How to Get a Nuclear Bomb

It wouldn’t be easy. But it wouldn’t be impossible. A reporter travels the world to find the weaknesses a terrorist could exploit

With 100 pounds of stolen HEU split between a couple of knapsacks, and a healthy head start on Russian security forces, you would not have to worry much about getting caught by Americans. The United States claims to be building a layered defense, but the only layer that amounts to much is the NNSA’s securing of stockpiles—and you have just penetrated it with the help of workers on the site. At this point the American defenses fall spectacularly apart. The reasons are ultimately institutional and complex, but initially may be as simple as confusion created by the expanding geometry of choices for anyone carrying stolen HEU toward an assembly point for a bomb. Will you go left or right? The roads keep forking, and you will often turn one way or the other for no more discernible reason than the fact that forward motion requires the choice. American officials who would try to stop you face an infinite braid that becomes the measure of a hostile, corrupt, and anarchic world.

In Washington I spoke to one of the many officials in town who, though carrying out their assignments perfectly well, are too nervous about domestic politics to risk being identified. He described an NNSA effort called the Second Line of Defense, which installs radiation monitors at border-crossing points throughout the former Soviet Union. The program is most fully developed in Georgia, a skeletal nation threatened by separatist enclaves and barely able to keep warm through the winters. The official said, “The U.S. Corps of Engineers is working with Customs to build whole new border- crossing facilities in Georgia, and we’re in the process of installing upgraded radiation monitors, in conjunction with that.”

I said, “I guess I can see the logic of the radiation monitors, but why are we building customs stations for the Georgians?”

“It’s a joint venture to try to control smuggling.”

Georgia is one of the most corrupt nations on earth. Many of its politicians are crooks. Its officials routinely steal. Its economy is based almost entirely on black markets. Its people have nothing to survive on if they do not hustle. I said, “Why should we care about ordinary smuggling in Georgia? Cigarettes? Vodka? Fuel? For that matter, narcotics?” What I meant was, If even the ordinary black markets of Georgia are seen as a threat, where does the impulse to impose order end?

He stayed in his lane, but executed a tidy reversal. He said, “It’s a good question. And I don’t know that I have the answer, but the genesis anyway was nuclear. So I guess in conjunction with our new equipment, it makes sense to upgrade the stations.”

Hoping to get some notion of the realities, I went to a model Customs project, a station the Americans call “Red Bridge,” which stands at the main crossing point between Georgia and Azerbaijan. The first improvement there was the construction of a housing compound where for several years before, border guards had been living in tents and cooking over open fires. By the time the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was finished with it, in 2003, the compound consisted of five single-family houses, a barracks, a dining hall, an administration building, a vehicle-maintenance garage, a warehouse for supplies, an armory, various utility buildings, a dog kennel, two water-storage buildings, a sewage plant, an electrical substation, perimeter fences, two guard towers, two helipads, a sports field, a separate soccer field, some new paved roads and parking lots, and, of course, a parade ground. After the official opening, a Customs and Border Protection newsletter asked the CBP program manager, James Kelly, “Is it as grand as it sounds?”

“Indeed it is,” Kelly said. “It was built to Western standards.”

Golly, and that was just Phase One. The United States then shifted its spending down the road to the port of entry itself. Over the following two years, the CBP oversaw the construction of a $2.2 million facility, whose primary purpose would be to “help Georgia become a more effective partner in the worldwide effort to control the passage of terrorists and their weapons.” This time the improvements included a six-lane roadway, inspector booths, cargo-inspection areas, closed-circuit remote-control television cameras, lots of computers, a high-frequency long-distance radio-communication system, and the crowning glory—a beautiful air-conditioned two-story stucco building with spaces for processing the grateful public, as well as detention cells, back offices, a dormitory wing for Georgian customs agents, private sleeping rooms for American officials and other VIPs, and a second-floor patio, apparently for sitting outside on warm evenings.

The day I got there was too chilly for that. A short line of trucks crept in from Azerbaijan, and a few cars passed through in the opposite direction. The new radiation monitors were not yet in place, but within a few weeks they were certain to be. I asked to see the control room, which is meant to be the nerve center of the operation. There was a delay until the key could be found, whereupon the chief showed me in. The room was a windowless refuge, empty except for a few chairs, some computers, and a bank of flat-screen displays. Someone had left a video game on. Someone had left a magazine. Empty cardboard boxes were stacked in a corner. After a while an eager young man came in and demonstrated how a camera on the roof could be swiveled and zoomed.

