American television shows like "NCIS" and its various locally based variants like "NCIS Los Angeles," "Designated Survivor," the iconic "24," and movies like, "The Sum of All Fears" and "By Dawn’s Early Light," have developed a cult status. They are seen across the world. Their success is down to a simple combination of twothings: the people who play the roles of those involved … and the plot lines. They are always so credible. Little detail is missed. Audiences are drawn into the plot lines, anxious to quickly move onto the next episode. It is all so very enthralling.
Television that is as good as these series manages to bridge the divide between fact and fiction. Arguably, it is a divide that is rapidly narrowing. As technology rapidly advances and we as the human race send probes like Pioneer X ever deeper into the outer reaches of the cosmos, fiction becomes reality.
One central theme that series writers like to focus upon is the threat to the United States from terrorism. "24" was ahead of its time, as was last year’s return of "24" as a six-part mini-series bringing back Jack Bauer. Coming in the wake of September 11, its plot lines allowed its audience to imagine what might happen next. Central to that and other successful series was the idea that terrorists, through various means, would one-day get hold of a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD). These could be chemical, biological or nuclear.
Such was the concern over this that America and its allies went to war in the Gulf to prevent Saddam Hussein further developing what many in the global Intelligence Community believed to be a highly covert program to develop a full spectrum of WMDs.
Ultimately, the intelligence on which that decision was based has been shown to have had serious flaws. Ironically, Hussein’s attempts to talk-up his program and to act as if he had one he was trying to protect caused his downfall. Lesson learned; never try and bluff the international community when it comes to something as serious as a WMD.
The 59 Tomahawk missiles recently launched at Syria’s Al Shaerat military airfield provide recent testimony that speaks to that point. Use a WMD, and someone is going to react. In this case, it was the United States. In the future, it could be the British, the French or even the Belgians.
Those countries that have experienced the privations of terrorism and their potential to kill their citizens on their own soil will not shy away from acting upstream where the WMD is sourced. Irrespective of the arguments over the intelligence that started Gulf War Two, when the use of WMD cannot be denied, it must not be ignored. Similar arguments apply to the current situation with North Korea.
No one with any understanding of the situation could possibly conclude the regime in Pyongyang will someone how give up its nuclear capabilities in return for food or fuel. The ignominious demise of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi proved that point. He gave up his nuclear weapons and still was eventually deposed.
That is a calculus that simply does not work with the regime in North Korea. For them, the lineage of the leadership is paramount. If they see an existential threat, they will resort to a nuclear attack on the West. Their inflamed rhetoric of late will become reality. Three questions emerge from such a statement. When, where,and how will they attack? United States forces in nearby bases and the homeland are at risk.
The viability of smuggling
The answer to that question requires analysis. Skip back in time to the end of the Cold War and the threat when the proliferation of WMD was heightened. The rapid collapse and decay of the Soviet Union and the creation of former nation/states as soverign powers left many nuclear facilities vulnerable. One operation mounted covertly in 1994 by the Clinton administration saw nearly half a ton of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) shipped to the United States from Kazakhstan.
When American officials first visited the site where the HEU was stored, they found access was only denied by a simple chain across the door. It was a very distrurbing reminder of the state in which many highly dangerous substances were being held in former Soviet states … their vulnerability to being exploited by criminal and terrorist groups.
This threat of the ad-hoc proliferation of nuclear material was also illustrated by a series of high-profile arrests that occurred in the period soon after 9/11. Routes moving nuclear material out of Russia where a specific concern. It led to Congress to pass the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. This was a combined effort between the Russians and US to help them secure their nuclear material stockpiles. While this clearly had a material impact on the flow of nuclear material, it has not stopped it altogether.
One specific smuggling route that remains active is through Georgia. Since 2006, a total of 24 attempts to smuggle nuclear material out of Russia have been detected. Many of these have involved low level nuclear isotopes such as Caesium-137. In one example, 36 capsules of Caesium-137 were located on January 6, 2012 in Tiblisi, the capital of Georgia.
Fourteen of the total of 24 attempts to smuggle nuclear material involved this isotope, which could readily form the base of a radiological dirty bomb. It is not difficult to understand why Americans have identified Georgia as one of the outer layers of its international detector network designed to interdict nuclear material that might one day arrive in the US.
In 2008, this network was disrupted when Russia invaded Georgia. A team from the National Nuclear Security Administration was forced to flee as the Russian air force attacked facilities in the Black Sea port of Poti and the airport of Kutaisi, damaging nuclear detection equipment. This network was quickly restored.
What concerned FBI officials at the time was whether criminal groups active in the area might have managed to take that moment of vulnerability and surge nuclear material into Georgia where it could have been smuggled out into Western Europe. An investigation of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IEAE) Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), maintained since 1995 shows the extent of the networks that have operated across Western Europe with material being found in far-flung parts of the continent.
As of December 2015, there were a total of 2,889 confirmed incidents of smuggling nuclear material. Of this total, 454 were classified as incidents involving unauthorised procession and related criminal activities. This peaked in 1994, when nearly 59 incidents occurred. Clearly, this was related to the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union.
