IS ‘madmen’ would gladly use nukes, Obama warns summit

President says a bomb containing fissile material the size of an apple could kill and injure hundreds of thousands, shake the world

US President Barack Obama (C) speaks during the opening plenary of the Nuclear Security Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Apri1 1, 2016 in Washington, DC (AFP / Mandel Ngan)
US President Barack Obama (C) speaks during the opening plenary of the Nuclear Security Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Apri1 1, 2016 in Washington, DC (AFP / Mandel Ngan)

More cooperation is needed to prevent the Islamic State group’s “madmen” and other extremists from getting a nuclear weapon, US President Barack Obama warned Friday as global leaders met in Washington.

The threat of terrorists of using nuclear material in a “dirty bomb” — or even obtaining an atomic weapon — has loomed large over the summit, punctuated by revelations that IS members tracked a Belgian nuclear scientist on video.

“ISIL has already used chemical weapons, including mustard gas, in Syria and Iraq,” Obama said, using an acronym for the IS group.

“There is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material, they most certainly would use it to continue to kill as many innocent people as possible.”

The summit — attended by dozens of world leaders and delegates — is focused on securing global stockpiles of nuclear materials, much of it used in the medical and power industries.

Obama said about 2,000 tons of nuclear materials are stored around the world at civilian and military facilities, some of them not properly secured.

“Just the smallest amount of plutonium — about the size of an apple — would kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people,” he said.

“It would be a humanitarian, political, economic and environmental catastrophe with global ramifications for decades.”

The nuclear security summit comes in the wake of attacks in Paris and Brussels that have killed dozens and exposed Europe’s inability to thwart destabilizing attacks or track Islamic State operatives returning from Iraq and Syria.

Evidence that individuals linked to those two atrocities videotaped a senior scientist at a Belgian nuclear facility has given the threat added nuclear weight.

Though the summit is focused on fissile stockpiles, other nuclear concerns inevitably have drawn broad attention, including North Korea and its continued testing of nuclear devices and ballistic missiles.

The reclusive nation fired another short-range missile off its east coast on Friday, the latest in a series of North Korean missile launches during what has been an extended period of military tension on the Korean peninsula.

In January, North Korea detonated a nuclear device — its fourth such test — and a month later launched a long-range rocket.

The summit opened Thursday with Obama trying to forge consensus among East Asian leaders on how to respond to Pyongyang.

“We are united in our efforts to deter and defend against North Korean provocations,” Obama said after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.

Halfway through the closing day of the summit, delegates described a series of incremental measures, such as enhanced cooperation between nations.

Obama and Abe announced that Japan had removed all its highly-enriched uranium and separated plutonium fuels ahead of schedule. The fissile material will be “downblended” in the United States for civilian use or eventual disposal.

Obama also used the summit as a chance to speak with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, promising candid talks over Beijing’s alleged military buildup in the South China Sea.

US officials have expressed concern that China’s actions in the South China Sea are inconsistent with Xi’s pledge at the White House last year not to pursue militarization of the hotly contested and strategically vital waterway.

China claims virtually all the South China Sea despite conflicting claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, and has built up artificial islands in the area in recent months, including some with airstrips.

This is the fourth in a series of nuclear security summits convened at Obama’s behest and with the president leaving office next year, it may well be the last.

But it risked being overshadowed by two men who were not even there: Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Experts say Putin’s refusal to attend has made it almost impossible to achieve substantive reductions in fissile material — the vast majority of which is held by the militaries of Russia and the United States.

“This nuclear security summit is supposed to address all of the stocks, but truth is that all they address really is a small proportion of civilian stocks,” Patricia Lewis, international security research director at British think tank Chatham House, told AFP.

“President Obama’s initial idea was that [the summits] would address all fissile materials, but the truth is there hasn’t really been a discussion at the official level.”

Obama foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes earlier described the lack of Russian participation as “counterproductive.”

America’s presidential election also took center stage, with questions about Trump’s suggestion that Asian allies should develop nuclear weapons.

“It would be catastrophic for the United States to shift its position and indicate that we somehow support the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Rhodes said.

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