- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

The headlines surrounding the Moscow summit meeting between President Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin focused primarily on the growing but inconclusive dialogue over mounting a defense against ballistic missiles launched from rogue states. Only scant media attention has been paid to concrete agreements related to the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The summit outcomes add to the almost decade-long U.S.-financed effort to thwart the flow of nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and the drain of scientific brainpower out of the former Soviet Union to countries or to terrorist groups seeking a nuclear capability. Presidents Clinton and Putin set a 20-year timetable, starting in 2007, for each side to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium from their military stockpiles. High-level discussions reportedly were held on upcoming actions to refurbish a Russian nuclear weapon dismantlement site and to improve security over highly enriched uranium and nuclear submarine spent fuel stored at decaying Russian naval facilities.

These programs are part of the current Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative of the departments of Energy, Defense and State, with a budget of more than $1 billion in the next fiscal year. Yet, what is being spent is only a fraction of what is needed to safely secure the nuclear weapons and materials left over from the Soviet Union, convert the 10 once-secret "nuclear cities" to viable commercial enterprises and find employment for former weapons scientists.

As long these goals remain unfulfilled, the threat posed by nuclear weapons, materials and technology getting into the hands of nuclear terrorists remains real. There is a new breed of theologically driven terrorist groups with the resources and capabilities and motivation to acquire and deliver weapons of mass destruction, and the threat is active and menacing. This is confirmed by the just released study by the National Commission on Terrorism and the recent State Department report titled "Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1999."

The two prime examples are the network of Osama bin Laden's al Quaida and a Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo. Although inspired by different religious motivations, mass destruction is part of their agenda. The possibility that these groups would steal or smuggle a nuclear weapon or acquire the plutonium or highly enriched uranium for making one cannot be dismissed. Nor can opportunities for purchasing nuclear waste to spread in a radiological device be ignored.

There are numerous officially documented attempts to steal or sell weapons-grade nuclear material originating from storage facilities in Russia. In March, border guards at a customs post in Uzbekistan seized an Iranian truck with a cargo of radioactive material in lead containers bound for a destination in southern Pakistan. Reportedly, this material, intended for a radiological device, was headed for the Afghanistan camps of bin Laden.

The wealthy bin Laden's nuclear aspirations are also portrayed in a Manhattan federal court indictment issued last year, accusing one of his close associates of being involved in a scheme to buy uranium for nuclear weapons and seeking links with Iran. Other reports suggest an attempted purchase of nuclear material in the Ukraine and in the former Soviet Central Asian republics.

Similarly, Aum Shinrikyo, known for its attack with sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, has also been aggressive in its pursuit of a several nuclear ventures, including attempts to acquire nuclear technology and material from the former Soviet Union and seeking to meet with Russian officials to buy a nuclear weapon.

Moreover, well-funded and well-organized terrorist groups could offer an attractive lure to former weapons scientists who are underpaid and looking for new opportunities. To counter this possibility, there are initiatives in the nuclear cities and elsewhere to match former-Soviet scientists with productive commercial activities. The International Science and Technology Center in Moscow and the Science and Technology Center in Kiev, Ukraine, with funding from the United States and other countries, are employing thousands of former Soviet weapons experts in civilian work, although often for only a fraction of full time.

Domestically, the concern over nuclear terrorism cannot be discounted, either. In mid-1998, Mr. Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 62, expressing his concern over the growing lethality and technological sophistication of terrorist weapons and their potential for disrupting our society and its critical infrastructures. The fiscal year 2000 domestic counter-terrorism budget includes $1.5 billion for defense against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Dealing with the threat of terrorism via weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear terrorism, on all fronts is a necessity for our national security. Our vulnerabilities were revealed by the chance arrest of a bin Laden-follower, Ahmed Ressam, crossing the Canadian border into the state of Washington in December with a carload of high-efficiency conventional explosives. What is more frightening is that a crude nuclear or biological device could be delivered in the same way.

In sum, several lessons should be learned if the international community is to avert the danger of nuclear terrorism. First, the possible leakage of nuclear weapons and materials from the former Soviet Union must be confronted, internally, with improved protection, control and accounting and, at border crossings, with more sophisticated detection equipment and training.

Second, continued and expanded bilateral efforts for disposal and safeguarding of nuclear material plutonium and highly enriched uranium in the former Soviet Union and the United States must proceed on a high priority.

Third, industrial countries must be encouraged to contribute additional funds to encourage the science and technology centers in Moscow and Kiev.

Fourth, planning should go forward on the organization of a multinational summit to create a strategy to counter mass destruction terrorism, to tighten controls on nuclear and dual-use transfers and black markets, and to advance more effective arms-control initiatives and emergency-management efforts.



Yonah Alexander is the director of the International Center for Counter Terrorism Studies, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Milton Hoenig is a nuclear physicist based in Washington.

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