Part of the problem in fighting International Terrorism (those groups which are based in one country, and do their dirty work in other countries), is that so much of the cause and history of the conflict is hidden away, classified as secret or too intricate in details to attract much attention. This is especially the case in the matter of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the efforts by terrorists to acquire such weapons.
There are three reasons why we are winning that war, though people don’t hear them much, if at all. Those reasons are technical, political, and military, and they should be considered when weighing the peril and object of this war.
We have been unduly influenced by movies and television. To many people, it’s simply a matter of picking up a "suitcase nuke", which seem to be just lying around unguarded, and taking it to the target city, which is saved only through the unconventional thinking and bad acting of a ‘Jack Bauer’ type to save the day. The actual facts should be a bit more comforting. It’s true that if you get enough fissionable material together in one place, you create a critical mass, which leads to a reaction. But considering that radioactive material exists naturally without blowing up spontaneously, it follows that creating fissionable material is an artificial action, and a difficult one. People do not often consider that nuclear fission was mathematically understood in 1931, yet the first actual atomic weapon was not made until 1945, although a number of nations put their best minds and great resources to the task for years. Nuclear weapons are dangerous for a number of reasons; detonation is only one of them. There are functionally only three ways in which a terrorist group could detonate a nuclear weapon against a target nation:
1. Steal an inventory nuclear weapon, transport it to the target country, and find a way to set it off.
2. Build a nuclear weapon, using the group’s own experts and material.
3. Acquire a nuclear weapon through a third party, usually a nuclear-capable nation.
At first glance, these methods sound similar, but they truly are not. The first method considers the known stockpiles in the former Soviet Union; all other stockpiles are too well defended to be easily stolen, especially by a group with no insider knowledge of the country’s protections and order of logistics. But even the Soviet situation is not as perilous as some believe. That is, the Soviets kept lousy records on many things, but they cared about the WMD, and especially the nuclear warheads. Small wonder - it’s no secret that the Chechnyan rebels would very much like to get their hands on a nuke, which they would certainly use on a Russian target. Anybody want to guess how important nuclear warhead security became to the Soviets after 1995? The simple fact is, warheads are well-protected, even in places where the public perception doesn’t show it. Another indicator of better-than-advertised former-USSR security, is the sort of captures made in those countries. What’s basically happening is, groups are being caught in attempts to steal/buy spent reactor rods and missile parts. While these are important, they demonstrate that the groups chasing these things have largely given up on the warheads. It makes the issue a problem, but not to the degree it’s portrayed.
The second method is obviously the most difficult, so I will come back to it. The third method, using a third party, is where Israel, China, Pakistan, and Iran come in. These countries have all made money by selling nuclear tradecrafts, like telemetry and tolerances of specific metals, which can advance a program by saving money and time on tests and development. Formerly, Iraq was the foremost of these nations, known to be seeking WMD and simultaneously sponsoring more than a dozen international terrorist organizations. One sidelight of the Iraq conflict, though often ignored, is the proxy war paid for and directed by Wahhabist forces, especially Iran and Syria. This is an example of how terrorists pursue their unconventional warfare through indirect methods. But while this can frustrate conventional American response to terrorist incursions, it also dissuades the use of unconventional weapons - if, for example, Hezbollah were to gain access to a nuclear weapon and attack U.S. forces or an American target with it, the U.S. would not hesitate to deliver a nuclear reprisal to Iran and Syria. Those countries understand this fact, and this is one key reason those countries now demand tighter control of their sponsored forces; given substantial provocation, the United States can and will respond to a terrorist attack by taking out a significant target in a country basing or coordinating that group. In other words, a terrorist group can run and hide, but Teheran and Damascus cannot. Therefore, they will not supply terrorists with nukes, so long as Bush or a President who thinks like he does is in office.
So for now, any functional ability for a terrorist group lies in either building one themselves, or by stealing one from a country with inferior security; neither is a high-probability function. The second category is especially difficult for a terrorist group, because of the nature of the mission. Terrorists strike in three basic methods: High visibility attacks against low-security targets, especially in public places; Suicide attacks to attack secure positions in order to instill fear; And bombings/sniper attacks to destabilize government functions. A nuclear strike by a terrorist group is a suicide attack by definition, because no terrorist group would be willing to try a remote detonation, and risk premature discovery of the bomb. The fly in the ointment, is that a nuclear weapon is not a ‘fire and forget’ kind of device; manual detonation means the team preparing the weapon is the team firing the weapon, and that means the terrorists would lose their best talent in using the thing; it becomes a one-shot project, not a sequence of nuclear events. This is because a nuclear weapon is generally tested before its use in action, an option not available to terrorists, which means that the team which makes the weapon ready, will need to be there for its use; first-generation nuclear weapons, which is the definition for this situation, are by nature one-of-a-kind, with no extant manual to provide for a standard procedure; even if the terrorists managed to steal an inventory nuke, and procure a tech team familiar with the weapon, the unconventional use of the weapon and conditions for its operation would require a direct manual detonation. That creates a serious problem for the terrorists. First off, most people do not realize the careful and prolonged indoctrination terrorists use to prepare suicide attackers; it’s simply not a natural condition to plan on killing yourself, even less to deliberately kill yourself in the action of murdering innocents. Also, people with high technical knowledge are less likely to be suicide bombers. The 9/11 attackers were trained only to a certain point, and their life conditions were tightly regulated; the necessary education and experience necessary to develop and prepare a nuclear device practically eliminates such people as even possible suicide bombers.
