The risks of ISIS getting a nuclear bomb are small. But they are not zero. The group represents the greatest nuclear terrorist threat we have faced since Osama bin Laden talked with Pakistani nuclear scientists about how, exactly, he could build a bomb.
Bin Laden's discussions took place just before his attacks of September 11, as documented by the 9/11 Commission. There have been disturbing signs that ISIS, too, is exploring this option.
This may have prompted the question to President Barack Obama at his press conference in Australia this week about what he would do to counter such a threat. The president was crystal clear:
"If we discovered that ISIL had gotten possession of a nuclear weapon, and we had to run an operation to get it out of their hands, then yes, you can anticipate that not only would [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Chairman Dempsey recommend me sending U.S. ground troops to get that weapon out of their hands, but I would order it."
This is, of course, exactly the correct response. There is likely not a single person in the country that would disagree. But is this more than a hypothetical? How real is the risk?
As I discussed in a recent CNN interview, it is impossible now for ISIS to build a nuclear bomb from scratch. Doing so would require large, industrial facilities to enrich uranium, billions of dollars and gigawatts of energy. But if they could get the highly-enriched uranium -- about 100 pounds would do, about the size of a soccer ball -- it is possible that they could assemble the equipment and small technical team to build the bomb.
Jeffrey Lewis described in the superb documentary, Countdown to Zero, how few people are actually required to do this and how little it would cost. But it does require a sophisticated operation. ISIS has the capabilities required.
We have never encountered a terrorist group like ISIS. Their demonstrated brutality and willingness to kill large numbers of innocents is shocking, but is now the kind of terrorism that we have become familiar with over the past 20 years. ISIS adds three capabilities that catapult the threat beyond anything seen before: control of large, urban territories, huge amounts of cash (perhaps as much as $2 billion), and a global network of recruits.
With these assets they could illicitly acquire the nuclear material for a bomb from vulnerable storage sites in Russia or Pakistan, and possibly nuclear expertise as well.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a real concern that poorly secured nuclear materials will fall into the wrong hands. Over the last several decades, billions of dollars have been spent securing those materials, but a recent study by Mathew Bunn and his Harvard colleagues warns:
"Weapons-usable nuclear materials still remain 'dangerously vulnerable,' with security systems that do not provide effective protection against the full spectrum of plausible adversary threats."
Major gaps remain in the security of Russia's nuclear arsenal and its huge stockpiles of bomb material. Areas of Pakistan that house nuclear warheads have come under attack by the Pakistani Taliban. Perhaps most troubling is the recent announcement that six leading Taliban leaders have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Scandals, corruption and mismanagement plague even the U.S. nuclear command, the best control system in the world.
Expert concern over the nuclear terrorist threat waned in recent years, as U.S. operations degraded and dismantled bin Landen's network. That period is now over. The rising ISIS threat, the Pakistan links, the continuing stockpile security weaknesses and now Russia's withdrawal from key aspects of nuclear cooperation programs are again raising red flags.
The National Security Strategy of the United States conclusion that "there is no greater threat to the American people than...the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists..." remains valid.
President Obama's clear warning to ISIS is one way to deter this threat. Its leaders must know that any effort to get nuclear weapons would trigger a massive U.S. response. But we do not want to even get to that point.
The best line of defense is to prevent ISIS from getting the materials. This requires ramping up efforts to secure nuclear materials and nuclear sites worldwide. Russia's recent withdrawal must be reversed as quickly as possible. We should redouble our efforts with Pakistan.
And we should stop spending billions on an obsolete U.S. nuclear arsenal and move at least part of those funds to preventing ISIS or any other group from getting one bomb. Our current strategy is still based on fighting a nuclear war with Russia. "First-strike idiocy," says The Washington Post's Walter Pincus. "The military personnel working in nuclear jobs know that those assignments have no future," he writes.
It's time to stop fighting Soviets and shift our funds to fighting the terrorists that truly threaten us.