Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Could Terrorists Be Seeking a Nuclear Bomb?

Mar. 18, 2014

By Graham Allison
As the 3rd Nuclear Security Summit approaches next week, many policymakers and analysts continue to find it incredible that terrorists could build a crude nuclear bomb and detonate it in the heart of a major city. One of the sticking points for skeptics is the question of whether, even if terrorists succeed in obtaining enough weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to build a nuclear device, they would actually use it. The consequences seem too disproportionate to any plausible objective to be chosen by any but the insane.

Those who take comfort in that thesis should consider a largely-unreported, but deeply-instructive, recent incident. Yasin Bhatkal, the founder of an Indian jihadist group named the “Indian Mujahideen,” was recently arrested for coordinating a series of terrorist attacks between 2007 and 2013. According to court documents, Yasin confessed that on June 1, 2013, he had instructed his Pakistan-based associate Riyaz Bhatkal “to look for one nuclear bomb” to destroy the heart of Surat, a city of 4.5 million and the lifeblood of India’s diamond industry.

Riyaz responded confidently: “Anything can be arranged in Pakistan.”

While there is no reason to believe that this small jihadist group has come close to obtaining a nuclear weapon, this exchange serves as a vivid reminder that, despite improvements in counterterrorism and nuclear security, dangerous terrorists continue to pursue the means to extinguish the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents in a single blow—and that they see nuclear weapons as the way to achieve this goal.[1]

[1]For more on the history of terrorists’ (including Al Qaeda’s) pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, see Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, “Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, January 2010, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/al-qaeda-wmd-threat.pdf and Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism (New York: Holt, 2004), p. 19-42. To read a briefing given by Belfer Center Senior Fellow William H. Tobey and the Russian Academy of Science’s Pavel S. Zolotarev on the nuclear and radiological terrorism threat, click here. Nuclear Security Matters also has a U.S.-Russian Joint Assessment of the Nuclear Terrorism Threat.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Could Terrorists Be Seeking a Nuclear Bomb?.” Nuclear Security Matters, March 18, 2014, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/could-terrorists-be-seeking-nuclear-bomb.