Are mushroom clouds on the horizon?
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Special to the Los Angeles Times Jul. 24, 2005
One wonders what Osama bin Laden and his ilk learned from
The decision to incinerate the Japanese city and another,
Nagasaki, was not taken in anger. White men in gray business suits and
military uniforms, after much deliberation, decided that the United
States could not give the Japanese any warning -- that although it
could not concentrate on a civilian area, it should seek to make a
profound psychological impression on as many inhabitants as possible.
They argued that it would be cheaper in American lives to release the
Crowds gathered in Times Square to celebrate: There were fewer
of the enemy left. Rarely are victors encumbered by remorse. Declared
President Truman: "When you have to deal with a beast, you have to
treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true."
Not surprisingly, six decades later, even U.S. liberals remain
ambivalent on the morality of nuking the two Japanese cities. But
terrorists are not ambivalent.
The New York Times reported that before the Sept. 11 attacks,
the United States had intercepted an al Qaeda message that bin Laden
was planning a "Hiroshima" against America. In a later taped message,
released before the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, bin Laden said: "When
people at the ends of the Earth, Japan, were killed by their hundreds
of thousands, young and old, it was not considered a war crime; it is
something that has justification."
In a recent televised debate between myself and Hameed Gul -- an
influential Islamist leader, retired general and former head of
Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency -- my opponent snarled at me:
"Your masters [the Americans] will nuke us Muslims just as they nuked
Hiroshima. People like you want to denuclearize and disarm us in the
face of a savage beast set to devour the world."
Gul then vented his anger at those -- like myself -- who opposed
Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. He sees us as agents of America,
apostates and enemies of Islam and the Pakistani state.
extremist general was making a point that resonates around
the globe. The United States has bombed more than a dozen countries
since 1948, and it recently killed tens of thousands on the pretext of
chasing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It claims to be a force
for democracy and the rule of law despite a long history of supporting
the bloodiest of dictators, rejecting the International Criminal Court
and continuing to develop nuclear weapons.
nuclear monopoly is breaking down. The making of atomic
weapons -- especially crude ones -- has become vastly simpler than at
the time of the Manhattan Project. Basic information is freely
available in technical libraries throughout the world, and surfing the
Internet can bring anyone a staggering amount of detail.
Advanced textbooks and monographs contain details that can
enable reasonably competent scientists and engineers to come up with
"quick-and-dirty" designs for nuclear explosives. The physics of
nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students.
If one steals fissile materials from the thousands of former
Soviet bombs marked for disassembly, or even a fraction of the vast
amounts of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium in research
reactors and storage sites the world over, it is unnecessary to go
through complex processes for uranium enrichment or plutonium
Anger in Muslim countries at the United States has never been
higher. The desire for an atomic weapon to seek vengeance -- utterly
immoral, foolish and suicidal though it be -- is becoming ever more
The notion of an "Islamic bomb" existed long before Sept. 11.
Addressing posterity from his death cell in a Rawalpindi jail, where he
would be hanged two years later, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali
Bhutto, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear program, wrote in 1977: "We
know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability. The
Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilizations have this capability. The
communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilization was
without it, but that position was about to change."
Addressing an Islamic conference in Tehran in 1992, the Iranian
vice president, Sayed Ayatollah Mohajerani, said: "Since Israel
continues to possess nuclear weapons, we, the Muslims, must cooperate
to produce an atomic bomb, regardless of U.N. efforts to prevent
In the celebrations after Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests, the
decades-old religious party Jamaat-e-Islami paraded bomb and missile
replicas through the streets of Pakistani cities. It saw in the bomb a
sure sign of a reversal of fortunes and a panacea for the ills that
have plagued Muslims since the end of the Golden Age of Islam.
In 2000, I captured on video the statements of leaders of
jihadist, right-wing political parties in Pakistan who also demanded a
bomb for Islam.
It is impossible, however, to conceive of any Muslim state
risking retaliation by declaring that it has an Islamic bomb that would
be used for defense of the ummah -- the Islamic community of believers
-- against the United States or Israel. The danger of a nuclear
conflict comes from radicalized individuals within the states.
Although Pakistan's military government insisted that there was
no danger that any of its nuclear weapons would be taken for a ride by
some radical Islamic group, it wasn't taking any chances. Shortly after
the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began in October 2001, several weapons
were reportedly airlifted to safer, isolated locations within the
country, including the northern mountainous area of Gilgit.
This nervousness was not unjustified -- two strongly Islamist
generals of the Pakistan army, close associates of Gen. Pervez
Musharraf, had just been removed. Dissatisfaction within the army
concerning Pakistan's betrayal of the Taliban was (and is) deep. Almost
overnight, under intense U.S. pressure, the Pakistan government had
disowned its progeny and agreed to wage a war of annihilation against
Fears about Pakistan's nuclear weapons were compounded by
revelations that a high-ranking nuclear engineer, Bashiruddin Mahmood,
and a materials specialist, Chaudhry Abdul Majid, had journeyed several
times into Afghanistan in 2000. Both scientists espouse radical Islamic
views. Mahmood had even been photographed with bin Laden.
Today, the United States lives in fear of the bomb it created,
because the decision to use it already has been made. Pious men with
beards will decide when and where on U.S. soil atomic weapons are to be
used. Shadowy groups, propelled by fanatical hatreds, scour the globe
They are not in a hurry. Time is on their side. They are
doubtless confident that they will one day breach Fortress America.
The possibilities for nuclear attack are not limited to the
so-called suitcase bomb stolen from the arsenal of a nuclear state. In
fact, getting and exploding such a bomb is far more difficult than the
use of improvised nuclear devices fabricated from highly enriched
uranium, constructed in the very place where they eventually will be
detonated. Still more likely is an attack on a vulnerable nuclear
reactor or spent fuel repository.
Some nuclear weapons experts say privately that it is not a
question of if but when the attack will happen.
This may be too pessimistic, but tighter policing and monitoring of
nuclear materials (and rapid reduction of stockpiles) and nuclear
weapons knowledge must be the first step. There should not be the
slightest delay in moving on this. But this is far from sufficient.
If nuclear weapons continue to be accepted by nuclear weapon
states as legitimate instruments of deterrence or war, their global
proliferation -- whether by other states or non-state actors -- can
only be slowed at best.
Coercive nonproliferation will only serve to drive up demand.
Nonproliferation by cooperation and consent cannot succeed as long as
the United States insists on retaining and improving its nuclear
arsenal. By what reasonable argument can others be persuaded to give
up, or not acquire, nuclear weapons?
So what will happen when religious fanatics succeed in a nuclear
attack? The world shall plunge headlong into a bottomless abyss of
reaction and counter-reaction in a horror that the human mind cannot
Whom will the United States retaliate against? Will the United
States nuke Mecca? The capitals of Muslim states? What will the United
States and its allies do as their people fear more attacks? Will they
expel Muslims from the United States and Europe, or herd them into
internment camps as was done to Japanese Americans in World War II?
Hiroshima signaled a failure of humankind, not just of the
United States. The growth of technology has far outstripped our ability
to use it wisely. Like a quarreling group of monkeys on a leaky boat,
armed with sticks of dynamite, we are embarked on an uncertain journey.
Humanity's best chance of survival lies in creating taboos
against the manufacture of nuclear weapons -- such as those that
already exist for chemical and biological weapons -- and to work
rapidly toward their global elimination.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is a member of the Pugwash Council and is a professor
of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in
This essay appeared previously in the Los Angeles Times.