nuclear terrorism

Nuclear Terrorism: A New Threat of International Security


In this paper, I will focus on a new threat which is called as nuclear terrorism. There are so many doubts about whether terrorist groups have nuclear powers or materials or not. If they have, what is the amount of this power is still mysterious.

In the first part definition of nuclear terrorism will be given and as subtitles some dynamics and elements of nuclear terrorism will be discussed and it will be tried to be understand. There is an essential question which is examined by states, scholars as well as agencies. The purposes of terrorist groups have a major role in this case, because of using of these weapons depends on the some requirements and conditions, they do not compromise their ideas by using nuclear weapons without any plan, just to destroy and eliminate people or states. Consequences could be keep the whole world together against the terrorist group which used nuclear weapon.

Second part helps us to understand the emergence of nuclear terrorism and its brief history will be given with certain examples which are useful for the loosing control over nuclear materials and rising the risk of mass destruction actions which can be aimed by terrorist groups. Statements can be counted as archival sources and I strongly believe that how states and their officials think about the nuclear terrorism and how they define the new threat of international system, are essential questions because there will be consideration of this emergence.

Third part will mainly focus on obtaining nuclear weapons by terrorists organizations, and how they interact with the non-state actors illegaly, then 5 main criteria will be explained.

In the fourth part, In the fourth part, it will be mentioned about the method of legitimacy through the religion which is indispensable for the terrorist organizations, a potential nuclear attack of these groups on which grounded will be emphasized.

Fifth part will be the last part for this paper and states actions and cooperations among states will be mentioned and suggestions will be presented about this issue.

While I was preparing this research, I used archival and secondary sources as my resources and I gave some statistics about the rate of risks and weapons. This work is aiming to explain the term of nuclear terrorism which is a potential but serious threat for international security and did not exist yet.

1. Definition of Nuclear Terrorism

”Nuclear terrorism is the most serious danger the world is facing.”
Mohamed El Baradei (former director of the IAEA and winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize), February 1, 2009

After the invention of nuclear weapons, mankind has faced new dangers in the dimension of both states and risk of terrorist attacks. Spreading the accelerate of nuclear weapons in USSR has made them difficult to control in every region of Asia and some part of Europe. Nuclear power and nuclear power means high risks for world even both states and people. Weapons of mass destruction was spreading out of the states and they were having trouble controlling these kind of weapons, because these mass destruction weapons once has been spreaded by states and captured by terrorist group, that meant it was not possible to be positive about terrorist groups not use them for mass destruction.

General definition of pre-Cold War terrorism was a symbolic action to kill persons and scare millions.[1] After the Collapse of Soviet Union the shape of nuclear threats has been started to change and become a high level of asymmetric threats. Fall of Soviet Union brought that control mechanism were weakening and nuclear weapons has been stolen by terrorist groups.

By 2000’s, there has been numerous terrorist attack in the world by various terrorist organizations.The main reason of the emergence of nuclear terrorism is that terrorists threaten to use weapons of mass destruction for their purposes and actions. Nuclear terrorism aims that to reach both economic and political purposes and to attract the attention of masses through their actions. On the other hand the way of nuclear terrorism can be seen useful way to attract people and to have some advantages. 

1.1. Nuclear Terrorism and Its Purposes

In more than 30 countries, there are more thann 10.000 weapons of mass destruction around 450 of which are industrial and more than 100 of them for scientific purposes. That means controlling mechanism over all these weapons is nearly impossible. With the new epoch of threats, anarchy creates non-state actors which are seeking to penetrate to societies. From a motivational point, the acquisition of a useful and harmful nuclear weapon would represent the ultimate capability for apocalyptic and politicoreligious terrorist groups[2].

To some extent terrorist actions provide some advantages to terrorist purposes, terrorist groups seek to damage and spread their ideas to everywhere by this way they can have some sort of advantages for their actions and thoughts. If any situation nuclear attack of terrorists groups, Graham claimed that it would be against United States.[3]

Potential terrorist groups that might obtain nuclear power and weapons:

  1. Al-Qaeda
  2. Terrorist Groups In Middle East
  3. Hezbollah

 1.1.1. Ecological Damage

If terrorist groups can capture any nuclear weapons they will be willing to use them for mass destruction and they probably will harm the ecological enrivonment. If they harm the environment that force the governments to make an agreement and to give concessions for their purposes, which means crucial threat for states and their public.

1.1.2. Creating of Psychological Interactions

One of the target of this kind of action is that to create psychological interactions. On the other hand they have to impact on masses of people by actions and they can affect minds all over the world, for example some terrorist organizations have members, who have different nationalities. These kind of attacks also important for their recruitment process. Beside they try to exulcerate people and society directly with these actions, if there is conflict in a society, the society gradually begins to divide and the end of reactions can end badly and harmful for everybody.

