Monday, February 9, 2004

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To believe or not to believe

That is the question after reading this Ha'aretz report:

Al-Qaida have possessed tactical nuclear weapons for about six years, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported Sunday.

The Arabic daily reported that sources close to Al-Qaida said Osama bin Laden's group bought the nuclear weapons from Ukrainian scientists who were visiting Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1998.

The report has not been confirmed.

However, the sources said Al-Qaida doesn't intend to use the weapons against American forces in Muslim countries, "due to the serious damage" it could cause. But that decision is subject to change, the sources said, if Al-Qaida "is dealt a serious blow that won't leave it any room to maneuver."

The possibility of detonating the nuclear devices on American soil was also raised in the report, although no details were given.

My first thought is that I find it hard to believe. If Al Qaeda had these weapons for six years, there would have been at least an attempt to detonate one inside the United States.

Here's another thought -- maybe, "as the operational power of Al Qaeda appears diminished" according to the New York Times, this is a propaganda effort to rally support among regional terrorist groups?

Greg Djerejian has similar thoughts, but with more vivid phrasing.

posted by Dan on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM


Obviously it's a bit callous (not to mention dangerous) to go with my immediate instinct and yell "BLUFF," but I find it very hard to believe that if they've head useable nuclear weapons for years, that they wouldn't have at least attempted to use one. The timing also does seem a bit desperate.

Still, this needs to be investigated as thouroughly as possible.

posted by: Andy Danger on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

“My first thought is that I find it hard to believe. If Al Qaeda had these weapons for six years, there would have been at least an attempt to detonate one inside the United States.”

Go with your gut instincts. I’m utterly convinced that Al Quaeda would have used this sort of weapon if they had actually possessed one. The Islamic militants are getting desperate. The coalition’s war on terrorism is working. Read this:

“The author of the document claimed he had directed about 25 suicide bombings inside Iraq, but said the resistance against the U.S. occupation was struggling to recruit Iraqis and to combat American troops.

The memo even offers a kind of praise for U.S. forces, saying ‘America, however, has no intention of leaving no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes.’”

Every American should get down on their knees and thank God that George W. Bush is our Commander-in-Chief. It literally frightens me that a wishy-washy mediocrity like Al Gore, Jr. almost became president. Our lives and those of our loved ones would be greatly threatened had this occurred.

posted by: David Thomson on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Even *if* Al-Qaeda had obtained nukes, a problem is the nukes require servicing every few years to maintain yield. Six years is a long time to go without service, and who knows how long the previous service had been prior to purchase?. Decay products build up in Pu-239 limiting the effectiveness, and if the bombs employ tritium boosting (Lord, I hope not!), tritium decays into a neutron absorber that will cause a fizzle.

posted by: Bruce Cleaver on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

al Q MUST know what happens when you try to fool the US. We take you at your word.
See Saddaam.
The folks who ought to be worried are those near al Q facilities. Or running the countries in which those facilities exist.

posted by: Richard Aubrey on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

"If Al Qaeda had these weapons for six years, there would have been at least an attempt to detonate one inside the United States."

Or Tel Aviv. Or Riyadh, come to think of it.

posted by: Moe Lane on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

xSoviet nukes are designed for use with Soviet-grade fissionables. Soviet weapons-grade fissionables had rather short shelf-lives as the Soviets found it too expensive (for them) to remove radioactive contaminants which rapidly "poisoned" the rest of the fissionables to the point where detonation would only produce fizzly chain reactions aka radioactive messes.

My understanding is that any xSoviet nuke was basically useless save as a "dirty bomb", aka radiological device, after about 10-15 years on the shelf.

Furthermore the design of the triggers of xSoviet nukes (suitcase nukes are pure trigger) required use of Soviet weapons-grade fissionables to work properly. Putting somebody else's fissionables into the puppies would produce "faster" (in nano-seconds) detonations than intended, i.e., a different variety of fizzle and radioactive mess.

