Dan Lindley

Fighting to Prevent WMD Terrorism

December 7, 2001

Many who criticize the U.S.-led war against terrorism argue that it is motivated by revenge, not justice. They are wrong. The real justification for the war is neither revenge or justice, but safety. This war deserves support because its goal is to prevent future terrorism using biological and nuclear weapons.

We are lucky to be fighting this war against terrorism today, and not in ten to twenty years' time. Now that we know that some terrorists will stop at nothing, it is imperative to stop terrorists and stop proliferation of biological and nuclear weapons before things get even worse. Bin Laden and other terrorists are seeking biological and nuclear weapons that could kill millions of people. The technological skills and resources needed to make weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are diffusing and becoming easier to obtain over time. With a nuclear weapon, bin Laden would have destroyed all of lower Manhattan. Or central Paris, London, Rome...

Bin Laden and al Qaeda have sought nuclear weapons since 1992. Bin Laden considers obtaining nuclear weapons a religious duty, and al Qaeda has threatened the U.S. with a 'Hiroshima.' Al Qaeda tried to get uranium from South Africa (which used to have six atomic weapons), and has repeatedly tried to get nuclear materials and weapons from throughout the former Soviet Union. The Taliban has tried to recruit Russian nuclear scientists, and bin Laden has had close contact with Pakistani nuclear scientists. Along with al Qaeda, numerous other terrorists and states are actively pursuing nuclear and biological weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reports eighteen total foiled nuclear thefts involving weapons grade materials. Of these eighteen, "there have been seizures of about 400 grams of plutonium and another 12 kilos of uranium at varying levels of enrichment, equivalent to only some 6 kilos of uranium-235." Eight kilograms of plutonium or 25 kilograms of enriched uranium are needed to make an atomic bomb. All told, there have been 175 cases of trafficking in nuclear material since 1993. How many incidents were never discovered and how many nuclear thieves were not caught?

A high Russian official notes that one loss of nuclear material was of the "highest consequence." Since the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Russian nuclear infrastructure has been vulnerable: guards and scientists unpaid, unemployed, and presumably bribable. Facilities with no fences, security cameras, or detectors to signal thefts of nuclear materials. After years of U.S. and Russian attempts to remedy these problems, half of the Russian nuclear stockpile is still not well protected. This 'loose nukes' problem is a global security concern of the highest consequence. There may also be a Russian 'loose bio-weapon' problem, given their formerly massive biological weapons program.

Before the war, the best guess was that bin Laden had a rudimentary chemical weapons capability. Chemical weapons pale compared to nuclear and biological weapons. Bin Laden now claims to have nuclear weapons as well, something doubted by the U.S. government. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that it is "reasonable to assume he might very well have chemical or biological or possibly even radiation weapons" (conventional explosive bombs that disperse radioactive material).

Given bin Laden's threats to use nuclear weapons, his attempts to get them, the clear and present danger of nuclear (and biological) material and weapon thefts, and the ever increasing lethality of terrorist attacks, the threat posed by WMD terrorism is sufficiently urgent that the U.S. and the coalition against terrorism should prosecute the war against terrorism with vigor and speed.

Along with force, we must do a number of things to reduce terrorism and reduce vulnerability: use arms control to reduce proliferation; use sanctions and other instruments to punish and coerce terrorist sponsors; use information campaigns and policy adjustments to reduce enmity toward the U.S. and the West in general; promote energy conservation and oil exploration to reduce Persian Gulf oil dependence; promote the growth of middle classes throughout the Middle East; and foster Israeli/Palestinian peace.

Most of these initiatives take time. The WMD terrorist threat is growing, if not imminent. We can not wait for these initiatives alone.

This is not just, or even mainly, a war about September 11. This is a war to prevent WMD terrorism.