Nations Meet in Morocco on How To Counter Nuclear Terror Threat

By Jacquelyn S. Porth
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Representatives of 12 nations are gathering in Rabat, Morocco, October 30-31 to discuss how to address effectively the ever-present threat to the international community from terrorists determined to detonate a nuclear or radiological device.

This will be the first diplomatic meeting to discuss the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism since the United States and Russia proposed it at the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July.  For about six months before it was announced, the United States and Russia discussed the need for partners to counter this dangerous threat  (See related article.)

Robert Joseph, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, said the initiative is designed to address all aspects of a complex nuclear threat because a single incident would cause grave consequences.  In an October 27 interview with the Washington File, Joseph said the initiative “is designed to build a partnership of countries that are committed to countering nuclear terrorism.”

Predicting the likelihood and location of nuclear terrorist attack is next to impossible, but he said, “we do know that nonstate ‘actors’ - terrorists - are very interested in acquiring this type of capability” and would not hesitate to use it.

He said the initiative will help prevent terrorists from acquiring the nuclear and radiological materials or expertise needed to set off a nuclear or radiological device.  It also will go a long way toward improving the physical security at civilian nuclear facilities, Joseph said, as well as establishing better accounting procedures for nuclear and radioactive substances.  (See related article.)

These measures are necessary to prevent terrorists from gaining access to the means to detonate a nuclear weapon or a "dirty" bomb (a device that disperses radioactive material) thereby causing nuclear contamination and economic disruption.  “We need to do everything we can to prevent and protect against” the dire consequences of a terrorist incident, Joseph said.

Although even the best designed program cannot provide complete success, he said deterrence involves using technology and intelligence to better detect and suppress the illicit transit of source materials so useful to terrorists.  The initiative is expected to promote greater international research and development cooperation in the field of detection, he said.

But successful detection is only part of the equation.  Detection must be followed by swift interdiction and the seizure of dangerous nuclear materials.  “We will work with our Global Initiative partners,” Joseph said, along the lines of the three-year-old Proliferation Security Initiative that began with a small group of partners and now is supported by 80 nations that want to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.  (See related article.)

To prevent the nightmare of terrorists armed with nuclear or radiological weapons, nations have to improve their ability to respond to an incident, and, to be ready to do whatever necessary to mitigate its terrible impact.  Joseph said partners also must improve investigative techniques to figure out who may have facilitated an illicit transfer or triggered a deadly detonation.  This is critical, he said, to put partners “in a better position to stop a second, or follow-on, attack.”

This broad initiative also has law enforcement and legal ramifications that would involve denying safe haven to terrorists behind an attack and strengthening the national laws of countries seeking to prosecute them.

Joseph said Rabat was a logical choice to launch this diplomatic effort because Morocco has very strong nonproliferation and counterterrorism credentials.  He also said the Moroccan government was instrumental in negotiating the related International Convention for the Suppression of Act of Nuclear Terrorism.  (See related article.)


The meeting in Morocco is aimed at establishing the framework for future work through a statement of principles that initial and future partners will endorse.  “We will also focus on what those principles, or objectives, mean operationally,” the under secretary said.

Attendees will share information on the best practices associated with securing nuclear materials and facilities, Joseph said, as well as ways to measure the initiative’s future success.  One measure will be the deployment of effective nuclear detection equipment and the associated confidence partners will gain from relying on it.  As partners field increasingly effective nuclear detection equipment, there will be a greater chance of stopping “the transfer of nuclear materials early in the process,” the under secretary said, which would be beneficial for all.

To succeed in the long-term, the initiative measurably must improve the capacities of individual partners so that each one is “better prepared to prevent, protect against, and respond to any incident,” Joseph said.  Additionally, he said, the initiative must boost the capacity of nations to act, collectively.

Besides delegations from 12 nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will attend the meeting in Morocco as an observer.  The United States and Russia view the IAEA as having capabilities useful to advance the goals of the initiative, Joseph said.  The IAEA is a good resource for helping nations enhance the physical protection of nuclear facilities, he added.

Private-sector support, especially from the civil nuclear industry, also is important.  “There are many points of intersection,” the official said, where private-public partnerships should expand.  Joseph singled out improved nuclear forensics as an area of particular importance in countering nuclear terrorists.

After Rabat, he said, the goal is to expand the number of partners willing to endorse the initiative’s principles and carry out necessary preventative measures and actions, including enacting or changing relevant laws to prosecute nuclear terrorists.

While the State Department is leading initiative-related international outreach efforts, it also is working with other agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Energy and Justice.  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the FBI also are involved.  Joseph said together these organizations have considerable expertise to offer on nuclear detection and security matters.

Additional information on the July U.S.-Russian the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism is available on the State Department’s Web site.

For more information, see Arms Control and Nonproliferation and Response to Terrorism.