Coming Soon: Nuclear Terror?
Since 9/11 the world has become used to periodic warnings about nuclear terrorism. We don’t like to think about it, and it has become easy to dismiss. People have been talking about this for years and it’s not happened, we reason.
After all, conducting a nuclear attack is hard. But the world is just waking up to the fact that it is faced with attack from terrorist groups of unprecedented strength.
Terrorists More Powerful Than Ever
In the wake of the Brussels attacks, authorities realized that the Islamic State had penetrated far deeper into Europe than they had realized. The network was now “very sophisticated,” the Wall Street Journal quoted a senior United States official saying. “There is a large number [of members], all across Europe,” the official said.
German news site Spiegel Online warned, that “The people behind this terror are proving to be surprisingly farsighted, patient planners and not rash actors—and this applies in both Europe and Syria.”
“This is the new and long underestimated side of [the Islamic State],” it wrote. It described how the Islamic State has a history of sending sleeper agents to infiltrate a target group well in advance of an attack. It appears to be doing the same thing in Europe. “Testimony from deserters suggests the terror organization began establishing sleeper cells in multiple European countries early on, in Turkey in particular,” Spiegel wrote. “According to the former [Islamic State] fighters, they are made up of men who aren’t on any watch lists. This enables [the Islamic State] to elude the vulnerability suffered by many based in Europe—namely that they are known terrorists.”
Guardian Unlimited also claims to have spoken to Islamic State members about their plans for Europe. The group, it writes, has been sending a “new wave” of terrorists to Europe to gather supporters, form groups and “place emphasis on wreaking havoc in Italy, Belgium, France, Germany and the [United Kingdom].” At a meeting of Islamic State leaders, “they talked about which societies would crumble first,” it reported.
Kamran Bokhari made similar points on Geopolitical Futures in an article titled “Counterterrorism and Jihadist Capabilities,” published March 30. “[The Islamic State] and other such groups should be treated like intelligence agencies who have to avoid detection,” he wrote. “And since [the Islamic State] has established a state, it has more resources than similar groups like, al Qaeda.” He warned:
In the case of [the Islamic State], it is not the usual paramilitary group engaged in acts of terrorism. It is staging attacks in numerous countries from East Asia to the West and at the same time controlling territory in the heart of the Middle East. It is a terrorist organization as well as a state. Most observers have yet to recognize that [the Islamic State] has a multi-divisional conventional military capability, which is why it is able to control and administer large swathes of land in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Likewise, for [the Islamic State] to be able to simultaneously execute terror attacks across the world while being hunted by a global dragnet means it has a very sophisticated intelligence apparatus.
It’s not just the Islamic State that is increasing in capability. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (aqap)—the al Qaeda group that has proven the biggest threat in recent years—has also received a dramatic boost.
“Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of Islamic State abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third-largest port,” warned Reuters in an investigation published April 8.
The situation in Yemen “has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago,” it wrote. Yemeni officials estimate the group could be earning up to $2 million a day in taxes on goods and fuel traveling through the port it controls. Looting the town’s bank gained it $100 million in one raid alone. Before this point, its annual operating costs had been around $10 million.
“By adopting many of the tactics Islamic State uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, aqap has expanded its own fiefdom,” wrote Reuters. “The danger is that the group, which organized the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners, may slowly indoctrinate the local population with its hard-line ideology.”
Planning a Nuclear Attack
These are just two groups with both the desire and resources to launch a massive attack. There is good evidence that the Islamic State is already planning to go nuclear. In a raid on an apartment used by Islamic State terrorists, authorities discovered video footage of a top official at one of Belgium’s nuclear power plants. In another possible link to the Islamic State, two days after the terrorist attack on the Brussels airport, a security guard for a nuclear plant was shot dead and his access badge stolen.
Salah Abdeslam, one of the key organizers of the Paris attacks, had documents in his apartment about a nuclear research center in Germany, suggesting he had been considering an attack there. German press reported that he had printed information from the Internet about the facility, as well as photographs of the person in charge.
In Eastern Europe, criminal gangs have been caught trying to sell Russian nuclear material to the terrorist group. Getting hold of nuclear material and creating a dirty bomb would be “so easy that many experts are surprised it hasn’t happened already,” wrote Elisabeth Eaves for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The Brussels attack spotlighted the vulnerability of the nation’s nuclear sites.
Another Belgian power plant had two workers leave to fight in Syria in 2012. The same plant experienced some kind of attack when someone emptied out 65,000 liters of oil needed to lubricate the turbines. The system nearly overheated, and the reactor was down for five months. Belgian authorities do not know if the incident was linked to its terrorist ex-employees, but it shows that some kind of attack is possible.
There’s also the potential for terrorists to steal actual nuclear bombs in Belgium as Jeffrey Lewis pointed out in his Foreign Policy article titled “Belgium’s Failed State Is Guarding America’s Nuclear Weapons.”
