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Mon. February 06, 2023
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WMD: A Case Study on Nuclear Terrorism
Comments (7)


The 21st century brought the most revolutionary changes mankind has even witnessed. Accessibility to better healthcare, sanitation, education and the internet are some among the many benefits we enjoy today. Communication across state borders and even oceanic bodies take place within seconds whilst transportation and logistical facilities have expanded to countries across the world. The fast paced development and untrammelled forces of globalization have pushed us beyond our wildest dreams towards automation and artificial intelligence. Yet, along with these developments the threats facing regions, states and communities have intensified as well. From traditional threats pertaining to the territorial integrity and functional identity of a state to more modern cyber attacks, climate change and geopolitical rivalries; we now have a whole gamut of threats facing us.

Nuclear terrorism is one such global threat. It involves the possession or usage of nuclear material by terrorist non state actors. Speaking to a packed audience at the 2012 plenary session of the nuclear security summit, Prime Minister Singh of India said “Nuclear terrorism will remain a potent threat as long as there are terrorists seeking to gain access to nuclear material and technologies for malicious purposes.[1] Articulating her thoughts at the 7th biological and toxin weapons convention in Geneva, Hillary Clinton portrayed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in the hands of terrorist groups as a “transnational threat”.[2] “The threat of nuclear terrorism remains one of the greatest challenges to the peace and security of the international community” argued Mr. Kentaro Sonura in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism plenary meeting of 2017.[3]  In a 1996 Judgment, the International Court of Justice concluded that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be generally contrary to the rules of International law”.[4] These diverse iterations suggest that a global consensus appears to have emerged of the potential threat of nuclear terrorism to the international security architecture.

But what are the underlying reasons behind this potentially catastrophic nexus? Stern considers the lethality of nuclear weapons to be the main reason behind terrorist desires to acquire WMD. According to her because WMD evokes moral dread and visceral revulsion out of proportion to their lethality; it holds a powerful sway over terrorist actors.[5] Understanding the dynamics of both an ‘act of nuclear terrorism’ and its likely ‘aftermath’ drives home the conclusion that a nuclear terrorist attack anywhere will affect everyone, everywhere. A 2008 white paper by Saga Foundation theorized: “As a shadowy, non-state entity, a terror group would not have to worry about massive retaliation, since there is little in the way of terrorist infrastructure, military might or population to retaliate against.”[6] How potent is this threat? A 2016 article in Daesh’s propaganda magazine ‘Dabiq’ raised the possibility of utilizing a nuclear device to devastate western governments – pulling off “something truly epic.”[7] The article poses numerous other instances where terrorist organizations have actively engaged in seeking out nuclear weapons. Consequently, nuclear terrorism is no hoax. “Some terrorist groups now have access to professional scientific and technical skills, large sums of money, international networks, modern communications, and a burgeoning supply of recruits”[8] and consequently nuclear terrorism can no longer be written off as ‘entirely improbable’. To quote Bullock “Whether they build it, acquire it, steal it, or crash a plane into a nuclear power plant, the threat remains the same”[9].


There are four main types of Weapons of Mass Destruction. These are often categorized as CBRN where “C” stands for Chemical, “B” for Biological, “R” for Radiological and “N” for Nuclear Weapons. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) defines chemical weapons as any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action, and includes related munitions and delivery systems.

Biological weapons, also referred to as bioweapons, are deadly pathogens – bacteria, microorganisms or viruses – or toxins which can be deliberately released in order to inflict harm. Sweijs and Kooroshy describe Biological weapons as “microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria that infect humans, livestock or crops and cause an incapacitating or fatal disease”.[10]

Radiological weapons disperse radioactive material using conventional methods, which may include an improvised explosive device. This is called a radiological dispersal device (RDD) – more commonly known as a ‘dirty bomb’.[11] Radiological weapons “combine radioactive material with a means of dispersing it among a target population, resulting in the inhalation or ingestion of, or immersion with, radioactive material.”[12]

Nuclear weapons - the primary focus of this essay - rely on nuclear energy produced by either fission or a combination of fission and fusion of atomic nuclei. Nuclear weapons have only been utilized in the Second World War against Japan by the United States of America. Although numerous nuclear tests have been conducted by states, strong consensus exists for the disuse of nuclear weapons in conflicts between nuclear armed states. A 2016 report by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard Kennedy School posits three types of conceivable nuclear and radiological terrorism acts:

  • “Detonation of an actual nuclear bomb, either a nuclear weapon acquired from a state’s arsenal or an improvised nuclear device made from stolen weapons-usable nuclear material;
  • Sabotage of a nuclear facility causing a large release of radioactivity; and
  • Use of a radiological dispersal device or “dirty bomb” to spread radioactive material and create panic and disruption.”[13]


