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National Observer Home > No. 41 - Winter 1999 > Article

The Nuclear Suitcase Bomb and Nuclear Terrorism: the Lebed Claims

Kenneth Patchen

In a closed meeting with a visiting United States congressional delegation in May 1997, former Russian Security Council Secretary Alexander Lebed pointed out that the Russian government was unable to account for some eighty small atomic demolition munitions (A.D.M.s) known popularly as "nuclear suitcase bombs". Three months later, in a television interview with the United States CBS newsmagazine Sixty Minutes broadcast on 7 September 1997, he repeated his claims:

"I don't know their location. I don't know whether they have been destroyed or whether they have been sold or stolen. I don't know."

Lebed also pointed out that the nuclear suitcase bombs, made up to look like suitcases, were designed for sabotage behind enemy lines. He described them as weighing 30-45 kilos, and able to fit into a suitcase or backpack. The bombs measured 60x40x20 centimetres and could be carried in a case of that size and had been distributed amongst special Soviet army intelligence units a reference to the Spetznaz (Special) forces of the G.R.U. (Russian Military Intelligence). They were therefore "an ideal weapon for nuclear terror". The devices lacked safety systems designed to prevent unauthorised use usually electronic combination locks. Accordingly, he had ordered an inventory to be conducted to determine whether they had all been accounted for.

Lebed argued that a "very thorough investigation was necessary" as the majority of the G.R.U. Spetznaz forces had been left behind in former Soviet republics after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The problem accordingly was to determine how many nuclear suitcases remained in Russian territory and other C.I.S. member states.

Testifying to the United States House Military Research and Development Subcommittee that Moscow had secretly developed "suitcase bombs" under K.G.B. orders in the 1970s specifically for terrorist purposes, "I am absolutely sure they have been made," he claimed. Lebed added that the devices had an explosive capacity of one kiloton the equivalent of 1,000 tons of T.N.T. and could be activated by a single person. Lebed also claimed that he had spoken to scientists who had worked on the weapons and was therefore certain of their existence.

On 2 October 1997, Lebed insisted that "compact nuclear devices are possible and have been made". He repeated his earlier claim that the commission he had formed in 1996 to study the problem had determined that "so-called backpack or 'suitcase' nuclear devices were in the possession of the Soviet armed forces". He also reiterated that he had not been able to account for all such devices and that he considered it a "matter of principal importance".

On 6 October 1997, Lebed insisted at an international conference in Berlin that he remained "convinced" that small Soviet A.D.M.s had been built and repeated that he had been unable to ascertain their current locations whilst in office. He pointed out that the United States had built such weapons "about thirty years ago, and at that time, the U.S.S.R. did not lag behind America in anything".

 Professor Yablokov supports Lebed

Throughout 1997, Russian environmentalist and former adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, Professor Aleksy Yablokov of the Russian Academy of Sciences provided independent support for Lebed's claims. On 9 September 1997, Yablokov forwarded a letter to the Russian "Novaya Gazeta". The letter was "lost" en route and he passed another copy to the newspaper, which printed it.

In this letter, Yablokov claimed that "the statements" by General Lebed concerning suitcases with nuclear bombs were definitely not groundless. However, Yablokov claimed that the devices were created for the K.G.B. for "terrorist purposes" and not for the G.R.U. as Yebed had claimed.

The nuclear devices were deliberately not assigned to the Ministry of Defence and therefore not included in negotiations on nuclear weapons reduction. Further, Yablokov claimed that he had face to face conversations with individuals who worked on the production of the bombs and reported that there were originally 132 constructed and 82 were unaccounted for.

Yablokov claimed that "the very point of K.G.B.'s nuclear terror bombs was to explode them in an American city at the right moment". The bombs did not have codes and therefore could be set off without Presidential approval. The United States or other target country could not threaten retaliation against Russia if an unaccountable terrorist group unilaterally placed a suitcase bomb in an American city.

Testifying to the United States House Subcommittee on Military Research and Development on 2 October 1997, Yablokov also affirmed his assessment. He stated that he was "absolutely certain" that nuclear sized weapons had been manufactured for the K.G.B. during the 1970s. Referring to motives he pointed out: "For what? For terroristic aims. Exactly. Only for terrorism. It was the [Cold] War. It was probably the middle of the Cold War. And they tried to fight this capitalism. They tried to kill capitalism through these unusual weapons."