America keeps nuclear bombs in several European countries, and their security is terrible. Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote about the danger back in 2014:
The Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium is one of the bases that hosts America’s tactical nuclear weapons. In 2001, this base was the target of an al Qaeda extremist named Nizar Trabelsi. In 2010, the same base was penetrated by peace activists. The activists climbed the perimeter fence and wandered around the base for more than an hour, videotaping their escapade. When they were finally caught, base security didn’t even confiscate the videotape!
The peace activists visited the base a second time, and this time got all the way to the bunkers containing the nuclear weapons. They came and went without meeting any security. “It is appalling that the U.S. is so careless with something so deadly dangerous! This is the kind of mistake that will have terrible real-world consequences,” wrote Mr. Flurry.
Lewis wrote, “If you were a Belgian terrorist, why settle for a dirty bomb when you have the option of stealing an honest-to-goodness nuclear bomb?”
Earlier in his career, Lewis had reviewed the security at some of these bases. He wrote:
It’s true that the Bombspotters haven’t been back to Kleine Brogel in a few years. But that’s because they’ve been breaking into other locations. And, a couple of years ago, there was yet another incursion, by another group of activists, at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands. Security still stinks, as far as I can tell.
There are also potential sources of nuclear material outside of Europe. Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, cooperation between Russia and the U.S. on the protection of Russia’s nuclear sites has broken down. Security at these sites is vastly improved from the early days of the fall of the ussr, but there are still major flaws.
Russian sites do not have to check to see if any nuclear material has gone missing while under their care. Josh Cohen wrote in the Moscow Times that “some facilities possess thousands of canisters of heu [highly enriched uranium] or plutonium with paper records going back decades, but no one has ever went back to measure each canister to be sure the material is still there.”
There have been a string of scandals at these sites. Cohen went on to warn:
The director of one of Russia’s largest plutonium and heu processing facilities and two of his deputies were arrested for corruption in a multimillion scheme, while a Russian general in command of a nuclear weapon storage site was fired due to massive corruption. A colonel in the Russian Interior Ministry in charge of nuclear security inspections was also arrested for soliciting bribes to overlook security violations.
Most recently, an Associated Press investigation reported four separate incidents where Moldovan police broke up smuggling attempts involving nuclear materials linked to Russian organized crime—one of which involved an attempt by a Russian gang to sell nuclear material to the Islamic State. Furthermore, forensic analysis revealed the materials seized were produced in the early 1990s in a Russian nuclear facility in the Ural Mountains. This raises a frightening question—what else has gone missing from Russian nuclear facilities since the breakup of the Soviet Union that we are unaware of? The extremist connection is noteworthy. Osama bin Laden considered nuclear terrorism targeting American civilians to be a legitimate action, and the Islamic State has seized enough nuclear materials from research centers, hospitals and an oil facility in Iraq to construct a dirty bomb. Recent reports indicate that Islamic extremism has spread to the Urals, where a number of Russian nuclear facilities are located. With President Vladimir Putin acknowledging that at least 5,000-7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet states joined the Islamic State, it’s not impossible to imagine Islamic State sympathizers getting their hands on Russian nuclear materials.
Pakistan could also provide terrorists with an opportunity to get their hands on nuclear weapons. The nation has large strategic nuclear bombs, but also smaller tactical nukes. The strategic weapons are disassembled and stored in separate bases around the country. But the tactical nukes are ready to go. Local commanders have the authority to launch these missiles without needing permission from the central government. “In addition to the perils inherent in this policy, such weapons would be vulnerable to misuse by a rogue base commander or theft by one of the many militant groups in the country,” wrote Dilip Hiro on Tom Dispatch, a blog run by the Nation Institute.
There are plenty of ways for a determined group to get nuclear material. Launching a nuclear terrorist attack is not easy. If it were, someone would have done it by now. But these are rich and powerful groups. We’re facing terrorists groups with access to the kind of resources usually available only to nation states.
The New York Times quoted Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor specializing in nuclear security, giving some chilling warnings. The Islamic State “has an apocalyptic ideology and believes there is going to be a final war with the United States,” he said. The group expects to win that war, and it needs “very powerful weapons to do so.”
“And if they ever did turn to nuclear weapons,” he said, “they have more people, more money and more territory under their control and more ability to recruit experts globally than al Qaeda at its best ever had.”
That warning isn’t easy to dismiss, simply because a nuclear terrorist attack—even if it’s just a dirty bomb—would have earthshaking implications. It isn’t nice to think about, but as expert after expert is warning, it is reality.
But there is hope. The Bible prophecies a short era of nuclear attacks coming soon, but it also gives incredible hope for what lies after. For more about this hope, read our article “The World Will Not End This Way!”