An excerpt from The Next Wave: Urgently Needed New Steps to Control Warheads and Fissile Material, March, 2000

There is significant evidence that both proliferating states and terrorist groups are actively seeking to acquire stolen fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, among others, have all been reported to be seeking to acquire such material, as have the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult in Japan (recently renamed Aleph), and Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization, Al Qaida. Below, the cases of Iraq, Iran, and the two terrorist groups are described as examples of the broader phenomenon.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein spent billions of dollars attempting to establish an indigenous Iraqi capability to produce fissile material.1 While such an indigenous production capability was the first choice, after the invasion of Kuwait, when Iraq launched a "crash" program to rapidly produce a single bomb, it planned on using HEU from its safeguarded research reactor. Even after the Gulf War, with the U.N. inspection regime in place, Iraq sought to continue its weapons of mass destruction programs, and built up its foreign procurement network, including its extensive network in the former Soviet Union. Iraq succeeded, for example, in buying gyroscopes taken directly from Russian strategic nuclear missiles, tested and certified by the Russian institutes that had made them. The CIA has warned that Iraq "would seize any opportunity to buy nuclear weapons materials or a complete weapon."2 Indeed, one of the former leaders of Iraq's nuclear weapons program has described Iraq's efforts to maintain that program after the Gulf War, and warned that Iraq might be able to produce a bomb within months if it acquired fissile material from the former Soviet Union, concluding that "preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear explosive material abroad, particularly in Russia and former Soviet republics, remains a difficult but absolutely essential goal."3 Both he and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors for Iraq have emphasized that even if the long-term monitoring system once planned for Iraq could be re-established, it might not be able to detect the small-scale effort needed to turn fissile material acquired from abroad into a working bomb.4

Iran, too, has sent a substantial network of procurement agents to the former Soviet Union in search of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, has succeeded in acquiring key missile technologies from Russian institutes, and has specifically sought technologies for producing both HEU and plutonium.5 The CIA has specifically warned that "Teheran continues to seek fissile material" 6 and reportedly concluded in a recent analysis that it could not rule out the possibility that Iran has already acquired a nuclear weapon capability, if it has succeeded in secretly procuring fissile material abroad.7 There have been innumerable press reports (of varying levels of credibility) of Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear materials or even nuclear weapons, and there have been a significant number of actual arrests of Iranian nationals, for smuggling of various types of nuclear materials.8 At the Ulba facility in Kazakhstan, canisters were found labeled for shipping to Teheran, in a room next to the room where hundreds of kilograms of HEU was located. The Iranians had reportedly approached Kazakhstan to secretly purchase beryllium and LEU from this facility, perhaps as a trust-building prelude to an offer to purchase the HEU. (The HEU was subsequently removed from this facility under the U.S.-Kazakh cooperative effort known as Project Sapphire.)9 Iran is also purchasing safeguarded civilian nuclear power reactors from Russia-which the United States suspects will be used to build up the technical infrastructure for Iran's weapons program-and has sought to purchase a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant from Russia as well. The United States has imposed economic sanctions on some Russian institutes because of their cooperation with Iran on sensitive nuclear technology.

Most terrorist groups have no interest in threatening large-scale destruction. Unfortunately, however, there are a few dangerous exceptions who do seek to cause mass destruction, and the possibility that some terrorist groups could actually make a crude nuclear bomb from plutonium or HEU cannot be ruled out.10 Both Aum Shinrikyo and Osama bin Laden's group have attempted to acquire the necessary materials and technologies-though whether either group would have been able to make a nuclear bomb is highly uncertain.

