How could nuclear terrorism occur?
Terrorists don’t need to build an ICBM to unleash a nuclear attack on a large population center. The most plausible attack scenarios involve crude nuclear weapons constructed using low-grade fissile material (uranium or plutonium). Such weapons would be compact enough to smuggle into a country without detection. Once a crude weapon is in a country, terrorists would transport it in a vehicle to city and then detonate it in a crowded area.
How could terrorists acquire fissile material?
There are several ways that fissile material could be acquired:
Black Market: Terrorists may purchase fissile material from arms dealers located in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. A recent report from the Associated Press revealed a large criminal network based in Moldova seeking to sell fissile material to terrorists. The report states, “authorities working with the FBI have interrupted four attempts in the past five years by gangs with suspected Russian connections that sought to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.”
Theft: In many parts of the world, fissile material has minimal security. Experts have focused on Pakistan as a location in which theft is possible; the Nuclear Threat Initiative ranks it as the third-worst for nuclear security (before only North Korea and Iran).
How likely is a nuclear terrorist attack?
Various terrorist groups including ISIL have sought to acquire nuclear weapons. Recently, terrorists involved with the March bombing in Brussels planned to kidnap Belgium’s nuclear power chief and attack nuclear power plants. Experts differ on the likelihood of an attack but most believe that it is no longer a matter of if a terrorist attack will occur, but when.