The Department of Homeland Security's top intelligence officer told Congress yesterday that while the intelligence community knows terrorists seek nuclear weapons, it is less certain whether terrorists could actually acquire or develop the weapons.
Charles E. Allen , under secretary for Intelligence and Analysis and chief Intelligence officer for DHS, said al Qaeda's chief, Osama bin Laden, said in a 1999 interview that it is his religious duty to obtain chemical and nuclear weapons. In 2003, the extremist cleric Nasir bin Hamd al-Fahd issued a fatwa declaring that jihad includes the use of weapons of mass destruction. These statements have given jihadists the authority and legitimacy to use nuclear weapons against their enemies.
Acquiring enough material for a nuclear weapon, Allen said, remains a major obstacle for the jihadists. But if terrorists did acquire enough "weapons-useable" nuclear material, it's not impossible that terrorists could master the complexity of developing a nuclear weapon.
"Therefore, securing nuclear material and combating smuggling of weapons-usable nuclear materials is critical to preventing terrorists from acquiring a nuclear device," he said. "Protecting weapons-usable nuclear material worldwide is one of the best actions to protect the homeland."
Allen assauged lawmakers that developing nuclear weapons is still an esoteric art, one that terrorists will not find knowledge of by searching the Internet. "This [online] information is crude and demonstrates a lack of understanding of physics, chemistry, and other fields relevant to nuclear device design," he said.
Nevertheless, Allen reported that jihadists in Iraq have issued a public call to recruit individuals with the technological and scientific expertise to produce a nuclear device.
And if terrorists ever did create a nuclear bomb, it would look much different than the weapons lawmakers see stockpiled. The weapon would likely lack the sophistication of conventional nuclear weapons while the yield of such a bomb may not be known.
Regardless, the results could still be devastating. "A nuclear device of any yield could produce thousands of casualties, significant damage to the infrastructure, and render large areas uninhabitable, at least in the near term, because of radiation contamination," Allen said.
"It would, moreover, cause major psychological damage to our nation."