RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The fear of a terrorist group getting a nuclear weapon was revived last month. Colombia announced that it found evidence on a seized computer that a rebel army there was interested in buying uranium - not necessarily to make a bomb but possibly to trade on the terrorism market.
A stash subsequently uncovered in Colombia proved to be harmless, but terrorism experts say it points to a danger that's greater many people realize, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: There's no evidence that left-wing rebels in Colombia thought about engaging in nuclear terrorism themselves. The more likely explanation for their interest for uranium is that they would've sold it, maybe even to al-Qaida. Vahid Majidi, an FBI specialist in weapons of mass destruction, says if people actually get their hands on nuclear weapons material, they might well be able to move it.
Dr. VAHID MAJIDI (FBI Specialist in Weapons of Mass Destruction): Let me be frank. There is a demand for nuclear material. If you find an al-Qaida member, more than likely, he'll be happy to purchase nuclear material from you, right? So demand is out there.
GJELTEN: The chief intelligence officers for the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security, testifying before Congress earlier this month, said al-Qaida remains determined to acquire a nuclear weapon. They pointed out that the al-Qaida leadership five years ago got a Saudi cleric to issue a fatwa, or religious decree, approving the use of nuclear bombs.
The officials said neither al-Qaida nor any other terrorist group has yet managed to develop a nuclear device, but they warned that a very crude one may not be much beyond their capability. Matthew Bunn is an associate at Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom.
Mr. MATTHEW BUNN (Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University): There have been repeated government studies that have concluded that a sophisticated, well-financed terrorist group might well be able to make a crude nuclear bomb if they got the nuclear material, and it wouldn't take anybody with access to classified information, necessarily. It wouldn't take anything beyond machine shop-type equipment that you could buy without raising any eyebrows.
GJELTEN: A terrorist group would probably settle for a far less complex nuclear device than a state would want to build with less-precise triggering technology, for example. Bunn thinks a crude nuclear explosion could be arranged by a terrorist cell no larger than the one that carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Mr. BUNN: That's why we have to go further back in the chain and try to make sure that they can't get that nuclear material in the first place.
GJELTEN: A top counterterrorism priority now is to stop the smuggling of nuclear material. Police and intelligence agencies have intercepted some material being moved, but Rensselaer Lee, who monitors nuclear smuggling for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, thinks there's more that isn't caught.
Dr. RENSSELAER LEE (Monitors Nuclear Smuggling, Foreign Policy Research Institute): There have been about 18 confirmed seizures of these substances since the early 1990s. But I don't believe, and I think most people who've followed this topic don't believe that what you see represents the wider universe of what's going on. As with any elicit commodity. What you find in the market, what you're able to lay your hands on and seize, only represents some fraction - unknown fraction of what's actually out there circulating.
GJELTEN: The boom in nuclear smuggling came in the 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union, when many nuclear facilities were insecure. Since then, security at those facilities and others has been greatly tightened. That's the good news. The bad news is there's been an increase in threatening rhetoric from the al-Qaida leadership directed specifically against Western Europe and the United States.
And some of the nuclear material that got loose 10 years ago might only now be turning up in the black market. Louise Shelley directs the Terrorism Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University.
Dr. LOUISE SHELLEY (Director, Terrorism Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, George Mason University): Whether it's been hoarded somewhere even outside the former Soviet Union and being moved now, as you see a rise of potential terrorist activity in Western Europe. I mean, when Osama bin Laden says we're going to get at you, this is the kind of point where you think that the rhetoric is escalating to something that may make sense to use this.
GJELTEN: Much of the nuclear material or alleged nuclear material moving through the black market, however, involves scams. The uranium through which the Colombian rebels were reportedly willing to pay more than $2 million was useless. Again, Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI's weapons of mass destruction directorate.
Dr. MAJIDI: There is a proliferation of hoax of nuclear material out there that as a buyer, you've got to be very aware of. So, in a way, I see that as a positive thing if you're interested in preventing nuclear weapon development. Because if you're going to get your hands on junk, God bless you, go for it.
GJELTEN: In fact, many of the hoaxes are perpetrated by police or by intelligence agencies. According to current and former CIA officials, the agency has carried out a number of sting operations aimed at ferreting out sellers, or even better, buyers of nuclear material. Vahid Majidi of the FBI says it's an effective technique.
Dr. MAJIDI: Sting operations, that's where we have been successful globally. You know, one of the things that I've said in the past is that potentially, as many good guys are out there trying to stop this transaction as are people trying to go through an elicit transaction.
GJELTEN: The most successful such operation was in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in the summer of 2006. Georgian intelligence officials learned that a man had a small amount of highly enriched uranium and was looking for a buyer. With the help of the CIA, the Georgian authorities set up a sting and caught the man.
But there are problems with sting operations. If undercover agents work too hard to buy weapons-grade uranium, they may actually create a bigger market for it and encourage people to steal it. Corruption researcher Rensselaer Lee also points out that in order for sting operations to work, police of intelligence agencies must penetrate the underground networks. An effective countersmuggling effort, Lee says, would require a major human intelligence operation.
Mr. LEE: We have to go out and talk to a lot of people who are likely to have knowledge of this criminal world and of the people in it of their connections to nuclear facilities, of their connections to buyers, people like metals traders, arms traders - people who work inside of nuclear enterprises. You have to do, really, a fairly massive interviewing effort to try to get some sense of how serious this problem really is.
Ms. SHELLEY: I don't think we have any handle on it.
GJELTEN: Louise Shelley of George Mason University questions whether Western governments even acknowledge the full dimensions of the nuclear terrorism threat. The smallest nuclear bomb set off in Manhattan could kill a half million people. One in Washington could effectively wipe out the U.S. government.
Ms. SHELLEY: There are things that are just too scary for people, and governments have a lot invested in protecting their populations. It's more than just health. It's, you know, if you reported this, you know, people might be traumatized psychologically just with the fear of this.
GJELTEN: The U.S. government is spending billions of dollars to counter the threat of nuclear terrorism. The Energy Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, the FBI and the CIA all have departments devoted to the effort. Seven years have passed since 9/11, and the long-feared follow-up has not yet come. Many possible attacks have been halted, but the threat remains.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.