National Security Archive

Nuclear Terrorism: How Big a Threat?

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National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 388
For more information contact:
Jeffrey T. Richelson – 202/994-7000


Eleven years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, how concerned Americans should be over threats of nuclear terrorism remains a subject of vigorous debate. Declassified documents have confirmed that the U.S. (and other) governments have anticipated the possibility of a terrorist nuclear incident at such high-profile events as the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Ever since 9/11, U.S. experts have been particularly interested in whether al-Qaeda is trying to acquire a nuclear device.

To provide context and important background material on this issue, the National Security Archive today is posting 40 documents produced by a range of U.S. and other government agencies that concern assorted aspects of the current U.S. nuclear counterterrorism effort, and provide details of earlier investigations into the threat of clandestine nuclear attack.

The Archive obtained the documents through Freedom of Information Act requests – particularly to the Departments of Energy and Defense, the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency – as well as from a variety of government and other websites.

The nuclear counterterrorist effort, in the past and today, involves assessing the interest of terrorist groups in acquiring and employing nuclear weapons; addressing vulnerabilities with respect to the storage of these materials; developing and improving means of detecting nuclear weapons or material in the possession of terrorists; and identifying the source of such items through nuclear forensics and attribution.

Some items of particular interest in today’s posting are:

  • A Defense Science Board report (Document 8) which discusses Project SCREWDRIVER (1950-52) and the resulting Project DOORSTOP (1953-70), whose objective was to detect any attempts by Soviet Bloc diplomats to smuggle nuclear material into the United States.
  • An after-action report (Document 4) of the 1998 ERRANT FOE exercise, which identifies issues concerning the effort to disable a terrorist device as well the mission, capability, “deployment trigger,” team size, and composition of NEST components.
  • The existence of a yearly Defense Intelligence Agency report – Postulated Threat to U.S. Nuclear Weapons Facilities and Other Selected Strategic Facilities.
  • Creation of the ‘SIGMA 20’ nuclear weapons data category – to protect information about data on improvised nuclear devices (Document 12).
  • The report (Document 17) of a radiological survey of Washington, D.C. in preparation for the nuclear detection efforts conducted before and during the 2009 presidential inauguration.
  • A description of the potential terrorist tactic (Document 15) of employing a radiation exposure (or emission) device.
  • The pre-9/11 conclusion of the Defense Science Board (Document 8) that “current nuclear forensics capability is inadequate to support timely response.”
  • The efforts by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to create a Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (Document 13Document 37). 

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Nuclear Terrorism: Threat and Response

By Jeffrey T. Richelson


The issue of how concerned American citizens and the United States government should be with the threat of nuclear terrorism has been the subject of vigorous debate in the almost eleven years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. 1 But U.S. apprehension over the possibility of clandestine nuclear attack dates back to the early days of the Cold War, when it was feared that the Soviet Union might seek to smuggle nuclear devices into the United States to attack selective targets. From at least 1972, the U.S. has also been concerned with the possibility that a terrorist group might acquire or construct a nuclear device or radiological dispersal device (popularly known as a ‘dirty bomb’) for use in the United States.

The nuclear counterterrorist effort, in the past and today, has involved a number of elements. One is the assessment of the interest of terrorist groups in acquiring and employing nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. At least two national intelligence estimates, from 1975 and 1986, which have been released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, addressed the issue of terrorist group acquisition and use of nuclear material or weapons. 2 More recently, estimates, intelligence reports, and studies have focused on possible acquisition and use by al-Qaeda.

A second element of the program to defuse nuclear terrorist threats comprises the efforts to assess and address vulnerabilities with respect to the storage, control, and transport of nuclear weapons or materials. The U.S. has devoted significant attention to the security of fissile materials abroad, particularly in Russia, and has also focused considerable attention on the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. In addition, the Department of Defense has, through a variety of directives and instructions, addressed the issues of security and control of U.S. nuclear weapons, as well as policy and procedures for the transportation of those weapons.

