The Permanent Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

The need of remembering this “Sword of Damocles” among other trending CBRN threats


By Maj. Julio Ortega García, Operations in the Strategics and Plans Section, Defence Chief of Staff, Spain

For the past year and a half, the CBRNe Community and the society at large have been solely focused on biological threats and hazards. Although it is a serious concern, we should not overlook or, for that matter, forget the ever-present threat posed by nuclear terrorism. The CBRNe community (emergency services, civil and military first-responders, and companies) must adapt its procedures and strengthen its capabilities to respond to such hazards.

The same affirmation stands for the employment of chemical agents on British soil for targeted killing, i.e., the Salisbury incident. These types of events shine a light on the existence of a myriad of substances, deadlier and more dangerous, which can be used to develop even more diabolical innovations.

Biological agents in the wrong hands have always been the worst-case scenario for many decision-makers and heads of government and the security and defense industries at large. Some might say that the current pandemic has potentially re-lit the imagination of some terrorist groups to start using more biological agents to achieve their goals. The use of biological agents by adversaries has always been of grave concern, as using biological agents in terrorist attacks can disrupt the infrastructure and countless lives. However, the success rate of such attacks remains scarce as these biological agents are not easily attainable.

On the other hand, the nuclear and radiological terrorist threat is still very much present, although it is difficult to argue whether it is higher than a few years ago. Even though the International Community is making a significant, continuous effort to strengthen and improve the response to nuclear and radiological terrorist attacks, it is crucial always to remember the existence of this "Sword of Damocles" over our heads. In this regard, governments, institutions, and companies must contribute to strengthen their infrastructure and security, to deter and disrupt any potential nuclear terrorist attack(s). All the aforementioned entities are obligated to secure their networks from any possible threats. Additionally, all entities must be equipped with proportional measures, knowledge, and training in order to combat these events. All systems need to be up-to-date and secured, and the teams responsible for security, threat, and response must be trained to use and operate these platforms/systems accordingly and adequately.

At its worst, cyberterrorism could be a cyberattack allowing terrorist groups to take control over a state's nuclear weapons, making strategic missile launch consoles accessible.

The Nuclear Terrorism Phenomenon

Traditionally, four main types of nuclear terrorism can be identified: (1) the use of a nuclear weapon, (2) the use of an improvised nuclear device, (3) the attack on nuclear and radioactive facilities, and (4) the deliberate dispersion of radioactive material or the exposure to it.

The first two types would directly result in a nuclear explosion, while the latter two would only lead to more or less significant radiation exposure.

The use of the radiological term has been extended to define all incidents that include non-fissile radioactive material and cannot produce a nuclear explosion. Inherited from the Anglo-Saxon world, this radiological term is being introduced into every civilian, police, intelligence, and military institution. This use increases and delves confusion into the general knowledge of the nuclear threat, as it induces a difference between nuclear terrorism and radiological terrorism. For consistency's sake, it would be better to use one single term to eliminate any confusion. Bear in mind that a terrorist attack in which a faulty nuclear detonation occurs with little mechanical and thermal effect would still disperse radioactive material resulting in a scenario similar to that which would produce a "dirty bomb."

It is also crucial to mention two other types of nuclear terrorism. Firstly, (5) the instigation of a nuclear war between states by a terrorist organization. Although most analysts agree that this option remains unlikely, the use of nuclear weapons by a terrorist organization could also be considered a nuclear terrorism action.

Finally, (6) cyberterrorism could give another dimension and create another space for nuclear terrorism. Take as an example the attack on Iran's industrial networks that, according to Iranian authorities, would have affected the Bushehr nuclear power plant. This incident shows that the computer systems that manage nuclear reactors must be well protected from external attacks that could jeopardize their stability.

At its worst, cyberterrorism could be a cyberattack allowing terrorist groups to take control over a state's nuclear weapons, making strategic missile launch consoles accessible. Another tactic – albeit more complex – would be to trick the system into detecting a nuclear attack that would not exist to provoke a damaging response.

While it is true that redundant security measures in various systems, as well as physical measures, hinder this type of nuclear terrorism through cyberterrorism actions, this possibility should not be ruled out in a growing "cyber-environment."