Yablokov repeated his statement to the effect he had met with Soviet scientists who had designed the weapons which had not been included on any "official" list. He added "nobody knows" how many weapons had been built and stated that they might not exist any longer.

The bombs would have required two major overhauls over the past twenty years since they had been manufactured. However, he doubted that there would have been such overhauls, particularly in the last decade.

Yablokov criticised Russian officials for concealing the truth and stated that the nuclear suitcase bomb issue was "connected" with the broader problem of nuclear security in Russia. On 31 October 1997, Yablokov increased his demands and threatened to release technical details of the "nuclear suitcases" if President Yeltsin did not reply to a letter forwarded to him on 27 October.

On 6 October 1997, President Yeltsin signed a set of amendments to the Russian Federation Law on State Secrets, which extensively classified all information about military nuclear facilities. The new laws were widely interpreted as a measure to terminate the nuclear suitcase controversy.

On 6 November 1997, Yablokov was secretly summoned to the Kremlin and ordered to help draft a presidential decree to coordinate the location of "compact nuclear weapons," bring them under secure control and arrange for their special destruction.

The Reaction of the Russian Intelligence Services

On 10 September 1997, the Operational Intelligence Directorate of the G.R.U. denied the existence of "any 60x40x20 briefcases containing nuclear charges". The anonymous G.R.U. source pointed out that special G.R.U. detachments were tasked to conduct sabotage operations behind enemy lines but claimed that "they never used nuclear munitions to do so" and relied on conventional explosives.

The entry of the G.R.U. into a public controversy was extremely unusual. The G.R.U. is the most secret of all Russian intelligence services.

The representative of the Foreign Intelligence Service claimed that the S.V.R. had "no information" concerning the alleged suitcase bombs. Former K.G.B. Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov described the allegations as "complete nonsense" and stated that the K.G.B. had never had the need to have nuclear weapons.

Interviewed by Russian public television a spokesman for the F.S.B. (internal security service) stated that the F.S.B. "has no information about the U.S.S.R. K.G.B. possessing nuclear ammunition of this kind that is, super-small charges in the form of nuclear suitcases".

The official Russian denials were strangely equivocal. Some denials, which denied that Russia had or built such weapons, were contradictory. Some Russian spokesmen simultaneously denied that such weapons existed whilst pointing out that the United States possessed such weapons, as if the issue of Russian nuclear situations was thereby resolved.

General Romanov of the National Nuclear Risk Reduction Centre attempted to discredit Lebed's allegations by claiming that any nuclear warhead would necessarily weigh 200 kg.

However, other critics of Lebed admitted that smaller weapons were technically viable. As one Western commentator noted:

"So many of the official arguments explaining why the U.S.S.R. did not construct A.D.M.s are based on obviously false premises that one is led to wonder whether the denials are false as well.

"This  circumstantial reasoning does not support the claim that such A.D.M.s are currently unaccounted for, but it does suggest that Soviet A.D.M.s may have existed and that the issue of their disposition is a real one."

The Threat

It has been known for the last three decades that sleeper agents of the G.R.U. and Spetznaz forces were trained in nuclear weapons handling and that illegals (spies operating under assumed identities in target countries) were tasked to gather information on key points of vulnerability in Western target countries.

A popular scenario envisaged sabotage by Spetznaz forces against Western targets, assisted by illegal "sleeper" agents in those target countries (a) prior to a nuclear attack, (b) in conjunction with a nuclear attack, (c) post nuclear attack and (d) as a negotiating tool.

The leadership, the administrative centres and the members of intelligence services, especially those concerned specifically with analysing and countering G.R.U., were to be assassinated.

 Nuclear Terrorist Threat of the 1990s The Russian Connection

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Soviet-free world threat scenarios were revised. The current emphasis on the threat posed by fundamentalist-separatist-sectarian ethnic-millenarian and sociopathic individuals and groups is a case in point. Such individuals and groups have the capital and scientific resources to obtain the necessary material for the construction of weapons of mass destruction.

The Japanese Aum sect, who visited Australia in 1993 and tested the deadly nerve gas sarin on livestock in Western Australia, was responsible for sarin attacks in Japan in March 1995. The subway attacks killed 12 and seriously injured 3,776 others. However, the sect also attempted to acquire or develop a nuclear weapon in addition to its existing stock of highly toxic biological and chemical agents.

Aum members made numerous visits to Russia, and there has been an unverified report that they attempted to purchase nuclear materials. Japanese authorities raided the Aum sect after the 1995 gas attack and located technical information on uranium enrichment processes and a notebook which listed inquiries concerning the cost of obtaining a nuclear warhead.

