Nuclear Proliferation

Updated September 13, 2021 | Infoplease Staff
—Borgna Brunner

Spain. On March 11, 2004, Spain's most horrific terrorist attack occurred: 202 people were killed and 1,400 were injured in bombings at Madrid's railway station. The government at first blamed ETA, the Basque terrorist organization, but evidence quickly surfaced implicating al-Qaeda. In presidential elections just days later, Prime Minister Aznar's Popular Party suffered a stinging defeat, and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Socialist Party became the new prime minister. Many Spaniards blamed Aznar's staunch support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq for making Spain an al-Qaeda target. Others were angered by what they saw as the government's politically motivated insistence that ETA was to blame for the attacks at the same time that links to al-Qaeda were emerging. By April, a dozen al-Qaeda suspects, most of them Moroccan, were arrested; several suspects blew themselves up during a police raid to avoid capture. In May, the new prime minister made good on his campaign promise, recalling Spain's 1,300 soldiers from Iraq, much to the displeasure of the United States, which said Spain was appeasing terrorists.

Russia. Before and after August elections in Russia's autonomous, largely Muslim state of Chechnya, terrorists blew up two planes, killing all 90 passengers, and killed nine at a Moscow subway stop. An even more barbaric act followed: on Sept. 1–3, dozens of guerrillas seized a school in Beslan, near Chechnya, and held about 1,100 young schoolchildren, teachers, and parents hostage. At least 335 hostages were killed, including about 156 children, and more than 550 were wounded. Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility. In the aftermath, prime minister Vladimir Putin announced that he would radically restructure the government to fight terrorism more effectively, raising alarms that his consolidation of power would roll back Russian democracy.

Saudi Arabia. The monarchy has suffered a variety of terrorist attacks since May 2003, many attributed to al-Qaeda. The attacks have caused the deaths of about 100, mostly foreign workers, but for the first time, some attacks were also aimed at Saudi government targets. While the government has arrested a sizeable number of suspected terrorists in 2003 and 2004, little has been done to quell Islamic militancy in the kingdom, which is now beginning to turn its wrath against the regime itself. In December, an audio tape purportedly by Osama bin Laden praised gunmen who attacked a U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia early in the month, lambasted the Saudi government corrupt and oppressive, and insisted that “the only way to reform is the toppling of the regime through armed struggle.”.

Democracy Under Duress

Afghanistan. In 2004, attacks on American-led forces intensified in Afghanistan as the Taliban and al-Qaeda continued to regroup. President Hamid Karzai's hold on power remained tenuous, as entrenched warlords continued to exert regional control. Remarkably, however, Afghanistan's first democratic presidential elections in Oct. 2004 were a success. Ten million Afghans, more than a third of the country, registered to vote, including more than 40% of eligible women. Despite the Taliban's threats to kill anyone who participated, the polls were reasonably peaceful and the elections deemed fair by international observers. Karzai won amid a field of 18 presidential candidates.

Venezuela. After years of bridling under Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez's autocratic rule, and having failed in 2003 to oust him through a nine-week national strike, opposition groups (primarily made up of business, media, and labor groups) pursued a recall referendum. In Aug. 2003, a petition with 3.2 million signatures was delivered to the country's election commission, which was ruled invalid. Almost a year later, after the Chávez government challenged several subsequent petitions, the electoral board finally scheduled the referendum in Aug. 2004. Chávez, who had been shoring up his standing with the Venezuelan poor during the delays, won the referendum with an overwhelming 58% of the vote. The opposition alleged fraud, but international observers confirmed that there had been no irregularities. While Chávez's hand was clearly strengthened, the results were likely to fracture the divided country even further.

Haiti. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once a charismatic champion of democracy in Haiti, grew corrupt and authoritarian as his country's president (1991, 1994–1996, 2001–2004), despite significant support from the U.S. and other countries. Failing to improve the lot of his people, among the poorest in the Western hemisphere, he was finally ousted from power on Feb. 29, just a month after the country celebrated its bicentennial as the world's first independent black republic. The rebels turned the country over to an interim government.

Ukraine. A presidential election in Ukraine pitted Viktor Yushchenko, the reformist, pro-Western, former prime minister, against Viktor Yanukovich, the current prime minister and chosen successor of autocratic president Leonid Kuchma. The campaign was an especially dirty one. Yushchenko was nearly fatally poisoned with Dioxin and had to be hospitalized for several weeks shortly before the election. In the Nov. 21 runoff election, Prime Minister Yanukovich was reported to have taken 49.5% of the vote, and Yushchenko 46.5%. International monitors declared the elections massively fraudulent. Hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko's supporters took to the streets of the capital and other cities in protest, and what became known as the Orange Revolution (after Yushchenko's signature campaign color) continued full strength over the next two weeks. On Dec. 3, the Supreme Court invalidated the election results, calling for a new runoff to be held on Dec. 26. On Dec. 8, Parliament voted in favor of an overhaul of Ukraine's political system, amending the constitution to reform election laws and transferring some presidential powers to the Parliament.


