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By Ramesh Thakur
In the closing days of the millennium, U.S. President Bill Clinton mused about how the technology that is embedded in the Palm Pilot hand-held organizers being used for carrying out acts of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. In May 1998, the issue of nuclear proliferation returned to the top of the international security agenda as a result of nuclear-weapons tests in the subcontinent. Now concern in the same region has switched to international terrorism. What if the two anxieties were joined?Terrorism can be defined as the use of violence, the primary targets of which are civilians, to spread terror. Political goals are sought through the exploitation of such terror. This definition includes state-sponsored terrorism. Indeed the most common form of terrorism is that by the state against its own citizens, including the use of chemical weapons.U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen noted last August that at least 25 countries have or are acquiring WMD. In combating terrorism, the difficulty lies in finding proof to link governments with terrorist acts, and then deciding on an appropriate response. The U.S. bombing of the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan remains a matter of debate.But at least we can seize and destroy a government's ability to make war with weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, how can we capture or kill every single terrorist and his or her last piece of Semtex or timing mechanism? Just a small band of ruthless terrorists dedicated to a romantic cause can keep society on edge.Cause-based zealotry motivates individuals, groups and cults into acts of targeted or random terrorism. In the last few years we have seen that no corner of the world is immune from terrorism, from the buses of Jerusalem and Cairo to the trains of New Delhi, the subways of Tokyo, the election rallies of Colombo, the airplanes of Katmandu and the office buildings of Oklahoma City and Nairobi. The potential for WMD terrorism became especially acute with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting upsurge of free-floating nuclear materials and skills. Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn warned in 1996 that the leakage of nuclear material from Russia through diversion, theft and illicit trafficking was real. With the continuing deterioration of economic conditions in Russia, the likelihood of theft of nuclear materials increased faster than the international community's ability to protect and secure them.When the Soviet empire disintegrated, it had 30,000 nuclear weapons, 40 million kg of chemical weapons, significant biological-weapons capability, tons of fissile material and 60,000 weapons scientists and technicians, with many facing unemployment or underemployment. On more than once occasion, Russian authorities recovered weapon-grade nuclear material that had been diverted from civilian research institutes with the intention of selling it. And at least in four cases, material had already been smuggled into Europe before being discovered.The antiquated and inefficient Russian inventory system may not be capable of an accurate count of nuclear weapons or materials. Stocks are so big that if a rogue regime or band tried to steal 150-200kg of weapon-grade material, the authorities might not even know about it. Russia's weapons and materials are stored across thousands of kilometers reaching from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. The logistical difficulties in controlling and protecting them across such vast distances are exacerbated by the disorder in bordering countries. Illicit smuggling could take place at any number of potential entry and exit points, including Central Asia, which borders on or is close to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and India.Around 100 "suitcase bombs" are alleged to be missing from the Russian inventory. Gen. Alexander Lebed, Russia's former national security adviser, argues that the portable nuclear bombs, made to look like suitcases, can be detonated by one person and are capable of killing up to 100,000 people. He was so concerned about the loose controls and potential for theft of the thousands of nuclear warheads and tons of nuclear material that he ordered an inventory to be made. That is when he discovered that dozens of the suitcase bombs were unaccounted for since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.Another powerful stimulus to proliferation today is the diffusion of dual-use technology for conventional weapons, commercial applications and space programs and of the accompanying components, processes and managerial expertise. In a high-technology glut, many suppliers are flooding the market with equipment, components, systems and expertise. Globalization in the electronics sector has also made it possible for thousands of unemployed, underemployed or underpaid scientists from the former Soviet empire to engage in "moonlighting by modem."Terrorists are members of "uncivil society" in today's globalized world. Combating them requires interagency coordination within a country (India's system for handling a major hijacking crisis has been shown to be almost unbelievably inept in the case of the hijacked Indian Airlines plane), and cooperation between the law-enforcement authorities of different countries. If countries agree or refuse to cooperate on the basis of dividing others into friends and enemies, terror will triumph. And if the terrorists have access to usable weapons of mass destruction, the result could be cataclysmic.
Ramesh Thakur is vice rector of the United Nations University. These are his personal views.