Foreign Policy

Nuclear Terrorism: Possible Sources and Gravity as a Threat to the United States

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Albert Einstein once said, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." It has long been thought that nuclear weapons are the most powerful in the world and pose the greatest threat to the stability and security of the world. However, since WWII, this thought has been empirically denied. The Cold War was a time when the proliferation of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union had a stabilizing effect, and the concept of mutually-assured destruction--the fact that both countries would suffer harms greater than the benefits gained if they used nuclear weapons--prevented countries from ever using them. Since the Cold War, proliferation has continued, and mutually assured destruction's stabilizing effect has as well. This may all change, however, when terrorists acquire nuclear weapons.

Mutually assured destruction does not apply to terrorists and their willingness to use nuclear weapons. First, terrorists are not bound by a need for survival. Many terrorists believe that sacrificing themselves in the killing of infidels will bring them to heaven. Therefore, their survival and the survival of their nation-state are irrelevant. Second, terrorists are not heads of state like the usual controllers of nuclear weapons. Therefore, they are not concerned with the survival of their nation-state. This means two things: First, because they are not heads of state and they just represent themselves politically, countries will not retaliate with nuclear attacks; Second, even if countries choose to retaliate with a nuclear attack on the country in which the terrorist fired the nuclear weapon from, the terrorist can move out of the country to be unaffected by the retaliatory nuclear attack. Therefore, mutually assured destruction does not apply to terrorists and their willingness to use nuclear weapons. Mutually assured destruction no longer has a stabilizing effect like in the Cold War era.

Now that it has been shown that terrorists have no reason not to use nuclear weapons, let's examine why terrorists would use nuclear weapons, specifically on the United States.

Terrorists dislike America and will attack it with nuclear weapons if they acquire them.

Michael A. Levi from the Council on Foreign Relations states:

"What about the motivation of terrorists that have attacked the American homeland? Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith has stated al-Qaeda’s objective: “to kill 4 million Americans...ask yourself how many 9/11s it would take to reach that goal. Answer: 1,334, or one nuclear weapon."

As shown, terrorist groups including Al-Qaida have the goal of killing millions of Americans. They can most easily do this by using nuclear weapons—not by conventional terrorist attacks. If terrorists got a hold of nuclear weapons, they would most likely use them against the United States or one of its allies.

Now, one question that hasn't been answered is how terrorists could ever acquire nuclear weapons when the only known possessors are states.

Here is the answer.

There are two countries, both hostile countries that are widely known as threats to global security, that may provide nuclear weapons to Al Qaida or other terrorist groups: North Korea and Iran.

First, let's examine North Korea as a possible provider of nuclear weapons to terrorists.

The first thing to understand is that North Korea has recently developed functioning nuclear weapons.

According to RAND, the Research and Development Corporation, in 2010:

"North Korea has produced enough plutonium for perhaps 6 to 10 or so nuclear weapons. It may also have received enough plutonium from external sources for another 10 or so nuclear weapons. And it may have enough highly enriched uranium for several nuclear weapons. Thus North Korea may have as many as 5 to 20 nuclear weapons (after having tested two weapons), though we know for sure only that it has produced the two weapons that it has tested."

As we can see, North Korea has nuclear weapons.

The next thing to be proven is that North Korea would provide one of the nuclear weapons to terrorists.

According to the CATO institute: 

"...the danger of proliferation activities by Pyongyang must be addressed.The United States cannot tolerate North Korea’s becoming the global supermarket of nuclear technology. An especially acute danger is that Pyongyang may provide either a nuclear weapon or fissile material to Al Qaeda or other anti-American terrorist organizations. The DPRK’s record on missile proliferation does not offer much encouragement that it will be restrained when it comes to commerce in nuclear materials. Perhaps most troubling of all, Pyongyang has shown a willingness to sell anything that will raise revenue for the financially hard-pressed regime. In the spring of 2003, for example, evidence emerged of extensive North Korean involvement in the heroin trade. It is hardly unwarranted speculation that the DPRK might be a willing seller of nuclear weapons or materials to terrorist groups flush with cash..."

From this we can see that North Korea is likely to provide its recently acquired nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. It has historically been willing to sell missiles and weapons to any customer due to its desperate financial state. In the very near future it may sell nuclear weapons to any terrorist group that is willing to pay.

This is the most grave threat facing the United States currently. As proven before, terrorists would use these nuclear weapons against the United States.

Another country that may provide nuclear weapons to terrorists is Iran.

While North Korea currently has nuclear weapons, Iran does not. Iran will soon have nuclear weapons, however. Many believe that it could be within the next year.

According to a London Telegraph article in February of 2011:

"A report from The International Institute of Strategic Studies said Iran had two routes to making a nuclear weapon from its existing nuclear plants.

Iran's nuclear facilities have produced enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to be used to make nuclear weapons.

The report echoed Liam Fox, the Defense Secretary of the UK, who told the Commons on Monday that it was "entirely possible" the Islamic Republic might have developed a nuclear weapon by next year.

Mark Fitzpatrick, the report author, said he believed beyond reasonable doubt that Iran was pursuing a nuclear bomb.

'Iran has already produced a sizeable amount of low enriched uranium which could be enough if further enriched for one or two nuclear weapons,' Mr Fitzpatrick said."

As we can see, Iran will likely have a nuclear weapon within the next year.

