Old weapons, new terror worries
Russian and US experts meet this month to assess terror tactics, from hacking into systems to seizing a weapon.
Imagine this scenario: Computer hackers working for Al Qaeda break into Russia's nuclear weapons network, and "spoof" the system into believing it is under attack, setting off a chain reaction, and a real nuclear counterattack.Skip to next paragraph
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Another doomsday possibility made headlines when Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2, was quoted last month boasting that Al Qaeda had already acquired "some suitcase bombs" - radioactive material packed with conventional explosives. Mr. Zawahiri said that anything was available for $30 million on the Central Asian black market or from disgruntled Soviet scientists. Russia immediately rejected the claim.
But such what-ifs are among the nuclear terrorism threats that analysts are reexamining, as the learning curve of terror groups today comes closer to intersecting the vulnerabilities of atomic arsenals.
A handful of Russian and American nuclear experts, both military and civilian, are quietly convening a first meeting in Moscow later this month, to launch a year-long modeling exercise to specify the new dangers.
"These are future threats, but we must be ready for them today," says Pavel Zolotarev, a former major general in Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, which inherited the vast Soviet nuclear arsenal. "There should be no chance that wrong signals get into the system, to provoke a presidential decision [to launch]."
In the past, top priority in Russia has been protecting its stocks of bomb-grade nuclear material. The US has been spending roughly $1 billion per year to upgrade Russia's nuclear security and dismantle warheads.
But experts are now looking at new terror tactics, from hacking to seizing a complete weapon.
"The threats are changing in the most radical way," says Vladimir Dvorkin, a former rocket forces major general, who was head of development for the Russian Defense Ministry's strategic forces, missile defense, and space systems until 2001.
Ironically, Russia's older systems may be less vulnerable than US weaponry to the most cutting-edge threats, particularly cyberwarfare.
Russia's strict centralized control system - a holdover from the Soviet era - makes it "harder, at some level, for terrorists to do something to break the safeguards and launch," says Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert and former Minuteman launch officer who heads the Center for Defense Information in Washington (CDI).
In contrast, the US Department of Defense infrastructure consists of over 2.1 million computers, with 10,000 local area networks, and 1,000 long-distance networks.
Hackers have been active against government networks, if targeted US systems are any gauge. Mi2g, a digital security analyst company based in London, found that 2003 yielded a "meteoric rise in electronic crime," and that along with criminal scams, "extremist group activity" had risen by several hundred percent.
The sobering results of the still- classified work by a Pentagon "Commission on Nuclear Fail-Safe" - to which Mr. Blair testified about Soviet nuclear safeguards, inside a vault at the Pentagon around 1992 - point to US vulnerabilities that could also apply to Russian systems today. Investigators found an "electronic back door" into the US Navy's system for broadcasting nuclear launch orders to Trident submarines.
"This deficiency allowed unauthorized hackers, which could be terrorists or high school mischief makers, to potentially insert a launch order and transmit it to the Trident," Blair says. The gap was so serious that Navy launch order verifications had to be revised.