The anonymous official in Washington tried to explain why such improvements matter. I had asked him why anyone carrying a bomb’s worth of HEU would choose to go through any official gate anywhere. He did not predict that anyone would. Using Georgia as an example he said, “The good news is that there aren’t very many of these border crossings. And to the extent we’ve got them covered, we force people to use horses, I guess.” Horses, mules, donkeys, tractors, dirt bikes, plucky little Ladas—whatever. A bit of off-road travel wouldn’t seem like much of an inconvenience to nuclear terrorists on the move, and American officials know it well. The problem is that U.S. agencies, when pressured by conflicting mandates and forced to work with corrupt and dysfunctional local governments, essentially throw up their hands at the complexity of it all, and abandon the fight in advance.

In this context Red Bridge is not just a customs post, but a premature surrender—and a typical one. Faced with the need to put systems in place that will function day after day to identify unexpected nuclear smugglers, America turns to the uniformed agents of local governments, loads them down with air-conditioned buildings and gadgetry, and then asks them to sit in a closed room watching for information from television cameras and radiation monitors. To make things worse, the failure is not individual but collective, and therefore difficult to correct. It appears to include even the clandestine services, some of which are chasing al-Qaeda around, but none of which shows signs of wanting to lay traplines through the back country on the off chance—highly unlikely in any given location—of snaring two knapsacks’ worth of dull grey metal. Of course it is possible that they are doing this, and being so discreet that for once they leave no evidence of their passage, but if I had to move a load of HEU across international borders, I would gamble that they are not.

It is as if the U.S. government, when looking at a world map for purposes of HEU interdiction, has declared entire regions to be off-limits to anything other than fictions. As noted, those back-country regions are where some of the world’s principal opium routes lie and, for independent reasons, are the areas through which stolen HEU seems most likely to pass. It is generally assumed that for the right price, opium traffickers will provide transportation, lodging, and expert advice to nuclear terrorists moving through. Indeed, the persistence of the drug trade worldwide is often used as an object lesson in the difficulty of trying to stop the smuggling of nuclear materials. A tired joke is that the best way to smuggle an atomic bomb is to put it into a bale of marijuana. For the United States the proximity between the two trades is an unfortunate coincidence, but it could be turned into a fortunate one, through quiet conversations with a few key people. If you wanted a bomb, you should of course be having quiet conversations with those same key people.

Finding them merely requires casual exploration along the preexisting lines of defense, especially along the national boundaries that cross the smuggling routes. The work would involve poking around meekly, sometimes with an amateur translator and guide. The purpose would not be to recruit peasant armies and spies, but to get a feel for the local functioning of power. In most areas there are only two or three people at the top, and they tend to be at once aggressive and benevolent men with interests larger than just the movement of drugs. Their names would quickly become apparent. Some might be dangerous to approach, but most would be hospitable to strangers. On the second or third trip back, a U.S. agent might make it known that if ever a load of HEU showed up, a large reward would be paid.

Some months ago I made the first of two brief trips through the mountains of far-eastern Turkey, in the Kurdish hinterland along the border with Iran. This is the prime smuggling country I mentioned earlier. The local villages may seem sleepy, but they are wide awake. It became apparent to me that the entire region is tightly sewed up, that nothing moves here without notice, and that any sustained activity requires approval. The authority is not the Turkish government. The army is here to fight the sporadic guerrilla war against Kurdish separatists, who occasionally ambush a patrol or plant a mine, then retreat higher into the mountains. The main garrison is in a tiny town called Bascale, which is better known for its heroin labs. When A. Q. Khan was building Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons facilities, some of the more sensitive parts passed through here.

Bascale has a large yellow house in a central compound, which belongs to the chief of a clan that is dominant for miles around, an extended family named Ertosi, which consists of 150,000 to 200,000 people. One afternoon I was invited in for tea. The host was a black-bearded heavyset middle-aged man who had arrived from Ankara for a few days. He was a son of the chief, and so was important, too. He had guards and flunkies around. We sat against the walls in a large bare room, with photographs of dead Ertosis at one end, and a big-screen television at the other. The television was tuned to a banned Kurdish station, broadcast via satellite from London. My translator introduced me as an English teacher on holiday, which threw our host a little off balance, I think. He wore a heavy gold chain and a diamond ring. He had an array of cell phones in front of him on the floor, several of which rang. Between calls, I asked him about the diesel trade. He said a little, but then clammed up when I got into details. To my translator he said, “Why does an English teacher want to know so much?”

