NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Seriously Should Americans Take The Threat of Nuclear Terror

November 29, 2001

No one wanted to even bring up the subject prior to Sept. 11. But Osama bin Laden has now stated that his al-Qaeda network has nuclear weapons, and Americans are forced to confront the possibility of a nuclear attack on a major U.S. city. How seriously do authorities think that threat should be taken?

  • U.S. intelligence and defense officials do not believe any terrorist group -- including al-Qaeda -- has acquired or built a full-fledged nuclear bomb, yet.
  • But experts say terrorists could construct a "dirty bomb" that uses dynamite to disperse radioactive material in an urban setting -- killing perhaps 1,000 people, rendering the area unlivable for months and causing cancer risks for decades.
  • From 1993 through 2000, the United Nations agency which monitors nuclear security confirmed 153 cases of theft of nuclear materials -- as well as 183 cases of thefts of other radioactive materials that could be converted into dirty bombs.

There are four leading scenarios under which terrorists could launch a strike -- obtaining an existing bomb from the stockpiles of a nuclear nation through theft or other means, by obtaining the necessary materials and building their own device, through seizure of a missile site or computer codes to cause an illicit missile launch, and through construction of a dirty bomb that would not require weapons-grade materials.

Each scenario has its own challenges and drawbacks, as well as opportunities, from the perspective of terrorists.

Source: Bill Nichols and Peter Eisler, "The Threat of Nuclear Terror Is Slim But Real," USA Today, November 29, 2001.

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