Journal Article - Russia in Global Affairs

Nuclear Terrorism: How Serious a Threat to Russia?

| September/October 2004

Nuclear Terrorism: How Serious a Threat toRussia?

A careful reader of the discussion in the Russian and American national security community could conclude that Americans are more concerned about the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack than are Russians.  Specifically, American experts have described more vividly potential nuclear terrorist attacks on U.S. soil than have Russians, at least in the writings and conversations that are publicly accessible.  Why this is the case is a puzzle.  No one doubts that in Chechen fighters Russia faces serious, capable, determined adversaries.  Moreover, if Chechnya succeeded in capturing, stealing, or buying a nuclear weapon (or material from which they could make a nuclear weapon), their first target would surely be Moscow, not New York or Washington DC.

Chechen fighters have demonstrated imagination, organizational capability, ruthlessness, determination, and willingness to sacrifice their own lives in the process in a series of terrorist attacks.  Most recently on June 21, 2004, more than 200 Islamic militants crossed the Chechen border into Russia’s adjacent republic of Ingushetia and launched attacks on the region’s capital city Nazran.  For two hours, a Russian border guard station, an ammunition depot, and police stations came under intense fire leaving nearly 100 people dead and over 100 more wounded.  In what the New York Times billed “an advanced degree of organization and tactical skill,” Chechen guerilla forces demonstrated yet again their ability to unleash extreme violence and terror on unprepared civilian targets. 

According to witnesses, the militants descending on Ingushetia replaced dead or retreating policemen with men in similar uniforms in checkpoints along the road to Nazran.  The decoys checked the documents of each approaching vehicle and proceeded to kill those with police or military identification—attacking precisely the individuals responding to the duress calls of their fallen brethren.  The militants were successful in striking a painful blow to the region’s security service: sixty of the dead were local police and other law enforcement officials.  The heaviest death toll reportedly came at the Interior Ministry’s headquarters, where an onslaught of bullets, grenades, and fire engulfed dozens of police officers trapped inside.  The rebels also managed to seize the ammunition depot and drove off in two trucks with some 6,000 assault rifles and pistols.[1] 

            One month prior to the June raid, Chechens demonstrated ingenuity in assassinating the president of Chechnya by embedding a bomb in the concrete beneath the VIP seating in the Grozny stadium.  Earlier, in October 2002, they exhibited their capacity for major operations deep inside Russia by taking over a theater in Moscow and holding over 800 hostages for three days before Russian special forces stormed the scene.  If the hostage crisis portrayed the heightened sophistication and audacity of Chechen terror tactics, the details of both Kadyrov’s assassination and the Ingush incursion are further testimony to their ability to commit increasingly large-scale terrorist attacks on Russian soil. 

Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush have identified the threat of international terrorism and “the use of weapons of mass destruction that terrorists may obtain”[2] as a grave challenge to their countries.  Repeatedly, they have pledged to prevent “the world's most dangerous regimes and terrorists to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.”[3]  A systematic examination of their performance in meeting this challenge, however, is unsettling.  At the current pace, the finish line when all potential nuclear weapons will be secure from theft lies more than a decade ahead.  The two presidents have accepted this result with equanimity, rather than adamantly pushing for an earlier deadline. In fact, as the most recent Harvard report on containing the nuclear threat shows, under Bush fewer ‘near nukes’ (lumps of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium from which a terrorist could make a nuclear weapon) in Russia were secured in the two years after 9/11 than in the two years prior to 9/11.[4] 

This article addresses the basic questions of who could mount a nuclear terrorist attack on Russia and what weapons they could use in such an attack.  It concludes by pointing beyond this threat to the central truth—that nuclear terrorism is, in fact, the ultimate preventable catastrophe.  Only a fission chain reaction releases the vast blast of energy that is the hallmark of a nuclear bomb.  The strategic narrows of this challenge is to prevent terrorists from obtaining a nuclear weapon or material from which a weapon could be made.  No fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism.  It is that simple. 

