Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Book Excerpt: by Graham Allison, Times Books

On October 11, 2001, a month to the day after the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush faced an even more terrifying prospect. At that morning’s Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, informed the president that a CIA agent code-named Dragonfire had reported that Al Qaeda terrorists possessed a ten-kiloton nuclear bomb, evidently stolen from the Russian arsenal. According to Dragonfire, this nuclear weapon was now on American soil, in New York City.

The CIA had no independent confirmation of this report, but neither did it have any basis on which to dismiss it. Did Russia’s arsenal include a large number of ten-kiloton weapons? Yes. Could the Russian government account for all the nuclear weapons the Soviet Union had built during the Cold War? No. Could Al Qaeda have acquired one or more of these weapons? Yes. Could it have smuggled a nuclear weapon through American border controls into New York City without anyone’s knowledge? Yes. In a moment of gallows humor, someone quipped that the terrorists could have wrapped the bomb in one of the bales of marijuana that are routinely smuggled into cities like New York.

In the hours that followed, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice analyzed what strategists call the “problem from hell.” Unlike the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union knew that an attack against the other would elicit a retaliatory strike or greater measure, Al Qaeda — with no return address — had no such fear of reprisal. Even if the president were prepared to negotiate, Al Qaeda had no phone number to call.

Clearly no decision could be taken without much more information about the threat and those behind it. But how could Rice engage a wider circle of experts and analysts without the White House’s suspicions leaking to the press? A CNN flash that the White House had information about an Al Qaeda nuclear weapon in Manhattan would create chaos. New Yorkers would flee the city in terror, and residents of other metropolitan areas would panic. The stock market, which was just then stabilizing from the shock of 9/11, could collapse.

American Hiroshima. Concerned that Al Qaeda could have smuggled a nuclear weapon into Washington as well, the president ordered Vice President Dick Cheney to leave the capital for an “undisclosed location,” where he would remain for many weeks to follow. This was standard procedure to ensure “continuity of government” in case of a decapitation strike against the U.S. political leadership. Several hundred federal employees from more than a dozen government agencies joined the vice president at this secret site, the core of an alternative government that would seek to cope in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion that destroyed Washington. The president also immediately dispatched NEST specialists (Nuclear Emergency Support Teams of scientists and engineers) to New York to search for the weapon. But no one in the city was informed of the threat, not even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Six months earlier the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center had picked up chatter in Al Qaeda channels about an “American Hiroshima.” The CIA knew that Osama bin Laden’s fascination with nuclear weapons went back at least to 1992, when he attempted to buy highly enriched uranium from South Africa. Al Qaeda operatives were alleged to have negotiated with Chechen separatists in Russia to buy a nuclear warhead, which the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed to have acquired from Russian arsenals. The CIA’s special task force on Al Qaeda had noted the terrorist group’s emphasis on thorough planning, intensive training, and repetition of successful tactics. The task force also highlighted Al Qaeda’s strong preference for symbolic targets and spectacular attacks.

Staggering the imagination. As the CIA’s analysts examined Dragonfire’s report and compared it with other bits of information, they noted that the attack on the World Trade Center in September had set the bar higher for future terrorist spectaculars. Psychologically, a nuclear attack would stagger the world’s imagination as dramatically as 9/11 did. Considering where Al Qaeda might detonate such a bomb, they noted that New York was, in the jargon of national security experts, “target rich.” Among hundreds of potential targets, what could be more compelling than Times Square, the most famous address in the self-proclaimed capital of the world?

Amid this sea of unknowns, analysts could definitively answer at least one question. They knew what kind of devastation a nuclear explosion would cause. If Al Qaeda was to rent a van to carry the ten-kiloton Russian weapon into the heart of Times Square and detonate it adjacent to the Morgan Stanley headquarters at 1585 Broadway, Times Square would vanish in the twinkling of an eye. The blast would generate temperatures reaching into the tens of millions of degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting fireball and blast wave would destroy instantaneously the theater district, the New York Times building, Grand Central Terminal, and every other structure within a third of a mile of the point of detonation. The ensuing firestorm would engulf Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, the Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden, leaving a landscape resembling the World Trade Center site. From the United Nations headquarters on the East River and the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, to the Metropolitan Museum in the eighties and the Flatiron Building in the twenties, structures would remind one of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building following the Oklahoma City bombing.

On a normal workday, more than half a million people crowd the area within a half-mile radius of Times Square. A noon detonation in midtown Manhattan could kill them all. Hundreds of thousands of others would die from collapsing buildings, fire, and fallout in the ensuing hours. The electromagnetic pulse generated by the blast would fry cell phones, radios, and other electronic communications. Hospitals, doctors, and emergency services would be overwhelmed by the wounded. Firefighters would be battling an uncontrolled ring of fires for many days thereafter.

The threat of nuclear terrorism, moreover, is not limited to New York City. While New York is widely seen as the most likely target, it is clear that Al Qaeda is not only capable of, but also interested in, mounting attacks on other American cities, where people may be less prepared. Imagine the consequences of a ten-kiloton weapon exploding in San Francisco, Houston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, or any other city Americans call home. From the epicenter of the blast to a distance of approximately a third of a mile, every structure and individual would vanish in a vaporous haze. A second circle of destruction, extending three-quarters of a mile from ground zero, would leave buildings looking like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. A third circle, reaching out one and one-half miles, would be ravaged by fires and radiation.

Uncontrollable blaze. In Washington, a bomb going off at the Smithsonian Institution would destroy everything from the White House to the lawn of the Capitol building; everything from the Supreme Court to the FDR Memorial would be left in rubble; uncontrollable fires would reach all the way out to the Pentagon.

In a cover story in the New York Times Magazine in May 2002, Bill Keller interviewed Eugene Habiger, the retired four-star general who had overseen strategic nuclear weapons until 1998 and had run nuclear antiterror programs for the Department of Energy until 2001. Summarizing his decade of daily experience dealing with threats, Habiger offered a categorical conclusion about nuclear terrorism: “it is not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.” “That,” Keller noted drily, “may explain why he now lives in San Antonio.”

In the end, the Dragonfire report turned out to be a false alarm.

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