The next element is political. As I noted above, the nuclear capability of nations is fairly well known, Congressional point-the-finger committees notwithstanding. Besides the technical means (Satellites, NSA intercepts, etc.), the Community of the Nuclear Club is real. One incident old enough to talk about, is the 1981 raid on Osirak. Iraq was clearly developing a nuclear program, and the Osirak reactor was intended to produce enriched uranium for the bomb, possibly even plutonium. The fact that the reactor wasn’t even running any power to nearby cities was a giveaway, I guess. Anyway, the raid to close down the plant was officially Israeli, but the HUMINT was largely Russian, and the Sat/Phone recon was American. Unconfirmed reports even claimed German and Egyptian assistance at various points. The mission, all told, was fairly ecumenical, because no one wanted to see Saddam with a nuke. The fallout from the raid began with the fact that most of the nations involved never realized that the Israelis would be the ones actually carrying out the mission. This incident reflects not only the unpublicized coordination between rival agencies and nations at times, it also explains why those cooperative actions are not constant.
Following the Gulf War victory in 1991, the United States found itself in an unexpected position. Prior to the Gulf War, the US enjoyed the repute of a Superpower, but shared that name with the Soviet Union, and sometimes with nations like China or Japan, when the description was limited to specific venues like Economics or Diplomacy. What changed after the Gulf War, was that the United States was no unparalleled in stature. The French sneered and called us a ‘hyperpower’, but in plain fact, the United States became the first nation in three centuries, which can act with effective impunity in any national enterprise. That hardly makes a license for recklessness, but it does shift the expectations of the International Community. That is, where the United States used to be considered an important member and sometime leader of international effort, now the United States is expected to take the lead, and to act first. This also explains part of the problem in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts – the United States was expected to act first and did so, learning only after its own commitment, what other nations intended. Worse, where the United States was a counterweight to the old USSR, now a loose confederation of old European states sees itself as the natural counterweight to America. The US created a coalition of 41 nations for the Iraq effort, often ignored by the media, the more so because the nations participating did so to a lesser degree than the US in many ways. This sounds like a limited commitment, until one considers that in comparing the manpower, money, and material in World War 2, the US was the majority contributor from 1943 to 1945 for the Western Front, yet no one claims the British, Dutch, and French were not full allies. Most agreements made by the US have multi-level protocols, some of which conflict with the public image presented by the nations. Saudi Arabia in particular, speaks one way in public yet quite another when asking for American actions. In the contest against International terrorism, it must be understood that few nations feel free to denounce specific terrorist groups and actions as the US does, for fear of a Madrid-style attack. There is also the complication of apparent alliances these nations do not want; if Jordan ,for instance, publicly joins the United States in decrying Hezbollah and Ansar al-Islam, they run the risk of being called an ally of Israel, unacceptable in Arab cultures and political thought. So, Jordan assists the United States informally, and with the caveat that the agreements be kept strictly private. This means that functionally, there is a lot going on under the surface in the Middle East, especially in counter-terrorism operations, which are in every regional government’s interest, save the terrorists’ sponsors, but the public is not informed of these operations. The public does not hear, for instance, how inspectors were tipped off to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, or how it is that a specific number of North Korean plutonium storage locations has been cited. This is an important aspect to the effort, and one which does not press in the American MSM, either.
Then there is the military. There is not a professional military organization on the planet, which has any tolerance either for nuclear weapons or terrorists; neither serves any true purpose in national defense, and both represent threats which must be met. Accordingly, the eradication of terrorist groups which are seeking access to nuclear weapons is automatically a high priority. Democrats do not understand the strong support George W. Bush enjoys with the troops; this is largely a matter of basic communication. Bush took the trouble to find out what were the troops’ top priority, and addresses them. It’s not necessary to be perfect, because he’s aligned with them on the priorities and goals. The troops in Iraq are not casual about the risks and costs, but they are deeply committed to the task of fighting terrorism, and especially about removing any group which is pursuing WMD. Congress can claim what it likes, but the troops are on board. This is the signal difference between failed missions like the Vietnam conflict, and successful missions like World War 2. This invasion and establishment of a free representative republic in Iraq is more than a successful replacement of a dictatorship with a democratic republic; it also realigns the region, setting a trend which at best will spread to other nations; at worst it will make terrorist groups’ work much harder. Things have changed in the Middle East, and the effect is firmer and more permanent than the media suggests.
Can a terrorist group can access to a nuclear weapon? Theoretically, but the chances of it happening went down significantly when Saddam was taken out. Could a nation decide to supply a terrorist group with a nuke? Theoretically yes, but the realistic chances of that sort of thing happening went essentially to nil after the Bush Doctrine became reality. That is the sort of element left out of far too many equations.