Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Nuclear Network Theory

We all know that terrorism comes from nonstate actors. So why is the nonproliferation world still focused on rogue countries instead?

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

As Iran replies to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) proposal to process their uranium abroad, just days after inspectors from that agency got their first glimpse of the newly revealed Iranian nuclear site near Qom, it's a good time to take stock of U.S. President Barack Obama's Nobel-winning nonproliferation drive. From the sight of it, there is much good work being done. Bilateral talks with Russia to reduce stockpiles are moving apace. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is considering what to do with troublesome cases in Iran and North Korea. The president has even called a summit of the world's major nations and nuclear energy-capable countries, now slotted for April 2010.

The hope is that these efforts will help check the worst-case scenario from ever taking hold -- terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons. But there's just one problem: The United States is looking for nukes in all the wrong places. Nuclear terrorism won't come from countries; it will come from vast networks of operatives with only tenuous links to states. Nor are terrorists likely to get their nuclear material from rogue regimes. Far more probable is that they will steal it or obtain it through the growing global black market. If this is to be prevented, the United States and its allies will have to give their counterproliferation mindset a sweeping overhaul.

Today's terrorist threats are far less tangible than the traditional, state-centric security ones embodied by such countries as Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Rather than diplomatic channels, terrorist networks use advanced information technology to advance their ideology, goals, and missions. They are bound by none of the norms and restraints of states.

As Iran replies to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) proposal to process their uranium abroad, just days after inspectors from that agency got their first glimpse of the newly revealed Iranian nuclear site near Qom, it’s a good time to take stock of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Nobel-winning nonproliferation drive. From the sight of it, there is much good work being done. Bilateral talks with Russia to reduce stockpiles are moving apace. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is considering what to do with troublesome cases in Iran and North Korea. The president has even called a summit of the world’s major nations and nuclear energy-capable countries, now slotted for April 2010.

The hope is that these efforts will help check the worst-case scenario from ever taking hold — terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons. But there’s just one problem: The United States is looking for nukes in all the wrong places. Nuclear terrorism won’t come from countries; it will come from vast networks of operatives with only tenuous links to states. Nor are terrorists likely to get their nuclear material from rogue regimes. Far more probable is that they will steal it or obtain it through the growing global black market. If this is to be prevented, the United States and its allies will have to give their counterproliferation mindset a sweeping overhaul.

Today’s terrorist threats are far less tangible than the traditional, state-centric security ones embodied by such countries as Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Rather than diplomatic channels, terrorist networks use advanced information technology to advance their ideology, goals, and missions. They are bound by none of the norms and restraints of states.

Of course, none of this is news in the world of counterterrorism. And in the years following the September 11 attacks, the U.N. Security Council passed a set of resolutions mandating that all states take action to tackle nonstate extremists with violent goals. The most important of these for nonproliferation was U.N. Resolution 1540, which calls on countries to monitor and regulate the activities of illicit nonstate actors while securing potentially deadly materials that could be used to fashion a weapon of mass destruction.

The biggest challenge relates to highly enriched uranium (HEU) — the stuff that could be most easily made into a crude nuclear device. A "gun type" warhead would require only two shaped blocks of HEU, slammed together by a focused conventional explosive, to generate a small but real fission reaction. Making the weapon would be fairly easy from a technical perspective once the necessary amount of HEU is obtained; instructions can even be found on the Web.

The key question, then, is how would terrorist groups get their hands on raw nuclear goods? Contrary to popular belief, a state like Iran is extremely unlikely to pass along its HEU to a nonstate group. States value nuclear material for its strategic prestige and deterrent value within the context of a central government arsenal; even the roguest of rogue states aren’t in the business of giving highly coveted nukes to a group whose actions they cannot predict or control.

That means the most likely channels of acquisition by an al Qaeda-type group would be illicit purchase or stealing. Terrorists would have to finance their acquisition of HEU, which would be expensive even if the HEU were stolen, not bought. To do so, they would likely use the profits from trafficking in illicit drugs, arms, or people; payoffs from indirect investments in legitimate companies; dividends from the bribery or blackmail of officials; and countless other forms of criminal activity and corruption.

In short, nuclear terrorism cannot be separated from the global illicit economy. And HEU is inherently dangerous, be it owned by a U.S. ally such as South Korea or a U.S. antagonist, such as Iran.

Taken together, these two data points mean the focus of nonproliferation will need to shift from agonizing over "rogue states" to worrying about poor law-enforcement regimes that are unable to keep illicit activities in check.

Here’s a sneak peak at what a new nonproliferation regime could look like. There is a crying need for a global buildup in law-enforcement capabilities that can detect human networks involved in both conventional and unconventional terrorist acts. That would entail funding to build up "rule of law capabilities" across the developing world in league with specialized organizations such as the IAEA, Interpol, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Among the specific goals would be improving international databases to allow for real-time data sharing on extremist groups. International aid to developing countries to build up more advanced legal capabilities  would also be needed to ensure compliance with international conventions on crime and trade, since these have become too numerous and complex for many developing states to implement. Also important would be new capabilities devoted to identifying phony or "front" businesses used by illicit transnational actors to generate and move money and dual-use materials. Success in nonproliferation will require the creation of a cadre of national and transnational civil servants trained to crack down on black market trade.

These combined actions should carry the weight of a strategic security goal on par with enforcement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, itself aimed at keeping nuclear material out of the hands of rogue states. Since HEU is a threat everywhere, every country — no matter its nuclear status — should be on high alert. You never know where the next rogue network will arise.

Michael Kraig is a senior fellow at the Stanley Foundation.

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