In an interview conducted by David Remnick of The New Yorker in January 2014, President Barack Obama disparagingly and flippantly labelled ISIS as a “JV” trying to act like Kobe Bryant, implying that the terrorist organisation was not a significant threat to both national and global security. Just two years later at the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2016 in a volte-face on the matter, Obama ominously described the threat of a nuclear-armed Islamic State as “one of the greatest threats to global security”.
Assessing The Threat
Since Obama’s initial statement, the increasingly prominent threat of Islamic State’s nuclear aspirations has more than justified this apparent reversal. It was in the summer of 2014 that the threat posed by Islamic State’s nuclear aspirations first alarmed the international community when the terrorist group was reported to have seized 40kg of low-grade uranium in Mosul. A year later AP stated that gangs involved in the nuclear black market were actively seeking buyers from Islamic State. In November 2015, Belgian officials discovered covert surveillance footage of a Belgian nuclear scientist in the home of a man linked to the ISIS network behind the Paris attacks, which alluded to a plot to kidnap and coerce him. Only this year the world was speculating that the theft of radioactive material from a storage facility in Iraq could be used by ISIS in a weapon.
When collectively assessing these developments it is possible to conclude two things. Firstly, these events are demonstrative of a focused campaign by Islamic State to acquire nuclear material for a weapon. Secondly, the thefts in Iraq and the apparent eagerness of nuclear smugglers to sell radioactive material to Islamic State attest to the increasing ease and probability of its attainment.
More specifically, these developments emphasise the primary means by which ISIS may realise their avaricious desire to construct a weapon containing radioactive material. The thefts in Iraq, as well as the thwarted attempt to coerce a nuclear expert, indicates that nuclear material contained in facilities in their traditional operational area in the Middle East remain highly vulnerable to appropriation by ISIS but, crucially, also in countries where ISIS networks have proliferated.
The mere fact that ISIS have sought to acquire nuclear material from Belgium suggests they lack confidence in the effectiveness of locally sourced material for building a suitably devastating “dirty bomb”. The local availability of suitable material is hindered by the absence of nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, which require highly-enriched nuclear fuel to operate. Locally sourced material being used in a “dirty bomb” ultimately represents the most probable but least effective means in which ISIS can achieve their apocalyptic nuclear ambitions.
Belgian Nuclear Security Deficit
On the other hand, Belgium presents ISIS with an attractive opportunity to gain highly-enriched materials or even a military-grade nuclear weapon. A confluence of aggravating factors including a weak intelligence infrastructure, an entrenched network of operatives and affiliates, and a well-documented lackadaisical approach to nuclear facility security diminishes the acquisitive challenges typically associated with Western nuclear security.
Belgium’s seemingly nonchalant approach has attracted the ire of its allies and international security officials since as far back as 2004; most recently the Brussels bombings ignited fresh speculation about their nuclear security deficit.
In 2004, the Bush administration lambasted security precautions at the SCK-CEN nuclear research centre as woefully inadequate. The security deficit was perceived to be so great that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell personally raised the issue with the Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel according to a February 2005 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. Concurrent to this high-level diplomatic intervention, US nuclear authorities also implored their French counterparts to persuade the Belgians to take nuclear security more seriously. This is particularly alarming as the Belgian scientist that was the subject of covert surveillance by ISIS in November 2015 was employed at the SCK-CEN research centre.
Belgium has taken measures to increase nuclear security such as the creation of a Nuclear Quick Response Team within the federal police, the deployment of armed police at Class 1 nuclear facilities and the enactment of legislation that strengthened security clearance procedures at these sites. However, the number of shocking security failures over the years would seem to suggest that there is a pervasive culture of indifference when it comes to nuclear security and it would not be surprising if other security gaps still remained despite this reform.
Conceptualising Future Threats
One potential security gap that ISIS may choose to exploit in the future was exposed when activists casually breached the perimeter security at Kleine Brogel in 2010, a Belgian military base that was confirmed in 2013 to contain US B61 thermonuclear weapons. Perimeter security was breached again a few months later by the same group of activists, who managed to enter one of the shelters where the weapons were stored and walk around unchallenged. An almost identical incident occurred in the Netherlands where activists broke into Volkel air base, an installation that former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers confirmed was storing 22 US nuclear weapons. These breaches seem to justify the concerns raised in a 2008 US Air Force review which concluded that ‘most sites [in Europe where US nuclear weapons are stored] require significant additional resources to meet DoD security requirements’. A recent budget request by the US Department of Defense for an additional $154 million to increase security at these sites suggests that these security issues remain unresolved. This antiquated policy of forward deploying and storing nuclear weapons on vulnerable European military bases could represent the next major contentious issue in nuclear security.
Between the discussed means of acquisition and Islamic State’s desire to detonate some form of nuclear weapon, which represents a disturbing and growing probability, this can be deservedly characterised as “one of the greatest threats to global security”.