Iran has historically supported terrorism more than any other country. If it acquired a nuclear weapon, it may transfer this weapon to terrorists covertly in order to avoid the condemnation and retaliation from the international community that would come from direct use of a nuclear weapon on another country.

Iran provides support to terrorists groups that harm the United States.  

According to the State Department on August 5, 2010:

"Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism. Iran’s financial, material, and logistic support for terrorist and militant groups throughout the Middle East and Central Asia had a direct impact on international efforts to promote peace.

Iran remained the principal supporter of groups that are implacably opposed to the Middle East Peace Process.  

Iran’s Qods Force provided training to the Taliban in Afghanistan  Since at least 2006, Iran has arranged arms shipments to select Taliban members.

Despite its pledge to support the stabilization of Iraq, Iranian authorities continued to provide lethal support, including weapons, training, funding, and guidance, to Iraqi Shia militant groups that targeted U.S. and Iraqi forces. The Qods Force continued to supply Iraqi militants with Iranian-produced advanced rockets, sniper rifles, automatic weapons, and mortars that have killed  Coalition Forces, as well as civilians. The Qods Force provided training for Shia militants in the construction and use of sophisticated improvised explosive device technology."

As we can see, Iran has provided support to terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has provided weapons, training, and monetary support to these terrorist groups. Iran continues to support terrorism, and the terrorists that it has supported continue to threaten United States national security.

This support to terrorism is likely to still exist once Iran becomes nuclear. Iran may likely provide these nuclear weapons directly to Al Qaida or any of the other many terrorist groups that it supports.

However, North Korea's threat of providing nuclear weapons to terrorists is much more grave. This is because North Korea is more likely to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists.

The reason for this is simple. Both countries want to maintain regional power and the ability to instill fear in neighboring countries. North Korea can do this even if it provides a nuclear weapon to terrorists. Iran will lose much of its regional power if it provides a nuclear weapons to terrorists.

This is because Iran's nuclear program is far behind that of North Korea. North Korea already has at least two nuclear weapons and likely has between five and twenty. Iran, within the near future, will only have one.

For each country to maintain its regional power, it must keep at least one nuclear weapon so it can keep instilling fear within its neighbors by possessing it. Iran will have no nuclear weapons left it provides one to terrorists. Therefore, because it wants to maintain its regional power, it will keep its nuclear weapon for itself to intimidate other countries. North Korea, on the other hand, could provide numerous nuclear weapons to terrorists and still be left with a large stockpile for itself to scare neighbors and maintain power.

Two sources confirm this.

First, Peter N. Madson, U.S. Navy Lieutenant, in March 2006 states:

"Iran would likely keep these weapons close to home for regime survival, or at least in very secure locations. Turning even one weapon over to a terrorist organization with Iran’s relatively defensive stance would be very unlikely."

Second, Devin Hagerty, (Prof., Political Science, U. Maryland) states:

"Tehran is trying to turn itself into a regional and global power. Once it achieves a nuclear weapon capability, the imperative of protecting and sustaining that capability will likely push in the direction of careful nuclear stewardship."

From this we see that not only is Iran unlikely to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists because it needs to keep one to maintain regional power, but it also needs to keep one for defense and detterence against neighboring countries like Israel.

This is why while both countries' nuclear programs pose threats to global security due to their likeliness of providing nuclear weapons to terrorists, North Korea's threat is more serious because it is more likely to provide these weapons.

The last thing that must proven is terrorists' capability of threatening the United States with these nuclear weapons. With terrorists having nuclear weapons, they do not pose an imminent threat to the United States, however. They would still need to acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, something that no hostile country has yet done. However, countries such as Russia and China have recently provided nuclear technology to Iran. This makes the likelihood that these countries would provide ICBM technology to Iran very high. Iran could then transfer this ICBM technology to terrorists.

Another source of ICBM's for terrorists could be North Korea. North Korea is close to developing an ICBM capable of reaching the United States. Not only has Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that North Korea could have ICBM's capable of reaching the continental United States by 2015, many experts agree.

According to the United States National Intelligence Community, a federation of 17 US Government Intelligence Agencies in 2011:

"By 2015, the United States will most likely face Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Threats from North Korea. North Korea could strike Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the continental United States."

North Korea could supply this ICBM technology to terrorists, especially because it has historically been willing to supply missiles to any customer that is willing to pay. If it develops ICBM technology capable of sending a nuclear weapon to the United States and transfers this technology to terrorists, the terrorists will have all of the resources necessary to use a nuclear weapon against the United States.

In summary, in the past, nuclear weapons have posed a trivial threat comparatively. However, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists would be disastrous, as mutually-assured destruction, the stabilizing force of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, does not apply to terrorists. North Korea and Iran both may provide nuclear weapons directly to terrorists. North Korea is likely to do so due to its desperate financial state. It has historically provided weapons and missiles to any customer willing to pay. Iran would be likely to do so because it has historically supported terrorists with funding, training, weapons and logistical support. North Korea's threat, however, is greater, because it is more likely to actually provide these weapons to terrorists. Both countries want to maintain regional power and defend and deter using nuclear weapons, but because Iran will only have one nuclear weapon in the future, it won't be able to do so if it gives this nuclear weapon to terrorists. Therefore, Iran is likely to keep the nuclear weapon to itself and is less of a probable source of the nuclear terrorism that threatens the United States.

Whether North Korea or Iran becomes the source of nuclear terrorism in the future, nuclear terrorism is unequivocally the greatest threat to United States and global security.