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The dangerous threat of nuclear terrorism

April 05, 2016 09:11 IST

Agni missileDuring last week's Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama asked the media to leave and then screened videos depicting plausible scenarios pertaining to nuclear terrorism.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd), from Washington, DC, examines the threat of Islamic State acquiring a nuclear bomb.

The four men moved slowly through the Dorah Pass on the Durand Line that links Chitral district in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, Pakistan, with Badakhshan province, Afghanistan. Located in the Pamir region of the Wakhan Corridor, it was the route taken by Marco Polo.

The terrain in the northern Hindukush mountains is as tough as that in the Himalayas. As physical interception was difficult, during the long fight with the Soviets, the Afghan mujahideen had been able to move arms and ammunition freely through the Dorah Pass.

The fighters belonging to an affiliate of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi knew very well that negotiating the 14,000 feet (4,300 metres) high Dorah Pass stealthily was not going to be easy and had trained hard for the journey.

They kept the pass in sight, but stayed 500 metres away on a track on its northern shoulder. They did not expect Pakistani border guards to be awake and patrolling at 3.30 am. But, if they were challenged, they were well armed and knew what to do.

These men had no idea of the contents of the small bag that they had been given to carry. They had been warned not to open the metal-encased container. They were told that it was an important assignment that would help to give a boost to the flagging jihad. They were also told that they would be paid well. $1,000 each was a lot of money and each one of them had given deep thought to what he would do with the bounty.

They got through the pass safely and sat down to get some rest. Soon they would encounter provincial border guards on the Afghan side, but with them safe passage would merely mean that some money would need to change hands.

Three days later the package was safely delivered to the Islamic State or Daesh chief of Khorasan somewhere in Nangarhar province. Several not-so-quiet celebrations followed.

The intelligence agencies did not take long to discover the cause for the celebrations. As the new US President entered the White House after being sworn in on a cold and bleak morning on January 20, 2017, the CIA director was waiting anxiously to brief him.

'Mr President,' he said as soon as they reached the Oval Office, 'ISIS has got hold of eight kilogrammes of weapons-grade uranium smuggled out of the Kahuta nuclear complex in Pakistan.'


During the Nuclear Security Summit that he hosted in Washington, DC on April 1, President Barack Obama asked the media to leave and then screened videos depicting plausible scenarios pertaining to nuclear terrorism. The scenario described above could have been one of them.

Obama warned the 50 plus world leaders gathered for the summit not to be complacent about nuclear safety as the threat of 'nuclear terrorism' is a real and evolving threat. He asked them to take note of the efforts being made by ISIS to acquire a nuclear warhead even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

Concerns over ISIS' plans to acquire nuclear warheads or material for 'dirty nukes' have been amplified since the discovery of video footage of a Belgian nuclear official in the apartment of a key member of the ISIS-linked terrorist cell that was behind the deadly Paris and Brussels attacks.

Brett McGurk, Obama's envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, told the summit, 'President Obama is bringing together almost 50 countries here in the Nuclear Security Summit not only to talk about protecting nuclear materials, but that dangerous section between terrorism and nuclear weapons.'

Neither North Korea nor Pakistan was explicitly named as a possible source of a nuclear warhead or fissile material to assemble one. However, given the deep reach of radical elements in Pakistani society, it is in all probability most likely to be the source of both an assembled nuclear warhead and weapons-grade nuclear material despite fairly well established safety and security norms and carefully framed personnel reliability policies.

However, the most likely scenario is that of a dirty nuke being detonated by jihadi extremists somewhere in Europe, the US or even India. Dirty nukes are high explosive devices with the core comprising relatively easily available radioactive nuclear material such as Cobalt-60 and similar material used in civilian applications like medical diagnostics.

While such devices do not cause horrendous casualties like nuclear warheads, these can pollute the immediate surroundings and create a fear psychosis.

'A terrorist attack with an improvised nuclear device would create political, economic, social, psychological, and environmental havoc around the world, no matter where the attack occurs,' an US administration statement said before the summit.

The absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin robbed the summit of some of its credibility as Russia has a large, undisclosed, stockpile of nuclear materials. Though the summit also addressed the issues of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, these were overshadowed by the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Strict enforcement of the nuclear deal with Iran and the grave provocation posed by the North Korean nuclear warhead and missile tests came in for special mention during the Washington summit. There was inadequate emphasis on declaring military stocks of fissile material and reducing the risk of nuclear accidents. Methods aimed at enhancing the global nuclear security architecture were not given the attention they deserve.

At successive Nuclear Security Summits it has been the endeavour to create an awareness of the threats of the loss or smuggling of nuclear materials and to enhance international cooperation to deal with them.

However, the score card so far is a mixed one as a great deal of effort and expenditure is necessary to secure all nuclear materials and reduce both military and civilian stockpiles.

IMAGE: India's nuclear-capable Agni missile being test fired.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd) is a Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd)