TCS Daily

The Case of Suitcase Nukes

By Stephen Schwartz - April 8, 2004 12:00 AM

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."


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