Former Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban-Ki Moon warned in 2007, “Nuclear terrorism is one of the most serious threats of our time. Even one such attack could inflict mass casualties and create immense suffering and unwanted change in the world forever. This prospect should compel all of us to act to prevent such a catastrophe.”[14] 2005 saw President Putin of Russia joined by former U.S. President George W. Bush in the Bratislava Nuclear Security Initiative, categorizing nuclear terrorism as “one of the gravest threats our two countries face.”[15]

The U.S. Code and FBI define terrorism as the “unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”[16] In his keynote address at the Kelaniya University International Relations Conference Major General Udaya Perera described a terrorist group as a: politically motivated, premeditated violent non state actor(s) who attacks noncombatants.[17] Nuclear terrorism involves terrorist groups utilizing nuclear weapons for diabolic and calamitous purposes. The risk of nuclear terrorism is mainly “driven by the rise of terrorists who seek to inflict unlimited damage, many of whom have sought justification for their plans in radical interpretations of Islam”.[18]

There are three ways that a terrorist group can acquire nuclear weapons.

  • Transfer from a state authority (selling nuclear weapons by a state);
  • leakage or theft by a terrorist group and
  • Indigenous production by the terrorist groups themselves.

Attaining nuclear weapons through indigenous means is difficult because “to make a nuclear bomb, a terrorist group would have to have (separate) plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU)—materials that do not occur in nature and are likely beyond the ability of terrorists to produce.”[19] On the other hand, Saga Foundation states “Of substantially greater concern is the possibility that terrorists could obtain through theft, bribery or diversion a critical mass of plutonium or highly enriched uranium – most likely the former – and use the material to fashion a crude but devastating homemade nuclear weapon”.[20]

Based on the existing literature on nuclear terrorism two perspectives are forwarded. One is that a state may sell a nuclear device or HEU to a terrorist organization (transfer). The other view is that it is more likely for a terrorist group to steal nuclear weapons from nuclear armed states (theft). In this report I scrutinize both possibilities by analyzing the three most likely states (Pakistan, Iran and North Korea) to either ‘transfer’ or ‘be robbed by’ a non state terrorist actor.

Roberta Wohlstetter warns of the possibility that a nuclear-armed Pakistan increases the probability of terrorist use of nuclear weapons considerably.[21] A 2013 IDSA Monograph by Kazi states: “Pakistan might lose control over its national ‘crown jewels’ to radical elements like Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) and

Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) many of who keep close ties with Al Qaida.”[22] Both scholars argue of the possibility that nuclear weapons may fall into terrorist hands due to theft and lackadaisical security measures. Therefore in the case of Pakistan both theft and transfer of nuclear material including a bomb is distressingly conceivable.

The Iranian nuclear agreement has been universally acclaimed by scholars for denying Iran the capability of obtaining nuclear weapons. However it remains to be seen whether the agreement will be scrapped following President Trumps rhetoric. In such case the possibility of Iran gifting nuclear weapons to terrorist groups is alarmingly conceivable, especially given the relationship it maintains with non state actors such as Hamas and other Shia militias in Syria.

 At the moment the nuclear regime has adopted a deterrence by denial approach in the case of the Iranian nuclear program.  The agreement signed in 2015 between the P5+1 powers and Iran allows inspectors from IAEA to conduct routine inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities so that proper accountability of material will be realized. While theft is doubtful given the regular maintenance checks of the IAEA following the P5+1 agreement, transfer of nuclear material is still relatively feasible given the uncertain political situation in Iran. 

North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006 (after it left the Non Proliferation Treaty agreement in 2003), detonating a plutonium device in North Hamgyeong Province, near the Chinese border. “Given the notoriously secretive nature of the North Korean regime, reliable intelligence regarding the specifics of the country’s nuclear program is difficult to come by”.[23] Many scholars fear the prospect of North Korea selling nuclear weapons due to the Kim regimes’ financial malaise. Additionally lax protective measures heighten the possibility of leaking nuclear material to terrorist groups. This has intensified fears in South Korea of a nuclear attack from a terrorist group which is influenced by the North. Thus in the case of north Korea it appears that transfer from state authority to a non-state actor is a possibility, on condition that that the non-state actor pays a remuneration to the struggling Kim regime. Additionally theft is also in the offing given the weak nuclear security architecture prevalent in North Korea. 

These three case studies demonstrate how terrorists can obtain nuclear weapons through a state transfer (due to bribery and payment) as well as by theft from state actors. While this report is narrowed to the most significant 3 cases around the world, it can be concluded that theft from state actors can apply to states with lax protective measures such as Pakistan, Iran and North Korea as well as even great powers. The possibility of great powers selling nuclear technology and assets however, is highly improbable. It is in such circumstances that a brief appraisal of the existing nuclear regime is in order.


