Al Qaeda may use nuclear bomb on US: Obama

* US president conjures up horrific possibility of nuclear detonation in New York, London or Johannesburg and ensuing economic, political
and security trauma
* Says nuclear material in hands of terrorist group ‘could change security landscape for years to come’

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama warned Sunday that al Qaeda would not hesitate to use a nuclear weapon against the US, before hosting a global summit aimed at thwarting such a nightmare scenario.

Obama would seek support from fellow leaders for his effort to safeguard all unsecured nuclear material around the world within four years when he opens on Monday the largest summit chaired by a US president in 65 years.

He conjured up the horrific possibility of a nuclear detonation in New York City, London or Johannesburg and the serious global economic, political and security trauma that would ensue, to characterise the gravity of the threat.

“The single biggest threat to US security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organisation obtaining a nuclear weapon,” said Obama on the eve of the two-day summit.

“This is something that could change the security landscape of this country and around the world for years to come. We know that organisations like al Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon – a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”

Despite the focus on extremist groups, two states – Iran and North Korea – would cast a shadow over the global meet.

Washington is leading an effort to toughen sanctions within weeks on Iran over its nuclear programme, which the US and its allies say is aimed at producing weapons – a charge Tehran denies.

The White House would seek concrete commitments from world leaders on securing stockpiles of separated plutonium and uranium, to ensure that they would not be stolen, smuggled or sold to extremists.

“The threat of nuclear war … has diminished. The threat of nuclear terrorism has increased,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News.

To kick off his counter-proliferation drive, Obama met Kazakh President Nursultan Nazerbayev and South African President Jacob Zuma. White House officials said Obama praised Nazarbayev as a model leader for the steps he had taken to denuclearise his central Asian nation.

Kazakhstan handed over Soviet-era nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War, but is a key player in Washington as it bills itself as the world’s top exporter of uranium.

South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons programme in the 1990s, and US officials praised its example, saying its security was enhanced by the move.

He also held talks with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh. The White House said Gilani “indicated his assurance that Pakistan takes nuclear security seriously and has appropriate safeguards in place”.

Obama – who last week signed a landmark disarmament treaty with Russia and laid out a new US nuclear strategy limiting how Washington could use atomic weapons – said he was confident that the summit would garner important progress.

“I feel very good at this stage in the degree of commitment and sense of urgency that I’ve seen from the world leaders so far on this issue,” said Obama. “We think we can make enormous progress on this.”

The summit itself would focus primarily on separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium stocks, rather than radiological “dirty” bombs, which the US sees as a less catastrophic threat than nuclear devices.

US officials hope nations participating in the summit would agree on a series of security steps for their own nuclear material, and help pay to put the stocks of less well-off countries under lock and key.

They also expect some leaders to unveil specific actions, similar to Chile’s decision to ship a stock of highly enriched uranium to the US.

The conference is a precursor to the UN Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference next month.


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