(WASH POST) WASHINGTON — Of all the clues that Osama bin Laden is after a nuclear weapon, perhaps the most significant came in intelligence reports indicating he received fresh approval last year from a Saudi cleric for the use of a doomsday bomb against the United States.
For bin Laden, the religious ruling was a milestone in a long quest for an atomic weapon. For U.S. officials and others, it was a frightening reminder of what many consider the ultimate mass-casualty threat posed by modern terrorists. Even a small nuclear weapon detonated in a major American population center would be among history’s most lethal acts of war, potentially rivaling the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
Despite the gravity of the threat, however, counterterrorism and nuclear experts say they consider the danger more distant than immediate.
They point to enormous technical and logistical obstacles confronting would-be nuclear terrorists and to the fact that neither al-Qaida nor any other group has come close to demonstrating the means to overcome them.
So difficult are the challenges that senior officials on President Bush’s national security team believe al-Qaida has shifted its attention to other efforts, at least for now.
“I would say that from the perspective of terrorism, the overwhelming bulk of the evidence we have is that their efforts are focused on biological and chemical” weapons, said John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. “Not to say there aren’t any dealings with radiological materials, but the technology for bio and chem is comparatively so much easier that that’s where their efforts are concentrating.”
Still, the sheer magnitude of the danger posed by a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands — and classified intelligence assessments that deem such a scenario plausible — has spurred intelligence and military operations to combat a threat once dismissed as all but nonexistent. The effort includes billions of dollars spent on attempts to secure borders, retrain weapons scientists in other countries and lock up dangerous materials and stockpiles.
Without sophisticated labs, expensive technology and years of scientific experience, al-Qaida has two primary options for getting a bomb, experts say, both of which rely on theft — either of a weapon or one of its key ingredients, plutonium or highly enriched uranium.
Nuclear scientists tend to believe the most plausible route for terrorists would be to build a crude device using stolen uranium from the former Soviet Union. Counterterrorism officials think bin Laden would prefer to buy a ready-made weapon stolen in Russia or Pakistan, and to obtain inside help in detonating it.
Last month, Michael Scheuer, who ran the CIA’s bin Laden unit, disclosed in an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that bin Laden’s nuclear efforts had been blessed by the Saudi cleric in May 2003, a statement other sources later corroborated. As early as 1998, bin Laden had publicly labeled acquisition of nuclear or chemical weapons a “religious duty.”