Can apocalypse be averted?

The War on Terror

September 03, 2004|By Stephen J. Cimbala

THE POSSIBILITY of another mass destruction attack against the United States or on the territory of our major allies is the nightmare scenario that haunts U.S. policy-makers.

It drove the Bush administration into Iraq despite the unfinished business lingering in Afghanistan with the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. Failure on the part of postwar inspectors to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq became a lightning rod for critics of the U.S. military intervention and postwar occupation.

Government officials and military experts talk publicly about WMD as if nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons are equally dangerous or destabilizing. In private, they know better. What drives the sum of their fears is the possibility of a terrorist strike using nuclear weapons. The first reason is, in a word, Russia, or Russian nukes; the second reason is Abdul Qadeer Khan, a prominent Pakistani scientist who became the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.

In Russia, the 1990s were a decade of political instability and military uncertainty. Control over the vast nuclear arsenal of the Russian Federation and its nuclear storage sites rested upon the shoulders of a deteriorating military establishment and partly demobilized security services from the communist era.

Pentagon funds were used to assist Russia during the 1990s in the accurate accounting and safe storage of fissile materials, in addition to the destruction and dismantling of superfluous weapons and launchers. Unfortunately, these assists to Russian nuclear security have affected mostly its civilian scientific research facilities: Military areas have remained relatively out of reach to American and other non-Russian scientists and investigators.

The second reason for concern about a possible terrorist nuclear attack is that subversive networks of public officials and private entrepreneurs can serve as the midwives or expeditors for the transfer of nuclear related technologies and expertise.

A case in point is that of Mr. Khan, who used his influence and high position in the Pakistani nuclear scientific establishment to expedite nuclear information and technology transfer to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Whether the chain of custody for information and technology in this shadow network also passed through terrorist hands is undocumented. But the states of concern in this case are so commingled with some terrorist groups that the worst possibilities cannot be ruled out.

Can this scenario be avoided? The tool kit for avoiding nuclear terrorism includes: preventing the spread of nuclear-related technology and material to malefactors; deterring the use of nuclear weapons by those who already have them; defending, where feasible, against nuclear attacks; and, if warned of imminent attack, pre-empting as a form of anticipatory self-defense.

However, these options work better against states than against terrorists, who have neither a regime nor territory to defend. And, like it or not, the United States cannot get a grip on this problem without the cooperation of allies and other governments. Counterterrorism is not mostly about "shock and awe." It's painstaking intelligence and police work, it's a dirty war in the shadows, and sometimes it's not politically correct. But it beats the alternative.

Globally, acknowledged government seizures of illegal nuclear materials have not captured large amounts of contraband leaking across borders. This gold standard for nuclear protection might suffice if we were worried about, say, enough fissile material to equip a small army or navy with tactical nukes. But terrorists need less plutonium or uranium if they can acquire the engineering skills and additional accouterments necessary to fabricate a crude, but effective, nuclear weapon.

If Chechen separatists could acquire some fissile material from Russian leakage, they could pass it along to their al-Qaida brethren. And it would not take a great deal of ingenuity for the components of a nuclear device to find their way through U.S. Customs and across U.S. borders into our major metropolitan areas. Even now, it is not inconceivable that some partly assembled weapons are sitting in garages or underground storage areas, awaiting the arrival of additional parts and fissile material.

Finally, if nobody else will provide the crown jewels of nuclear apocalypse to terrorist fanatics, the Iranians, once they become a nuclear power, certainly will. A nuclear-capable Iran realizes the Bush administration's fears mistakenly attributed to Iraq: We are the Iranian ayatollahs' "Great Satan" and their designated ground zero.

And Iran's collaboration with al-Qaida is documented beyond doubt.

Stephen J. Cimbala, a professor of political science at Penn State University, is the author of 27 books on international politics, the U.S. military and nuclear arms.

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