Weeks later I returned to the area and sought out a certain subclan leader I had heard about. He was a powerful man, the chief of the 20,000 Ertosis who occupy the most active stretch of the border. I found him in a hamlet high on a mountainside. It was late at night, and the air was cold. We sat among ten of his men in a small stone room around a wood-burning stove. He was a small man, sixty years old, with sharp hooded eyes and a hooked nose. He was dressed like a Kurdish peasant, with a tweed jacket down to his knees. His hands were hardened by manual labor. From the ease with which he gave orders and the deference shown to him by his men, it was clear that he had been laying out law for many years. We avoided mention of narcotics or HEU, and talked instead in a transparent code about the business in “diesel fuel.” He said, “The government cannot control the border. The Kurds just naturally do.” No stranger could cross without his knowledge.

Now back to the project at hand. If you wanted to build a bomb, and paid attention to men like the clan leaders in the mountains, you should have no trouble getting the bomb fuel through.

Then comes the problem of assembly. You should take it as a given that no nation would dare to be associated with the construction of an independent atomic bomb. Not North Korea, not Sudan, not Iran. The certainty of retribution after its use far outweighs whatever benefit might be gained. Moreover, you could never trust those governments not to wait until the end and confiscate the goods. So the work will have to be carried out in secret—and in some private machine shop perhaps no larger than a five-car garage. The shop will contain numerically controlled milling machines and lathes, as well as other expensive equipment, and will require a plausible explanation—a front company set up to manufacture, say, transmission components. The best location would seem to be in some Third World city, where governmental control is lax, corruption is rampant, and the noise from the shop will be masked by industrial activities nearby. Take your pick: Mombasa, Karachi, Mumbai, Jakarta, Mexico City, and a finite list of others. You might as well choose Istanbul, because it’s close to where you’d be coming from.

Construction of the bomb would take maybe four months. The size of your technical team would depend on the form of HEU. At the minimum it would consist of a nuclear physicist or engineer, a couple of skilled machinists, an explosives expert, and perhaps an electronics person, for the trigger. The essentials of the work are easy to grasp. A cannon-type bomb employs two HEU hemispheres which when joined together form a single sphere. A sphere is the geometric shape that provides the smallest surface area in relation to mass, lowering the threshold of criticality. The receiving hemisphere is hollow on one side. The other hemisphere, known as the bullet or plug, has a perfectly matched convex surface on the opposing side. It sits in wait at the top of a steel barrel sometimes as long as a stepladder is high. When the time comes to detonate the bomb, a chemical propellant shoots the plug down the barrel. The ideal velocity is 1,000 meters per second, about as fast as a high-speed rifle round. The goal is to slam the masses together before the nuclear reaction has a chance to start. Once they have joined, the HEU can be trusted to do its job, though with a primitive, garage-made device there will be some uncertainty about the explosive yield. A common misperception about terrorist bomb makers is that they would try to imitate a military device, and would therefore require a level of expertise found only in government laboratories—but you would not care whether New York was hit with a ten- or a twenty-kiloton blast.

Even so, the construction of a bomb is not a casual project. The machinery, the noise, and especially the likely presence of team members who are not locals, provide the United States with the last chance of self-defense. A city like Istanbul, which appears from a distance to be anarchic, and is famously resistant to central authority, is up close and in practice a patchwork of tightly knit communities with something of the organic power structures of the borderlands. In even the most chaotic neighborhoods, where industrial shops are mixed among illegal apartment blocks and communities of impoverished newcomers and squatters, it would be difficult to keep the neighbors from asking inconvenient questions. The same is true in Mombasa, Karachi, and every other city where a bomb could conceivably be built. A United States government that could lay traplines in their slums would have a much better chance of stopping a terrorist attack than any amount of naval maneuvering or bureaucratic restructuring can provide.

In the end, if you wanted a bomb and calculated the odds, you would have to admit that they were stacked against you, simply because of how the world works—and that this may be why others like you, if there have been any, have so far not succeeded. You would understand, though, that the odds are not impossible. You would of course have many concerns as you moved ahead. But perhaps the thing that should worry you the least is the American government’s war on terror.

Presented by

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.


Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise


A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.


Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In