Russian nuclear safeguards at both military and civilian locations are notoriously lax. As Senator Curt Weldon, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Research and Development of the House National Security Committee, has pointed out:

"No one in the West, and few in Russia know for sure whether dozens of small nuclear weapons, ideal for terrorist use, are unaccounted for and perhaps in the wrong hands."

The Director of Foreign Intelligence Operations for the United States Department of Energy (1990-1994), Jay Stewart has stated:

"The potential for very sophisticated nuclear technology and weapons to get in the hands of third world dictators is very real. The Russian government does not have control . . . It's my belief that the Russian Ministry of Defence itself doesn't know where all the tactical nuclear weapons are and cannot account for them. If these suitcase devices have fallen out of national government hands, the question becomes where are they, who has them, who had them and what are their intentions. In the former Soviet Union everything is for sale."

Referring to the risk of criminal organisations and gangs obtaining illicit nuclear materials, F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh testified that the "size of this problem is really immense" and that United States law enforcement agencies were taking the threat of Russian criminal groups acquiring nuclear weapons "very seriously". Greater efforts had to be made to concentrate on this critical issue.

Failure of Civilian and Military Nuclear Facility Security

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the illicit market in nuclear material developed into what has been called a "clandestine global trade". In 1992, Arkadi Chuvin, deputy head of Tekhsneksport (responsible for nuclear exports) admitted it was impossible to check the end delivery of nuclear materials from Russia: "I can give no guarantees that uranium or plutonium we supply to the Czechs, for instance, won't be sold to a third party."

On 9 March 1992, two Russian emigres were arrested in Bavaria for attempting to sell three pounds of weapons-grade uranium for nearly three million deutschmarks. Shortly after, Italian police arrested an Italian businessman who had offered to sell two Israelis a consignment of uranium, deuterium and plutonium. A firm in Norway in the same year received an offer from a business in Volgograd, Russia to sell eight tons of "heavy water" at 440 dollars per kilogram. At the end of 1992, there were twenty-five separate attempts to smuggle Russian uranium in Germany alone.

By the end of 1992, there were approximately three hundred seizures throughout Europe of various types of radioactive material offered for sale.

The failure of Russian authorities to maintain adequate security measures at civilian and military nuclear installations was evident as early as 1993. There is no reliable information suggesting that security has been upgraded since. In 1993, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs logged 900 cases of unauthorised personnel attempting to gain entry to restricted nuclear facilities.

An American visitor to the prestigious Kurchatov Institute near Moscow discovered 160 pounds of weapons-grade uranium "secured" in "American high school style lockers fastened only by a single chain through the handles".

In 1993, a thief climbed through a hole in the wooden fence around the secured area of Sevmorput shipyard near Mumansk. He used a hacksaw to cut through a common padlock on a storage container in which radioactive fuel for nuclear submarines was stored and stole three fuel assemblies, each containing 4.5 kg of enriched (30 per cent pure) uranium. The fuel was later located in the residence of a Russian naval officer, who had conspired with another naval officer. The Russian navy investigating officer in the case remarked that "even potatoes are probably much better guarded today than radioactive materials".

In July 1993, two Russian sailors stole 1.8 kg of 30 per cent enriched uranium-235 from the Adreeva Guba Northern Fleet Naval Base. They later accused two senior officers of ordering the theft. In 1994, the Russian Counter Intelligence Service recorded 900 thefts of secret technology in the last half of 1993.

On 14 December 1994, Czech authorities, acting on anonymous information, found a Saab parked in a busy street in the centre of Prague. In the boot they found 2.72 kg of highly enriched uranium with a Russian certificate of authentication. The material was contained in two cylindrical metal canisters in the form of uranium 235 oxide and was 87.7 per cent pure. Three men arrested in the car were nuclear workers in Czechoslovakia and the former Soviet Union. The owner of the car was a Czech physicist who had worked in Czeckoslovakia's nuclear industry and the former Soviet Union. Co-conspirators were a Russian and a Belarusian from Minsk who had been employed in their countries' nuclear industries. Two other persons were subsequently arrested including a police officer. The group had been attempting to sell the uranium for several million dollars.

