Could a Terror Cell Really Detonate a Nuclear Bomb in D.C.?

On July 4th, The Economist published an analysis of The Perry Project's Nuclear Nightmare video depicting the outcome of hypothetical nuclear terror attack on Washington, D.C.  Here, Bill Perry responds to The Economist article, and in particular the issue of whether such an alarming terror plot is a realistic concern:

I am pleased to see that The Economist chose to review our nuclear nightmare video. I started The William J. Perry Project in an effort to promote discussion and awareness about the modern threat of nuclear weapons. 

I believe that the threat of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than during the Cold War, including the possibility of terrorists using nuclear weapons. The article explores the issue of the modern threats from nuclear weapons, offering a number of additional chilling scenarios.

Our scenario was designed to illustrate two primary points: that this is a realistic possibility, and that the consequences would be truly catastrophic. The authors address the first point, arguing that it “stretches credulity” that a breakaway group would manage to set up a clandestine enrichment facility, stating:  

"[R]egimes that invest in a nuclear weapons capability ... Do not do it to to empower terror groups."

While I agree that regimes are not intending to empower terror groups when they choose to develop nuclear weapons capability, this unfortunately does not limit the possibility that a terror cell could be able to gain access to a nuclear enrichment facility. 

Even though the government establishment of Iran and Pakistan have no designs to enable terror groups, there are factions within their government that do, factions that are capable of carrying out significant actions contrary to government policy. The crucial unknown is whether these insider groups could actually succeed in overcoming the governmental safeguards protecting fissile materials.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, for example, plays a key role in Iran's nuclear program, but significantly differs in their views on nuclear weapons than the Iranian government. They were opposed to the nuclear agreement that was negotiated by their government, and it is not inconceivable that they might act to overturn that agreement.

Additionally, there are a group of dissident officers in Pakistani military intelligence that actively promote policies radically different from their government, and may have significant ties to terrorist organizations. The possible outcomes of such dissent factions were made clear with the Mumbai terror attack, which was not supported by the Pakistani government, but which has been revealed to have been supported by a breakaway faction within their military intelligence

There is no doubt that there are powerful dissident groups within these two countries. What is at question is whether any of these groups could be effective enough to carry out the operation described in our nuclear nightmare. Thankfully, that is not likely. However, the price we would pay if a terrorist organization were to be successful in detonating a nuclear weapon is so great that we cannot afford to take the risk of ignoring what is a very real, if unlikely, possibility.

Furthermore, even if one accepts that the likelihood of a breakaway faction enriching uranium and producing a nuclear weapon is low, this article lays out several additional chilling scenarios that could lead to equally if not more devastating consequences, culminating in the possibility of jihadists triggering a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, leading to the global catastrophe called “nuclear winter.”

We thank The Economist for calling much needed attention to these scenarios; we agree that “nuclear nightmares…come in all shapes and sizes.” 

William J. Perry
19th U.S. Secretary of Defense

Watch Bill Perry's Nuclear Nightmare: