Nearly 3,000 people were killed five years ago when terrorists plowed airplanes into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. The terrorist attack was undoubtedly a terrible tragedy. But it could have been much worse. Eight years earlier, aides to Osama bin Laden met with Salah Abdel al-Mobruk, a Sudanese military officer and former government minister who offered to sell weapons-grade uranium to the terrorists for $1.5 million. He proffered up a 3-foot-long cylinder. The al Qaeda representatives agreed to the purchase, because after all, as one of them later said, "It's easy to kill more people with uranium."
The cylinder turned out to be a dud. But had it actually contained highly enriched uranium, and if bin Laden's deputies had managed to use it to assemble, then transport and detonate a nuclear bomb, history would have looked very different. September 11 would be remembered as the day when hundreds of thousands of people were killed.
Osama bin Laden's long-standing interest in developing nuclear weapons is deeply troubling, and the attempt to purchase uranium from the Sudanese was far from an isolated incident. Al Qaeda operatives have repeatedly tried to acquire nuclear materials over the years. In August 2001, a month before the September 11 attacks, bin Laden received two former Pakistani nuclear officials, asking them to help recruit other Pakistani scientists with expertise in building nuclear weapons. After the military effort to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan, U.S. forces found extensive documents, including crude bomb designs, at an al Qaeda safe house in Kabul. In 2003, bin Laden sought a fatwa from an extremist Saudi cleric permitting the use of weapons of mass destruction, calling their acquisition a "religious duty." As recently as September, al Qaeda put out a call urging nuclear scientists to join its war against the West. Bin Laden’s attempt to purchase highly enriched uranium in the past belies the conventional wisdom that terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. Clearly, some terrorists do want a lot of people dead.
Could a nuclear attack by bin Laden, or any other terrorist, actually happen? Some say it would be impossible, mistakenly believing that terrorists do not have the motivation, or the ability, to assemble the highly sophisticated, modern tools necessary for the task. Most observers, however, agree that a small group could construct a lethal nuclear weapon since they are conceptually simple devices. After all, the technology involved in creating a nuclear weapon is more than 60 years old. In fact, it is perhaps easier to make a gun-assembled nuclear bomb than it is to develop biological or chemical weapons.
A NUKE'S WORTH
Would terrorists build a nuclear device? Presumably, some terrorist organizations want to kill as many people as possible at the lowest cost. Like any organization, sophisticated terrorist outfits are concerned with "cost effectiveness." It is a gruesome business, but very similar attacks may result in widely different casualties depending on the target. For example, the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003 killed a relatively small number of people compared to the 2002 Bali bombings, despite the use of relatively similar devices. But, if one considers the bulk of terrorist attacks, the relationship of cost to casualties follows a simple curve, with the cost per casualty increasing as the size of the terror attack increases -- from the relatively inexpensive Madrid bombing (which cost less than $10,000, or around $50 per murder) to the September 11 attacks (which cost $400,000-$500,000, or about $170 per murder).
Some might claim that thinking about terrorist attacks in terms of cost-versus-casualty ratios fails to capture the essentially political ends of a terrorist group. Cost data from previous attacks suggest that al Qaeda is sometimes willing to pay a significant premium to attack high-profile, heavily protected targets that may produce fewer casualties, but have greater political implications, such as a U.S. embassy or Naval vessel. For example, the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen may have cost $10,000, but with 17 casualties, it added up to a pricey $590 per murder. Yet terrorists do not have to pay a premium for a nuclear attack; on a per murder basis, nuclear weapons are both cheap and can be used against high-profile targets. And a nuclear attack induces great fear. Its specter has hung over the world since the United States dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima.
To put it in strictly commercial terms, terrorists would likely find a nuclear attack cost effective. The simple appeal of nuclear terrorism can be illustrated with a hypothetical situation. A failed nuclear detonation, one that produced only a few tens of tons in yield, could kill 10,000 people in just a few hours if the device exploded in a crowded financial center. Not only would 10,000 persons represent the upward limit of a conventional terrorist attack, but that figure would also exceed the combined casualties in all of al Qaeda’s attacks over the entire history of the organization.
And that's a "worst-case" scenario for the terrorists. A "successful" nuclear detonation would kill 10 times as many people. If terrorists could construct a successful device that killed 100,000 people for a cost of $10 million dollars -- about $100 per murder -- it would be a bargain, considering that most of al Qaeda's attacks have been mounted in the $100 to $300 per murder range. A nuclear terrorist attack that cost $5 million would result in a cost per murder comparable to the Madrid bombings. So, just how difficult an enterprise would this be? What would a terrorist group have to do to build a bomb that would kill 100,000 people for less than $10 million?