“The nuclear nonproliferation regime consists of:

  • International treaties
  • Multilateral and bilateral agreements
  • Voluntary (non-binding) agreements
  • International organizations

Domestic agencies, laws, regulations, and policies of participating countries (necessary for regime compliance).

The nuclear nonproliferation regime’s components serve to:

  • Create legally binding nonproliferation obligations
  • Strengthen international norms against the spread of nuclear weapons
  • Control access to nuclear weapons-relevant materials and technologies
  • Build trust between states by verifying compliance with treaty commitments
  • Enforce treaties in instances of non-compliance.”[24]

The Non Proliferation Treaty was the first among many conventions and declarations on the topic of WMD’s. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004) (which requires all states to develop and maintain effective physical protection measures for nuclear materials) and  the International Convention For The Suppression Of Acts Of Nuclear Terrorism of 2005 are positive steps forward in curtailing WMD production.[25]

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is another key component of the international nonproliferation regime. It actually verifies whether states obey the terms of this framework—essentially, the IAEA acts as a “nuclear inspectorate.”[26] Such measures are vital for the protection of international security and stability by ensuring that WMD does not fall into the hands of terrorists. While the existing nuclear regime is strong it is not robust and more legal and supplementary enforcement mechanisms may have to be taken to ensure that terrorist organizations do not acquire nuclear weapons through transfer or theft.


This essay highlighted the gravity of WMDS’, specifically - nuclear terrorism and summed up the two possible ways nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists (state transfer and theft) by taking into consideration three case studies: Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. It underscores the fact that the problem of nuclear proliferation is global, and any effective response must be multilateral in approach. “Overall, the existing global nonproliferation regime is a highly developed example of international law. Yet, despite some notable successes, existing multilateral institutions have failed to prevent states such as India, Pakistan, and North Korea from "going nuclear," and seem equally ill-equipped to check Iran as well as potential threats from non-state terrorist groups. The current framework must be updated and reinforced if it is to effectively address today's proliferation threats, let alone pave the way for the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."[27]

This essay stressed the importance of maintaining a stronger nuclear regime so that proper mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that terrorist groups do not obtain nuclear weapons through theft or state transfer. By examining the most potent threats related to terrorist groups acquiring nuclear weapons from Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, the essay delineated both the ways terror groups can acquire nuclear weapons and the measures taken by the existing nuclear regime to prevent the same from taking place.


Shakthi De  Silva is an undergraduate from the University of Colombo specializing in International Relations with minors in economics and sociology. He has been published previously in:Regional Rapport, South Asian Voices, Awarelogue, Sunday Times, Colombo Telegraph, The Bandaranaike Center for International Studies Blog and other news media."



Ban-Ki Moon, (2007). “Secretary General Welcomes Swift Entry Into Force of Nuclear Terrorism Convention, Calls on All States to Ratify Without Delay”. United Nationshttp://www.un.org/press/en/2007/sgsm11040.doc.htm 

Bullock, Chris. (2002). ‘Nuclear Terror: The Next Step?’ ABC News Retrieved from at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/nuclear-terror-thenext-step/3499334 

Bunn, M.  Malin, M.B., Roth, N., Tobey, W.H. (2016). Preventing Nuclear Terrorism Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline?. Cambridge: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Harvard Kennedy School.

Center for International Security and Cooperation Institute for International Studies (n.d), Stanford University: Understanding Nuclear Terrorism.

Clinton, Hillary Rodham. (2011). “Remarks at the 7th Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference.” Palais des Nations. Geneva, Switzerland. 07 December 2011. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/secretary/ rm/2011/12/178409.htm

ICJ Reports (1996) Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice “Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons” 8 July 1999.  Retrieved from www.icj-ij.org/icjwww/icases/iunan/iunanframe.htm

International Atomic Energy Agency (n.d) "IAEA Safeguards Overview: Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements and Additional Protocols" http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Factsheets/English/sg_overview.html 

Joint Statement by President George W. Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin: Nuclear Security Cooperation  (2005). Retrieved from: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/WCPD-2005-02-28/pdf/WCPD-2005-02-28-Pg322.pdf

Kane, Samuel. (2012). Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Nuclear Security, the Nonproliferation Regime, and the Threat of Terrorist Nukes. GlobalSolutions.organization.

Kazi, R. (2013). Nuclear Terrorism: The New Terror of the 21st Century. New Delhi : Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Levi, Michael. (2007). On Nuclear Terrorism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Litwak. R. S. (2016). Deterring Nuclear Terrorism. Washington: Wilson Center.

Mazzone, Andrea. (2013). The Use of CBRN Weapons by Non-State Terrorists. Global Security Studies, 4(4), 23-30.

