In September 2007, the Israeli military secretly attacked a site in Syria. What was surprising about the attack, explains nuclear weapons expert David Albright, is what happened next: No one said a word.
"Israel denied that they had done anything," Albright tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross. "Syria tried to trivialize it. The United States wouldn't say anything. So it was a big mystery."
Albright is the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit organization that monitors and investigates nuclear proliferation. Shortly after the mysterious Israeli attack, ISIS decided to figure out what the Syrian target might be.
"We were hearing stories that it was biological weapons, [a] chemical weapons site, a missile site, a nuclear site," says Albright. "We decided to try to find out using commercial satellite imagery."
The images that ISIS found made it clear that Syria had built a nuclear reactor — and that it had received help building it from North Korea.
"When we looked at the imagery overhead [taken before the Israeli attacks,] the building looked fairly nondescript, and we learned later that Syria had taken tremendous steps to disguise the facility so it wouldn't look like a North Korean reactor," says Albright. "But when you ... measure the dimensions from overhead, you end up with dimensions that are very close to a nuclear reactor that's at the Yongbyon site" in North Korea.
Albright's book Pedding Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies, details how countries like Syria and Libya have developed their nuclear programs with the help of vast smuggling networks located in North Korea and Pakistan. The networks provide key parts, facilities and engineering help — for a steep price.
Albright also describes how Libya developed its own nuclear program with the help of a Pakistani nuclear scientist named A.Q. Khan. Albright spent four years researching how Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, smuggled nuclear-related parts to Iran and Libya.
"Libya was the pinnacle of the A.Q. Khan networks," Albright says. "It was a country willing to buy whole facilities; it was open to making the nuclear weapon itself. It was tolerating pretty slow deliveries of the key items, and [Libya] had very deep pockets."
After Khan's network was discovered by the CIA and MI6 in 2004, Albright says, Libya admitted to having a secret nuclear weapons program.
"It was one of these cases where the CIA and MI6 launched a very successful operation," Albright explains. "It took many years, but the operation was so successful that it helped convince Libya to completely give up nuclear weapons."
Though Khan is not actively supplying countries with nuclear parts at present, Albright says, he remains a threat to global security.
"What you have to worry about is [Khan] helping [countries] intellectually," Albright says. "[He could be] passing information. ... The restrictions on him have gone down. He is active and engaging people internationally. So you have to worry that he could be thinking about helping some others."
And other countries — like Syria — have not completely given up their nuclear ambitions.
"There are a lot of questions that remain [about Syria's nuclear facilities]," Albright says. "One of them is what Syria paid. Another is exactly what Syria got. Evidence seems to suggest that Syria got reactor technology, they got some engineering support and they got some reactor components. ... And one of the biggest mysteries that remains now is, did North Korea provide uranium?"
On how the profit motive drives nuclear proliferation
"Most people are horrified of nuclear weapons. They understand the danger of them. But if they're being asked to buy or sell some vital piece of equipment that costs millions of dollars, then some of the concern is diminished, and they're kind of willing to turn a blind eye. Sometimes they're willing to have the money persuade them that maybe it's not so bad to have nuclear weapons. So the money is vital, and if there wasn't a profit motive, countries like Pakistan would have run into real trouble acquiring nuclear weapons."
On how nuclear trade is different now than in the Cold War era
"What's different is the U.S. and Soviet Union were more independent. They had their own industries. The Soviet Union conducted espionage against the United States to get the secrets of the atomic bomb. But then it more or less used its own industries to put together the capability to put together the bomb. China essentially had tremendous help from the Soviet Union to get it up over the hurdle for having that technology and being able to put together the facilities. What you see now is that the countries that want nuclear weapons mostly look outward to acquire the assistance, both in terms of know-how but also in terms of the vital equipment and materials to put together a program back home that allows them to make nuclear explosive material and to make the nuclear weapon itself. So these are programs very dependent on outside assistance."
On how President Obama's strategy differs from President Bush's strategy in dealing with Iran's nuclear aims
"I think the Bush administration finally started to think through what it wanted to do. And in the last year, it wasn't too bad — but in a sense, it was too little, too late. Obama came roaring in, willing to do all kinds of things. And I think from Iran's point of view, it may be too late. And they're so close to having this nuclear weapons capability, feeling that the punishment so far for moving in those directions is so manageable — it's not been slight, but it's been manageable — I think they want to go further and try to go as far as they can and they're not in the mood for negotiations. The regime [believes] moving in this direction helps them domestically. For Obama, it was unfortunately maybe a little late, so he now has the unpleasant job of ratcheting up the pressure while avoiding war."
On the odds of a nuclear attack happening in Albright's lifetime
"I think the chance of it is low, but it's not low enough. And if you think of the Chernobyl accident in 1986, which spread radiation all over Europe and Russia, [you realize] these low-probability events can happen, and if it's a nuclear weapon it's devastating. It can kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. I don't feel very confident that it's not going to happen. ... I think we have to do everything we can to reduce the number of countries with nuclear weapons, and to actually work towards getting rid of all nuclear weapons."
On the odds of al-Qaida getting a nuclear weapon
"I think al-Qaida is going to work very hard to try to get one. And the more countries that get nuclear weapons — or the more countries working to get nuclear weapons — then al-Qaida's chances improve. They need the nuclear explosive material, and they're going to have to get it, and that's not easy. They're also going to learn how to make a nuclear weapon, at least a crude one that would work for them."
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