Nuclear terrorism: Before it’s too late

The international community must urgently expand current counterterrorism and non-proliferation efforts

File: Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech shown on a screen during a rally in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, May 24, 2015.  (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)
File: Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech shown on a screen during a rally in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, May 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

Does President Donald Trump’s recent declaration that he will not certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action increase the likelihood of a potential unconventional war in the Middle East or contribute to international efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism? Make no mistake. While the debate over the answer to this key question will continue in the coming months and years, nuclear terrorism, considered by both state sponsors and sub-state entities, will remain a clear danger to regional and global security concerns and perhaps even to the survival of civilization itself.

More specifically, the Iranian threat has indeed increased in scope and intensity with every passing year. In the 1990s, Tehran acquired some nuclear capabilities and subsequently contracted with Russia to build a nuclear power reactor that began operation in 2011, in addition to its small research reactor acquired from the United States in 1967. A decade later, Iran had succeeded in developing a robust nuclear infrastructure for uranium ore processing and uranium centrifuge enrichment. Additionally, it has undertaken programs of dual-use chemical and biological technologies as well as advanced missile defensive and offensive weapons. And, as recently as August 2017, Tehran warned that in the event the US imposes new sanctions, it would need only five days to ramp up uranium production to 20 percent, up from the enrichment level of below 3.67 percent under the current deal. This would potentially amount to some 90 percent of the enrichment work for uranium needed to build a nuclear bomb. In the interim, Iran has rejected US demands for UN inspectors to examine military sites in the country.

Other recent and relevant stark security concerns include testing successfully the Khorramshahr ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads more than 1,200 miles; launching new satellite missiles; building precision weapons factories in Syria and Lebanon; advancing and deploying cyber-spying prowess regionally and over Western airspace; and continuing to finance and supply weapons to terrorist groups in the Middle East and to Africa’s expanding arc of instability.

The potential challenge of global terrorist groups obtaining weapons of mass destruction cannot be dismissed.

Within the context of these worrying developments, the most troubling emerging challenge to global security is Iran’s proxy Hezbollah (“Party of God”), the most dangerous terrorist movement in modern times. In this regard, the August 13, 2017 warning by Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, alarmingly hints at a planned attack on Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility in an effort to release radioactivity into the environment. In a televised address he boasted, “One example of the respect and recognition Israel gives the ‘resistance’ is the closure of the ammonia tank in Haifa…We hope that they will look into moving the nuclear reactor in Dimona as it is more dangerous and needs extra care.”

This ominous threat to Israel is also a reminder that Hezbollah even has the potential to undertake terrorist attacks directed against America itself. Thus, Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), stated on October 11, 2017, that “we in the intelligence community do in fact see continued activity of Hezbollah here inside the Homeland.” It is no surprise that the US Department of State has just announced rewards for information about two senior operatives of Hezbollah who helped the suicide attack on the US Marine command in Beirut in October 1983, killing 251 servicemen: $7 million for information about Talal Hamiyah and a $5 million bounty on Fu’ad Shukr.

The potential challenge of global terrorist groups obtaining weapons of mass destruction cannot be dismissed. For example, al-Qaeda has already demonstrated its interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction over the past two decades. As early as 1998, Osama bin Laden stated that acquiring WMD is a “religious duty.” Ample evidence was discovered that al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan focused attention on utilizing biological, chemical, radiological, and “dirty bomb” capabilities if available. Also, earlier in Sudan, a bin Laden associate had tried to buy uranium for a nuclear weapon.

More recently, Daesh (also known as the Islamic State, ISIS, or ISIL) is believed to be responsible for a 2015 mustard gas attack in Syria and reportedly intends to pursue other WMD capabilities. Just imagine what might have happened if Raqqa, the declared capital of the “Islamic Caliphate”, had not been liberated, or more territory had been ceded elsewhere to Daesh. The surviving leadership and its die-hard members might yet resort to WMD attacks in their battle for regional and global dominance.

The most challenging danger of nuclear terrorism comes into play if states or sub-state groups succeed in achieving their strategic goals. The temptation for other actors to resort to nuclear or other WMD capabilities may become inevitable. Can we prevent this tragic eventuality? The short answer is yes, but only if we remain steadfast in our determination to do so.

It therefore behooves the international community to urgently expand their current counterterrorism and non-proliferation efforts. These include terminating all business relationships between western companies and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard so long they continue to destabilize the Middle East through violence. Greater control of illicit trafficking of WMD materials should also be instituted regionally and globally, coupled with contingency planning and crisis management policies to reduce nuclear terrorism risks.

The cost of escalation to war, even with the high likelihood that the West would prevail, would be terrible beyond measure. All nations, including Iran and North Korea, would be wise to heed the Persian proverb, “Even with the strength of an elephant and the paw of a lion, peace is better than war.”

Yonah Alexander is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York, the director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies, and Senior Fellow at Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Dr. Milton Hoenig is a nuclear physicist based in the Washington, DC area.

They co-authored the books Super Terrorism: Biological, Chemical, and Nuclear and The New Iranian Leadership: Ahmadinejad, Terrorism, Nuclear Ambition, and the Middle East.

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