Do terrorists have suitcase nuke? Experts disagree

Military Technology

A Pakistani journalist who interviewed Osama bin Laden says the terrorist leader claims to have his own nuclear and chemical capabilities. Military experts have been speculating on where bin Laden or others might gain access to atomic weapons and much of the speculation focused on so-called suitcase nukes. Investigative reporter George Knapp spoke with some locals who have some hands-on experience with those kinds of weapons. Aired on Nov. 12, 2001 on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.


Put “nuclear” and “Osama bin Laden” in the same sentence and you will get people’s attention.

Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, who says he interviewed Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, who says he interviewed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden over the weekend, says he believes bin Laden has already purchased nuclear weapons. The devices were possibly stolen from the former Soviet Union.

“He said that, ‘If United States of America is going to use nuclear and chemical weapons against us, then we reserve the right to respond back,’ ” Mir reported. “ ‘But we will not use these kinds of weapons first. We will retaliate.’ And he used again and again, the word nuclear deterrent.”

Suitcase nuke is one nickname for the devices.

There is also the eerie acronym, SADM, or Special Atomic Demolition Munitions.

The official position of our military is that it’s possible but unlikely that Osama bin Laden has acquired suitcase bombs.

Concerns about the security of the Soviet stockpile heightened in 1997 when Russian military officials admitted the existence of so-called suitcase nukes, small kiloton devices capable of taking out large chunks of a major city like New York or Las Vegas. Senior Russian officials claimed that more than 100 small atomic devices were made, and that perhaps dozens were unaccounted for. The fear is that a few may have ended up on the black market.

Southern Nevada is home to some of the world’s foremost experts on nuclear weapons, even a few who have had their hands on atomic bombs small enough to hide in a backpack.

As a scientist for Livermore labs, Troy Wade helped to assemble the atomic devices that were detonated at the Nevada Test Site in decades past. He is also a co-founder of NEST, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, which would be dispatched in the event of a threatened nuclear event.

Troy Wade talks about the risks of a portable nuclear bomb known as a suitcase nuke. (KLAS-TV)

Is it possible that a Russian device is in the hands of bad guys?

“It is well known that Mr. bin Laden and others, at least as I read, have tried for some time to buy nuclear weapons. And, you know, I suppose that’s theoretically achievable,” Wade said.

 “I do however, remember, a very senior Clinton administration official saying that with high confidence they could account for 99% of the Soviet weapons.” Wade said. “With my background, that is not a very comfortable answer.”

Even with the scientific expertise and tons of sophisticated equipment at its disposal, NEST would have to get very lucky to catch someone smuggling a small atomic bomb into a major city, Wade admits.

Wade confirms the U.S. built its own version of the suitcase nuke, a device known as a SADM. Teams of commandos were trained to strap the bombs onto their backs and jump out of airplanes.

Former Green Beret commander James “Bo” Gritz was a team leader in the SADM program. He trained with the devices and learned to assemble them.

Former Green Beret commander James “Bo” Gritz. (KLAS-TV)

“This crew right here, we could carry a SADM with us and put it anywhere in America,” Gritz said. “And unless people were checking us with Geiger counters, they would never know it. It doesn’t look like any kind of conventional weapon. It doesn’t look like a bomb.”

Gritz said he was told the Russians may have slipped suitcase nukes into America, where they remain squirreled away.

“All Osama bin Laden will have to do is to purchase the cache site in America,” Gritz said. “All of the SADMs are dirty bombs, they throw up debris and fallout. Stuff that will kill you far downrange because it is so hot. A 10 (kiloton) SADM detonated, for example, in Las Vegas would take out Nellis Air Force Base, and all the way down the Strip.”

Retired Army Intelligence Col. John Alexander strongly downplays fears of buried nukes in the U.S. In addition to technical problems with such a scenario, he thinks we would have found out by now.

“We’ve not had any indication from defectors, from scientists, official meetings saying, by the way, we’ve got some devices that we need to go pick up or you need to be concerned about,” Alexander said.

Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve traded a lot of secrets. We’ve had several changes of government and actually it would be a great bargaining tool to say see how honest we’re being.

Retired Army Intelligence Col. John Alexander

Experts may quibble about the degree of probability, but not on the overall possibility that bin Laden may have acquired nuclear weapons. Wade finds it far more likely that bin Laden’s group may have obtained nuclear material that could be wrapped around conventional explosives, then used to scatter radioactive fallout in a target city. It’s much easier to obtain nuclear material than it is to bag a nuclear bomb.

Solid intelligence information is all that’s standing in the way of a suitcase nuke coming into play on U.S. soil. Without intelligence to narrow down the search area, we would never find a suitcase nuke in time to prevent detonation. Even NEST is unable to simply fly over a city and zero in on all the nuclear materials there.

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