1.1.3. Attracting of Social Media Attention

Social media and its importance undeniable dynamic nowadays and also people can reach millions by using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instragram etc. Furthermore, organisations also terrorist group prefer to use social medias not only indirect but also directly, if they carry out any terrorist actions probably all news channels and social media users will mention about this attack, in fact we serve the purposes of terrorist groups in a way.

In these days most of people know Al qaeda, ISIS, PKK etc. one of the reason of this recognision is that the using of social medias very effectively they can reach millions and announce their actions by this strategy. Nuclear actions would be very effective way to attract people and social media on terrorist groups, in fact that they want to be heard more on the world.

1.1.4. Reaching Millions For Recruitment and Spreading Ideologies

The main question for this title is that how can terrorist groups spread their ideas or affect minds? There are various answers on it, but for instance, for any companies which is the best way to reach millions? Their products and much-ballyhooed qualities, this is same with the aim of terrorist groups if they seek to reach millions and spread their ideas on people, they are willing to use nuclear weapons because of this idea encourage them to plan enourmous action for this basic purpose.

Secondly, if they reach millions by their actions, some people may find it reasonable, and they may follow the same ideology and way with terrorist groups, therefore they may have different members from various countries, even ISIS had British, Japanese members. From terrorists’ point of view US, Russia, China or superpowers are real terrorists in the world and according to them those state must be destroyed and punished in harsh way, if they try to use nuclear weapons on these states, probably they may increase the recruitment of members, who are agains the capitalism, emperialism, americanism etc. If they recruit any specialist on nuclear energy even they can produce nuclear weapons by themselves.

1.2. Disadvantages of Using Nuclear Weapons for Terrorist Groups

I strongly believe that some terrorist group might have nuclear weapons or mass destructions weapons in any way. There has been lack of security of these nuclear weapons since the decline of Soviet Union according to records 5% of nuclear weapons which were left from USSR, is still missing and it could be everywhere in the whole continent. Terrorist groups retrain from some social dynamics even among their members such as:

  1. If they organize a nuclear attack they become a root of evil for some supporters
  2. If they organize mass destruction actions constantly, they will lose their members also supporters.
  3. If they did not achieve to success of nuclear attack, probably their reputation will be decreased dramatically.
  4. If their nuclear power appears, many operations will be organized by superpowers and the number of operations will be increased.

To directly affect on people is difficult for terrorist groups and they do not want to volunteer for losing members in this situation.

2. The Brief History of Nuclear Terrorism and Official Opinions On a New Threat

At the beginning of 1980’s the main focus of governments and the policy community was on nuclear terrorism. It is like International duty for each state because at that time nuclear threats was reducing among states, although during the Cold War, as well as superpowers but controlling over the nuclear weapons was decreasing in USSR’s territory. In 1990’s;

  • Political Ambitious
  • Inter-ethnic civil wars, especially etno-nationalist movements during the cold war period.
  • Superpowers’ interests and strategies
  • Technological developments (Bio-tech, nuclear tech and chemical weapons)

These dynamics directly impacted on rising of terrorist organizations and effectiveness of their activities.

Many scholars think that the rise of nuclear terrorism is particularly based on collapse of Soviet Union. One of the most important reason of this is the plunder which was experienced during the transport of weapons from the post-Soviet states to Russian Federation in a gigantic piece of land owned by the Soviets. At that time non-state risk groups were rising already and they had a great chance to gain more power for their goals.

In 1995, Attack Aum Shinrikiyo, which is a terrorist organization, attacked to public in Tokyo subway and the used sarin as chemical weapon. It was the first example of terrorist did start to reach some mass destruction weapons and it could be the beginning of nuclear threats.

After a while, Bin Laden, who is the leader of Al Qeada, which is Islamic terrorist organization, mainly aim to sieze nuclear power and weapons. This Islamic Militarist organizations founded in 1988 and the date is important because they founded Al Qaede during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and it is close to the date of fall of Soviet Union. Collapse of USSR would benefit Al-Qaede. In 1998, the Russian intelligence service reported that a group of terrorists who were trying to sell an undetectable amount of uranium, which was used in the production of nuclear weapons by the bin Laden-led Pakistani terrorist organization, had been arrested. According to experts, the network opened by Bin Laden is still in searching of nuclear material. The US intelligence service stated that they suspected that Laden would obtain a high level of radioactive material used for the construction of a nuclear bomb. It is thought that these substances will be used to pollute the atmosphere rather than making atomic bombs.[4]