Who? Nuclear Gangsterism in Chechnya

To date, the only confirmed case of attempted nuclear terrorism occurred in Russia on November 23, 1995, when Chechen separatists put a crude bomb containing 70 pounds of a mixture of cesium-137 and dynamite in Moscow’s Ismailovsky Park.  The rebels decided not to detonate this “dirty bomb,” but instead informed a national television station to its location.  This demonstration of the Chechen insurgents’ capability to commit ruthless terror underscored their long-standing interest in all things nuclear.[5]  As early as 1992, Chechnya’s first rebel president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, began planning for nuclear terrorism, including a specific initiative to hijack a Russian nuclear submarine from the Pacific Fleet in the Far East.[6]  The plan called for seven Slavic-looking Chechens to seize a submarine from the naval base near Vladivostok, attach explosive devices to the nuclear reactor section and to one of the nuclear-tipped missiles on board, and then demand withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.  After the plot was discovered, Russian authorities disparaged it, and yet it is ominous to note that the former chief of staff of the Chechen rebel army, Islam Khasukhanov, had once served as second-in-command of a Pacific Fleet nuclear submarine.[7]

For Movsar Barayev, the leader of the rebel unit that took 800 hostages only a few blocks from the Kremlin, the Dubrovka Theater was his second-choice target.  Initially, Barayev planned to seize the Kurchatov Institute, one of Russia’s leading nuclear design centers, with 26 operating nuclear reactors and enough HEU to make thousands of nuclear weapons.  Though far from optimal, the security at Kurchatov proved formidable enough for Barayev to pass up the nuclear facility for a softer target.[8]

Chechen separatists have been engaged for more than a decade in a deadly fight for independence from Russia. This war, the bloodiest conflict in the former Soviet Union, has left more than 100,000 civilians dead and nearly half of the region’s population homeless.  The impoverished and disenfranchised Chechens have also proved a ready audience for Islamic extremism; particularly the militant Islam espoused by the late Ibn Al-Khattab, the Saudi Arabian-born self-proclaimed Commander of the Foreign Mujahedin in Chechnya.  Khattab, who was first indoctrinated in Islamic jihad when he joined the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, gained notoriety and respect among Chechens for his warring skills and cruelty, leading to greater ties between the Chechen separatist cause and Islamic extremist organizations. 

Among international terrorists, Chechen rebels have achieved a reputation for extreme ruthlessness, including torture, executions, and beheadings.  In 1998 four foreign workers from Britain’s Granger Telecom were kidnapped and held for over two months before their severed heads were found in a sack on the side of the road.  The militant Islamic group responsible for the deed had reportedly been receiving financial support from Osama bin Laden.[9]

Chechen separatists have had a long-standing interest in acquiring nuclear weapons and material to use in their campaign against Russia.  In addition to surveying Kurchatov, Chechen militants have conducted surveillance of the railway system and special trains designed for shipping nuclear weapons across Russia.[10]  They also succeeded in acquiring radioactive materials from a Grozny nuclear waste plant in January 2000 and stealing radioactive metals – possibly including some plutonium – from the Volgodonskaya nuclear power stationin the southern region of Rostov between July 2001 and July 2002. 

Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist organizations are among Chechen militants’ major sources of financial support.  Al Qaeda operatives were alleged to have negotiated with Chechen separatists in Russia to buy a nuclear warhead, which the Chechen warlord ShamilBasayev claimed to have acquired from Russian arsenals.[11]  While the Chechens’ target of choice for their first nuclear terrorist attack will surely be Moscow, if the Chechens are successful in acquiring several nuclear bombs, their Al Qaeda brethren would be likely consumers.

What? Missiles, Materials, and Accidents

If a nuclear terrorist attack occurs, Russia will be the most likely source of the weapon or material—not because the Russian government would intentionally sell or lose weapons or materials, but simply because Russia’s twelve-time-zone expanse contains more nuclear weapons and materials than any other country in the world, much of it vulnerable to theft or sabotage.  From outright nuclear theft and smuggling to more general problems of inadequate resources for nuclear security systems, and low pay and morale for nuclear workers and military forces, reports of nuclear insecurity in Russiacontinue to emerge at an alarming rate today.  If we know about these lapses, terrorist groups likely know about them, too—including Chechen militants.

            The collapse of the Soviet Union presented an enormous threat to nuclear security with the Soviet’s ominous arsenal spread across four separate states.  Efforts to transport weapons from Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine to Russia required significant speed and diplomatic muscle during a period of extreme political and economic chaos.  The Soviet Ministry of Defense had to move 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons to Russia as the country was coming apart at the seams.  Inflation had jumped over 2,000 percent, which fueled corruption and criminality throughout Russian society. In the slogan of that era, “Everything was for sale.” In light of these realities, is it conceivable that all nuclear weapons were recovered without a single loss?  In 1991, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney observed, “If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons— let's assume they've got 25,000 to 30,000; that's a ballpark figure—and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control.”[12]

