched uranium, would be stored separately from the high explosive trigger assembly to guard against accidents and unauthorised use. These storage sites would be well dispersed so that at least some of the warheads survive a conventional air attack. They would also be well defended against possible commando raids.

Real Danger

Hence, a joint US-Israel commando operation to destroy or take out Pakistan’s nuclear warheads in the event of a jehadi coup is a far-fetched idea that is unlikely to succeed. If the jehadis do take over Pakistan, they will probably have to fight the army guards to the bitter end before they can lay their hands on the nuclear warheads. However, it is quite possible that if a jehadi dominated regime overthrows Musharraf, the US may attack nuclear storage sites in Pakistan with cruise missiles and fighter-bombers to destroy the warheads.

The real danger from nuclear terrorism is that the terrorist organisations may assemble “dirty bombs” in which high explosives (RDX or TNT) are used to blow up and scatter uranium or other radioactive materials over a large area. Spent nuclear fuel rods that are stolen and radiation waste from cancer faculties in large hospitals and irradiation centres could be used. Though such dirty bombs will not cause horrendous casualties, if exploded in large Western cities, they will create a fear psychosis that will add to the paranoia that has already got a deep hold over ordinary people after the 11 September attacks.

Another likely consequence of the future possession of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups would be development by the US of low-yield mini-nukes that can be delivered with precision against deeply burned hard targets. Such targets could include the living shelters of terrorist leaders, including caves, and their storage facilities for weapons of mass destruction. The US may get around the basic premise of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that binds the five recognised nuclear weapons states not to attack non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons by claiming that the possession of nuclear warheads even by terrorist organisations being hosted by a state makes the state a nuclear-armed entity.