Order of Rising Sun Neo-Nazi movement were arrested in 1972 with 30-40 kg ”Typhoid bacillus” they were considering to kill large numbers of civilians.[5]

According to Graham Allison this issue can be summarized in this way:[6]

  • Number of terrorist groups that have demonstrated interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon: 4 Al Qaeda, Chechnya-based separatists, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Aum Shinrikyo
  • Number of terrorist groups that may be capable of acquiring and using nuclear weapons: 5 Al Qaeda, North Caucasus-based separatists, Lashkar-e-Tayyib, Hezbollah, Taliban
  • Number of known groups that have attempted to buy nuclear material on the black market: 2 Aum Shinrikyo and Al Qaeda
  • Number of years that Al Qaeda has been pursuing a nuclear weapon: 15
    9/11 Commission (2004): “Al Qaeda has tried to acquire or make nuclear weapons for at least ten years… and continues to pursue its strategic goal of obtaining a nuclear capability.”

2.1. Opinions on Nuclear Power of Terrorist Groups

Harvard University nuclear weapons expert Bonn stated that the network of Bin Laden is well-organized and no doubt about that it will be able to reach nuclear weapons, this statement means that terrorist group might have nuclear weapons or information, which leads to produce nuclear weapons.

Secondly, according to CIA terrorist groups hesitate about decreasing of number of their supporters because of using nuclear weapons because the idea of terrorism is not just depending on mass destruction or an ideology there are various dynamics. the CIAs counterterrorism experts found themselves overwhelmed by the number of nonmissile possibilities.[7]

US Technological Research Office says that terrorist groups can produce nuclear weapons and as a result of this detailed analysis of US Office it explained that construction nuclear weapons is possible without necessary secret information the just need on expert in this area.

A student of Princeton University, created a nuclear bomb as a final project and this project proved that it is possible to create nuclear energy as a final university project.[8]

Internationak Nuclear Energy Agency has confirmed that 500 events related to transportation of nuclear weapons by illegal means and there is no official information about how much the amount of radioactive and nuclear materials is.

Some statements on Nuclear Terrorism:[9]

  • Mohamed ElBaradei, former director general of the IAEA and winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize (2009): “Nuclear terrorism is the most serious danger the world is facing.”
  • Barack Obama, U.S. president (2009): “Nuclear terrorism is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.”
  • Ban Ki-moon, U.N. secretary general (2007): “Nuclear terrorism is one of the most serious threats of our time.”
  • Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president (2009): “One of the most dangerous threats…is that of nuclear components falling into the hands of terrorists.”
  • Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state (2010): “The biggest nightmare that any of us have is that one of these terrorist member organizations within this syndicate of terror will get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction.”
  • Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA (2009): “The spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism is an increasing threat for the international community.”
  • Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council and former chairman of Russia’s National Counterterrorism Committee (2007): “Continuing aspirations of terrorists to acquire radioactive materials and gain access to nuclear technologies are becoming one of the gravest threats.”
  • Jim Jones, U.S. national security advisor (2010): “What’s the biggest nightmare scenario?…I can tell you it’s proliferation, the acquisition of WMD by a terrorist organization….I think it is their singular goal, which would be a huge game changer.”
  • Valentin Sobolev, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council (2009): “Terrorist groups are constantly making attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.”
  • Robert Gates, U.S. secretary of defense (2008): “Every senior leader, when you’re asked what keeps you awake at night, it’s the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.”
  • Yevgeny Primakov, former Russian prime minister (2009): “Of particular concern are efforts by international terrorists to get their hands on nuclear weapons. Most dangerous of all in this regard is the black market in nuclear materials, technology and expertise.”
  • Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (2008): “The 21st century will be defined first by the desire and then by the ability of non-states to procure or develop crude nuclear weapons. Today, Al Qaeda’s nuclear intent remains clear.”
  • Aleksei Sedov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service’s Department for Counterterrorism (2009): “The aspirations of terrorists to acquire capability to use new means and most recent technologies, such as components of weapons of mass destruction, for committing large-scale acts of terrorism, pose a formidable threat to the global stability.”
  • S. Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism (2008): “Unless the world community acts decisively and with greater urgency, it is more likely than not a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”

As it can be seen above that the statements are various and mostly came from officials of Russia and US.

3. The Ways To Have Nuclear Power For Terrorist Groups

There are two broad types of nuclear device: gun-type and implosion-type. The former are relatively crude and can be made using highly enriched uranium.[10] 

3.1. Black Market

Black market its implementation area has been increasing and terrorist groups prefer to use this markets for obtaining weapons, money, members, in illegal way.

