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Terrorism and Nuclear Weapons

On 11 September 2001, three airplanes, commandeered by terrorists, slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon ripping huge holes in the financial stability of the US and the world, and tearing apart the veneer of security from attack held by the US - the world's pre-eminent nuclear power. Nuclear deterrence, the cornerstone of US security policy, was supposed to deter any power from attacking the USA or its allies. But it failed completely in preventing these attacks.

Using nuclear weapons against terrorists

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The Pentagon, in an attempt to restore some security value to nuclear weapons, recommended that their use be an option in what appears will be a long drawn-out war against terrorism. This was supported by some members of the US Congress, but did not appear to find favour with the US administration. Indeed any such use would be extremely counter-productive. It would create unwarrantable civilian casualties and generate considerable anti-US sentiment, possibly encouraging the use of weapons of mass destruction in return against the US and its allies. In addition, it would be highly unlikely that any use of nuclear weapons could destroy or disable the infrastructure of a terrorist organisation. Such organisations do not have their personnel or military equipment concentrated in geographical locations that can be destroyed by large explosive devices. Rather they are spread out in cells interspersed in urban and rural locations around the world. Many of the terrorists in the attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for example, were living and operating in cities in the US.

In addition, the use of nuclear weapons against a terrorist organisation, or a direct threat of such use, would be unlikely to deter it from using nuclear weapons or WMD, but would rather have the opposite effect. Terrorists are often prompted by a psychology of "heroic" response to perceived aggression, including the acceptance of personal death in the battle against evil. A threat of nuclear weapons against them would likely increase their perception of the evil of the state they are fighting against, and give them justification for responding in kind. Despite all this the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons in the anti-terrorist campaign cannot be ruled out. The NWS have given assurances that they will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state but the US has qualified this to allow for a nuclear strike if a weapon of mass destruction is used against the US. It is unclear whether a terrorist attack involving massive loss of life would be considered the use of a weapon of mass destruction.

Terrorists using nuclear weapons
In putting the terrorist attacks on 11 September into perspective Jayantha Dhanapala, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament, has warned, "We need to be aware of the fact that this situation could have been much worse than it has been -- consider for example if weapons of mass destruction were used by these terrorists." Gary Milhollin, head of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, foresees "a definite risk" of a nuclear attack by terrorists in the next decade--say by Sept. 11, 2011.

The acquisition and use of nuclear weapons by a terrorist organisation is indeed becoming more likely, by theft or construction of a nuclear explosive device. Terrorists may steal a nuclear bomb, as the security of such weapons is questionable. In the Russia there is particular concern over certain ambiguities regarding suitcase sized "mini-nucs", though even larger nuclear weapons, such as those possessed by Pakistan, could be stolen with a large truck.

Acquiring the necessary fissile material and constructing a nuclear explosive device would be complicated though certainly possible for a sophisticated terrorist group. Plutonium oxide, which can be acquired from plants reprocessing spent nuclear-power fuel elements, or by separating the plutonium oxide out from MOX fuel, can be used as a fissile material for a nuclear bomb. Such a bomb would require the construction of an implosion type of nuclear explosive device, the type used on Nagasaki a more difficult design.

Though highly enriched uranium is more difficult to acquire than plutonium, the gun-type nuclear explosion device that could be used with HEU, as was used in Hiroshima is the simplest of such devices to design and construct. Even if a nuclear explosive device failed to create a significant nuclear explosion the dispersion of radioactive material would act like a radiological weapon.

Convention on Nuclear Terrorism
States are currently negotiating a Draft Convention on Nuclear Terrorism which would provide procedures for dealing with seized nuclear material and provide cooperation on criminal investigations and prosecutions, but would not address the current dangers of unsafeguarded nuclear facilities of the nuclear weapons states, stockpiles of nuclear weapons and fissile material holdings. Negotiations are also floundering on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons as many non-nuclear states believe that, in light of the 1996 ruling of the International Court of Justice, any threat or use of nuclear weapons would be illegal whether that be from a non-State organisation or a NWS.

Draft Convention: http://www.un.org/law/terrorism/

Nuclear Disarmament
Dhanapala argues that the only way to prevent terrorists acquiring or using nuclear weapons is to eliminate nuclear arsenals and secure stocks of fissile material. "We need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction because they could fall into the hands of terrorist." Other authorities agree. IPPNW (Crude Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and the Terrorist Threat, 1996) calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons under a negotiated Nuclear Weapons Convention which would establish stringent international controls on fissile material to prevent it getting into the hands of terrorists.

Frank Barnaby (Waiting for Terror: How Realistic is the Biological, Chemical and Nuclear Threat, 2001) notes that "The ability of the intelligence community to identify and predict threats of terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction is crucial if such attacks are to be prevented." International cooperation, increased transparency of nuclear holdings and infrastructures and enhanced societal verification is necessary in order to develop such intelligence. Datan and Ware (Security and Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, 1999) argue that "The verification systems established under a nuclear weapons convention would make it easier to discover a potential terrorist threat from diversion of fissile material or technical expertise in time to prevent the building of a bomb."

Prepared by Alyn Ware and Devon Chaffee for the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament, a project of the Middle Powers Initiative.