15 April 2004

Old weapons, new terror worries

Old weapons, new terror worries

Russian and US experts meet this month to assess terror tactics, from hacking into systems to seizing a weapon.

By Scott Peterson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MOSCOW – Imagine this scenario: Computer hackers working for Al Qaeda break into Russia's nuclear weapons network, and "spoof" the system into believing it is under attack, setting off a chain reaction, and a real nuclear counterattack.

Another doomsday possibility made headlines when Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2, was quoted last month boasting that Al Qaeda had already acquired "some suitcase bombs" - radioactive material packed with conventional explosives. Mr. Zawahiri said that anything was available for $30 million on the Central Asian black market or from disgruntled Soviet scientists. Russia immediately rejected the claim.

But such what-ifs are among the nuclear terrorism threats that analysts are reexamining, as the learning curve of terror groups today comes closer to intersecting the vulnerabilities of atomic arsenals.

A handful of Russian and American nuclear experts, both military and civilian, are quietly convening a first meeting in Moscow later this month, to launch a year-long modeling exercise to specify the new dangers.

"These are future threats, but we must be ready for them today," says Pavel Zolotarev, a former major general in Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, which inherited the vast Soviet nuclear arsenal. "There should be no chance that wrong signals get into the system, to provoke a presidential decision [to launch]."

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