World already realizes that black markets have advantages for illegeal crime groups which are recognized as a terrorist groups by states and nuclear materials and weapons might be handled by black market sellers this could be very harmful for states and their societies, because terrorist organizations will reach and have nuclear materials easily. In these days, these situations and ideas are just prelude for epoch of the threat of nuclear terrorism.

3.2. Recruitment

Some terrorist groups are seeking to employ scientist who are specialized on nuclear bombs and nuclear issues. If they employ some scientist and qualified people on nuclear science probably they will have a chance to produce nuclear materials, agencies, states, intelligence services almost sure about these groups have nuclear materials.

3.3. Stealing of Nuclear Weapons

Activities of terrorist groups cover the nuclear facilities and if any event of attacking to facilities or sabotaging, the situation will be changed and they get nuclear materials. This is also serious risk for both states and public. The lack of controls of radioactive sources widely used in medicine, industry, control and measurement apparatus has led to the loss of thousands of such substances, and it has become easier for terrorist organizations to acquire them.[11]

3.4. Support of States

Throughout the history states should have been balancing the international order and this makes easier to control everything under hegemonic dominance[12] of certain states or state. With the changing era states have started to use non-state and soft-effects towards periphery and semi-periphery[13] states to control all of them under their dominance, so hegemonic states may use terrorist groups as a tool of foreign policy against the weaker states.

3.5. Nuclear Smuggling

The highest concerns about rising nuclear weapons and these nuclear weapons could be everywhere in which states seperated from USSR.

In Moldovia, 6 men arrested because they were carrying 9 kg uranium which helps to create 1/3 of nuclear weapon.[14]

New York Daily News wrote that Mamdu Mahmut Salim, the only inmate of Al-Qaeda organization, took part in the efforts Bin Laden to acquire nuclear weapons in 1993. Al Fadl was interviewed by Sudanese Government within the framework of purchasing highly enriched uranium and substance was received by Mahmut Salim for 1.5 million dollars.

4. Legitimation of Using Nuclear Weapons Among Terrorist Organizations

Terrorist groups have soma motives, means and objectives according to Graham Allison they divided into main principles which are mostly based on religious beliefs, for instance in case of Al-Qaeada Bin laden’s statement is remarkable.

”In 1998, Osama bin Laden issued a statement, “The Nuclear Bomb of Islam,” declaring that “It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God.”

An IND can be delivered to its target along the same routes that bring drugs, illegal immigrants, and legal goods to major cities of the world.

They gain consensus from religion mainly and openly. Religious-centered groups always have to take into account religious dynamics and how they affect on exist members and potential members, hence they specify their aims in religious way.

On the other hand they focus, they are willing to achieve their goals in a sacred way and to include people, who believe in this sacred way, into organization.

5. Actions of States and Cooperations Against Nuclear Terrorism

Threats for International security has been risen during the whole history and we created the concept of security maybe it is coming from nature according to Hobbes.[15] On the other hand states always take precautions for every threats which have been existed whole history. States both created the threat and came up with new prevention strategies against the threats this is a kind of dilemma.

Nowadays, states have to act correctly agains nuclear terrorism and this threat required to be work in cooperation with all states. There are some common strategies states should implement together:

  1. Tightening regulations
  2. Strengthing control on access to CBRN
  3. Detection devices and security of CBRN sites.
  4. To cooperate with states as much as possible in every region of the world.
  5. Implementation of common strategies againts nuclear risk of terrorist groups
  6. To create some project to find missing weapons and increase superintendence.

12 July 2006 US and Russia Cooperation on prevention of nuclear weapons to taken over by terrorists groups. This is just one of the basic agreement, further there are so many organizations which are established to be against the risk of nuclear terrorism.

  • Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism
  • Nuclear Threat Initiative[16]
  • Nuclear Suppliers Group
  • Domestic Nuclear Detection Office
  • Nuclear Terrorism Convention
  • Internationa Atomic Energy Agency

Nuclear Terrorism Convention is an agreement of United Nations and it has many signatory states which means this is a comprehensive movement that states should make policies together and implement together and its objective clearly defined in convention:

A) Possesses radioactive material or makes or possesses a device:

(i) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or

(ii) With the intent to cause substantial damage to property or to the environment;

B) Uses in any way radioactive material or a device, or uses or damages a nuclear facility in a manner which releases or risks the release of radioactive material:

(i) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or

(ii) With the intent to cause substantial damage to property or to the environment; or

(iii) With the intent to compel a natural or legal person, an international organization or a State to do or refrain from doing an act.[17]

GICNT[18] is the one of the most important organizations to fighting against nuclear terrorism in the supranational area. They work for enhancing security of civilian nuclear facilities and prevent, detect and respond to nuclear terrorism, this organization is ratified by many countries.


