Could the Islamic State Group Get a Nuclear Weapon?
Progress has been made to limit the global supply of materials, but still more needs to be done.
By Jeff Nesbit Apr 18, 2016
Is nuclear terrorism now a real threat? It’s a question that security experts and think tanks alike are asking in earnest in the wake of the Paris and Brussels bombings carried out by suicide bombers connected to the Islamic State, or ISIS.
“Paris was a warning,” reads the forward to the latest issue of Islamic State group’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq. “Brussels was a reminder. What is yet to come will be more devastating and more bitter by the permission of Allah.”
Experts wonder whether the Islamic State group could legitimately secure the elements needed to carry out an act of nuclear terrorism. The jihadist group clearly has the means, and the ability, to carry out conventional weapons attacks outside the Syrian conflict. It may be planning more such attacks in Europe, say counter-terrorism experts.
“Other Islamic State cells are highly likely to be in existence across Western Europe, preparing and organizing further operations, and awaiting direction from the group’s central leadership to execute,” Matthew Henman, the head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London, told the New York Times.
But bombs that explode and kill dozens of innocent bystanders are one thing. An act of nuclear terrorism, even with a dirty bomb, is something entirely different.
First the good news: The world has made considerable progress in the past few years on efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear weapons-usable material, according to a recent special report on nuclear terrorism in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. There is a lot less of this material available.
“More than half of the countries — 30 of 57 — that have had weapons-usable nuclear material on their soil eliminated it, in nearly all cases with U.S. help,” academic researchers Matthew Bunn, Martin B. Malin, Nickolas Roth and William Tobey wrote in their special report for the Bulletin. “Security for nuclear weapons and materials at scores of sites around the world has been dramatically improved. Essentially every country that still has nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear materials has tightened its security requirements over the past two decades.”
The bad news is that commitments to improve security for nuclear weapons, fissile materials and nuclear facilities appear to have stalled or even lapsed in many countries. Whether world leaders choose to commit to real, sustained efforts “will shape the chances that terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, could get their hands on the materials they need to build a crude nuclear bomb,” Bunn and his colleagues wrote.
“At the end of 2014, Russia cut off most nuclear security cooperation with the United States. The Obama administration is proposing its lowest-ever budget for programs to improve nuclear security around the world,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, the news that an Islamic State operative may have been intensively monitoring a senior official at a Belgian facility with significant stocks of highly enriched uranium has put the potential for acts of nuclear terrorism on the front burner again.
While the potential for a devastating nuclear terrorist act is still quite small, the same group of scientists who wrote for Bulletin explained in the March journal for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs that there are three potential types of “nuclear or radiological terrorism.”
The first, which isn’t at all realistic, is that terrorists build and detonate a nuclear bomb in a major city. The second is that they set off a “dirty bomb” made of radioactive material attached to conventional explosives — a scenario that experts in this field see as likely (if not inevitable). A third, somewhere between these two, is an effort by terrorists to sabotage a nuclear facility, the Belfer Center report said.
One thing is certain. We may be entering a time where nuclear terrorism is a very legitimate possibility — and world leaders need to pay attention in ways they haven’t been until now.
“Making a crude nuclear weapon — not one that would be delivered by a missile in space, but one that would be put in the back of a truck and detonated in a major city — is well within the know-how and capability of an awful lot of people out there,” former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, now the the co-chairman and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told the Bulletin in an interview. “So we think the best way to prevent that is to protect nuclear material and get rid of as much of it as possible. There are no guarantees in this area, but we can certainly reduce the risk.”