Terrorism: The nuclear summit's 'straw man'
By Shibil Siddiqi
American President Barack Obama gathered 47 national delegations for the first
Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington on April 12 and 13. It was the
largest gathering of world leaders in Washington since the close of World War
II. The scale of the summit was meant to impress the gravity of the subject
In Obama's words, "This is an unprecedented gathering to address an
unprecedented threat": the prevention of nuclear terrorism. In trademark style,
Obama offered rhetorical flourishes to fit the occasion: "Two decades after the
Cold War we face a cruel irony of history. The risk of nuclear confrontation
between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack as gone up". The
president said that a tiny scrap of plutonium the size of
an apple was now the biggest threat to world stability, with "just the tiniest
amount of plutonium" in the wrong hands posing potential for catastrophe.
However, the president's assessment of global nuclear threats paper over some
basic realities. The threat of nuclear confrontation remains dangerously high
despite the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia and
America's passive-aggressive Nuclear Posture Review. This is particularly true
along the nuclear fault-lines in the Middle East and South Asia which have
existed since the Cold War. Perhaps a "dirty bomb" made out of a handful of
plutonium or other radiological material forms the most significant "nuclear"
threat to the US. But outside of this Western-centric world-view, it is the
threat of nuclear attack or exchange in the Middle East and South Asia - home
to nearly a fourth of the world's population - that clearly remains the largest
global nuclear threat.
In actuality, the threat of terrorists acquiring a working nuclear device are
relatively remote. Building nuclear weapons is a complex and resource intensive
business; if it were not, more countries would already possess them.
That leaves the option of stealing a weapon. But pilfering a nuclear weapon is
not simply a case of planning a sophisticated smash-and-grab operation. Nuclear
weapons have multi-layered security systems, both technological and human. For
example, access to nuclear facilities and weapons follows strict chains of
command. Warheads are usually stored in several different pieces that require a
cross-expertise and technical sophistication to assemble. In addition, they
employ security features called Permissive Action Links (PAL) that use either
external enabling devices or advanced encryption to secure the weapon. Older
security systems include anti-tamper devices capable of exploding the device
without a nuclear chain reaction. Not to mention that effectively delivering a
nuclear device comes with its own hefty challenges. Thus, there are many
serious obstacles to terrorists actually obtaining and setting off a nuclear
There is, however, a distinct possibility that fissile materials could fall
into the hands of terrorists. It would not be a first. Chechen rebels planted
crude "dirty bombs" as early as 1995 and 1998. Neither device was detonated and
the rebels provided advance warning to the authorities. But they did succeed in
terrorizing the general population. Further, in 2007 a nuclear facility in
South Africa was attacked twice, but the attackers were repelled before they
were able to get any nuclear materials or intelligence on the computer systems.
The prime suspects for the end buyers in these attacks are states - primarily
Pakistan. Still, an active and lucrative trade in smuggling nuclear materials
and technologies makes further such attacks likely.
But strictly speaking, setting off a dirty bomb is not the same as "nuclear
terrorism". A dirty bomb does not involve a devastating nuclear chain reaction.
It simply disperses (usually with the aid of conventional explosives) fissile
or radiological materials. Such a bomb could potentially cover a relatively
large area with radiological material. However, many experts, including the US
Department of Energy, have noted that the fallout from such a bomb would not
necessarily lead to fatal radiation exposure.
Yet clearly a dirty bomb is a terror weapon simply because it so easily
inspires terror. It has the potential to induce serious ill-health in a large
population in the medium and long-term, render areas unhabitable and
unproductive for long periods of time and would produce psychological effects
in the victims and for anyone wanting to resettle in the affected areas.
But the effects of such a bomb would pale in comparison to even a limited
exchange of nuclear weapons. Such a nuclear war still remains plausible.
Faultline: Middle East
Israel is the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons,
though it does not officially admit to having any under a policy of "nuclear
opacity". Israel acquired the capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons in the
mid-1960s. An intelligence estimate by the Central Intelligence Agency from
1967 - the year of the Six Day Arab-Israeli War - states that Israel had
already acquired the capability to manufacture a number of nuclear warheads.
Israeli warplanes were fitted for delivering nuclear weapons during the 1973
Arab-Israeli war. Of course, this war also generated a nuclear stand-off
between the US and the Soviet Union.
Israel's proliferation record is also on par with or perhaps even surpasses
that of Pakistan. In addition to joint testing, Israel is thought to have
provided South Africa with up to six functional nuclear warheads in the 1970s -
the only known instance of a country simply giving nuclear weapons to another.
Israel presently possesses an estimated 400 nuclear weapons, from powerful
thermonuclear devices to tactical or "battlefield" nukes. Its nuclear doctrine
embraces not only a "first strike" posture but also one of "preemptive strike"
against a conventional or unconventional attack on any of its weapons of mass
destruction (nuclear, chemical or biological). It is also committed to
maintaining nuclear superiority by preventing any other Middle Eastern country
from obtaining nuclear weapons. It has already employed conventional attacks
and assassinations to prevent such an outcome.
