To be sure, Graham has no access to the latest intelligence secrets. Some counter-terrorism specialists suggest that the obstacles facing would-be nuclear terrorists remain formidable. Other experts differ in other respects. "There is simply no basis for quantification" of the nuclear risk, says Philip Bobbitt, a former Clinton National Security Council official. Adds his former colleague Daniel Benjamin, now of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "For my money, the biggest threat of all would be a smallpox attack, which would cause unimaginable destruction." Some current officials say there's no evidence that Al Qaeda has a nuclear bomb. Yet.
"You shouldn't talk only about missiles and bombs," notes former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, co-chair (with Howard Baker) of an Energy Department task force that issued a chilling report in January stressing the "urgent" need to improve the "dire state" of security in Russia's vast nuclear complex. "You should also talk about efforts to trigger the spent fuel rods in poorly secured nuclear power plants." That form of sabotage, Cutler said, could send a nuclear cloud into the atmosphere that "might kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and other people around the world."
But in assessing the danger of Al Qaeda terrorists stealing or buying atomic materials or some of the 40,000 nuclear weapons stored at more than 100 sites across Russia, or at other sites in Pakistan, Thomas Graham knows whereof he speaks. Now president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security, he has long been steeped in the dangers of proliferation and "loose nukes." And most or all experts share his sense of urgency about the nuclear threat.
Graham's analysis draws credence from various studies and news accounts, such as the October 26 report in The Times of London that "Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network have acquired nuclear materials [illegally from Pakistan] for possible use in their terrorism war against the West, intelligence sources have disclosed." The article added that "the Western sources say that [bin Laden] does not have the capability to mount a nuclear attack." Yet.
"It's the most dangerous threat we face," asserts Graham. "We can find a way to deal with biological terror. But if these guys acquire enough nuclear weapons and blow up four or five major cities, it wouldn't end civilization as we know it, but it would come pretty close." Nor would the rest of the world be exempt from the jihad: "They would go after London and Paris and Russia, as well as the United States, if they had enough weapons."
President Bush said on November 6, "We will not wait for the authors of mass murder to gain the weapons of mass destruction." But it's possible that they already have such weapons. One who says they do is Yossef Bodansky, an Israeli-born congressional terrorism investigator. "There's a tremendous amount of evidence from both Middle Eastern and Russian sources, Arabian senior officials included, that bin Laden has acquired several handfuls, according to the Russians—up to 20, according to the Arabs—of the suitcase bombs that the Russians have lost," Bodansky asserted in a recent broadcast interview. In a 1999 book about bin Laden, Bodansky claimed that Al Qaeda had paid Chechen rebels $30 million and 2 tons of heroin.