In early 1999, Russian authorities seized 3.8 kilograms of stolen uranium isotope kept in a metal cylinder inside a lead insulator, at the home of an unemployed man in the North Caucuses. A criminal gang suspected of attempting to sell the material to buyers in Russia and the Baltic States was detained. The uranium had been stolen in 1994 from the Arzamas-16 nuclear research centre close to Nizhny Novgorod, only 400 kilometres from Moscow.

In October 1998, there were reports that members of the militant Islamic organisation al-Qaeda, closely linked to the Saudi Arabian terrorist godfather, Osama bin Ladin, had attempted in 1993 to purchase enriched uranium. Further reports indicated that bin Ladin may posses tactical nuclear weapons from the illicit black market, probably from sympathisers in the Central Asian Republics, who in turn acquired the weapons from the Ukraine.

In 1992, former Russian and East German security officers attempted to sell 45 kg of cobalt-60 to a German arms dealer. In 1993, four tons of beryllium were brought together by an criminal syndicate specialising in nuclear materials, former K.G.B. officers, to meet the requirements of their client, North Korea.

On 19 May 1994, German police accidentally located 6 grams of 99.75 per cent pure plutonium at a German businessman's residence. The degree of enrichment of the recovered plutonium was higher than that needed in a nuclear weapon. The businessmen's links included former K.G.B. and Stasi (East German security service) officers and the notorious arms and drug export-import organisation, the Bulgarian-based Kintex.

On 1 June 1994, German authorities acquired two uranium pallets of approximately 0.8 per cent enriched uranium-235. In June 1994, a six-man criminal enterprise was apprehended after police had obtained an extra 900 grams of low-enriched uranium in the form of 120 other pallets.

On 25 July 1994, the B.L.K.A. (Bavarian State Criminal Agency) was provided with a sample of nuclear material weighing approximately half a gram of which 240 mg was plutonium-239. This operation led to the arrest, on 10 August 1994, of a businessman as he alighted on a Lufthansa flight from Moscow. His suitcase was found to contain 363 grams of 87.2 per cent plutonium 239 mixed with 152 grams uranium oxide and 1 kg of lithium-6 (used as a precursor for thermonuclear bombs).

Two Spanish nationals were arrested who were later found to have connections to the Basque terrorist separatist organisation, E.T.A. The police believed that the material originated in the Russian Institute of Physics and Power Engineering in Obinsk, Russia. The two Spaniards had earlier offered to deliver a total of 8.8 pounds of plutonium (approximately half of what is necessary to make a nuclear bomb). They offered small samples of this material to prove their bona fides and indicated that more was available from the "source" in Moscow. Investigators found the plutonium in a shielded cylinder inside the briefcase of one of the conspirators who had lived for many years as a student in Moscow. They also found two pounds of lithium-6, a non-radioactive substance used to enhance bomb yields. The significance of this case is that three amateurs succeeded in obtaining a substantial amount of high-grade plutonium.

In 1998, Stanislav Lunev, a Russian defector and former colonel in the G.R.U. claimed Russia was engaged in gathering information on the United States President, key congressmen, military leaders and cabinet members as targets for assassination squads in the event of war. Lunev has claimed that special forces teams would blow up power stations, telephone switching systems and dams and target secret landing sites for Air Force One, prior to a missile strike.

Lunev claimed that special agents were entering the United States as foreign tourists with false passports and were locating sites to deposit small nuclear devices known as "suitcase bombs" in the Shenandoah Valley outside Washington and Hudson Valley of New York. He claimed:

"Suitcase nuclear bombs are just one small part of their arsenal . . . I have been so surprised that the American public is so interested in this. Why? This is nothing unusual for Russian military plans."

He claimed that "America is facing a nation led by gangsters gangsters who have nuclear weapons. And some of these weapons are on American soil."

Lunev also claimed that the Russian government could not account for 100 nuclear devices. Lunev pointed out that although the Cold War was over:

"There is no military confrontation between the two blocs but the Cold War is still in play and going on in more dangerous ways. There is no open confrontation but there is lots of activity from special services and criminals."

Conclusion: Fin de Siecle and Post Modern Terrorism

In 1997 at the beginning of the nuclear suitcase controversy, Professor Yablovsky stated that "the very point of the nuclear terrorist bombs was to explode them in an American city at the right moment". Given the horizontal and vertical proliferation and miniaturisation of weapons of mass destruction, assessing and determining the perceived "right moment" will be a vital task for intelligence services. More importantly, prophylactic intervention will be even more critical to ensure that the planned "right moment" does not eventuate.