Since then, there has been a steady decline except for an anomaly during the period from 2004 to 2008 — a period when terrorist groups were most open about their desires to obtain nuclear material. Of the remaining 1,622 smuggling instances, they were classified as other unauthorised activities and events; 762 were classified as reported theft or loss; and a total of 71cases investigators were unable to determine the category of the incident.
These figures raise an important point. Homeland security does not start and stop at a specific border or wall. It requires consistent upstream action in parts of the world far removed from most Americans’ and Western European’s radar horizons.
Perhaps the most concerning of these smuggling incidents in Georgia involved the highly toxic substance Strontium-90 in 2013. It was discovered in Samtredia on May 29. This town is an important node on the Georgian railway network which starts at the port of Kobuleti. Another important node is the Georgian capital of Tiblisi, where the majority of the discoveries have been made. The most likely source of these materials is Russia. The route used to smuggle out of Russia comes through the Russian enclave Abkhazia in the north of Georgia, an area where criminal gangs are known to operate.
Georgia is not the only route through which such smuggling occurs. In Moldova on June 25, 2016, the local security services seized a quantity of uranium worth $210,000 just before it left the country. A police raid in the capital Chisinau located the material. Concerns over criminal groups in Moldova trying to sell small quantities of radioactive isotopes to organizations like ISIS to help them build “dirty bombs” have been reported for some time.
Moldovan police working with the FBI have stopped attempts to supply nuclear material to extremist groups in the Middle East on at least four occasions from 2010-2015. In 2010, 1.8kg of Uranium-238 was seized in Chisinau when three individuals tried to sell it for a reported $10 million. In 2011, in a similar event, the security services prevented the sale of 1kg of Uranium-235, which was being marketed for a staggering $30 million.
Many of these arrests occurred because local authorities take active measures. Under the guidance and tutelage of the FBI, local security services often create “honey-traps,” in which security services pretending to be buyers, arresting those selling the nuclear material once its location is known. Using such an undercover approach, Moldovan security officials arrested a group offering 200 grams of Uranium-235 at a street price of $1.6 million. In another case, smugglers were offering 1.5kg of Uranium-235.
Building a bomb
Individually, these quantities of material do not raise specific alarms. Uranium-235, by itself, is not a significant problem, despite statements like when ISIS claimed it seized what they stated was 45kg of Uranium-235 when they took Mosul University, claiming it would be used to create dirty bombs. It is HEU (highly enriched uranium), that is the prized commodity. That is where real value lies for a terrorist group. Obtain HEU, and you have by-passed one of the significant steps to getting a nuclear capability. Converting HEU to fissile Uranium-235 to over 20 percent is required for the construction of a gun-type nuclear device, the simplest form of a nuclear bomb. The higher the enrichment level, the less material is needed for a nuclear explosive device.
“Weapons-grade uranium generally refers to uranium enriched to at least 90 percent, but material of far lower enrichment levels, found in both fresh and spent nuclear fuel, could be used to build a nuclear explosive device,” said the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which hs said, “The global inventory of civil HEU is sufficient to build nearly 5,000 nuclear bombs,” and, “Many civilian facilities that use or store HEU on-site lack adequate security. These facilities are often located in universities or other publicly accessible research centers. Given the difficulty posed by reconfiguring sites that were not built with physical protection in mind, upgrading security measures is not a simple task and can be cost-prohibitive.”
Enriching Uranium 238 HEU is not simple, as the Iranians found. Iran appears to be converting uranium ore concentrate — reacted with fluorine — to create uranium hexafluoride gas, or UF6), which is then broken down into Uranium-238 and Uranium-235.
No terrorist group, though, has yet shown an ability to harness the kind of industrial capability to create HEU. It takes nearly 20kg of HEU to be able to build a nuclear device that might yield a detonation equivalent to 2,000 tons of TNT.
This is hardly significant when compared to the explosive power of the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it would nevertheless cause significant damage and be morally damaging. Once a single nuclear device is used on any targeted population, the societal impact will be dramatic and the geo-political landscape changed forever. It would be a defining moment.
Perhaps one of the most important moments in the understanding of the threat posed by WMD came when an image was discovered on a computer system in Kabul. This was in 2002. The computer had been owned by the then Al Qaeda deputy leader and now leader Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri. That image must have sent shivers down the spine of those who initially saw it. It was a hand-drawn design for a nuclear weapon. Whoever drew it knew enough to design a simple nuclear device.
Evidence points to this having been drawn by a member of perhaps the most famous WMD proliferation network that yet uncovered, and that’s the “A.Q. Khan Network” which was operated by the person known as the “Father of the Pakistani nuclear program.” His arrest on January 31, 2004, and subsequent confessions about the scale of his activities, revealed an international proliferation network that spanned three continents.
His audacity is helping countries like Libya, Iran and North Korea take their first tentative steps towards becoming nuclear states was breath-taking. The current advanced state of North Korea’s nuclear program is a direct result of A.Q Khan’s personal intervention.
