Last Friday afternoon, a guy named Paul L. Williams was on FoxNews talking about Al Qaeda’s planned use of “Suitcase Nukes.” He was saying that Al Qaeda already has in its possession several of these “Suitcase Nukes” and that they plan to detonate them in a half dozen U.S. cities during the upcoming summer and fall. From my observations, he seemed part knowing expert and part wild-eyed kook. His chilling prediction provoked me to send out a few emails to some people who know a lot more about these things than I do asking if such a scenario is possible. They all pretty much said the same thing: Not likely, but not impossible either.
That of course wasn’t what I was hoping to hear. I wanted to be told that the guy was a Cassandra-like nutcase and didn’t know what he was talking about. None of my correspondents rejected the prediction of nuclear terror out of hand.
So that got me to thinking about and researching four separate issues:
1) What would such an attack look like?
2) Do Suitcase Nukes even exist?
3) If they do exist, how likely is it that Al Qaeda has some?; and
4) What should the U.S. do if such a catastrophe were to transpire?
I gotta be honest – the Williams interview scared me, and I’ve never been the type to mope around in a state of fear. I began this project with low expectations. Thus, I’m delighted to report that my findings on the first three questions are less than apocalyptic. Such an attack is extremely unlikely, and even if it were to occur, it would be horrible but not remotely the ruin of the country.
Still, I think we have to think about the worst case scenarios and game them out. While a devastating nuclear attack by Al Qaeda in 2004 may be extremely unlikely, we’re racing the clock. They seek nuclear weaponry actively, and if we fail to extirpate them before they become a nuclear power, America will doubtlessly suffer grievous injuries.
One of my most painful memories of 9/11 is how the nation moped about aimlessly for at least a day, maybe more, after the World Trade Center came down. It was bad enough that the populace was caught so unaware, but far more disturbing was the appearance that the Pentagon also had never pondered such a scenario and seemed to have no idea what should come next. It’s not fun, but we have to contemplate the worst case scenarios.
Today, I’m going to address the first three questions which deal with the likelihood and nature of such an attack. Tomorrow, even though such an attack is unlikely, I’ll look at how we should respond if this unlikely scenario should become an unfortunate reality.
1) WHAT WOULD SUCH AN ATTACK LOOK LIKE
There’s a common ignorance among most people that nuclear detonations are fungible. That of course is ridiculous. On the one hand, you have something like a 1 megaton bomb which is on the large side of things, but hardly the biggest in most nuclear powers’ arsenals. Such a weapon would flatten everything within 1.7 miles of ground zero
On the other hand, you have nuclear weapons like the Davy Crocket Fission Bomb
, America’s foray into nuclear weapon miniaturization. The Crockett’s yield was often as low as 10 tons (.1 kilotons); a big Crockett would have been about 1 kiloton. By way of comparison, a MOAB conventional
bomb also has approximately a 10 ton yield, or .1 kilotons. The consensus of reliable sources
is that if suitcase nukes exist, their yield is almost certainly no higher than 1 kiloton and probably a lot closer to .1 kilotons.
So basically they’re likely to have the explosive characteristics of a Daisy Cutter, perhaps a Daisy Cutter on steroids. But what does that mean? What would an explosion of .1 kilotons or even 1 kiloton look like? By way of comparison, the bomb used at Hiroshima was approximately 20 kilotons. The survival rate at Hiroshima 200 meters from ground zero was 50%.
A large Davy Crockett (or a large suitcase nuke, as we’ll see) has a yield of one kiloton so it would be about 1/20th the size of a Hiroshima type device. (That doesn’t mean the explosion will be exactly 1/20 the size; nuclear weapons become marginally less efficient as they get larger.)
Again, we’re probably talking about something closer to .1 kilotons than 1 kiloton; .1 kilotons is 2-4 times the power of the ammonium nitrate bomb that destroyed the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. Obviously a .1 kiloton blast in a major metropolitan area, to put it delicately, would be an adverse event. Still, when someone like Paul L. Williams says a city will be nuked, his clear implication is that the city will be utterly destroyed. A suitcase nuke can’t do anything of the kind.
2) DO SUITCASE NUKES EVEN EXIST?
Maybe. We civilians can’t know for sure.
The Soviet Union spent decades aping our technology. It’s a reasonable supposition that they aped the miniaturization of nukes represented by the Davy Crockett. There are also a couple of tactical purposes that might have brought such weapons into being. The small nukes could have been used as land mines, or they could have been the property of the Special Forces for counter-terrorism purposes, ironically enough. Or they could have been the exclusive property of the KGB.