To the world’s great fortune, Russian professionals apparently succeeded in extracting and returning safely every last one of these 25,000 warheads.  What we know for certain is that not a single former Soviet nuclear weapon has been found in another country or in an international arms bazaar.  This incredible result is testimony to the determined efforts of the Russian government, including in particular the nuclear guardians in its Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Atomic Energy, supported by technical and economic assistance from the United States following from the Nunn–Lugar legislation and subsequent acts of Congress.  Yet, in spite of the fact that we have no proof that a Soviet nuclear weapon has reached an unintended destination, we cannot rule out this possibility.  The bottom line today is summarized best by an American intelligence officer who spent many years tracking this issue.  In his words: “We don’t know with any confidence what has gone missing, and neither do they.”[13] 

Realistically, nuclear terrorists are most likely to use a small weapon stolen from the arsenal of one of the nuclear states, or an elementary nuclear bomb made from stolen HEU or plutonium.  Of particular interest would be the former Soviet arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, which was even larger and much more widely dispersed than the strategic nuclear forces. These bombs included suitcase nuclear devices; suitcase backpacks (yadernyi ranets), such as the Army’s RA-155 and Navy’s RA-115-01 (to be used underwater), which weighed as little as 65 pounds and could be detonated by one solider in ten minutes, producing a yield of between 0.5 and 2 kilotons;[14] atomic landmines weighing 200 pounds; air-defense warheads; and 120-pound atomic artillery shells designed to destroy an enemy force at a 200-mile range.[15]  The public museum at Russia’s largest nuclear weapon design center, Chelyabinsk-70, displays what it claims is the world’s smallest nuclear weapon, an artillery shell eighteen inches long and six inches in diameter.[16]   A picture of this mini-nuke, standing next to the largest bomb in history, the Tsar Bomba (“King of Bombs”), a 100-megaton weapon, can be viewed on the Web.[17]  The full extent of the Soviet tactical arsenal, however, remains shrouded in secrecy, particularly the existence and fate of special KGB “suitcase” nuclear weapons.  Furthermore, the security of some tactical nuclear weapons, which are held in about 90 storage sites throughout Russia, remains questionable.[18] 

In 1997, Boris Yeltsin’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, General Alexander Lebed, acknowledged that 84 of some 132 such weapons were not accounted for in Russia.  These weapons are miniature nuclear devices (0.1 to 1kilotons), small enough to fit into a suitcase carried by a single individual.  The Russian government reacted to Lebed’s claim in classic Soviet style, combining wholesale denial with efforts to discredit the messenger, ultimately pressuring Lebed to retract his statement.  In the days and months that followed, official Russian government spokesmen claimed that: (1) no such weapons ever existed; (2) any weapons of this sort had been destroyed; (3) all Russian weapons were secure and properly accounted for; and (4) it was inconceivable that the Russian government could lose a nuclear weapon. 

The best evidence against Lebed’s claim is the fact that no suitcase nuclear devices have been detonated, and none have been discovered to date.  The best evidence for his claims combines the logic of Soviet war planning and the specificity of a number of the official denials.  Examples include:

  • Just after Lebed’s disclosure, the Operation Directorate of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) denied that “any 60x 40x 20 briefcases containing nuclear charges” existed.  Americans can imagine a cagey spokesperson defending the truth of this statement with an explanation that it depends on the meaning of the word “existed” – or the fact that the weapons in question were a centimeter larger or smaller. 
  • In 2001, General Igor Valynkin, the commander of the organization that has physical control of all Ministry of Defense nuclear weapons, confirmed that the “RA-115” serial number cited by Lebed in the debate about suitcase nuclear weapons referred to a type of ammunition that had been in the Soviet arsenal, but, he said, had been eliminated.[19] 
  • In a March 2004 interview Former Chief of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops General Staff Colonel-General Viktor Yesin stated “with 100-percent certainty,” that the loss of Soviet or Russian weapon was impossible.  Yesin did note that it was conceivable that mock-up nuclear devices could have disappeared, and that “it is possible, in principle, to create “nuclear suitcases” weighing 15-20 kilograms,” but that such devices “would be so expensive that no state could afford them.”[20]

In its campaign to discredit General Lebed’s revelations, the Russian government insisted that the loss of a nuclear weapon was unthinkable. No responsible party could lose something so important. But to the contrary, we know that not only the Soviet Union, but also the United States, lost numbers of nuclear weapons. At least four Soviet submarines, armed with a total of 40 nuclear weapons, sank during the Cold War.  According to press reports, one of these was partially recovered from the Pacific Ocean floor by a unique deep-water submarine, the Glomar Explorer, owned by the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Three nuclear missiles and two nuclear torpedoes were recovered.[21] The Department of Defense has acknowledged a number of what it calls “Broken Arrows” (nuclear weapons lost by U.S. forces), although it has never said how many. The confirmed reports include a 1965 case where an aircraft loaded with a B43 nuclear bomb rolled off a carrier stationed near Japan. Neither the aircraft nor the weapon was ever recovered. A year later, the U.S. Air Force accidentally dropped a 20-megaton nuclear bomb in the Mediterranean Sea during a high-altitude refueling mission near Palomares, Spain. After three months of frantic searching, it was found. Given the sensitivity of such events, it is reasonable to infer that the few official confirmations are merely the tip of the iceberg.[22] 