Aum Shinrikyo carried out a comprehensive program of development for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons prior to its famous nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway.11 Much of Aum's nuclear program, like its chemical and biological programs, seems to have been poorly focused, pursuing efforts such as purchasing a sheep farm with uranium deposits in Australia and stealing confidential documents on laser isotope enrichment, with the idea of producing HEU by the extraordinary route of At the same time, however, Aum aggressively pursued the possibility of acquiring nuclear technology and material from the former Soviet Union, recruiting thousands of members in Russia, including staff from the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow (a leading nuclear research institute where hundreds of kilograms of weapons-usable HEU were poorly protected and accounted for) and physicists from Moscow State University, and even seeking a meeting with Minister of Atomic Energy Victor Mikhailov to attempt to purchase a nuclear weapon. While Mikhailov refused to meet with Aum, then-Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi met with an Aum delegation headed by the cult's leader, Shoko Asahara, in early 1992, and Aum reportedly paid between $500,000 and $1 million to Oleg Lobov, then Secretary of the Russian Security Council, between 1991 and 1995, for reasons that have never been explained. Kiyohide Hayakawa, a leading official of the cult, made repeated trips to Russia on weapons-buying expeditions on the cult's behalf.

Like Aum Shinrikyo, Osama bin Laden's group has attempted to get all types of weapons of mass destruction, but there is little hard evidence that they have succeeded.12 The U.S. Federal indictment of bin Laden charges that "at various times from at least as early as 1993, Osama bin Laden and others known and unknown, made efforts to obtain the components of nuclear weapons." Similarly, a criminal complaint lodged against Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, one of bin Laden's top lieutenants, charged that in 1993 he had approved the attempted purchase of enriched uranium "for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons." Some reports suggest Bin Laden's group may have attempted to purchase nuclear material through contacts in Ukraine and in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the information needed to make a nuclear bomb with the fissile material in hand is now widely available. Should fissile material become readily available on a nuclear black market, hostile proliferating states and terrorist groups would have access to the last essential ingredient for acquiring nuclear bombs, potentially posing terrifying new threats with virtually no warning.

Click here for the complete report, The Next Wave: Urgently Needed New Steps to Control Warheads and Fissile Material -- a joint publication of Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom and the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


1 For a useful overview, see Rodney W. Jones and Mark G. McDonough Tracking Nuclear Proliferation: A Guide in Maps and Charts, 1998, Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998 (available at

2 John Deutch, then Director of Central Intelligence, testimony to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, quoted in Jones and McDonough, Tracking Nuclear Proliferation, op. cit.

3 David Albright and Khidhir Hamza, "Iraq's Reconstitution of its Nuclear Weapons Program," Arms Control Today, October 1998. See also the interview with Hamza on 60 Minutes II, CBS News, January 27, 1999, in which Hamza describes Iraqi bribery in Russia to acquire advanced weapons technologies.

4 See Sixth Consolidated Report of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Under Paragraph 16 of UNSC Resolution 1051 (1996), Vienna, Austria: IAEA, October 8, 1998.

5 See Jones and McDonough, Tracking Nuclear Proliferation, op. cit.

6 Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions: 1 January Through June 30, 1999, Washington DC: Central Intelligence Agency, Nonproliferation Center, February 2, 2000.

7 See James Risen and Judith Miller, "CIA Tells Clinton an Iranian A-Bomb Can't Be Rules Out," New York Times, January 17, 2000.

8 See, for example, the subscription-only nuclear trafficking database maintained by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (, which contain countless incidents involving Iranian nationals.

9 See discussion in William C. Potter, "Project Sapphire: U.S.-Kazakhstani Cooperation for Nonproliferation," in Shields and Potter, Dismantling the Cold War, op. cit.

10 For a useful unclassified discussion of the possibility that terrorists could build nuclear explosives, see J. Carson Mark et al., "Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?" in Leventhal, Paul, and Yonah Alexander, eds., Preventing Nuclear Terrorism, Lexington MA: Lexington Books, 1987. For discussions of the incentives and disincentives for terrorists to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, and specifically nuclear weapons, see, for example, Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman, and Bradley A. Thayer, America's Achilles' Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack, Cambridge MA: MIT Press for BCSIA Studies in International Security, 1998; and Jessica Stem, The Ultimate Terrorists, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

11 The account below is largely based on Gavin Cameron, "Multi-Track Micro-Proliferation: Lessons from Aum Shinrikyo and Al Qaida," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1999, and sources cited therein.

12 Ibid.