In May 2004, two months after the March 11th attack, I had the idea to have a global summit on March 11th, 2005 in Madrid. Little did I know that the summit would actually happen and be a major success. When Kofi Annan chose our conference to announce the United Nations’ strategy against terrorism it became apparent to me that a lot of coordinated work, especially between Europe and the United States, was needed in this matter. Subsequently, quite a bit of it happened at the conference sponsored by Club de Madrid and my foundation, the Safe Democracy Foundation. Now in mid 2005, a few months past the summit, I wonder if we should do a follow up conference next year. I hesitate… and not only because of the logistical nightmare that is involved in organizing summits like this. March 11th 2005 was my first summit and it was not easy for my foundation and Club de Madrid to organize. The main reason for my hesitation is that I wonder if terrorism will continue to be such an important phenomenon for years to come as many people may think. I happen to err on the side of optimism. I do, however, think that the issue of nuclear terrorism and this subject alone, may deserve a conference.
Currently I see two main types of terrorism. Al Qaeda based terrorism and “Friends of Al Qaeda” terrorism. 9-11 is the product of Al Qaeda; and March 11th or July 7th is the product of “Friends of Al Qaeda” terrorism. In one case we have an operation that required tremendous logistical support and planning, with spectacular and extremely deadly results. In the others we see amateur terrorism, still terribly sad and deadly but on a smaller scale and using more predictable techniques. Moreover, I think that the Friends of Al Qaeda terrorism is a kind of terrorism that will decrease in intensity as the direct reasons for its existence go away, namely the invasion of Iraq. I am hopeful that in the next 2 years the US will withdraw from Iraq. Therefore I see “Friends of Al Qaeda” terrorism over the next 10 years as a phenomenon very likely to die down with a withdrawal. Unfortunately, I think the Al Qaeda brand of terrorism, namely few, extremely well coordinated and professional attacks, still has a significant chance of going on and succeeding regardless of what happens in Iraq. This is why I believe that if we have a follow up conference it should focus on Al Qaeda alone and especially on the possibility that Al Qaeda carries out a nuclear attack.
There is an aspect of nuclear terrorism that should be known by the general population but is not: the enormous difference in the damage scale that can be done by a terrorist attack involving nuclear material as opposed to conventional weapons.
I am not a nuclear scientist but I do understand Einstein’s simple formula: e=mc2. Essentially, this formula states that mass and energy are interchangeable. But unfortunately for the case of nuclear explosives, this formula is not e=m but e=m multiplied by a HUGE number – the speed of light squared. In other words, what I understand when I look at this formula is that a tiny amount of mass has an enormous amount of energy. The speed of light is 300,000 km per second. Now think of that squared and that is the factor by which mass becomes energy. What this formula is saying is that energy is equal to mass MULTIPLIED by a super large number, the speed of light squared. To put it simply, if you find a method for converting mass into energy, a very small amount of mass can yield an incredibly LARGE amount of energy. For example, if there was a way to convert the mass of an average male weighing 80kg into energy, the energy released would be 7 x 10 to the 8th power. An energy equivalent of this would be over 100 times the energy released by the atomic bomb of Hiroshima. In other words, a human bomber that was able to transform the mass of his own body into energy could blow up Europe.
Now the good news is that so far we know of no such efficient way of transforming mass into energy which means that desperate human beings who become human bombs can only threaten us with the energy of whatever conventional explosives they happen to carry – a fraction of their own atomic potential. Thus they may kill tens of others with them, but not hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless, the unfortunate news is that for over 60 years now we have only known extremely inefficient ways of transforming mass into energy. However clumsy, they are still able to cause tremendous damage. Atomic bombs only take advantage of less than 1% of the energy that the mass of uranium they contain and still with a few kg of nuclear material they can destroy whole cities. Therefore nuclear terrorism is by far the biggest threat we are now confronted with.
