As the U.S. wages war in Afghanistan and battles bio-terrorism at home, concern is rising that the real threat to the nation could be a Cold War relic -- the nuclear bomb. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, President George W. Bush is worried that chief terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden could get his hands on one -- if he hasn't already.
Washington, 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, the world breathed a sigh of relief that the 50-year nuclear standoff between Moscow and Washington was finally over -- and that no one had pushed the button.
But following the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., there is growing concern that a nuclear strike is more probable now than it was at the height of the Cold War.
For the first time, U.S. President George W. Bush warned yesterday that the suspected mastermind of the September attacks -- Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden -- and his Al-Qaeda network are seeking nuclear weapons and ways to deliver them against American and other Western targets.
Bush made his comments via satellite to a summit of Central and Eastern European leaders in Warsaw, Poland. And he reiterated his concerns at a White House news conference with visiting French President Jacques Chirac.
"He [Osama bin Laden] announced that this was his intention, and I believe we need to take him seriously. We will do everything we can to make sure he does not acquire the means to deliver the weapons of mass destruction. If he doesn't have them, we will work hard to make sure he doesn't. If he does, we will make sure he doesn't deploy them."
Bush's comments followed similar recent warnings by U.S. and international officials. U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said last week that the severity of September's attacks raised the concern that terrorists might not hesitate to use nuclear weapons. But Bush is the first U.S. leader to openly connect bin Laden with nuclear ambitions.
In his speech to European leaders in Warsaw, Bush emphasized the need for the international coalition against terrorism -- which is backing the U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan -- to remain united. He said that, given the means, bin Laden and his followers could be a threat "to every nation and, eventually, to civilization itself."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told a news conference later that even concerted military action in Afghanistan may not guarantee against future attacks by terrorists. Fleischer, noting that the elusiveness of terrorists distinguishes them from nation-states, made this observation: "It's not as if there was a fleet of ships that they had launched across an ocean that we knew was arriving in America's coastal waters. This is totally different. The ability for people to carry out individual acts of terrorism may or may not be diminished as a result of an ongoing military campaign."
Concern over the possibility of a terrorist nuclear attack, especially in New York and Washington, goes beyond official quarters.
At a time when Americans are facing biological threats -- such as the anthrax-laced letters that have killed four people in the last month -- an influential weekly U.S. magazine dedicates its cover story this week to nuclear terrorism. In its headline, "The New Republic" warns: "The Real Threat: It's Not Biological or Chemical. It's Nuclear."
The story points out that Iraq is the state most likely to develop such weapons and use them against the U.S. But it also broaches the possibility that Al-Qaeda or a similar terrorist group could acquire the fissile materials needed to develop a nuclear weapon -- most likely a crude "radiological device" that would not level a city but which could spew enough nuclear fallout to eventually kill thousands.
Rose Gottemoeller is a senior associate for the nuclear non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy institute. Asked if the world is in more danger now of a nuclear attack than 25 years ago, Gottemoeller was unequivocal: "The United States and frankly other countries around the world, I would say, are at greater risk today than during the Cold War because the events of 11 September really shattered a taboo against the use of enormous force in terrorist operations."
But Gottemoeller agrees that a crude radiological device -- not a sophisticated weapon of mass destruction -- is the chief nuclear danger posed by terrorists, since it is difficult to acquire sufficient quantities of enriched plutonium to build a bomb, not to mention acquiring the means of delivering it.
"I think, frankly, it's not very likely that they would have an all-out nuclear weapons capability -- that is, being able to deliver a nuclear bomb on a target here in the United States. It is rather difficult technically to achieve a nuclear detonation."
Gary Milhollin is director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a research and education group based in Washington. He agrees the chances of Al-Qaeda possessing a nuclear weapon are small. He says it is unlikely Al-Qaeda possesses the nuclear materials or the proper laboratory facilities.
"It's far more likely in my opinion that Al-Qaeda could obtain nuclear waste. Then it could obtain nuclear weapon material, or a warhead. The problem however, for a terrorist that is, is that nuclear waste is highly radioactive, and it has to be shielded in order to be transported and worked with -- and the more of it there is, the heavier the shielding. So it's just not very practical to take a large amount of radioactivity -- of intensely radioactive material -- and transport it around because the shielding tends to be so heavy that it makes it impractical."
Another concern recently raised by the American media is the possibility that the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf -- a key ally of the U.S.-led action in Afghanistan -- could eventually fall, leaving its nuclear stockpile in the hands of Islamic militants. A recent story in "The New Yorker" magazine quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying they have a plan ready for just that scenario.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at the Pentagon yesterday, played down such a threat: "People who have nuclear weapons -- countries that have nuclear weapons -- spend a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of effort getting them, and they tend to have, over a period of time, a very healthy respect for the lethal power of those weapons. And they tend to be quite sensitive to the safety of those weapons. And there is not a doubt in my mind but that the president of Pakistan and his senior officials have exactly that respect for the power of those weapons and have taken appropriate steps to see that they are managed and handled in a way that is safe and fully responsible."
Experts such as Gottemoeller of the Carnegie Endowment say the best way to combat nuclear terrorism is to make sure that nuclear materials and weapons components are safe at their source and secure from theft.
Although some experts point to the countries of the former Soviet Union as prime territory for a terrorist shopping for nuclear materials, Gottemoeller says she is confident these stockpiles are secure.