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The Case of Suitcase Nukes ^ | 04/08/2004 | Stephen Schwartz

Posted on 04/08/2004 6:54:30 PM PDT by oneonly

The Case of Suitcase Nukes

Recently, two fascinating topics have grabbed the attention of the Western public: speculation that Russians had sold "suitcase nuclear bombs" to al-Qaida terrorists -- based on a claim by a biographer of Osama bin Laden's factotum, Ayman al-Zawahiri -- and an outbreak of terrorist incidents in the Central Asian ex-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

These two matters are linked, for as I previously wrote in TCS, Uzbekistan sits in the middle of a dangerous nest of nuclear, ex-nuclear, and aspiring nuclear powers, including its former ruler, Russia; its neighbor Kazakhstan; nearby Pakistan, and China. In addition, the problem of Wahhabi terrorism, backed by the extremist religio-ideological bureaucracy in Saudi Arabia, is as undeniably deadly as the explosions carried out by suicide bombers in the streets of Tashkent in the past few weeks.

As for al-Zawahiri's threats, the Egyptian surgeon-turned-murderer is a notorious and hysterical loudmouth who will say anything for effect.

But are "suitcase nukes" a serious danger for global security?

To emphasize arguments I have made previously and elsewhere, handling of nuclear explosives is no work for amateurs. The specter of "suitcase nukes" has elicited extensive and authoritative comment from experts in the field, such as Nikolai Sokov and William C. Potter, who are published by the Monterey Institute for International Studies (see, for example,

These knowledgeable figures remind us that rumors about "suitcase nukes" first began circulating in the late 1990s. Particularly in Islamic circles, it became common to hear that Al-Qaida or the Taliban had purchased "suitcase nukes" from rogue Russians. The hubbub was fed by Alexander Lebed, the late Russian politician, who claimed some 100 such devices had gone missing on ex-Soviet territory. Lebed added the inflammatory detail that Chechen separatists had come into possession of nuclear weapons. And Lebed issued the charge during an election campaign in which he was a candidate for a local governorship.

But evidence available from open sources suggests, first, that the probability that "suitcase nukes" were indeed stolen or sold to terrorists is low, and that if they were, their effectiveness has become diminished by the passage of time.

"Suitcase nukes" are not something one can store in a basement and use whenever one feels like it. They require regular maintenance and replacement of components, and in the absence of their handling by technicians, they would probably have little or no effectiveness, aside from providing evildoers with small quantities of weapons-grade radioactive materials, which unfortunately could be used to fabricate a "dirty bomb" -- i.e. a radioactive substance wrapped around a conventional explosive.

A "dirty bomb" would spray radioactivity, and while it might not destroy major structures or kill many people outright, would cause contamination leading to illness and death. A "suitcase nuke" could devastate a significant area and kill many people. But one does not set off a real, live nuke, whatever the size, just by throwing a switch. All nuclear weapons are protected from "casual" misuse by fail-safe systems that can only be overridden by trained personnel.

Russian accusations against the Chechens are so frequent and exaggerated -- notwithstanding the very real and lethal infiltration of Saudi/Wahhabi agents into the Chechen national movement -- that the association of the "suitcase nukes" scenario with the Chechens almost appears as evidence against taking it seriously.

In addition, solid information on the possibility that "suitcase nukes" were ever produced in the former USSR has not advanced significantly beyond the publicity uproar of the late 1990s. If such weapons really existed, more would be known about them, and they would probably have been used.

Nevertheless, at the end of March a Russian newspaper, Moscow News printed a claim by a military officer, Colonel-General Victor Yesin, described as former head of the Russian Strategic Forces, that miniaturized nuclear weapons had been developed in both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Yesin described these items as "nuclear mines." But this was also an old story. At the time of the Lebed allegations, a Russian scientist, Alexei Yablokov, stated that 700 "nuclear mines" had been held in Soviet arsenals. Yablokov appeared confused about the difference between "nuclear mines" and "suitcase nukes."

The existence of nuclear mines, as well as an American product known as the "small atomic demolition munitions" has long been admitted. The Russians planted such mines along their borders with China… which, for those concerned about Central Asia, is no source of comfort. Wahhabi agitators have made the millions of Muslims living in Chinese-ruled Eastern Turkestan another of their major targets.

Even if "suitcase nukes" do not represent an immediate and dramatic menace, the global coalition against terror must exercise every possible measure to guard against such weapons falling into the hands of extremists. That means reinforcing controls inside the U.S., compelling the Russians to clean up their nuke-strewn landscape, and standing by Uzbekistan and other countries that are in the front rank of struggle to curb the spread of Wahhabism.

Stephen Schwartz recently wrote for TCS about "Nuclear Technology Proliferation: The Central Asian Connection."

TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; Extended News; Foreign Affairs; Government; War on Terror
KEYWORDS: alqaedanukes; mininukes; nukes; stephenschwartz; suitcase; suitcasenukes

1 posted on 04/08/2004 6:54:30 PM PDT by oneonly
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To: Criminal Number 18F
Sigh and ping. I think it's time to start a "suitcase nukes" list.
2 posted on 04/08/2004 6:57:57 PM PDT by Archangelsk (Shall we have a king?)
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To: oneonly
Suitcase nukes are very perishable commodities due to the tritium content. Because of that, existing ones, especially if sold a few years ago, are not a big worry. If someone somewhere is cranking out new ones for the Islamoterrorists, THAT is a worry.
3 posted on 04/08/2004 6:59:46 PM PDT by HiTech RedNeck
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To: All

Donate Here By Secure Server

4 posted on 04/08/2004 6:59:54 PM PDT by Support Free Republic (I'd rather be sleeping. Let's get this over with so I can go back to sleep!)
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To: oneonly
Pulled out of moth balls recently; the ability to fingerprint any nuke which traces where it came from. Russia can deny all it is easily tracked.
5 posted on 04/08/2004 7:01:15 PM PDT by shield (The Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God!!!! by Dr. H. Ross, Astrophysicist)
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To: shield
Speaking of tracking, there is this little issue they have with gamma emmision. We currently have a fairly new gamma detection satellite in orbit. To shield the nuke enough that it can not be tracked will turn the 90lb suitcase into a 600 lb truck....
6 posted on 04/08/2004 7:11:52 PM PDT by TLI (...........ITINERIS IMPENDEO VALHALLA..........)
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Anybody running around with a suitcase nuke will shine like your watch in the dark. It takes too much lead to shield radioactivity.
7 posted on 04/08/2004 7:42:26 PM PDT by meenie
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VELA platforms?
8 posted on 04/08/2004 7:49:13 PM PDT by massatoosits (just ask the Brits...)
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To: oneonly
There's too much uninformed blather on this subject.

I know it's possible to build miniaturized nuclear weapons (I'm dying of curiosity as to what the technology is for obtaining the correct neutron flux density in subcritical-mass fissile materials, but I've seen pictures of miniaturized warheads, and once a fission explosion is realized, it's easier from that point to start thermonuclear fuel burning).

However - I have not heard any definitive statements from anyone trustworthy (and this is something with which I wish the gang of newsdroids who are always pestering Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice with idiotic trivia, WOULD pester them) as to whether (A) the Russians are or are not known to have actually produced "suitcase" (i.e. man-portable, as oppose to missile-delivered) nuclear weapons, and (B) if they have, whether they have or have not all been accounted for.

I'm not saying it's possible to *get* definitive answers to those questions, but at least someone could *ask*... and as long as everyone keeps blithering like an idiotic, technically naive Humanities major (I suppose there's a reason for that...) it's hard to take all the rumormongering seriously...

Additionally, the neutron trigger used in traditional fission weapons has (or had - I've heard there have been improvements) had a short halflife and required regular replacement for the weapons to remain viable. If that's still the case, any weapons manufactured by the old USSR are probably inoperable by now (except as "dirty bombs").

More information, and less sensationalistic newsdroid yammering, please...

9 posted on 04/09/2004 12:05:06 AM PDT by fire_eye (Socialism is the opiate of academia.)
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To: fire_eye
"However - I have not heard any definitive statements from anyone trustworthy (and this is something with which I wish the gang of newsdroids who are always pestering Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice with idiotic trivia, WOULD pester them) as to whether (A) the Russians are or are not known to have actually produced "suitcase" (i.e. man-portable, as oppose to missile-delivered) nuclear weapons, and (B) if they have, whether they have or have not all been accounted for."

A Discovery Channel documentary stated that the Soviets had constructed 132 suitcase nukes. An audit in the 1990s was able to account for 48 of them, leaving 84 unaccounted for.


10 posted on 04/09/2004 5:15:33 AM PDT by boris (The deadliest weapon of mass destruction in history is a Leftist with a word processor)
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To: massatoosits
VELA is still operating? They were ancient even way back 20 years. My memory's fuzzy - but wasn't it VELA that spotted a nuclear test in South Africa - only later to be discovered that it was a paint fleck? "YOU TESTED A NUKE!!! No wait...sorry...something in my eye."
11 posted on 04/09/2004 5:23:05 AM PDT by guitfiddlist
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The Davy Crockett (W-54) would fit in a suitcase. (without its launcher of course)

12 posted on 04/09/2004 5:37:55 AM PDT by Bon mots
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To: oneonly
We also must remember the the so called briefcase nuke, is not the size of a briefcase, but a "Ben Franklin or pot bellied" stove. They were called briefcase due to their size. It takes aprox. 3-4 men to set up and detonate. Plus the raditation signature stands out like a beacon in the night.
13 posted on 04/09/2004 5:38:01 AM PDT by TMSuchman (Vote like a lemming, vote demo-RAT! & The only wasted vote, is one not used!)
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