One way to think of terrorism is to envision it as incredibly asymmetrical warfare. A human vs. virus-like confrontation. Normally humans can effectively use their armies of antibody producing lymphocytes to eliminate viruses, yet occasionally, one very unusual virus, such as the AIDS virus, effectively attacks the very cells that produce antibodies and wins. Combating nuclear terrorism is like fighting the AIDS virus in the sense that it is one of the few instances in which a tiny enemy can beat the odds and defeat a huge organism. In this sense nuclear terrorism is a danger similar to that of AIDS in the medical world. A tiny enemy with a simple yet extremely dangerous weapon.
How would I envision a conference on Nuclear Terrorism? Firstly, in studying nuclear terrorism I would ignore the disgruntled immigrant type that carried out the March 11th or July 7th attacks and focused on the highly educated, highly trained Al Qaeda operative types that put together the 9-11 attack. I don’t believe that the profile of the individuals who killed others and themselves in these attacks nor their organizations are able to carry out a nuclear terrorist attack. Moreover I believe that these angry, disgruntled individuals are reacting to what they see as terrible injustice going on in the Middle East such as the Abu Gharb pictures or the Fallujah bombings and that when the war in Iraq is over it is unlikely that we will see more terrorist attacks of this type in Europe. For example, as Spain withdrew from Iraq there were no more attacks in Spain. This scenario changes however when we look at the individuals who carried out 9-11. These terrorists are, as it were, members of a sect who is determined to hurt Europe and particularly the United States regardless of what the policies of the NATO countries are. I believe that the ultimate objective of Al Qaeda is to take control of the Arab world. Unfortunately, attacking the West has proven a very effective tactic for leaders like Osama Bin Laden to gain popularity in the Muslim world and it is likely that these leaders, Osama Bin Laden himself if he is alive, or his successors, will continue to see attacking the West as a successful path to gaining popular support in the Muslim world. It is interesting to see that even this year a poll conducted by the Pew Institute showed that 60% of Pakistanis would vote for Osama Bin Laden if he ran in a Pakistani election for president.
In summary, the threat of nuclear terrorism will continue regardless of what happens in Iraq and therefore, we find ourselves short of alternatives in dealing with it. Over the next decades it is very likely that there will be small groups of highly trained Muslims who will do whatever they can to get hold of nuclear material and use it without warning in a Western capital. Who these individuals may be; how to identify them; neutralize them; how to prevent nuclear material to fall in their hands; how to unite the resources of all nuclear powers to prevent nuclear material from leaking out; all these are valid topics for a conference on Nuclear Terrorism.
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Antoin O Lachtnain on August 12, 2005 ·
I agree with your description of nuclear terrorism being a bit like the AIDS virus, but I think this doesn’t just apply to nuclear terrorism.
All terrorism is basically about using a tiny amount of resources to cause a large effect. It’s like judo in fighting or leverage in finance.
The concrete example is the Iraq war. The US is said to be spending a billion dollars a week fighting the guerillas. The guerillas are spending a tiny amount by comparison, maybe a few million dollars at the most. They won’t ever win militarily, but they are causing a lot of trouble for the Superpower.
This was the modus operandi for all the great guerilla wars – Vietnam, where the West was on the ‘conventional warfare’ side (and eventually had to withdraw), Afghanistan, where the US was on the guerilla side (and although the guerillas never really ‘won’, they caused enough instability to prevent the Russians from succeeding in their strategic objectives).
My understanding is that the fear isn’t that terrorists will build an actual fission atom bomb – to do that they’d need a significant amount of U235 or plutonium, but these isotopes are reasonably rare and reasonably well controlled -.
The big fear is that more easily available material will be used to build a ‘dirty bomb’. A dirty bomb is basically a conventional bomb surrounded with radioactive waste material which will cause radiation burns and pollute the environment.
I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility of a rogue atom bomb completely though. The big question in my mind is what would happen in its aftermath. It’s easy to imagine that there would be a retaliatory strike of some sort by the US or Britain and that a muslim country would launch a further counterstrike (maybe even a nuclear strike against Israel) as a result.
That would have the effect of turning East against West to an unprecedented degree. Which is basically what Al Queda is trying to bring about.