Alexander's Column

National Security Primer 4: The Nuke Threat

Mark Alexander · Jan. 7, 2006

The unthinkable – perhaps the inevitable

The Cold War nuclear threat may have subsided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but The Long War, our campaign to secure the U.S. and our national interests and allies against Islamist terror, is heating up. Also on the rise is the risk of nuclear attack on Western targets. Albeit limited in scope, such attacks are much more probable now than during the Cold War. Preventing nuclear attack is more difficult today because our Jihadi foes are asymmetric rather than symmetric entities.

For most of U.S. history, perilous national security threats were symmetric, emanating from distinct nation-states or alliances with unambiguous political, economic and geographical interests. In the last century, World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam involved symmetric threats – that is, well-defined adversaries. Symmetric threats are tangible and easier for our political leaders to define. For the American people, this enemy is easier to identify.

Ronald Reagan tagged the Soviet Union as “The Evil Empire,” and Americans understood this enemy and its characterization. Similarly, George W. Bush called our post-Cold War symmetric adversaries – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – the “Axis of Evil.”

When a symmetric adversary like the USSR possessed large quantities of WMD and a proven delivery capability, the principle method for preventing their use was deterrence. Throughout the Cold War, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction stayed offensive strikes, and limited conflicts between communist and democratic nations to conventional warfare.

When symmetric adversaries do not possess, or have obtained only limited quantities of WMD, our method of damage control is active nonproliferation – using all political, economic and diplomatic means to prevent, constrain, or reverse their spread. In the case of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, which possessed substantial quantities of WMD (and used them on Iraqi civilians), the failure of nonproliferation efforts led to Operation Iraqi Freedom – the deposition of Saddam and seeding of democracy in place of his tyrannical regime.

But OIF was more than the enforcement of a nonproliferation policy, because another adversary had emerged which defied political, economic and geographical definition. OIF was, more accurately, an act of Counterproliferation – using all means to protect against the threat of a WMD attack by non-state actors (terrorists surrogates) who have been provided WMD by their state sponsors.

In 2001, President Bush estimated, correctly, that Iraq had, and was prepared to provide, WMD to Islamist terrorists like al-Qa'ida. As The Patriot reported in October 2002 our well-placed sources in the Southwest Asia theater and intelligence sources within the NSA and NRO estimated that the UN Security Council’s foot-dragging (with substantial help from the French and Russians) provided an ample window for Saddam to export some or all of his WMD to Syria and Iran prior to the launch of OIF. It now appears that they may have done so with the help of Russian special forces.

At that time, we reported that Allied Forces would be unlikely to discover any WMD stores, noting, “Our sources estimate that Iraq has shipped its nuclear WMD components – including two ‘crude nuclear devices’ designed to utilize U235 cores – through Syria to southern Lebanon’s heavily fortified Bekaa Valley.” In December 2002 our senior-level intelligence sources re-confirmed estimates that some of Iraq’s biological and nuclear WMD material and components had, in fact, been moved into Syria and possibly Iran. That movement continued until President Bush finally pulled the plug on the UN’s ruse.

In January of this year, Saddam’s air force deputy commander, General Georges Sada, now a national-security advisor for Iraq’s new government, confirmed that in June, 2002, under Saddam’s direction, he arranged transportation of WMD and related technology to Syria aboard retrofitted commercial jets under the pretense of conducting a humanitarian mission on behalf of flood victims. The Patriot has corroborated evidence that there were such flights during that timeframe, though our sources would not confirm the manifest – other than to suggest that the flights did not contain humanitarian relief.

It is worth noting here that the major intelligence failure in Iraq was not about WMD but about how long it would take to stabilize Iraq after removing Saddam. The original estimate, based primarily on assurances from Dr. Ahmed Chalabi, the man who was scripted to replace Saddam after the invasion, was 90-180 days.

Of course, we thought we would only be in Japan and Germany for 5 years after the cessation of WWII hostilities – yet we are still in both countries today. As The Patriot noted prior to the invasion of Iraq, we clearly have long-term objectives to establish one or more bases in southern Iraq as forward deployment strongholds in the region.

Currently, there is mounting evidence that Saddam’s government did provide significant intelligence and operational support for al-Qa'ida. The burning question remains, were any of Saddam’s nuclear components, in whatever state of readiness, acquired by al-Qa'ida?

Unfortunately, there is no neat Cold War doctrine – no Mutually Assured Destruction – to stave off a nuclear attack from an asymmetric threat such as al-Qa'ida. The only counter-proliferation doctrine capable of keeping this enemy at bay is that of pre-emption – initiating first strikes on their turf to keep them off our own.

Al-Qa'ida’s protagonist, Osama bin Laden, has called for an “American Hiroshima” in which al-Qa'ida cells detonate multiple nukes in U.S. urban centers. Al-Qa'ida has made it clear that they will use any means at hand to disrupt continuity of government and commerce in the U.S. in an effort to impede our influence in the Middle East. As Osama put it, “Why do you use an ax when you can use a bulldozer? … We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.” Osama’s lieutenant Sulaiman Abu Ghaith says al-Qa'ida aspires “to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children.”

Why does al-Qa'ida choose nuclear weapons? Because chemical weapons are low consequence, and biological weapons are indiscriminate – more likely to inflict mass casualties among Muslims in Asia and Africa than Christians in the West.

And what is al-Qa'ida’s nuclear weapon of choice? While radiological dispersal devices (dirty bombs) are low tech, they are also, like chemical weapons, low consequence. The highest consequence nuclear weapon would be one utilizing U239, but plutonium is extremely hard to produce, unstable, easily detectable, and the bomb hardware is highly sophisticated, requiring great precision in the manufacture and machining of its parts.

A nuclear device utilizing U235 is therefore the weapon al-Qa'ida will use. Highly enriched uranium is more accessible and stable, and it requires a comparatively low-tech detonation sequence. This is precisely the type of weapon our sources indicate Saddam had in production.

Al-Qa'ida has a broad and amorphous network, including cells in North America. It is unlikely that these cells are in possession of a nuclear weapon, because moving such a device subjects both the mover and the weapon to detection – and our methods for detecting nuclear devices are very good.

But they are not infallible. As Harvard’s Graham Allison, author of “Nuclear Terrorism,” grimly notes, “It’s a great puzzle. … I think that we should be very thankful that it hasn’t happened already. … We’re living on borrowed time.”

To be sure, an asymmetric nuclear threat is not the greatest potential hazard we face as a nation. That would be the very real threat of another Pandemic. Still, the nuclear threat remains very real – and it is greatly enhanced by the political infighting over OIF and domestic security issues such as the USA Patriot Act and our NSA terrorist surveillance programs.

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