Is The Threat Of Nuclear Terrorism Distracting Attention From More Realistic Threats?

By: Antonia Ward, Columnist

Photo credit: BBC/

At the final Nuclear Summit of his presidency in Washington D.C. in 2016, Barack Obama said the risk of ISIS or other extremist groups acquiring nuclear weapons remains “one of the greatest threats to global security.”[i] A number of terrorist groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, have expressed explicit intentions to acquire and use nuclear material. However, countries face far more pressing threats than nuclear terrorism and authorities would be better off focusing on insurgents’ frequent use of conventional weapons, such as chemicals and bombs.

Nuclear terrorism, defined as “the use or threat to use nuclear material, nuclear fuel or radioactive products for acts of terrorism,”[ii] has elicited global concern and action, as demonstrated by the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, NATO’s Defence Against Terrorism Programme and the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy.[iii] There is also a large amount of nuclear material present throughout the world; the current global stockpile of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) stands at 1.6 million kg. To construct a nuclear bomb, terrorists would need 25 kg of HEU. This, compared to the amount held by states throughout the world, is not an impossible amount for terrorists to obtain.[iv] To contextualize this, in 2015 the US possessed 62,900 tons of recoverable uranium.[v]

Several terrorist groups have declared a desire to acquire nuclear material to construct a “dirty bomb.” In 1998, Osama Bin Laden, in a speech entitled “Nuclear bomb of Islam” stated that, “It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God”.[vi]

In 2014, after capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS had access to two caches of Cobalt 60 locked in a storage room at Mosul University.[vii] This material has lethal levels of radiation, is used to treat cancer cells, and is the core ingredient of a nuclear bomb. Government officials and nuclear experts speculated that ISIS failed to utilize it because they could not determine how to access the Cobalt 60 without exposing themselves to deadly radiation.[viii] In 2016, after the two ISIS brothers involved in the Brussels bombings, Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, were killed and captured, authorities discovered they had been secretly watching a Belgian nuclear scientist who worked at the Tihange Nuclear Power Station with the potential aim of using material from this facility.[ix]

Despite Obama’s remarks in 2016 and these two incidents, experts and officials contest the viability of the nuclear terrorism threat. Dr Beyza Unal, a research fellow in nuclear policy at think tank Chatham House, argued there is currently no evidence that terrorist groups could build a nuclear weapon.[x] Similarly, a report by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2006 emphasized how building a nuclear bomb is a difficult task for states, let alone terrorists. This is because of the issues involved in accessing uranium and creating and maintaining it at the correct grade (enriched uranium).[xi]

While nuclear terrorism is a concern, the majority of terrorist attacks are conducted with conventional explosives. The 2017 Europol Terrorism Situation and Trend Report states that 40 percent of terrorist attacks used explosives. These explosives originate from a wide variety of countries across the world. According to a study by Conflict Armament Research, large quantities of explosive precursor chemicals used to make bombs as seen in 7/7 attack in London in 2005 and the 2017 Manchester Arena attack, have been linked to supply chains in the U.S., Europe and Asia via Turkey.[xii] The threat from the spread of chemical precursors prompted the EU to begin looking at ways to tighten the regulations of these chemicals.[xiii]

A nuclear terrorist attack would have grave consequences, but it is currently not a realistic or viable threat given that it would require a level of sophistication from terrorists that has not yet been witnessed. The recent focus of terrorist groups has been on simplistic strikes such as knife and vehicular attacks.xiv If countries are concerned about nuclear terrorism, the best way to mitigate this risk could be to tighten security at civilian and government nuclear sites. But governments would be better off focusing their efforts on combatting the spread and use of conventional weapons.


Antonia Ward is an analyst on the Defence, Security and Infrastructure team at RAND Europe.









[i] Charlie Cooper, “ISIS nuclear bomb is a serious threat warns Obama,” The Independent, April 1, 2016,

[ii] NTI, “International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism,” February 28, 2018,

[iii] European Council of the European Union, “EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” European Council of the European Union, September 2, 2018,

[iv] Graham Allison, “Nuclear Terrorism Fact Sheet,” Belfer Center, April 2010,

[v] World Nuclear Association, “Supply of Uranium”, December 2016, World Nuclear Association,

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Joby Warwick and Loveday Morris, “How ISIS nearly stumbled on the ingredients for a dirty bomb,” The Washington Post, July 22, 2017,

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Karl Vick, “ISIS Attackers May Have Targeted Nuclear Power Station,” Time, March 25, 2016,

[x] Charlie Cooper, “ISIS nuclear bomb is a serious threat warns Obama,” The Independent, April 1, 2016,

[xi] Tuan C. Nguyen, “Why it’s so Hard to make Nuclear Weapons,” LiveScience, September 22, 2009,

[xii] Lizzie Dearden, “ISIS making deadly suicide bombs and IEDs using freely available civilian components from around the world,” The Independent, February 25, 2016,

[xiii] European Commission, “Revision of the Regulation on marketing and use of explosives precursors,” European Commission, April 4, 2018,

xiv Michael P Dempsey, “How ISIS’ Strategy is Evolving,” Foreign Affairs, January 18, 2018,


One thought on “Is The Threat Of Nuclear Terrorism Distracting Attention From More Realistic Threats?

  1. I believe Obama’s initiative to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism was a good idea. The three summits and GICNT initiative helped impose stricter standards on handling and storing HEU and plutonium; and it also helped convince some countries to reduce their stockpiles of fissile material. It was also an area in which Russia and the US could agree – as the Summit left out state nuclear weapons programs (including DPRK and START).

    One are which your article above fails to consider is the threat of intact nuclear weapons or their major components (particularly the uranium sphere or plutonium cores unattached to their delivery system and/or not fully assembled for detonation). While a “commoner” might think that nuclear weapons are well secured by definition, a cursory review of nuclear weapons history shows this is not the case – especially for tactical nukes. Moreover, as Pakistan and India in particular resist any kind of international inspections of their stockpiles, there is no way to be certain if they are adequately secured.

    And I would also not understate the threat of a nuclear facility falling to a terror group. Terror groups have consistently shown the ability to take and hold large amounts of territory – Syria and Iraq with ISIS, Marawi, Philippines with Maute/ASG/ISIS, and various parts of Afghanistan. It is not a reach of imagination to conclude that if a terror group can seize an entire city or large portion of a major country, they can take a military base that holds nuclear weapons – especially if there is significant “insider” assistance.

    Your point where it would be difficult for a terror group to obtain HEU in sufficient quantities and build a nuclear weapon is true. But again, they could obtain an intact weapon.

    NNSA has done a lot of work to combat nuclear terrorism, deploying equipment training, and awareness around the world (I have been a part of this). Obama’s theory was that while the possibility of a nuclear terror incident (with a full fission or fusion explosion, and not just a “dirty bomb”) was small, the impact and destruction would be so great that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on nuclear security was a worthwhile investment.

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