Occasionally, technologically competent spy novels, especially ones focusing on credible threats from Al Qaeda, can enthrall you and never let go. They cause existential and bodily anxiety. They bring back unpleasant 9/11 memories. And they confirm our anxiety that horrible things do indeed occur occasionally in our imperfect environment. Most horrifying of all are stories that merge those two things that we pray will never come together in real life: Al Qaeda militants and atomic weapons.
To revenge the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the designated successor Maximum Leader of al-Qaeda, directs his followers to hunt for, locate, and purchase a “suitcase nuke” in the vast and unregulated black weapons markets of the former Soviet Union. Armed with this device, Al-Zawahiri will then dramatically expand al-ability Qaeda’s to wreak harm across the globe.
There are a multitude of realistic scenarios that may be put out for the bomb’s acquisition, but those that are most compelling of all would rely real facts whenever possible. The Russians produced a “RA” class of nuclear weapons designed for use against NATO in places such as the Fulda Gap. Anyone conducting a “Wikipedia” search on RA portable nuclear devices will immediately discover that these bombs are genuine and not the product of a writer’s imagination.
There are such bombs in the world, and some of them have not been mothballed.
Surely one of the most worrying issues related to Al Qaeda today, more than a decade after the 9/11 disaster in New York, is that the terror consortium will attempt for a spectacular encore, and that the bad guys will do it by going to tremendous pains to acquire a nuclear weapon. How would they achieve this? Where are they going? How much would it cost? These are the most important questions that any espionage book dealing with this subject must address.
Historically, the former Soviet Union and the United States, in particular, had nuclear arsenals that were orders of magnitude larger than they are now. As recently as the eras of Gorbachev and the first Bush, the USSR pledged to repatriate to Moscow over 30,000 nuclear weapons dispersed among the USSR client states, nations that became independent shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Thirty thousand bombs is a substantial quantity. If only one per cent of those nukes went “missing” as the old Soviet Union was becoming unglued and high-ranking military men — generals and even lowly colonels — were stockpiling Kalashnikovs, SAMs, and other alternatives to their evaporating pensions and 401(k) plans, that one per cent would amount to some 300 nuclear weapons potentially now on the market for sale to the highest bidder. Some may already be in the wrong hands.
Does anyone truly believe that 99 percent of these 30,000 explosives were deactivated without incident? Surely the percentage of “lost” items exceeds one percent. This indicates that there may be significantly more than 500 “loose nukes” in the weapons bazaars of central Asia. How much would this reward cost? Five million dollars? Ten million? How about twenty million? What if the amount was thirty million? Does anyone doubt that a worldwide Al Qaeda organization could raise $30 million? A significant portion of Al Qaeda’s finance has dried up, but it is worth considering how much money the organization could still raise.
Despite the fact that detractors dismiss discussion of “suitcase nukes” as fodder for thriller writers like Salerno, former CIA Director George Tenet declared categorically in his autobiography that “of all Al Qaeda’s efforts to secure other forms of WMD, the nuclear one poses the greatest threat. I am confident that [AQ] wanted to go in this direction. They are aware that car bombings, truck bombings, train bombings, and airplane bombings will generate headlines. But if they manage to set off a mushroom cloud, they will make history.”
The porosity of the world’s intermodal container transportation sector is the second area of specialist knowledge that must be considered while writing about the transport of atomic bombs. We have all observed cargo ships carrying these nearly identical forty-foot steel containers. How many of us aware that fewer than two per cent of them get inspected, even in the United States? How much is inspected in ports such as Karachi?
We are quite good at checking and controlling our commercial aircraft. But we do a poor job checking and regulating maritime and terrestrial freight. This is likely how a bomb would be transported to the West. All the experts warn of this, but until there is a “event” of some kind, whether a success or a failure averted, it is unlikely that funding will be made available to safeguard the system.