This being the former Soviet Union, we just don’t know. Personally, I think there’s a pretty good chance Vladimir Putin knows and hopefully he’s shared his knowledge with our government.
If they do exist, there are a few relatively positive signs:
1) They’ll be low yield, like the Davy Crockett. The damage they inflict would be a lot more like that wrought by a Daisy Cutter than a 5 megaton “Day After” type projectile.
2) They were almost certainly built with safeguards that would make their operation by anyone other than the Red Army (or its proper Russian successor) impossible. Such safeguards were an obvious necessity given the devices’ portability.
3) They almost surely require routine maintenance every 6 months. If the missiles haven’t been properly maintained, their yield will be dramatically reduced; actually, most experts think if not properly maintained in accordance with the owner’s manual’s dictates, they won’t work at all. On this point, we certainly have Soviet craftsmanship working in our favor; let’s face it, the Soviet Union didn’t produce many things known for their quality and reliability. Additionally, maintaining nuclear weapons in a cave on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border would certainly be beyond Al Qaeda’s abilities. This is a serious problem for the terrorists; if Al Qaeda acquired these things, the bombs have missed probably 20 maintenance adjustments; experts familiar with their American counterparts (the Crockets) feel quite strongly that at this point in time the bombs won’t function at all and if they do somehow function will achieve only a fraction of their intended yield.
Before leaving the question of their existence, I think a word on the “suitcase” nomenclature is in order. Even the smallest Davy Crockett weighs roughly 70 pounds. Estimates are that the portable Soviet nukes weigh at least 60 pounds, probably quite a bit more than that. 60 pounds would obviously be an exceptionally heavy suitcase.
The point of the terminology was apparently to underscore the devices’ portability. Indeed, in all likelihood two men should be able to carry one of the so-called suitcase nukes. A few years ago, a congressman took to the House floor with a mock-up of a suitcase nuke that was basically a briefcase with a thermos in it. The things are portable, but not that portable.
3) DOES AL QAEDA HAVE SUITCASE NUKES?
I’m glad to say, in my opinion, probably not.
The rumors of Al Qaeda being a nuclear power began in 1998. The London based Arab daily Al-Watan Al-Arabi reported
that Chechens had acquired 20 suitcase nukes from Russian facilities with the intention of transferring the bombs to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in exchange for $30 million and two tons of opium. When Paul Williams went on Fox last week, he was treating this report as if it were gospel truth even though it has never been corroborated by other more reliable sources.
So is it true? Who knows? We can make some logical assumptions, though. If Al Qaeda were a nuclear power, would it have not used one of their suitcase nuke devices on the Coale instead of the pittance of conventional TNT that it instead utilized? If Al Qaeda were a nuclear power, would it be engaging in relatively penny ante activities like hijacking planes and bombing commuter trains? If Al Qaeda were a nuclear power and became one over six years ago, what plausible explanation could there possibly be for the organization’s “restraint” in not utilizing the devices in the past six years?
Moreover, the Al-Watan Al-Arabi report from 1998 describes a frantic search by the CIA and the free world’s other intelligence agencies to pursue the then freshly nuclear armed Al Qaeda. Thus, if the story is accurate, America knew since 1998 that Al Qaeda was a nuclear power.
Readers of this site know that I defer to no man when it comes to harboring disdain for Bill Clinton. Still, it is unthinkable that President Clinton wouldn’t have put us on a war footing with Al Qaeda if he knew they possessed nuclear weapons and intended to use them. Moreover, Bush would have had this knowledge since he took office. Once again, it is unthinkable that if our government knew/knows that Al Qaeda has nukes it would be business as usual as it has been and still pretty much continues to be. You’d have to be a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist to believe such a thing. I’m pretty sure that’s what Paul L. Williams is.
To be more explicit, the alleged deal with the Chechens strikes me as bullshit, total bullshit. It sounds like a falsehood that Al Qaeda and its sympathizers had obvious cause to fabricate, and one that gullible Cassandras and conspiracy theorists were eager to believe and propagate. Even the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, a reliably alarmist voice as far as nuclear perils are concerned, doesn’t believe in the Al Qaeda – Chechen connection.
Of course, there’s an alternative scenario that the Al Qaeda – Chechen transaction did actually occur but the weapons wouldn’t work or Al Qaeda couldn’t get them to work. If that’s the case, than Al Qaeda would not be a nuclear power but would still have enough radiological material from the no longer functional suitcase nukes to make several dirty bombs. Regardless, reasonable inferences from events of the past several years suggest Al Qaeda lacks the ability to deliver a nuclear blow, at least as a result of any 1998 transaction with the Chechens.
TOMORROW: BUT WHAT IF…
Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at email@example.com
James Frederick Dwight