Medalia, Jonathan Congressional Research Service (2005). Nuclear Terrorism: A Brief Review of Threats and Responses. Washington: The Library of Congress.


Montgomery. E.B., (2009). Nuclear Terrorism: Assessing the Threat, Developing a response. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.


Non-Proliferation regime: why is it important? (2014). Nuclear Threat Initiative. Retrieved from http://tutorials.nti.org/nonproliferation-regime-tutorial/nti-nuclear-nonproliferation-regime-treaties-by-country/

Nuclear Threat Initiative. (2016). Rising Nuclear Dangers: Steps to Reduce Risks in the Euro-Atlantic Region. NTI Paper.


Pomper, M.A.,  Dalton, T., Snyder,S., and Dalnoki-Veress F., (2016). Strengthening the ROK-US Nuclear Partnership. James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies: Monterey.


Roberta Wohlstetter , (1976). ‘Terror on a grand scale’, Survival, 18(3): 98–104

Ruff. T., (2006). Nuclear Terrorism. energyscience.org.au.


Saga Foundation White Paper (2008). Nuclear Terrorism: Local Effects, Global Consequences. New Delhi: Saga Foundation.


Saul , Heather, (2015). “Isis claims it could buy its first nuclear weapon from Pakistan within a year,” Independent, Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-claims-it-could-buy-its-firstnuclear-weapon-from-pakistan-within-12-months-10270525.html 


Stern, Jessica.(1999). The Ultimate Terrorist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Sulock, Dot. (2014). Nuclear Power, Nuclear Weapons, and Nuclear Terrorism. University of North Carolina at Asheville.


Sweijs, Tim and Jakko Kooroshy. (2010).“The Future of CBRN.” The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies,. Retrieved from http://www.hcss.nl/reports/the-future-of-cbrn/18/ 

The Global Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime | Council on Foreign Relations. (2012). Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/report/global-nuclear-nonproliferation-regime

Unal, B., Aghlani. S., (2016). Use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons by Non-State Actors. Chatham House.


Wirz. E., Egger. E., (2005). Use of nuclear and radiological weapons by terrorists?’ International Review of the Red Cross. 87 ( 859). 497-510.


[1] Kazi, R. 2013: 7

[2] Clinton, 2011.

[3] Kentaro Sonoura, June 1, 2017. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) Plenary Meeting Tokyo.

[4] ICJ Reports 1996

[5] Stern 1999

[6] Saga Foundation White Paper 2008: 6

[7] Saul, 2015

[8] Ruff. T. 2006 :2

[9] Bullock. 2002

[10] Sweijs, Kooroshy. 2010

[11] Unal, B., Aghlani. S. 2016: 5

[12] Sweijs, Kooroshy. 2010.

[13] Bunn, Malin, Roth, Tobey. 2016: 4

[14] Moon. 2007  

[15] “Joint Statement by President George W. Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin: Nuclear Security Cooperation,” 2005

[16] Cited in Mazzone 2013: 23

[17] Udaya Perera, 05th July 2017. Terrorism in the 21st century, Kelaniya University International Relations Conference

[18] Cited in Kane 2012: 26

[19] Kane 2012:  1

[20] Saga Foundation White Paper 2008: 7

[21] Wohlstetter 1976: 98-104

[22] Kazi, R. 2013: 57

[23] Kane 2012:  23

[24] Non-Proliferation regime: why is it important?,  2014

[25] International convention for the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism 2005. United Nations.

[26] International Atomic Energy Agency . n.d 

[27] "The Global Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime | Council on Foreign Relations." 2012. 

Comments in Chronological order (7 total comments)

Report Abuse
Wed, July 19, 2017 07:38 AM (about 48687 hours ago)
This article was very informative and certainly bought into light a lot of matters that most people are not fully aware of. There were loads of inform
Thu, July 20, 2017 09:53 AM (about 48661 hours ago)
Intresting topic. Many people arn't aware of threats like these. An article like this would be an excellent source to inform people about massive thre
Thu, July 20, 2017 09:57 AM (about 48660 hours ago)
Could have chosen a better title.
Fri, July 21, 2017 06:45 PM (about 48628 hours ago)
interesting piece. especially in the backdrop of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons being signed this month.
Mon, July 24, 2017 01:56 AM (about 48572 hours ago)
To someone who's rarely read anything specifically dedicated to nuclear terrorism
This well written article gives a surface view on the issue and de
Mon, July 24, 2017 03:34 AM (about 48571 hours ago)
Article is relevant to topic, easy to comprehend, informative and well written. Looking forward to more articles by this writer.
Mon, July 24, 2017 09:28 PM (about 48553 hours ago)
i guess terrorist groups like the daesh are more likely to at present use chemical weapons. even recent reports of Daesh obtaining material for a dirt
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