National security experts agree that the most likely way terrorists will obtain a nuclear bomb will involve not theft or purchase of a fully operational device, but purchase of fissile material from which they construct their own.  Terrorists would find it easiest to steal fissile material because it is smaller, lighter, more abundant, and less protected than the weapons themselves. With about 100 pounds of HEU, a crude gun-type nuclear device is simple to design, build, and detonate.  In fact, two declassified U.S. government publications based on the work of Manhattan Project scientists and engineers in the 1940s, The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb and Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, offer instruction about how to build such a device.  Furthermore, recent revelations about A. Q. Khan’s nuclear network demonstrated that complete bomb designs are now available for sale on the black market.[23]  An IAEA official who reviewed plans confiscated in Libya remarked to the journalist Seymour Hersh that the design in question was “a sweet little bomb” that would be “too big and too heavy for a Scud, but it’ll go into a family car” -- a “terrorist’s dream.”[24]

Supplies of HEU are extensive, and numerous instances of HEU smuggling have been documented.  During the Cold War, the Soviet Unionestablished a vast nuclear enterprise under its Ministry of Atomic Energy that employed more than a million people in ten “closed” cities requiring special entry and exit visas.  The scientists and technicians in these cities designed and built weapons and produced uranium and plutonium not only for weapons but also for the fuel that powered the nation’s fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and its nuclear power plants. U.S.experts have estimated that Russiapossesses over 2 million pounds of weapons-usable material, or enough for more than 80,000 weapons.[25]Yet a dozen years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, much of this vast stockpile remains dangerously insecure. 

Contrary to the Russian government’s claims, there can be no doubt about the fact that enough nuclear material to build more than 20 nuclear weapons was lost in the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia. Indeed, 1,000 pounds of HEU was purchased by the U.S. government, removed from an unprotected site in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and is now securely stored in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Moreover, as former CIA director John Deutch testified to Congress in 1998, “It’s not so much that what I know that worries me, as what I know that I don’t know.” 

In October 2001, Yuri Volodin, chief of safeguards for the Russian nuclear regulatory agency, admitted dozens of violations of regulations for securing and accounting for nuclear material. In one case, a nuclear facility received much less of a shipment of nuclear material than documents indicated it should have, suggesting possible theft while in transit.[26]   Russian customs chief Nikolai Kravchenko reported more than 500 incidents of illegal transportation of nuclear and radioactive materials across Russian state borders in the year 2000 alone.[27]

Nuclear weapons occupy the top of the pyramid of deadly threats, but as we all learned on 9/11, even the everyday instruments of modern life (like airplanes) can be turned into weapons.  High on that list of potential dangers are nuclear power plants.  Terrorists unable to buy or steal a nuclear weapon or fissile material, but intent on nuclear terror, could attack a nuclear power plant or detonate a dirty bomb.  The only time constraints here are logistical: planning the operation and assembling the necessary materials, explosives, and weapons. An attack on a nuclear power plant could occur whenever terrorists hijack a commercial airplane, or charter a private one and fill it with conventional explosives.

The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

A basic examination of the who and what questions shows that a ready demand and supply for nuclear terrorism exist in Russia, both as a target for Chechen militants and as a warehouse for terrorists wanting to commit nuclear acts in other states.  The unanswered questions are when and where the equilibrium of the supply-demand curve will be reached.  After reviewing the facts, however, a forecast points to Russia—and the when will be sooner than we may be prepared for. 

Yet, the central truth remains that this catastrophe is preventable.  All that Russia, the United States, and its allies have to do to avert nuclear terrorism is to keep terrorists from acquiring HEU or weapons-grade plutonium. This “all,” of course, will require a huge undertaking.  But large as it is, this is a finite challenge, subject to a finite solution.  The world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material are vast, but not unlimited.  Technologies for locking up super-dangerous or valuable items are well developed.  The United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox, nor does Russia lose treasures from the Kremlin Armory.  Producing additional new fissile material requires large, complex, expensive and visible facilities, leaving such enterprises vulnerable to interruption by a watchful, determined international community.  Keeping nuclear weapons and materials out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous people is thus a challenge to international will and determination, not to our technical capabilities. 

