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Like everyone else rushing off the Washington subway one rush-hour morning, Ibrahim carried a small leather briefcase. No one paid him or his case much mind, except for the intern in the new Brooks Brothers suit who pushed past him on the escalator and banged his shin. "What do you have in there? Rocks?"Yet thankfully this scenario is unlikely.
Ibrahim's training had taught him to ignore all provocations. You will see, he thought.
The escalator carried him up and out into the strong September sunlight. It was, as countless commentators would later say, a perfect day. As he walked from the Capitol South metro stop, he saw the Republican National Committee headquarters to his right. Two congressional office buildings loomed in front of him. Between the five-story structures, the U.S. Capitol dome winked in the sun. It was walled off in a mini-Green Zone of jersey barriers and armed police. He wouldn't trouble them. He was close enough.
He put the heavy case down on the sidewalk and pressed a sequence of buttons on what looked like standard attaché-case locks. It would be just a matter of seconds. When he thought he had waited long enough, he shouted in Arabic: "God is great!" He was too soon. Some passersby stared at him. Two-tenths of a second later, a nuclear explosion erased the entire scene. Birds were incinerated midflight. Nearly 100,000 people--lawmakers, judges, tourists--became superheated dust. Only raindrop-sized dollops of metal--their dental fillings--remained as proof of their existence. In tenths of a second--less time than the blink of a human eye--the 10-kiloton blast wave pushed down the Capitol (toppling the Indian statute known as "Freedom" at the dome's top), punched through the pillars of the U.S. Supreme Court, smashed down the three palatial Library of Congress buildings, and flattened the House and Senate office buildings.
The blast wave raced outward, decapitating the Washington Monument, incinerating the Smithsonian and its treasures, and reducing to rubble the White House and every office tower north to Dupont Circle and south to the Anacostia River. The secondary, or overpressure, wave jumped over the Potomac, spreading unstoppable fires to the Pentagon and Arlington, Va. Planes bound for Reagan and Dulles airports tumbled from the sky.
Tens of thousands were killed instantly. By nightfall, another 250,000 people were dying in overcrowded hospitals and impromptu emergency rooms set up in high school gymnasiums. Radiation poisoning would kill tens of thousands more in the decades to come. America's political, diplomatic and military leadership was simply wiped away. As the highest-ranking survivor, the agriculture secretary took charge. He moved the capital to Cheyenne, Wyo.
For now, suitcase-sized nuclear bombs remain in the realm of James Bond movies. Given the limitations of physics and engineering, no nation seems to have invested the time and money to make them. Both U.S. and the USSR built nuclear mines (as well as artillery shells), which were small but hardly portable--and all were dismantled by treaty by 2000. Alexander Lebed's claims and those of defector Stanislev Lunev were not based on direct observation. The one U.S. official who saw a small nuclear device said it was the size of three footlockers--hardly a suitcase. The desire to obliterate cities is portable--inside the heads of believers--while, thankfully, the nuclear devices to bring that about are not.