George Tenet, the man who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attack — indeed, a man who served in that stressful job for almost eight years under two presidents — tells the riveting story in his memoirs of how Saudi intelligence captured a handful of senior Al Qaeda operatives in 2003, a group that included the notorious Shaykh Nasir bin Hamin al-Fahd. It was a real coup.
What made Al-Fahd fall onto the radar of every intelligence service in Europe and America was a document he authored with the terrifying title “A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels.” The weapons he’s referring to are atomic bombs. Where on earth would Al Qaeda terrorists get atomic bombs?
Al-Fahd had clearly made a credible exhortation, from the top level of Al Qaeda senior management, to use nuclear weapons against Western targets. And now he was in a Saudi dungeon.
Under merciless interrogation by the Saudi Mukhabarat (the secret police), using methods that would have been frowned upon even at Guantanamo, Al-Fahd confessed that Al Qaeda had been bargaining with black market arms merchants in Moscow for “portable” nuclear weapons. Though under extreme duress, Al-Fahd would not (more likely, could not) reveal useful details.
We tend to think of nuclear weapons as very big objects, devices like “Fat Boy,” the bomb that partially Nagasaki — big, heavy objects that need submarines or missiles or Air Force flying fortresses to move around. But there has long been a sub-category of much smaller nuclear weapons, including several designs made by the United States. These are often referred to by media as “suitcase nukes” or “vest-pocket nukes.”
The two most famous of these produced by USA were the “Davy Crockett” a rifle-launched nuclear device that was fired much like a mortar at an enemy a few miles away, and the Mk-54 SADM (Special Atomic Demolition Munition) a 60-pound bomb that was small enough to fit in a large trunk or footlocker.
Though these weapons were pipsqueaks compared to the nation-destroying multi-megaton hydrogen bombs developed in the 1950s and 1960s, any atomic bomb, even the smallest, is capable of killing millions of human beings in urban environments.
The least complex device, in theory, would simply be a mass of purified plutonium that was approaching criticality under normal conditions at room temperature. If you accumulate between 20 and 22 pounds of elemental plutonium in a sphere, the internal level of radiation soon reaches sufficient intensity to cause spontaneous fission of the entire mass — in a matter of nano-seconds, the reaction gets out of control and you have a nuclear explosion. Such a bomb would require no detonator, just the accumulation of the plutonium in one place. It would surely also incinerate whoever was unwise enough to put that much plutonium together in one place.
Even a piece of plutonium the size of a half-dollar is warm to the touch, so much internal fission is taking place, releasing energy all the time.
The actual “suitcase” weapons built by the United States could deliver something in the neighborhood of five kilotons of explosive force (compared to 16 kilotons for the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and 21 kilotons for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki).
A fifteen kiloton device detonated in central Manhattan would vaporize everything within a radius of just over a mile. Anyone within five to 10 miles would likely fall prey to radiation poisoning, burns, or injury from flying debris. Multiple millions would die in such a scenario. Compare that to the 3,000 who died in 9/11.
These small weapons are called “tactical” in the sense that they would be used on the battlefield to change the course of a skirmish rather than define the outcome of a war. Their value was their portability and size. But that was also their main liability. They were likely to explode so close to the people who deployed them that nuclear blowback and fallout could affect the wrong troops.
A 1994 U.S. law (since repealed in the aftermath of 9/11) forbade nuclear weapons with a yield of five kilotons or less, but by 1994 the Pentagon had long ago mothballed such weapons as unpractical and almost useless.
America’s “suitcase” weapons can all be accounted for. But what happened to those made in the former USSR? A number of Soviet-era defectors, including Stanislav Lunev, have described the Russian devices in great specificity. Lunev assured American spy agencies that many of them were lost in the period of perestroika, when Gorbachev and the first President Bush agreed on wide-reaching nuclear arms reductions. In that period, some 30,000 nuclear weapons were supposedly recalled to Moscow.
If only one per cent of them slipped through the net, then 300 such weapons could be floating around on the black market for purchase by terrorists. Not even the most optimistic scenarios suggest that 99 per cent of the weapons were safeguarded, so the true number is certainly much larger than 300 weapons.
Though critics today regularly dismiss talk of “suitcase nukes” as fodder for thriller writers, George Tenet reports in his autobiography that the CIA was unable to get any good leads on the hundreds of missing Soviet-era nuclear bombs that certainly never made it back to Moscow for disassembly.
“Of all al-Qaeda’s efforts to obtain other forms of WMD, the main threat is the nuclear one. I am convinced that this is where Osama bin Laden and his operatives desperately wanted to go. They understand that bombings by cars, trucks, trains and planes will get them some headlines, to be sure. But if they manage to set off a mushroom cloud, they will make history — such an event would place Al Qaeda on par with the superpowers and make good Bin Laden’s threat to destroy our economy and bring death into every American household.”
Tenet went on to say that it was not “beyond the realm of possibility” for any terrorist group, not just Al Qaeda, to obtain a nuclear weapon.
“One mushroom cloud would change history,” he wrote.
Another analyst, Paul Williams, has asserted in “Osama’s Revenge: The Next 9/11” that Al Qaeda has been planning a spectacular nuclear fire show using a half-dozen portable nuclear weapons that would be detonated simultaneously in major American urban centers.
So where are the missing Russian bombs? Retired Russian generals and colonels who were in positions of authority when Gorbachev ordered the recall of nuclear technology have claimed that at least fifty ADMs (atomic demolition devices, the smallest size nuclear bomb) could definitively not be accounted for and had to be presumed to be in the hands of bad actors, probably for sale to the highest bidder. Such allegations are hard to prove, but they are equally hard to disprove.
And what would it take to keep a “suitcase nuke” in operable condition, even thirty or forty years after its manufacture?
The main requirement would be a permanent source of electricity to keep the internal electrical mechanics functioning and the batteries charged. A simple wall outlet in any home or office would do very nicely.