OTOH, China provided Pakistan with turn-key Chinese nuclear weapons designs and technical support in cooking the Chinese variety of weapons-grade fissionables. That is how Pakistan got its nukes so fast, and built as many as it has.

Pakistani nuclear weapons designs have been sold to other countries and I'm sure Al Qaeda has some of those by now.

But many things are required to build the things: triggers designed to work with the particular grade (purity) of the weapons-grade fissionables available to you, the weapons-grade fissionables (the hard part, especially in cooking them consistently to the same purity), and the engineering/scientific expertise to work the fissionables into triggers.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

All this talk about inefficient fission and "fizzles" neglects something: a 2 kilotonne filzzle of a 20 kilotonne bomb would still be a helluva bomb. Set it off (God forbid!) in a truck in front of the NYSE, and everything from Maiden Lane south to the Ferry is gone. The Statue of Liberty is a stump; Staten Island is massively damaged, as are Hackensack and everything up to probably Union City and the Oranges at least. The windows are blown out to Times Square; radiation dose is upwards of 8000 R/hr (read: certainty of dementia and horrible death in minutes) for the first 7 hours in the area within about 10 miles of the blast.

I don't find the notion that it'd be a fizzle to be very comforting.

I agree with the thought that if al Qaeda had something like that they would have already used it.

posted by: Charlie on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]


You don't understand fizzles. Think truck bomb. _Small_ truck bomb - smaller than the Oklahoma City bombing - perhaps 300-500 pounds of fertilizer instead of 4000-5000. That assumes any kind of chain reaction happens. More likely there wouldn't be any at all from an xSoviet nuke whose fissionables were installed prior to 1988 or so - just a conventional explosive bang creating the shock wave lens to compress undecayed fissionables into a critical mass.

IMO whatever Al Qaeda got from the Ukraine is an empty shell with no fissionables in it at all.

The significant level of impurities in xSoviet weapons grade fissonables meant the chain reaction stuff decayed pretty fast. I've heard that their nukes had shelf lives of 4-8 years. Then the fissionables were removed and recooked. But not recooking meant that, once they were about 50% over their shelf life, they were pretty much useless for blast purposes.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

This on the other hand sounds a tad more realistic...

posted by: Andy Danger on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Sounds vicious. I believe you can detect nuclear weapons by the trace amounts of radiation they give off, not enough to be immediately dangerous but higher than background. Is there any way to do something similar with these thermobaric bombs?

posted by: sam on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

I was a bit unclear about the "shelf life" of xSoviet nukes:

4-8 years: how long the trigger units were believed to work reliably (by Soviet standards) after insertion of newly cooked fissionables. Then the fissionables would be replaced, but the old stuff would be set aside as still having some functionality. 4-8 years is how long the triggers would be left intact after insertion of freshly cooked fissionables.

The 4-8 year old fissionables pulled from triggers would still work well enough, by Soviet standards, to be set aside for possible use during emergencies, just like old liquid-fueled ICBM's which were pulled from active duty after # fueling/defueling cycles. But the rate of decay caused by the impurities would rapidly accelerate during this period. A rule of thumb was that this off the shelf but still useable period would last about half that of the on the shelf in the weapon period.

A good rule of thumb is that xSoviet weapons-grade fissionables would be capable at best of producing only a fizzly chain reaction about ten years after "cooking", with some but not much explosive power (i.e., useless for military purposes) and that rapidly decreasing, and any fissonables would be more or less inert for explosive purposes after fifteen years.

15 years after "cooking, such fissionables would serve only as the source of radioactives to be strewn around by conventional explosives to contaminate an area with radioactivity. Given the impurities involved though, it would be easier and safer to use health care & industrial radioactive isotope sources as the radioactives for dirty bombs.

There may be some old xSoviet nukes around with 1990-91 cooking vintage fissionables are still capable of producing enough of chain reaction to create a true "dirty bomb", but not many, and it is unlikely any of those are in Al Qaeda's hands.

I repeat that IMO they have at most some xSoviet nuclear weapons whose fissionables have been removed.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 02.09.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

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