The world has yet to experience an act of nuclear terrorism. High-level discussions this week in Washington will resolve to keep things that way as fresh attacks in Brussels loom over the talks.
Leaders from more than 50 countries, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meet Thursday and Friday in the U.S. capital for the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, a conference dedicated to ensuring the most devastating weapons remain out of the reach of would-be attackers.
The summit, an initiative led by U.S. President Barack Obama, confronts the growing menace of ISIS and how best to address nuclear smuggling and transnational intelligence-sharing.
It will take place against an alarming backdrop.
Security analysts fear that ISIS has been seeking radioactive material to build a “dirty bomb,” noting that iridium capsules were stolen from a storage facility in Basra, Iraq, in February.
At least four groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinyriko, have for years harboured nuclear ambitions, according to reports.
And just days after the massacre that killed 130 people in Paris last November, Belgian authorities made an eye-opening find: Evidence of spying on a top nuclear official in Belgium by a suspected Islamic State conspirator.
“What we know is that an ISIS associate had this footage seized from a videotape showing the comings and goings of a nuclear scientist and his family,” said Carl Robichaud, an expert in strengthening nuclear security with the Carnegie Corporation of New York. “That suggests that there was an interest in nuclear and radiological material.”
The surveillance video was found in the home of Mohamed Bakkali, who was arrested following the attacks in Paris and linked to the killers.
“Some have speculated this was about planning a kidnapping,” Robichaud said.
Fears about attackers building nuclear weapons weigh heavily on the international community. Acquiring the weapons-grade fissile material — highly enriched uranium — would make that possible, government experts said at a nuclear summit briefing this week in Washington.
Although it’s unclear how real the threat of nuclear terrorism is, they believe the horrific scale of a prospective nuclear terrorism plot is enough to warrant the summit.
“A terrorist attack with an improvised nuclear device would create political, economic, social, psychological and environmental havoc around the world, no matter where the attack occurs,” Laura Holgate, a White House director who oversees programs for reducing nuclear and biological weapons, told reporters on Tuesday.
The 2014 nuclear summit, held in The Hague, included a simulation asking world leaders to respond to a fictitious scenario involving the release of radiological materials. A similar exercise is expected this year.
Rose Gottemoeller, an adviser on arms control with the U.S. State Department, noted that nuclear-reduction talks have resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in the number of countries holding highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium.
Since 2009, countries participating in the summit have eliminated enough nuclear material for 1,500 nuclear weapons.
But some world nuclear powers will be conspicuously absent from the table this week. The Russian government will be boycotting the talks, and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cancelled his visit following the Easter Sunday suicide bombing that targeted Christians in Lahore.