Osama bin Laden and nuclear weapons

by Wm. Robert Johnston
last updated 22 September 2002

Al Qaeda's interest in nuclear weapons has been a recent topic of discussion and a highly relevant one. There is little hard data addressing the question of how close bin Laden's organization is to a nuclear weapons capability. What little data there is has sometimes been misrepresented in media reports. Thus, this review may be useful.


How terrorists could obtain a nuclear weapon

There are three general routes to obtaining a nuclear weapon:
1. process/produce fissile material, design/construct a weapon
2. obtain previously produced fissile material, design/construct a weapon
3. obtain a complete weapon.

In the case of a terrorist organization, the prospects are:

Option 1: The processing and production of fissile material requires a massive industrial infrastructure. In fact, the required resources are a national-level undertaking. Besides the financial and human requirements, such an undertaking would require years and would be impossible to conceal. Even Al Qaeda could not undertake this option.

Option 2: This is generally considered the most likely option for terrorists. The greatest difficulty is obtaining the fissile material. Since design and construction of a weapon is not prohibitively difficult, the nuclear states have all pursued strict controls on fissile material as the best way to keep terrorists (and non-aligned states) from a nuclear capability. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in large amounts of fissile material being under poor controls. From 1992 to 1996 in separate episodes smugglers were arrested in various European countries with sufficient fissile material, if taken together, to produce at least one nuclear weapon.

Designing and manufacturing a nuclear weapon is challenging but it is the easiest step. The required physics, chemistry, and engineering knowledge is largely in the public domain. Individuals with graduate-level training in these fields could design a weapon. As early as 1970 a Princeton graduate student apparently designed a fission weapon with a yield-to-weight ratio ten times better than the Fat Man, the United States' first nuclear weapon. The actual manufacturing of the weapon requires a variety of controlled materials, none as strictly controlled as the fissile material. It also involves working with harzardous materials: shaped explosives and toxic and highly combustible substances.

Option 3: This option avoids the difficulties of both obtaing fissile material and developing and constructing the weapon. It is nonetheless unlikely because of the strict controls that nuclear states exercise over their nuclear weapons--for obvious reasons. These controls include both physical security and internal security. The latter often includes electronic safeguards built into the weapon which make an unauthorized detonation effectively impossible. There have been reports of poor control over some tactical nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union in the years following its breakup. At least three unconfirmed but specific reported cases of lost control of such weapons exist.

Evidence regarding Al Qaeda's nuclear program

Evidence of Al Qaeda's nuclear efforts can be grouped as follows:
1. public claims by Osama bin Laden
2. court testimony by Al Qaeda members
3. claimed efforts to obtain material or weapons from the former Soviet Union
4. documents and materials found in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom
5. contact between Al Qaeda and Pakistani nuclear scientists
6. arrest of an Al Qaeda member accused of plotting radiological terrorism

1. In interviews with Time Magazine and ABC News in December 1998, Osama bin Laden stated that the acquisition of nuclear weapons "in defense of Muslims is a religious duty." In November 2001, a taped statement by Osama bin Laden included his assertion that Al Qaeda was able and willing to respond in kind to any attack with unconventional weapons.

2. Prior to the 11 September attacks, the U.S. had obtained testimony from Jamal Ahmad Al-Fadl in a federal trial of bin Laden et ali for the 1998 African embassy bombings. Al-Fadl testified in February 2001 that he was involved in the early stages of an effort by Al Qaeda to purchase uranium in Sudan in late 1993 and early 1994. Whether the purported uranium was enriched (making it weapons usable) was unknown. Al-Fadl reported seeing a container bearing a serial number and labeled "South Africa". The deal was to cost $1.5 million and hinged on satisfactory testing of the uranium; Al-Fadl's involvement ended at this point so the outcome is unknown. His testimony cannot be confirmed.

3. In the late 1990s reports of nuclear smuggling from the former Soviet Union were dwindling. However, on 25 September 1998 German authorities arrested Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a bin Laden associate, and charged him with trying to obtain highly enriched uranium.

In late 1998 Arabic media claimed that bin Laden was spending millions of dollars trying to obtain nuclear weapons. Reported activities included: hiring nuclear scientists from Turkmenistan and Iraq; offering money to Chechens and Russian smugglers for nuclear material and "suitcase" nuclear bombs; attempting to set up an infrastructure for constructing nuclear weapons.

Israeli intelligence reportedly concurred that Al Qaeda was trying to purchase a "suitcase" bomb. The weapon in question is likely that described by former Russian National Security Advisor Aleksandr Lebed. In 1997 Lebed claimed that the U.S.S.R. had produced 132 "suitcase" atomic demolition munitions in the 1970s and that control was delegated to the Soviet GRU for use in foreign sabotage operations. Lebed further claimed that following the collapse of the Soviet Union many of these weapons were unaccounted for. The Russian government disputes Lebed's claims, stating that no weapons are unaccounted for and that such "suitcase" bombs were never built. Lebed's claims could be politically motivated, although a few individuals have concurred with his story. (Lebed was killed in a helicopter crash in 2002.)