Further, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, faced with an
existential threat Israel's nuclear doctrine includes the so-called "Samson
Option": a massive nuclear assault against the nations threatening Israel. It
was thus named by Israeli leaders of the stature of David Ben-Gurion, Shimon
Peres and Moshe Dayan for the Biblical figure of Samson who brought down a
Philistine temple, killing himself and hundreds of Philistines gathered there.
Israel remains in constant conflict with its neighbors, providing any number of
potential triggers of nuclear conflict. It barely disguises its intention to
reject any peace plan with the Palestinians that would require it to end its
occupation. Tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon remain
high. Israel recently attempted to goad negotiations with Syria over the
occupied Golan Heights by threatening to go to war with it. This brought on a
joint declaration of mutual assistance by Syria and Iran to intervene if either
one of them is attacked. And of course, Israel remains unconvinced that
"crippling sanctions" against Iran's nuclear program will materialize and thus,
has pushed for attacking Iranian nuclear facilities both publicly and
privately. With Iran forging ahead with its program despite American pressure,
it remains to be seen how a nearly-nuclear Iran will interplay with Israeli
Faultline: South Asia
The other likely region for a nuclear exchange is in South Asia, where regional
rivals India and Pakistan possess the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal.
India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. This prompted Pakistan to
publicly own up to its own nuclear weapons program that had secretly begun two
years prior. Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons capability in the late 1980s
with the quiet acquiescence of the US. The US found it convenient to ignore
Pakistan's nuclear weapons program while the country was the "frontline" state
in the American-sponsored jihad against the Red Army in Afghanistan. Washington
imposed sanctions in 1990, only after credible intelligence assessments
indicated that Pakistan had already manufactured a bomb. India conducted
another series of nuclear tests in 1998 and this time Pakistan was able to
Both India and Pakistan possess an estimated 80 to 120 nuclear warheads, though
the actual numbers may be higher, particularly for India. Pakistan has a "first
use" policy in the face of a large conventional losses, whereas the more
powerful India prescribes to a "no first use" nuclear doctrine.
Pakistan has already displayed the most reckless nuclear brinkmanship since the
Cuban Missiles Crisis. In 1999, its army incited a war in Kargil in
Indian-occupied Kashmir. As the conflict escalated with the Indian Air Force
being engaged, Pakistan's mobile nuclear missile launchers were allegedly put
on alert. Then army chief General Pervez Musharraf believed that a potential
nuclear conflict would successfully "internationalize" the Kashmir imbroglio
(he was dangerously wrong). Both countries' nuclear arsenals were similarly put
on alert during their tense 2002 stand-off brought on by a terrorist attack on
Unlike Israel and South Africa, which officially stayed mum about their nuclear
weapons, both the Indian and Pakistani tests were publicly celebrated as VIP
passes into the exclusive nuclear club. Except neither country was accepted as
a legitimate nuclear power. International sanctions quickly followed against
both countries, with Pakistani sanctions being more stringent.
But this changed with a deepening America-India alliance under former US
president George W Bush. India became the most prominent counter-point in
designs to ring China with American allies. This resulted in a civilian nuclear
deal under the so-called 123 Agreement, making India the only country in the
world that can engage in nuclear commerce without being a signatory to the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India can now use its older reactors not
covered by the deal almost exclusively for its weapons program.
This has fuelled a renewed nuclear weapons race with Pakistan, which has been
seeking a similar civilian nuclear deal from the US and China. The topic
figured prominently in the recent Pakistani delegation to Washington for the
US-Pakistan "Strategic Dialogue" and the issue has taken on a greater urgency
for Pakistan since the "leak" of India's new "Cold Start" military doctrine
late last year. Cold Start involves rapid and massive offensives against
Pakistan (and China). Pakistan's army chief has responded with a veiled but
unambiguous threat that the country would use nuclear weapons in the case of
such a conflict. Just as terrifying as Pakistan's response is that Cold Start
actually anticipates a nuclear war. Thus, the South Asian region teeters along
the precipice of an unimaginable conflict even as the nuclear arms race is
being escalated through the US-India partnership.
Knocking down the straw man
This week's nuclear summit in Washington is a big summit about a relatively
little problem when it comes to the question of nuclear disarmament. It is no
doubt a positive achievement and will be all the more so if it leads to some
kind of treaty to regulate and limit fissile material. But this essentially
sets up and then effectively knocks down a straw man - that of "nuclear
terrorism", an issue that everyone already agrees upon anyway. The fanfare of
the summit effectively deflects the problem of nuclear disarmament and locates
the threat of nuclear Armageddon in the wrong place. When it comes to nuclear
weapons, the threat of inter-state conflict far outweighs the dangers posed by
But perhaps this is the intent. In dealing with foreign relations, Obama's
presidency has simply brought a new style to a substantively same policy
direction. The nuclear arsenals of Israel, India and Pakistan maintain
strategic balances that are favorable to the US. Little surprise that
conversations about the clear and present danger that these strategic American
allies present are kept on the back-burner.
Shibil Siddiqi is a Fellow with the Center for the Study of Global Power
and Politics at Trent University and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus,
the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives and ZNet. He can be reached at