If a nuclear cloud once again rises over the skyline of South East Asia, he will bear a specific responsibility; North Korea would not be where it is today without his help. If they have managed to weaponize a device and place it atop a ballistic missile, it is likely this technology originated in Pakistani, and neither Russian or Chinese authorities helped create that capability.
All of this analysis points to an important conclusion. Terrorists have not been able to secure the kind of quantities of nuclear material or the processing capabilities to weaponise it. They remain unlikely to be able to do that unless they are assisted by a state.
If material were to reach a terrorist group, it is likely the vector through which that would occur is Iran. Despite the deal reached over its nuclear program, it is far from clear Iran has suddenly become a state that can be trusted.
Moreover, its connections to North Korea through cooperation on their ballistic missile programs are a matter of public record. By any standards – and the destruction caused by V2 missiles dropped on London and Antwerp during WWII confirm this — even conventionally-armed ballistic missiles can be classified as a WMD.
Israel is so concerned about proliferation of WMDs it has conducted several attacks on convoys that appear to be moving ballistic missile technologies to Hezbollah. The most recent of these attacks occurred on March 17, 2017, when four F-16 fighters attacked a weapons shipment bound for Hezbollah.
In the aftermath of the raid, the Syrian air defence system tried to engage the departing Israeli F-16s. This saw a successful engagement of the Israeli Arrow system which shot down a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile — the first engagement of its kind. Israel knows how serious the threat from WMDs remains. It will always act when faced by such a threat.
It is not difficult to imagine what Hezbollah has demanded as payment, in kind, for the lives of its volunteers protecting the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad. The burial grounds in Lebanon pay testament to the sacrifice made by Hezbollah’s fanatical fighters in Syria. Payment for that sacrifice may come in a variety of different forms.
With Hezbollah and Iran quite literally joined-at-the-hip, Iran’s ability to supply WMDs to terrorists is a fear even the IAEA — with its confidence over the inspection regime that is now in place in Iran — cannot fully dispel. America and its allies would be well advised to maintain a suitably high intelligence focus on the smuggling of WMDs and associated material from Iran to Hezbollah.
The North Korean problem
As for North Korea and its WMD-related smuggling, it has form. In December 2002, a Spanish warship intercepted a merchant vessel called the Son San in the Arabian Sea. It did not display a flag of registration. As is convention by international maritime law, the Spanish were able to board the vessel and conduct a search.
Despite not stopping when hailed, the Spanish conducted a boarding operation. They found 15 fully assembled SCUD missiles below deck, in addition to conventional warheads. They were bound for the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. After a legal hiatus, these weapons were released. North Korea was able to make its delivery of conventionally-armed WMD to its clients in Yemen. Since then, they have used conventionally-armed SCUD missiles to conduct a range of attacks on locations in Saudi-Arabia.
What if, under pressure to give up its nuclear program from the international community, North Korea were to make the next move to not only supply conventionally armed ballistic missiles, but to go one step further. Imagine the shock to the West if a similar apparently innocent freighter were to be searched somewhere in the Mediterranean and nuclear-tipped bombs were to be found. How then might the West react if irrefutable evidence pointed to North Korea as the source?
The field of nuclear forensics is developing rapidly, and the identification of nuclear material that was sourced from the North Korea nuclear plant at Yongbyon would not pose a great challenge. Past IAEA inspections would be used as a reference source to ensure attribution to North Korea was clear and beyond doubt. Would that be the final tipping point removing once and for all the restraints on the West to act?
Such a scenario is clearly not a work of fiction. After the attacks on September,11, NATO mounted Operation Active Endeavour, a mission to patrol the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to deter and deny smuggling routes that might be used to transport WMDs across the Atlantic Ocean.
This was one of a total of eight initiatives launched after 9/11. Reports that Al Qaeda operated its own covert fleet of ships added to concerns that WMDs from the Middle East might one day reach the American homeland. Operation Active Endeavour was terminated by NATO in October 2016 and replaced by a new mission called Sea Guardian.
Clearly, NATO believes a maritime route is still a potential way in which a WMD might be smuggled either into Western Europe or North America. Efforts in the United States to screen inbound vessels that might contain such a cargo are at the forefront of national security priorities. But give security vulnerabilities, imagine if just one piece cargo were to be missed?
No doubt, somewhere in Hollywood, someone is already writing such a script. Arguably by writing, "The Sum of All Fears," the prolific writer Tom Clancy pre-empted everyone else. Perhaps a new series of 24 might cover such a storyline. It would be great television. Let us all, however, sincerely hope it remains a work of fiction. For it were to cross the bridge from fiction to reality, the world will have moved that much closer to a Third World War.
Dr. Dave Sloggett is a Senior Contributing Editor and an authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behavior in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems of insurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror.
[Editor’s note, Watch the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s movie, "Last Best Chance," produced with support from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, with additional funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Visit www.lastbestchance.org]