As creators of the nuclear world, the United States and Russia have a special responsibility to ensure that the world’s arsenals of weapons and materials are contained and secured.  Bold leadership by the Russian and American presidents in preventing nuclear terrorism is crucial.  A president— American or Russian— who takes the threat of nuclear terror seriously would assemble his core national security team and work with them to develop a comprehensive strategy, an operational plan, and a specific timetable for achieving measurable objectives over the next 100 days, the next year, and beyond.  Key pillars would include: making preventing nuclear terrorism a priority for the president and his administration; establishing a “gold standard” for securing nuclear weapons and materials; building a global alliance against nuclear terrorism; orchestrating a global cleanout of all fissile material; stopping the production of new fissile material, shutting down the nuclear black market; engaging the global alliance in a comprehensive review of the nonproliferation regime; and prosecuting the war on terrorism to eliminate those who would conduct nuclear attacks. 

If and when the first nuclear terrorist attack occurs, whoever is president of Russia or the U.S. will do all this and more.  On the morning after, these leaders will have to explain why they did not take these actions sooner.

Director of Harvard’sBelferCenterof Science and International Affairs, Graham Allison, has just published a new book entitled: Nuclear Terrorism:  The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.  Much of the argument in this piece is drawn from that book.

[1]Nabi Abdullaev, “Russia: War Comes to Ingushetia,” Transitions Online, June 28, 2004. 

[2] Vladimir Putin, Interview with the Greek media, Gazeta, December 6, 2001.

[3]National Security Strategy addendum, "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction,” December 2002.

[4]Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, Securing the Bomb: An Agenda for Action, Washington, D.C.: Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University, May 2004.

[5]For a detailed analysis of Chechen separatists’ nuclear ambitions, see Simon Saradzhyan, “Russia: Grasping Reality of Nuclear Terror,” BCSIA Discussion Paper 2003-02, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, March 2003,

[6]BBC Monitoring, February 5, 2002.

[7]ITAR-TASS, October 31, 2002.

[8]Nabi Abdullaev, “Picture Emerges of How They Did It,” MoscowTimes, November 6, 2002.

[9]“Possible bin Laden link to murder of engineers,” Financial Times, November 19, 2001.  See also, Robert Bruce Ware, “West Missed bin Laden’s Nuclear Wake-up Call from Chechnya,” David Johnson’s Russia List, December 1, 2001. 

[10]Simon Saradzhyan, “Russia: Grasping Reality of Nuclear Terror,” BCSIA Discussion Paper 2003-2, KSG, Harvard, March 2003.

[11]Bill Keller, "Nuclear Nightmares," New York Times Magazine (26 May 2002); Mark Riebling and R.P. Eddy, “Jihad@Work,” National Review Online (24 October 2002).

[12]Interview on Meet the Press (15 December 1991).

[13]Barton Gellman, “Fears Prompt U.S. to Beef Up Nuclear Terror Detection,” WashingtonPost (3 March 2002).

[14]Nikolai Sokov, ‘Suitcase Nukes:’ Permanently Lost Luggage,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterrey Institute of International Studies, February 13, 2004.

[15]RANSAC, p. 3.



[18]  Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, Security the Bomb: An Agenda for Action, Washington, D.C.: Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University, May 2004 and SIPRI Yearbook 2002: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 573, footnote 29.

[19]Dmitry Safonov, “Individualnaya Planirovka,” Izvestia, October 27, 2001.

[20] “Could Al Qaeda Have a Bomb,” Yezhnedelny zhurnal, No. 12, March 29, 2004, pp. 20-22.


[22]Joshua Handler and William Arkin, Neptune Paper No. 4, Greenpeace, April 1989.

[23]Joby Warrick and Peter Slevin, “Probe of Libya Finds Nuclear Black Market,” WashingtonPost (24 January 2004).

[24]Seymour M. Hersh, “The Deal,” The New Yorker (8 March 2004).

[25]U.S. Department of Energy, A Report Card on the Department of Energy's Nonproliferation Programs with Russia, Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler, co-chairs, Russia Task Force, January 10, 2001.

[26]“Russian official refuses to rule out chance that nuclear materials were stolen,” TV6, Moscow (13 November 2001), translated by BBC Monitoring Service.

[27]“International agency concerned by Russian traffic in nuclear materials,” ITAR-TASS (2 April 2001).

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham. Nuclear Terrorism: How Serious a Threat to Russia?.” Russia in Global Affairs, (September/October 2004) .