In 2004, after two years of troubled negotiations and cease-fires, Sudan's brutal, 20-year-long civil war seemed at an end. The war had pitted the Arab-Muslim government of the North against the black Christian and animist South. Two million people had died in the conflict, primarily through starvation and disease, and another four million had been displaced. In addition to the staggering death toll, the war had led to a resurgence of slavery, with Arab raiders from the north enslaving thousands of black southerners. In May, a near-final peace agreement was signed between the Khartoum government and the major rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), with both sides agreeing to a power-sharing government for six years, to be followed by a referendum on self-determination for the south—a hard-won agreement given that 75% of Sudan's oil wealth is located in the south.

But just as Africa's longest war was ending, another murderous conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region intensified. After the Khartoum government crushed a small-scale rebellion in Darfur in Feb. 2003, it permitted pro-government Arab militias called Janjaweed to carry out massacres against black villagers and rebels in the region. While the civil war had pitted Arab Muslims against black non-Muslims, the Darfur crisis pitted Arab and black Muslims against each other. By Oct. 2004, the Janjaweed, surreptitiously armed by Khartoum, had massacred more than 70,000 Darfuris and displaced another 1.5 million. Deemed the world's worst humanitarian disaster by the UN, the Darfur crisis has been labeled genocide by the U.S., and much of the international community has vowed never to repeat the global-scale moral failure of Rwanda. But worldwide outrage, combined with several toothless UN resolutions and the deployment of a few hundred African peacekeeping forces, was the extent of the international response as of late Oct. 2004. Khartoum continued to react with defiant impunity.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Approximately 2,800 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have now died in the four-year-old al-Aksa intifada, and nearly 27,200 Palestinians and 5,700 Israelis have been wounded. Frequent military incursions into the Palestinian territories, the assassinations of several dozen militant leaders (including Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor), and the construction of the massive security barrier in the West Bank have resulted in dramatically fewer Palestinian suicide bombings: 13 in the first 9 months of 2004, compared to 44 in 2003, and 61 in 2002. While Israel's increased militarism under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has measurably saved Israeli lives, the toll on Palestinians has been devastating. Since the beginning of the intifada, Israel has razed more than 2,751 Palestinian homes, almost 40% of them in 2004. In May, Israel launched its largest military operation in Gaza in a decade, and in October, in retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks, carried out its deadliest incursion.

In 2004, Sharon introduced a startling proposal to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, while at the same time permanently retaining large blocks of land in the West Bank for Israel and rejecting the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. Given that last year's “road map” peace plan had been virtually abandoned by all parties, including its U.S. and European sponsors, Sharon found it an opportune moment to end diplomatic stagnation while securing advantages for Israel. By conceding the lesser territory of Gaza, he planned to shore up Israel's hold on the West Bank—an intention confirmed by his approval of additional West Bank housing construction and pushing ahead with the West Bank security barrier. Although two-thirds of Israelis supported his plan, Sharon's own Likud party repeatedly rejected it, viewing it as a dangerous unravelling of Israel's territorial claims. The far right opposed the dismantling of settlements of any kind. The Labor party gingerly embraced the withdrawal, but remained uncertain whether it was meant to serve as a prelude to future talks or as a means of circumventing negotiations indefinitely. Although the Knesset approved the withdrawal on Oct. 26, a crucial step towards its implementation, Sharon's gamble to push ahead with a plan his party largely rejected threatened to bring down his government.

In November, Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader for more than four decades, died. In recent years he had been largely viewed by the international community as an impediment to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and the prospect of new Palestinian leadership was viewed by some as a fresh opportunity for the peace process.

Nuclear Proliferation

In 2004, a global nuclear black market was uncovered when A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, was exposed in Feb. 2004 for having sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran, and Libya in the 1980s and 1990s. While much of the world reviled his incalculable damage to global security, President Pervez Musharraf swiftly pardoned him—Khan remains such a national hero in Pakistan that Musharraf did not risk a stronger rebuke. Also convenient for Musharraf was Khan's claim that he alone and not Pakistan's military or government was involved in the selling of these ultra-classified secrets. The claim was met with widespread skepticism outside Pakistan.

Khan's nuclear trafficking was revealed after an illegal shipment of centrifuge parts to Libya was intercepted in Oct. 2003. Libya's Qaddafi quickly admitted his clandestine pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and submitted to full UN weapons inspections. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that Libya had been in the very nascent stages of building a nuclear bomb. Libya's nuclear confession, as well as its admission of guilt and offers of compensation for its sponsorship of terrorist acts, including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, allowed it to shed its decades-old pariah status—years of international sanctions were lifted.

Despite Iran's promises in 2003 to fully cooperate with nuclear inspections after traces of highly enriched uranium were found in one of its nuclear facilities, the IAEA censured the country once again in June 2004 for failing to fully cooperate with nuclear inspections. Neither U.S. threats nor Europe's coaxing managed to halt Iran's alarming defiance. North Korea—which many believe now has a minimum of one or two nuclear weapons and perhaps as many as eight—continued to issue taunts and threats to the West in lieu of negotiations.

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