There has also been a considerable effort to develop means of detecting nuclear weapons or material that terrorists might attempt to smuggle into the U.S. or across other nations’ borders. Developing mobile detection systems that can be employed to search and locate a hidden terrorist device has been an ongoing activity for almost 40 years. Complementary to the detection and localization effort are the development of capabilities to secure and disable any device – which may involve ‘special mission units’ (such as Delta Force or the Naval Special Warfare Development Group), military explosive ordnance disposal units, and various Department of Energy components.

An additional capability – nuclear forensics – that has drawn substantial attention and resources in recent years is relevant both to the deterrence of any nuclear terrorist act and to an assessment of the source of nuclear material used in a seized or detonated device. That capability is intended to allow comparison of the fissile material in a device with the composition associated with specific foreign nuclear programs and is part of the larger attribution effort. Attribution combines forensics work with intelligence and other data to reach a conclusion as to the source of the nuclear material. One objective of establishing a nuclear forensics and attribution capability is to deter foreign nations from providing nuclear weapons or material to terrorist groups, since their complicity would be detectable – subjecting that nation to retaliation.

The documents posted today by the National Security Archive concern all aspects of the U.S. current nuclear counterterrorism effort, and also provides details of much earlier investigations into the threat of clandestine nuclear attack. (One concerns Canadian efforts related to the 2010 Olympics). They were acquired as the result of Freedom of Information Act requests – particularly to the Departments of Energy and Defense, the CIA, and Defense Intelligence Agency – as well as from a variety of websites – including those of the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). They also complement three earlier Archive electronic briefing books concerned with nuclear terrorism.(see sidebar).

Thus, the posting includes three documents (Document 2Document 3Document 6) that address al-Qaeda’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons or nuclear material – including a 200-page thesis (Document 6) for the Joint Military Intelligence College (JMIC) asking, of Bin Laden and nuclear weapons, “What’s Holding Him Back?”. The subject of terrorist interest in nuclear weapons is also addressed in both pre- and post-9/11 reports by the Defense Science Board (Document 8Document 9).

A number of documents address various elements of the effort to secure fissile material and nuclear weapons. Included are GAO reports on fissile material security in Russia (Document 26Document 34), documents related to nuclear security in Pakistan (Document 14Document 35), and a number of Defense Department records concerning various aspects of nuclear weapons safekeeping – including personnel reliability (Document 36), transportation (Document 30), security policy (Document 10), and control (Document 27).

The efforts of two organizations involved in the detection and/or disablement effort – the Nuclear Emergency Search/Support Team and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office – are the subject of documents from the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security, and the Government Accountability Office. Among the NEST-related documents (Document 4,Document 5) are previously Secret after-action reports of NEST exercises held in 1998 and 1999 as well as an earlier handbook (Document 1) concerning NEST detection systems and a report (Document 17) on a radiological survey of Washington, D.C. DNDO is the subject of a variety of documents – including the 2005 presidential directive (Document 11a) ordering its creation, as well as assessments (including Document 13Document 23Document 25) of its development of detection equipment and work in establishing a global nuclear detection architecture.

Some historical perspective on the attempt to develop such an architecture is given by a July 2001 Defense Science Board report (Document 8), which discusses earlier investigations and projects that focused on preventing the clandestine transport of nuclear weapons into the United States by Soviet bloc diplomats.

Details concerning the current nuclear forensics and attribution effort are provided by both a previously classified Defense Department directive (Document 18), as well as a Defense Science Board study (Document 8) and a Government Accountability Office report (Document 19) on human capital issues associated with the effort.

Read the documents



[1]. See Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Times Books, 2004); Brian Michael Jenkins, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2008); Todd M. Masse,Nuclear Jihad: A Clear and Present Danger? (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2011); John Mueller, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (New York: Oxford, 2009).

[2]. Director of Central Intelligence, IIM 76-002, The Likelihood of the Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons by Foreign Terrorist Groups for Use Against the United States , January 8, 1976; Director of Central Intelligence, NIE 6-86, The Likelihood of Nuclear Acts by Terrorist Groups, April 1986. Both are available here.

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These materials are reproduced from with the permission of the National Security Archive.


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