The coming of the second millennium the year 2000 and the year 2000 computer problem - might be regarded as the "right moment" by many "crazy states" led by religious and political pseudo-charismatic fanatical leaders (Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea) and non-state actors, sociopathic groups, cults and individuals, sectarian and millenarian and Muslim fundamentalist groups, who have referred to the need for an "Islamic [nuclear] bomb," radicals, extremist nationalist and separatist groups and deep ecologists.

Associated with or sympathetic to these mass and millenarian movements, groups and organisations are numbers of "unstructured terrorists" or micro terrorists: small groups who operate on the principle of compartmentalisation, with code word access, who often have a conspiratorial and paranoid hatred of civil society. Walter Lacqueur summarises the significance of such movements:

"Those who subscribe to such beliefs number in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. They have their own subcultures, produce books and cds by the thousands and build temples and communities of whose existence most of their contemporaries are unaware. They have substantial financial means at their disposal. Although the more extreme apocalyptic groups are potentially terrorist, intelligence services have generally overlooked their activities . . .

Apocalyptic elements crop up in contemporary intellectual fashions and extremist politics as well. For instance extreme environmentalists, particularly the so-called restoration ecologists, believe that environmental disasters will destroy civilisation as we know it no loss in their view and regard the vast majority of human beings as expendable. From such beliefs and values it is not a large step to engaging in acts of terrorism to expedite the process."

The miniaturised and portable weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons may be easily disguised and are ideal weapons for "unstructured" terrorist groups. Such groups are notoriously difficult to monitor, especially if they are circuitously linked through intelligence services to a hostile foreign power.

Materials that have been identified as stolen or are otherwise illegally required for trading on the nuclear black market are: americum 241 (radioactive poisoning), beryllium (illicit reactors and nuclear weapons), californium-252 (radioactive poisoning), caesium-137 (radioactive poisoning), cobalt 60 (radioactive poisoning), hafnium (illicit reactors), lithium-6 (thermonuclear weapons), osmium dioxide (radioactive poisoning), plutonium (nuclear weapons), polonium-210 (nuclear weapons), red mercury (nuclear weapons), strontium-90 (radioactive poisoning), tallium-204 (radioactive poisoning), uranium (nuclear weapons), yttrium-90 (radioactive poisoning) and zirconium (illicit reactors). Security planners often overlook the potential for socio-political blackmail involving such materials, such as water storage and other essential services.

As we approach the year 2000, fin de siecle terrorism will undoubtedly increase as it will be judged to be the "end time," the time or day of "judgement" or "the right time". The conjunction of primordial beliefs and passions, modern weaponry and postmodern technology will be highly potent: For terrorism in the postmodern era will have no conscience, it will only have will, and be beyond good and evil.

As Walter Lacquer has pointed out:

"Chances are that of one hundred attempts at terrorist superviolence, 99 would fail. But the single successful one could claim many more victims, do more material damage, and unleash far greater panic than anything the world has yet experienced."


Lebed's and Yablokov's and Russian intelligence services reactions to disclosures and statements re nuclear suitcase bombs: Intelligence Digest, 3 October 1997; Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 1998; Interfax, 8 September 1997, Lebed says Individual Warheads in C.I.S. Pose Danger Russia's Nuclear security; S. Parrish, A Suitcase-Nukes on the Loose? The Story behind the Controversy, Monterey Institute of International Studies Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 21 April 1999; The Nuclear Roundtable Meeting Summary for 24 October 1997.

1998 Congressional Hearings: Nuclear Terrorism and Countermeasures, House of Representatives Committee on National Security, Military Research and Development Subcommittee, 1 October 1997.

Counterproliferation Programme Review Committee, C.P.R.C. Annual Report to Congress; Testimony of F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh, International Organised Crime and its Impact on the United States, before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Government Affairs, U.S. Senate, May 1994.

Lunev, G.R.U. defector: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review 28 April 1999; Las Vegas Sun, 28 April 1990; Defence Daily News, 5 August 1998.

Russian nuclear security and cases of criminal related nuclear material theft: B. Hoffman and D. Claridge, Illicit Trafficking in Nuclear Materials, Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, London, January-February 1999; S. Handelman, Comrade Criminal, London (revised ed.) 1995.

Cultural despair and extremism: Walter Laqueur Postmodern Terrorism, Foreign Affairs, September/October 1996; Fin de Siecle Once More With Feeling, Journal of Contemporary History, January 1996.

National Observer No. 41 - Winter 1999