Islamic State getting a nuclear bomb: The world’s greatest threat?

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

At last week’s 4th Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, US President Barack Obama warned that nuclear terrorism, involving groups such as the so called Islamic State, pose a great threat to the world.

“The danger of a terrorist group obtaining and using a nuclear weapon is one of the greatest threats to global security,” said Mr Obama at the gathering, which saw more than 50 world leaders in attendance.

His warnings follow the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March. Mr Obama also cited surveillance footage, made by a terrorist suspect and seized by Belgian police last November, of the daily routine of a senior manager of a nuclear plant in Brussels.

The inaugural nuclear security summit, hosted by Mr Obama also in Washington in 2010, followed a speech he gave in Prague, the Czech Republic, in which he identified nuclear terrorism as an international threat. It has since been a biennial event, held also in Seoul and The Hague.

Despite being countries without nuclear, Malaysia and Singapore, whose ministers attended the summit, have spoken of their role in implementing measures to contribute towards nuclear security internationally.

At the summit, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore has stepped up inspections on radioactive materials passing through its ports, especially nuclear fuel. He underscored that Singaporean authorities had intercepted cargo and confiscated them where necessary.

Ahead of the summit, the Malaysian Ambassador to the US said that although his country does not possess nuclear power, the summit was important in assisting Malaysia to identify activities in the banking sector such as the channelling of funds towards illegal nuclear purposes.

The Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, attended the summit.

The politics behind the summit

Last week’s nuclear summit will be Mr Obama’s last, before steps down early next year. But this year’s summit has been described as an “anticlimactic” end to his diplomatic efforts in this regard.

Russia had decided not to attend the summit last week, dealing in effect a blow to any notion of Mr Obama having achieved worldwide cooperation on nuclear security. Russia is a major nuclear power, but has been at loggerheads with the US over the civil war in Syria.

Pakistan is another nuclear-armed country that did not attend the summit in Washington – not because of a boycott, but because of unrelated terrorist attacks in Lahore that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to stay home to address.

Given the lack of full attendance, the occasion of the summit turned to many issues being discussed by the leaders present, sometimes at the expense of coherence.

With China President Xi Jinping present in Washington, Mr Obama took the occasion to meet him on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit, to raise the issue of the South China Sea disputes, although it bore no relation to the nuclear summit.

There was no change – nor the slightest whimper to the effect – to the resolute positions of both the US and China on the issue. Mr Xi reemphasised the defence of what China believes its sovereignty in the South China Sea, while Mr Obama reemphasised the “freedom of navigation” in those contested waters.

North Korea and Trump’s controversial proposals

More relevant and salient was the US’s and China’s reemphasised commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsular.

Earlier in March, North Korea had threatened the US and South Korea with pre-emptive nuclear strikes, in response to their joint military drills.

The issue of the Korean peninsular also took the spotlight in the US given the remarks by Donald Trump, currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for the presidential elections in November – the latest of his recent spate of foreign policy pronouncements, Mr Trump said South Korea should take on more of the burden of defence with regard to North Korea, even proposing that South Korea and Japan begin to arm themselves with nuclear weapson.

This led Mr Obama to make some of the most damming responses by a sitting US president to a presidential candidate. “The person who made the statements doesn’t know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy or the Korean peninsula, or the world generally,” Mr Obama said, reinforcing the US alliance with South Korea and Japan as the cornerstone of the US’s presence in Asia, not just militarily.