In November 2001 Yuri Volodin of Russia's state nuclear agency admitted that within the last two years there had been "a major incident involving the attempted theft of nuclear materials" (as described by Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post, 13 November).

4. Around 14 November 2001 the London Times reported the discovery of notes regarding nuclear weapons design in an abandoned Al Qaeda safehouse in Kabul, Afghanistan. The reports referred to the use of TNT in an implosion weapon and to thermonuclear reactions. Some sources have subsequently suggested that the information was a spoof. In any case, the limited information available regarding these notes suggests that it dealt with general concepts rather than the detailed design information needed for a functional weapon.

In December 2001 the U.S. reported the discovery of depleted uranium in overrun Al Qaeda safehouses. The discoveries were linked in reports to radiological weapons potential, rather than a nuclear weapons potential.

5. In December 2001 Pakistan reported that two of their nuclear scientists had confessed to discussing weapons of mass destruction with Osama bin Laden in August. The two are Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid, both former high ranking scientists in Pakistan's nuclear program. Mahmood was dismissed from his post in 1999 for advocating sharing nuclear weapons technology with other Islamic states. When arrested in November 2001, they claimed to have only discussed humanitarian issues with bin Laden. After a period of questioning by Pakistani authorities, they reported later said that discussions dealt with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

6. In 2002 the U.S. Department of Justice arrested an Al Qaeda member and accused him of plotting to use a "dirty bomb".

Radiological weapons

Increased attention has been given to Al Qaeda's potential for producing radiological weapons. These would use conventional explosives or other means to disperse radioactive material. Nuclear chain reactions and an associated large energy release are not produced, but radioactive material can be dispersed to produce a contamination risk. An Al Qaeda video tape has emerged in which a canister is displayed and alledged to contain radioactive material.

Non-fissile radioactive material is not as well protected as fissile material, and it is found at a far greater number of sites. Materials with long halflifes poses a lower radiation risk; materials with shorter halflifes and higher radiation levels are difficult to conceal. Radiological weapons require no particular technological sophistication; their use would more likely result in widespread panic and limited casualties versus mass casualties.

Media discussion of radiological weapons has been accurate in generally acknowledging that the psychological impact would likely be greater that the health impact. The general descriptions of a radiological weapon given have not corresponded to the most effective potential weapon designs. Specifically, several media statements have referred to wrapping explosives around radioactive material. More effective dispersal methods have long been discussed as possible terrorist weapons.

Observations regarding Al Qaeda and nuclear weapons

Authorities consider it unlikely that Al Qaeda has a nuclear weapon. It is feasible, however, and must be considered as a possibility. Media reports have been surprisingly incorrect in their assessments of Al Qaeda's weapons potential. For example, several reports have stated that even if Al Qaeda has fissile material, it is unlikely that they could design a working weapon. In reality, preventing access to fissile material is the only way to prevent a group with Al Qaeda's sophistication from producing a nuclear weapon. The first nuclear weapons were built in the 1940s using a TNT-based explosive and no modern electronics. Today, Al Qaeda has demonstrated the use of shaped charges of explosives more advanced than TNT. Groups with less sophistication than Al Qaeda could today match the design sophistication of the first two nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda's financial and human resources are sufficient to undertake the covert design and manufacture of a nuclear weapon.

Thus, if Al Qaeda aquires or has aquired adequate fissile material, it is very likely that they would succeed in producing a working nuclear weapon. Public domain evidence shows that Al Qaeda has sought fissile material and suggests efforts to obtain complete nuclear weapons. This evidence does not indicate success with either.

Various evidence shows that Al Qaeda has investigated radiological weapons. However, the particulars do not indicate progress toward an effective weapon. For example, some reports concern uranium and other materials with relatively low radioactivity and low biological potential (as compared to some other isotopes).

Al Qaeda's history has shown a rapid increase in sophistication of attacks. Over nine years, the level of planning and magnitude of consequences has steadily increased from bombings of a type typical of many terrorist groups to the 11 September 2001 attacks. Even these early attacks showed long planning beforehand. On the other hand, on many occasions--some as recently as 2000 and 2001--Al Qaeda attacks have been mitigated or thwarted altogether due to lapses in judgement. Taken together, Al Qaeda's history suggests that it would be willing to use weapons of mass destruction and that bin Laden would seek an even higher casualty count in a future attack.


Miscellaneous public domain information indicates that Al Qaeda has sought to aquire a nuclear weapons capability since at least 1993. None of the information conclusively indicates success at obtaining either fissile material or a complete nuclear weapon. If Al Qaeda comes into possession of sufficient fissile material, it is likely that they could produce a functional nuclear weapon. Evidence indicates that Al Qaeda has investigated radiological weapons, but information on actual weaponization is ambiguous. The mass casualty potential of such weapons is limited, however.

© 2002 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 22 September 2002.
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