Nuclear and Radiological Tendencies

The various consequences arising from each type of nuclear terrorism and the multiple ways to carry out an attack require specific defense measures and response systems. It is essential for these to be multidisciplinary and organized in "layers" to prevent the execution of the attack at any point in the process. On the other hand, it is essential to clearly distinguish the different types of nuclear terrorism as the widespread misuse of the two concepts of nuclear energy and radioactive material will prevent the development of effective protection measures.

During the last century, these security and protective measures have largely improved, especially in the USA, with a push given by the Obama administration (Megaports, Proliferation Security Initiative…) and to many other organizations and institutions initiatives.

Unfortunately, we can still see a lack of interest and effort in this area. The initiatives maintain a low profile, probably enough for countering today's threats but most likely insufficient for combating the future challenges posed by new nuclear and radiological tendencies. The threat of nuclear terrorism is not going to disappear any time soon! In today's risk society, where regional powers compete for a foothold, it sets the stage for an unstable security environment, exposing the vulnerabilities we still face in the war against nuclear terrorism.

(...) proliferation of both nuclear weapons and technology is still an international issue worth considering when speaking about a nuclear threat.

Furthermore, the proliferation of both nuclear weapons and technology is still an international issue worth considering when speaking about a nuclear threat. The existence of more weapons, and probably - what's worst - more nuclear states, is directly linked to the increase in the occurrences of nuclear terrorism.

In this vein, the proliferation of radiological technology in many fields (medicine, industrial, agrarian, and many others) is linked to increased possibilities for terrorists accessing radioactive sources. We cannot stop this proliferation because it has lots of benefits for our societies. Still, we must consider and improve the security measures to block this path to these attacks/threats.

Regarding the international security situation and the existence of failed- or soon to be failed-states, the danger of losing control of radiological and nuclear technology, material and knowledge is real. It is also linked to the previous radiological technology proliferation because not only the more developed and stable states have access to it, but so do the less developed and stable ones. The opportunity for a terrorist group to gain access to these capabilities is real, and ISIS in Iraq and Syria is the perfect alarming example of this.

Finally, we cannot forget the capability to develop innovative terrorist courses of action that can overlap our security measures. Last year in some parts of the world, we have witnessed a reduction of terrorist activities probably linked to the pandemic. However, this situation has also provided them with time to recover, increase their capabilities, and think about future options and plans.

Every man, woman and child live under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.

President John F. Kennedy to the United Nations General Assembly in 1961

Undoubtedly, it seems likely and even normal that the existence of more direct threats and hazards diverts the employment of resources to prevent nuclear terrorism, as it has been so in the past with other threats.

Unfortunately, the solution is not to re-allocate resources but to increase them to provide enough capabilities to respond to each of the CBRNe threats along with general response units to cope with all the various hazards and threats.

A reduction provoked by the prioritization in this area of terrorism would be too costly in terms of human lives, and the impact of these attacks would be disastrous in their reach. Therefore, we cannot afford any mistakes or miscalculations, for that matter, in our continuous effort in preventing these nuclear terrorist attacks from happening.

As President John F. Kennedy told to UN General Assembly in 1961: “Every man, woman and child live under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness”. Although this statement was specifically concerning nuclear weapons, sixty years later it is perfectly valid for both nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Major Julio Ortega Garcia is an Infantry Major and Staff Officer posted in the Joint General Staff, in the Division for Strategics, acting as analyst for Operations in the Strategics and Plans Section. His former assignment was the Operations Division of the Army General Staff, in the Operations Situation Center, as planner and analyst of current operations abroad. He is CBRN Defense Specialist, and he has been posted in the CBRN Military Defense School for 6 years, where he was CBRN Doctrine Analyst, both national and international and he was teacher and instructor in the General CBRN Defense and in the Nuclear Defense Departments. He has been also National Delegate in NATO Joint CBRN Defense Capability Development Group and in the NATO CBRN Doctrine and Terminology Panel. Deployed in Afghanistan as CIED Laboratory Manager. After then, he has been related to courses and operational aspects of IEDs in different forums.