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Nuclear Smuggling Shows Terrorist WMD Threat Persists: State Department

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

A member of the U.S. Marines' Chemical Biological Incident Response Force takes part in a joint drill held last year with Japanese counterparts. Illicit trafficking of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials continues to take place, despite “largely successful” multilateral efforts to secure such substances, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye). A member of the U.S. Marines' Chemical Biological Incident Response Force takes part in a joint drill held last year with Japanese counterparts. Illicit trafficking of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials continues to take place, despite “largely successful” multilateral efforts to secure such substances, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department on Tuesday said the attempted smuggling of nuclear arms-grade uranium in recent years illustrates a continued risk that terrorists could acquire the ingredients for a weapon of mass destruction (see GSN, Aug. 19, 2011).

The department's Country Reports on Terrorism 2011 touts as "largely successful" multilateral programs aimed at locking down chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials around the globe.

However, "the illicit trafficking of these materials persists, including instances involving highly enriched uranium in 2010 and 2011," according to a chapter titled "The Global Challenge of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Terrorism."

"These examples suggest that caches of dangerous material may exist on the black market and that we must complement our efforts to consolidate CBRN materials and secure facilities with broader efforts to detect, investigate, and secure CBRN materials that have fallen outside of proper control," the report says. "We must remain vigilant if we hope to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining the means and methods for generating CBRN weapons."

The document does not cite specific examples of HEU smuggling from the last two years and the State Department on Wednesday did not provide additional detail.

Authorities in Georgia and nearby nations in recent years have reported breaking up attempts to sell illicit nuclear and radiological materials (see GSN, April 16). A June 2011 case in Moldova was said to involve 2.2 pounds of uranium 235 (see GSN, May 25).

Violent extremists have made known their desire to obtain and employ nuclear and other unconventional arms materials, the report says. The danger is heightened by the potential for such a weapon to produce significant casualties and destruction, along with the wide access to information on those systems. There are also complications inherent in attempting to control equipment and materials that can be used for either good or ill purposes, the department said.

The State report cites a number of multilateral programs aimed at preventing the spread of unconventional weapons materials.

These include the Proliferation Security Initiative, under which 100 nations have pledged to take necessary measures to interdict potential illegal transport of WMD materials. The State and Defense departments in 2011 conducted a number of exercises and workshops with participating nations such as Canada, Colombia Italy and Mongolia, the report says.

Other initiatives include the U.S.-Russian-led Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which now encompasses 83 countries, and the National Nuclear Security Administration's Second Line of Defense program that deploys radiation detection technology to partner countries.

"Organizations and initiatives concerned with chemical and biological weapons use international conventions and regulations to reduce stockpiles of material, regulate the acquisition of dual-use technology, and eliminate trade of specific goods," the department said. "Nuclear and radiological initiatives and programs focus on promoting peaceful uses of nuclear material and energy, safeguarding against diversion, and countering the smuggling of radioactive and nuclear material. U. S. participation within, and contribution to, these groups is vital to ensure our continued safety from the CBRN threat."

The 2011 deaths of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other operatives placed the terrorist organization "on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse," the State Department said. However, it noted the increasing prominence of al-Qaida branches such as the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

"We are very concerned about the growth of the affiliates," Daniel Benjamin, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator, said at a press briefing on Tuesday. "We are working closely with partner nations around the world. In the case of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is I think everyone agrees is the most dangerous of the affiliates, that’s a group that benefited from the long political transition, the turmoil that was going on in Yemen."

He said, though that new Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is "a very committed, very reliable partner now. And our work with Yemen is going very, very well. So while the group did exploit that period of uncertainty, we think the trend lines are going in the right direction now in Yemen."

More than 12,500 people died last year in more than 10,000 terrorist strikes spanning 70 nations, Benjamin said. That figure represents a 12 percent reduction from the previous year.

Foggy Bottom continues to list Cuba, Iran, Sudan and the embattled Assad regime in Syria as state sponsors of terrorism.

"Iran is and remains the pre-eminent state sponsor of terrorism in the world," Benjamin said. "We are deeply concerned about Iran’s activities on its own through the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard]-Quds Force. And also, together with Hezbollah, as they pursue destabilizing activities around the globe, we are firmly committed to working with partners and allies to counter and disrupt Iranian activities and to prevent Iran from sponsoring new acts of [terror]. And we think that the international community is increasingly alert to this threat and will resist it."

The official declined to discuss details of Iranian activities. Washington has said the Quds Force was behind an alleged 2011 plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States; Tehran has also been linked to other strikes, including the July bombing that killed Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Iran has denied responsibility in these cases and has charged Israel and the United States with carrying out targeted attacks that have killed several Iranian nuclear scientists.

"There are investigations going on in quite a number of different countries," Benjamin said. "I think that the appropriate thing is to allow those countries to speak for the status of those investigations, but quite a number of them bear the hallmarks of" Iranian efforts or those by its allied organization Hezbollah.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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