Terrorism, WMD and Hypocrisy

A spectre is haunting the world: that of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This is the collective name for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The United States and Britain said they attacked Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from using or developing them. Even more terrifying is the thought that they may be acquired by terrorist groups, who could use them to blackmail powerful countries or destroy large parts of the world. This is the nightmare scenario against which the US doctrine of preventive war is largely aimed.

The threat of WMD is real enough, but it comes not from ‘rogue’ or ‘failed’ states, but from the United States and Russia –the countries which possess almost all the stocks of WMD. If these stocks were eliminated, the ‘spectre’ would also largely vanish.

Consider the classic science fiction fantasy of a nuclear bomb in the hands of a terrorist group. It would be quite easy for a terrorist group to build a primitive nuclear bomb –one powerful enough to destroy much of New York or Moscow – in a workshop or garage, provided it could obtain from external sources a sufficient amount (100 kilograms) of highly-enriched uranium (HEU). The reason is that enriching uranium for nuclear weapons is a difficult and expensive technological feat which only few states have mastered. For example, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq spent billions of dollars trying to develop HEU, but failed. Clearly, an effective strategy for eliminating the risk of nuclear terrorism is to eliminate the raw material-HEU –needed by terrorists to manufacture nuclear bombs.

Ninety-seven per cent of the stocks of HEU (up to 2000 metric tons) are held by two countries, the United States and Russia. The main danger has been that rogue states or terrorist groups will be able to buy on the black market quantities of HEU stolen from badly-guarded Russian nuclear facilities. In 1993 the USA and Russia signed an agreement to de-enrich half of Russia’s stock of HEU (about 500 metric tons). However, what should have been a high-priority security matter was turned into a commercial operation. The US would pay for the de-enrichment program, but would recoup the cost by selling the now low enriched uranium (LEU) to electrical utilities as fuel for nuclear reactors. In order to avoid depressing the market price of LEU, the program was stretched out for 20 years. Moreover, the implementation was assigned to a private company, the US Enrichment Corporation, which was bound to be more interested in profits than in security.

After 10 years only 150 of the 500 tons have been transferred to the United States. Now there is a new program, agreed in June 2002, by which the United States and other G7 countries pledge themselves to commit $20bn to support projects, initially in Russia, for disposing of fissile material, dismantling decommissioned nuclear submarines, and providing employment for former weapons’ scientists. But this is to be spread over 10 years, and the US Congress has still not paid the money. Meanwhile, President Bush has obtained an extra $84bn from Congress for occupying and re-building Iraq, in which no WMD have been found.

This little history* makes one despair of the sanity and honesty of world leaders. It is perfectly idiotic as well as immoral to spend hundreds of billions of dollars fighting the threat of terrorism, while refusing to destroy, for commercial reasons, the materials for the weapons which make terrorists such a deadly threat. We fight the scourge of terrorism with political weapons worthy of the primitive witch doctor.

Let me be clear. There will always be terrorism as long as there are political aspirations being brutally repressed –as in Chechnya or Palestine. But there is no reason why it should be the global threat it is today. For a small fraction of the money we now vainly devote to ‘destroying’ terrorism, we can reduce its threat to modest, local proportions – by internal defence, international intelligence and surveillance, and, above all, by the destruction of the old Cold War stock piles which terrorists need to bring about mass destruction.

*See Pugwash Issue Brief, vol.2, no.1, September 2002. (http://www.pugwash.org)