Terrorists have always desired to obtain weapons of mass destruction or raw material enabling them to manufacture a dirty bomb, which though crude, would however cause high casualties. Simultaneously they would continue to attempt to strike any nuclear installation. Any single successful action would prompt the world to respond with force against the responsible group, as also lead to mass counter actions against select communities resulting in a mass divide across the world. This could be a worst case scenario for the world. Nuclear proliferation was the agenda of the recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
The summit was the last of the four planned, the first being in 2010, post Obama’s Prague declaration in 2009. Its aim was to review progress on actions to enhance nuclear security as also prevent material falling into terrorist hands. Nuclear security has never been the same since AQ Khan, a Pakistani scientist, stole nuclear designs from The Netherlands, helped Pakistan build a bomb and then subsequently, created a vast network that traded nuclear secrets and illicit technology across several continents. It is believed that North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya were among those with whom designs were shared. While the nuclear programs of other countries were stalled, North Korea’s continued unabated. While civil nuclear plants can be monitored, military facilities and nuclear weapons security is the responsibility of the nation’s themselves.
Investigations post the recent attacks in Brussels, revealed that terrorists were tracking a scientist from the Brussels nuclear power plant. Further, it was confirmed that two members on the staff of the same plant had switched allegiance to the ISIS. It was a possibility that this plant was one of their possible targets. Therefore, in the present context nuclear terrorism continues to remain a reality.
A few years ago, while attending an exercise as part of my stint with the Canadian forces, a hypothetical scenario of inputs being received of a dirty bomb arriving in a container at a major port was painted for discussion. Any major international port handles thousands of containers daily. For the security agencies, it became a nightmare to identify and segregate the container, before it could cause relevant damage. In case operations failed, the expected fallout could be catastrophic. Therefore, the possession of material for producing or even possessing a dirty bomb by any terrorist group is nightmarish for the world.
North Korea is the only nation regularly threatening the world with a nuclear strike. The world is compelled to deal with it with ‘kid gloves’. Economic sanctions and international isolation have done little to stop their testing and manufacture of nuclear weapons and launch vehicles. The reason is the eccentricity and insecurity of the leadership. Since there is very little control or interaction with this reclusive state, there is a perpetual fear of the leadership sharing its nuclear secrets with terror outfits or even employing its arsenal, if threatened.Only the rumour of possessing nuclear weapons was justification enough for the overthrow of Saddam Hussain by the west. Therefore, North Korea continues to regularly conduct nuclear tests, to project to the world, that at the first sign of a possible threat, it could resort to a nuclear war. Terrorist groups have similarly realized that possession of nuclear material or weapons would guarantee their legitimacy and international standing, as also stall international military action against them.
Nuclear plants exist in many countries. Each in reality is a potential bomb, if it is tampered with. Securing every nuclear asset thus becomes essential. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of Apr 1986, though not linked to any terrorist activity, would always remain in world memory. The long term effects of the disaster are still being studied and monitored. The possibility of an attack or sabotage on a nuclear plant is equally real. The same has been attempted on occasions. Of the recorded attempts, three have been on the Ignalina Nuclear plant in Lithuania, a part of the erstwhile Soviet Block. ISIS has been attempting to obtain radioactive material from various smuggling groups. The IAEA stated that till the end of 2014, there were 2700 officially recorded incidents of illegal trafficking in nuclear and radioactive material. Internationally Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) from fifty facilities in over thirty countries has been removed or secured. This itself is capable of creating over 150 nuclear weapons. However, there are still stocks under control of nations and unaccounted for.
The recently concluded nuclear security summit aimed to deal with just these issues. Prime Minister Modi in his remarks stated two increased threats. These in his view were posed by state sponsored terrorist groups and widespread deployment of theatre level mini nuclear devices. State sponsored terrorist groups, moving freely in a nation, have the ability to garner supporters who are in a position to provide access to nuclear resources. This enhances threat levels. The wider the spread of deployment of nuclear weapons the greater the risk to their security, as again individuals could be compelled due to force, bribery or ideological beliefs to provide access. His comments were aimed at Pakistan, which today remains the focus due to its past history of nuclear pilferage and policy of first use. The Pakistan delegation was lowly represented as the Lahore blasts had just occurred.
Nuclear security is an international concern and requires regular monitoring and checks. No nation can claim that its measures are fool proof. There are always loop holes and weak spots, which can be exploited by a determined group. Only regular monitoring, multiple checks and strong intelligence networks can prevent pilferage and loss. At the same time there is a need to break traditional barriers and relationships in the international arena and focus on those regions where chances of breach are more likely. The intelligence agencies of likeminded nations of today need to work together to provide a secure environment for coming generations.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)