Hillary Clinton fears al-Qaeda is obtaining nuclear weapons material
In the speech he gave in Prague a year ago when he outlined his vision of a nuclear-free world, Mr Obama said he aimed to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. The summit is intended to rally global collective action to achieve this goal.
However, with nuclear energy continuing to expand around the world and safeguard technologies becoming outdated, the scope for proliferation — fissile material leaking to terrorist groups as well as to maverick states — is multiplying.
The unprecedented gathering of 47 nations in Washington to address this issue underscores the perceived severity of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism.
“We know that terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, are pursuing the materials to build a nuclear weapon and we know that they have the intent to use one [which would be] a catastrophic danger to American national security and to global security were they able to carry out that kind of attack,” Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said last week.
Mr Obama will be seeking specific commitments from individual countries to lock down their stocks of nuclear material, with particular emphasis on plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, the two materials that can be used for nuclear bombs.
There already exists a Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, completed in 2005, but it has not yet come into force because some countries still have to sign and ratify it. There will be pressure on them to act soon.
There will also be pressure on countries to follow the example of Chile, which has removed all of its stocks of low-enriched and highly-enriched uranium.
Mr Obama will remind delegates that the US and Russia have each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, taken from their military programmes. This was agreed in 2000 but it has taken ten years for the implementing measures to be worked out.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, will finally sign the deal today.
The US has spent 20 years and billions of dollars trying to help the Russians safeguard their huge stockpiles of nuclear material. But there are still concerns that terrorists might acquire Russian-sourced fissile material.
When the Cold War ended there were apocalyptic rumours of Russian tactical nuclear weapons going missing, and there were warnings of suitcase bombs being planted in Western cities. But, apart from a whole series of arrests of would-be nuclear smugglers caught trying to sell low-grade radioactive material during the early post-Cold War period, the nightmare of a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear weapon never happened.
However, Russia still has 5,000 tactical nukes, supposedly under lock and key. Underlining the fear that one might be secreted out of the country, the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration has equipped 160 Russian border crossings with radiation detection equipment.
Bin Laden’s avowed intention to go nuclear has kept the West’s intelligence services busy for years.
“Since the mid-1990s, al-Qaeda’s WMD procurement efforts have been managed at the most senior levels, under rules of strict compartmentalisation from lower levels of the organisation, and with central control over possible targets and the timing of prospective attacks,” Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former senior CIA officer, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in January.
He said Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s Egyptian deputy chief, “personally shepherded the group’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to set off an anthrax attack in the US”.
In a 2007 video, bin Laden repeated his promise “to use massive weapons” to destroy capitalism and help create an Islamic caliphate, and there have been numerous examples in recent years of al-Qaeda’s attempts to acquire WMD material.
According to Mr Mowatt-Larssen, the first evidence of the terrorist group’s plans to purchase nuclear material was in late 1993. An al-Qaeda defector who became a source for the CIA and FBI, revealed that bin Laden tried to buy uranium in Sudan.
In 2001, Zawahiri was quoted as saying in an interview: “If you have $30 million, go to the black market in central Asia, contact any disgruntled Soviet scientist, and dozens of smart briefcase bombs are available.”