Nuclear terrorism is new potential threat of the international security for both states and people. This threat is still investigated by scholars and they tend to discuss the prevention and detection of nuclear smuggling or stealing any kind of radioactive materials by terrorists organizations, after the cold war Soviet Union left serious and numerous weapons behind herself, in fact it is impossible to transfer this weapons from Asian countries to Russia, there is lack of security, controlling, inspection on that. The risk of having nuclear weapons of terrorist organizations has been rising since 1990’s and after 30 years it is not possible to control it properly. Furthermore cooperations between states has major role to minimize risk of mass destruction, the history of this issue should be paid attention by every nation states, agencies, societies, international institutions.

In order to prevent purchasing of nuclear or radioactive materials from black markets states should regulate policies and also detection procedure should be improved by cooperations and working together effectively. An effective international convention should directly address gaps in global nuclear security and Global nuclear security arrangements, despite the entry into force of the newly amended convention, remain a patchwork of largely voluntary measures and recommendations that are inadequate given the catastrophic consequences of a successful act of nuclear terrorism.[19]

New type of asymmetric threats will rise in the future, it is just prelude, for states it is just watershed to make early provision against nuclear threats which have huge chance to actualize potential mass destruction action.


Allison, Graham, Nuclear Terrorism, Times Books, 2004, 104-110.

Allison, Graham, Nuclear Terrorism Fact Sheet, April 2010 Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs,

Belous, Vladimir, Nuclear Terrorism: Attempts have already been, 08.10.2004,

Brill Kenneth C. and Berhard John, Arms Control Association, October 2017,

Cole, Benjamin, The Changing Face of Terrorism, I.B. TAURIS, 2011 pp.6-31

Demirci Saadet (Assistan Professor), Çankırı Karatekin University, International Relations, Nükleer Terörizm Ve Tehdit Boyutlarına Yönelik Çıkarımlar / Nuclear Terrorism And Inferences About Its Threat Dimensions, pp. 1-13,

Demirci, Saadet Rüstemova, Nükleer Terörizm Tehdidi, 2009, TASAM,

Ferguson Charles D. & Potter William C., The Faces of Nuclear Terrorism, CNS, p. 21

GICNT Report, To Combat Nuclear Terrorism,

Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2018, p. 74-120

Immanuel Wallerstein, Essays by I.W., The Capitalist World Economy, Cambridge University, 1979, pp. 1-92.

Modelski, George, Long Cycles in World Politics and Nation States, Cambridge University Press, April 1978.

Nuclear Threat Initiative, Nuclear Terrorism,

The Telegraph News, 29th June 2011, Updated 11:51,

Trump, Donald J. by The Official Statement of The President of United States, 2017.

P. Thorton, Terror as a Weapon of Political Agitations, Internal War, 1964, p. 73.

United Nations, Nuclear Terrorism Convention, 2005,


[1] T.P. Thorton, Terror as a Weapon of Political Agitations, Internal War, p. 73.

[2] Charles D. Ferguson, William C. Potter, The Faces of Nuclear Terrorism, CNS, p. 21.

[3] Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism, Times Books, pp. 104-110.

[4] Saadet Rüstemova Demirci, Nükleer Terörizm Tehdidi, 2009, TASAM,

[5] Benjamin Cole, The Changing Face of Terrorism, I.B. TAURIS,  p.6

[6]Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism Fact Sheet, April 2010,

[7] Allison, Ibid, p. 107.

[8] Assistant Prof. Saadet Demirci, Nuclear Terrorism and Inferences About Its Threat Dimensions, Çankırı Karatekin University published by Dergi Park,

[9] Allison, Ibid, Belfer Center.

[10] Houses of Parliament (Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology), Postnote, Number 540, 2016 p. 1-2

[11] Vladimir Belous, Nuclear Terrorism: Attempts have already been, 08.10.2004,

[12] Modelski George, Long Cycles in World Politics and Nation States, Cambridge University Press.

[13] Immanuel Wallerstein, Essays by I.W., The Capitalist World Economy, Cambridge University, 1979, pp. 1-92.

[14] The Telegraph News, 29th June 2011,

[15] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Yapı Kredi Yayınları, p. 74-120


[17] Nuclear Terrorism Convention, art. 1.

[18] Supported by The Official Statement of The President of United States, 2017.

[19] Kenneth C. Brill and John Berhard, Arms Control Association, October 2017,

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