A terrorist nuclear attack is still a serious concern, according to a leading specialist in the field.
Matthew Bunn, James R Schlesinger professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, said that violent Islamic extremists desperately want to strike back at the West, “and both the Islamic State and al Qaeda would like a spectacular action to put them firmly back at the forefront of the violent Islamic extremist movement”.
Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bunn said that US government studies make clear that if a sophisticated, well-funded terrorist group got hold of the needed plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU), they might well be able to put together a crude nuclear bomb:
“Unfortunately, it does not take a Manhattan Project to build a bomb, when you have weapons-usable fissile material. Indeed, the group needed to make a crude bomb might not have a footprint much bigger than the 9/11 attackers had. Despite the enormous destruction that has been rained on al Qaeda and the Islamic State over the last 20 years, a cell of terrorists could be working on a nuclear project even now, somewhere far from US attention and drone strikes.”
“The intense counterterrorism campaigns of the last two decades have surely reduced terrorists’ ability to plan and carry out such a complex effort,” he added.
“But we simply do not know what capability might remain. The Taliban’s rapid return to power in Afghanistan could add to that capability, making that country a terrorist haven again—but there are many other largely ungoverned or terrorist-controlled places where such a project could be undertaken.”
Bunn also said that the capability side of the equation can change at remarkable speed. In January 2014, the US intelligence community did not mention the Islamic State in its annual assessment of threats to US security, for example. However, by that summer, the group had seized much of Iraq and Syria and declared a global caliphate.