POOR MAN’S NUCLEAR THREAT
Dirty bombs are too dangerous to ignore.
Adecade ago, Stratfor’s Fred Burton wrote that “… since the 9/11 attacks catapulted al-qaeda to the ‘top of the evil-doers' list’ in the United States, one constant question has remained: What is al Qaeda planning now? High among the public's fears, fanned by certain events widely reported in the media, is that the Jihadi network (or another like-minded group or individual) will unleash a radiological dispersion device (RDD), commonly referred to as a ‘Dirty Bomb’ and it is feasible indeed that it might happen on American soil.”
Pundits in both London and Washington tell us there is an 80 percent chance of such a device exploding in either city within the medium-term future. That could mean anything from one to three years.
LINKS TO RADICAL ISLAMISTS
The authorities concerned point to al-qaeda’s more-than-adequate record of being able to cause massive destruction. What is not generally known is that this Islamic group has, for a long time, displayed an unusual interest in acquiring the expertise to build exactly such a device.
Already in 2002, CNN’S David Ensor reported that a hand-drawn diagram of an RDD bomb had been found in an al-qaeda facility in the mountains south of Kabul. That was followed by former CIA chief George Tenet telling the
U.S. Congress that his people had uncovered rudimentary diagrams of an unspecified nuclear weapon in a suspected al-qaeda house in Kabul. The consensus is that it was Rdd-related.
Tenet disclosed that al-qaeda's nuclear effort benefited from the help of two Pakistani nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudiri Abdul Majeed, both directly linked to disgraced Pakistani nuclear smuggler Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan.
The two men admitted they had long discussions about developing nuclear weapons with al-qaeda officials in Afghanistan the year before—which kind of makes one think ... .
Pamela Falk, a United Nations resident correspondent, raised this exact issue in a Foreign Affairs “Snapshot” published April 4, 2017. She summed up the threat in a single paragraph:
"The world’s post–world War II nuclear non-proliferation commitments are crumbing. Nations large and small, some with stable governments, some with shaky or autocratic regimes want to join the nuclear club. An unintended consequence of this trend is the creation of global gray and black markets for radioactive material. And terrorist groups such as the Islamic State are ready to buy."
The very concept of this horrific threat is frightening, she suggested: a low-yield nuclear device detonated by Islamic militants in downtown Manhattan—or, more likely (because access from the Middle East is easier) in London’s Golden Mile, which, in spite of Brexit, is still at the heart of European finance.
Yet, these threats are nothing new. According to William Broad, writing in The New York Times on April 29, 2001, Saddam Hussein tested a
1-ton radiological dispersal device in the desert to the west of Baghdad prior to Gulf War 1.
Broad’s article, under the heading, "Documents Reveal 1987 Bomb Test by Iraq," provides little substantive detail. Nevertheless, supplementary Defense Department sources suggest the Iraqi dictator was impressed enough with the outcome to demand that his nuclear scientists make the RDD integral to his arsenal—and on a significant scale. Fortunately, U.s.-led coalition forces intervened in Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, and we are aware of the consequences.
Among the most consistent debates along the corridors of power in Washington, Whitehall and the Kremlin is whether nuclear, chemical or biological weapons will be the first to be used in upgraded weapons of mass destruction (WMD) onslaughts against Western cities by Islamic zealots.
Islamic State is also known to have been preoccupied with weapons of mass destruction; although, before that terror group was crippled by a multi-national task force that has not yet finished its work, it hived off in a different direction and was using captive human victims to test a variety of chemical weapons it hopes to unleash on the unsuspecting.
No question: RDDS tend to focus the mind. As things stand, say a variety of specialists, an enhanced form of dirty bomb has the edge (although clearly, other options cannot be ignored. Nor are they).
It is interesting that the United States investigated "radiation weapons" in the 1940s and 1950s for possible wartime use, but the concept was finally canned. One reason given at the time was that its deployment would have been regarded by the civilized world as barbaric ... not that conventional nuclear weapons are any less so.
RDD INCIDENTS IN EUROPE
What sets RDDS apart from weapons used by other dissident political groups is that al-qaeda has shown an unusual and
historic interest in these weapons. Taking a cue from among the staunchest of its Islamic allies, anti-russian dissidents from mainly Islamic Chechnya have shown their hand several times with RDDS in recent years.
In the late 1990s, a dirty bomb containing highly radioactive cesium 137 was placed in Moscow's Izmailovsky Park by a group of Chechen militants under the command of Shamil Basayev.
The device was never detonated—somebody in the group tipped off the media; and Basayev let it be known that he only wished to display the threat as a psychological weapon by directing a TV crew to its location and possibly initiating a "media storm." Moreover, Basayev declared, if his hand were forced by the Kremlin’s intransigence, his followers would go ahead and use it. Having been involved in an attack that killed at least 330 people at a school a short while later (known as the Beslan Massacre), this desperate band of Chechen fanatics clearly meant what it said.
There was apparently another attempt afterward to lay an RDD device in or around Moscow, but neither details nor confirmation was ever made public. A third dirty bomb was uncovered a year later at Argun, a town near Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Unexploded, it was examined by Russian weapons specialists, who found that its core material had been obtained from a local nuclear isotope storage facility. The bomb was to have been boosted by two land mines that were thought to be former Soviet TM-57 anti-tank mines.
A subsequent report revealed that the two Chechen militants involved were incapacitated after carrying the extremely radioactive container a short distance, and one of the men subsequently died. The consensus at the time was that, had the Grozny RDD been detonated, it would probably have affected an area about three or four city blocks in extent and taken the authorities a year or more to decontaminate.
It is significant that other reports relating to potential RDD attacks have emerged, and in the broader context, we need to look at a comment made by Christopher Andrew in his book on British Intelligence, Defense of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, released in London in 2009.
The official history of MI5 has various entries under this heading; and I quote:
THERE ARE FEW GOVERNMENTS THAT HAVE NOT GIVEN SERIOUS ATTENTION TO THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ATTACK BY TERRORISTS WHO MIGHT WISH TO DETONATE AN RDD DEVICE.
"The Islamist threat, and especially the ambition of a British Hindu convert to Islam, Dhiren Barot[,] to explode a dirty nuclear bomb in Britain, is sobering by contrast."
Barot told his revolutionary colleagues prior to his arrest that "for the time we do not have the contacts to enable us to purchase such items."
Barot was sentenced to 30 years in prison. What emerged during the trial was that he had been picked by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief al-qaeda planner behind the 9/11 attack in New York, to explode an RDD bomb in London.
In the United States not long afterward, al-qaeda operative Jose Padilla (aka Abdulla al-muhajir) was arrested in Chicago in May 2002 while he was on a scouting mission for a Jihadi operation to attack the city with an RDD. He was subsequently tried, found guilty and is currently serving prison time.
GOVERNMENT PREPARATION FOR POTENTIAL THREATS
American agencies are taking very seriously the threat of terrorists detonating dirty bombs within their cities. The New York State Department of Health, for instance, has drawn up comprehensive guidelines as to how the public should react if such an event takes place. These "ground rules" are instructive and come from several studies that have emerged over the years.
It starts by explaining what exactly is involved: A dirty bomb, or radiological dispersion device, is a bomb that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive materials in solid, liquid or gaseous form. A dirty bomb is intended to disperse radioactive material into a small, localized area around an explosion. The main purpose of a dirty bomb is to frighten people and contaminate buildings or land.
It then explains the difference between a dirty bomb and the kind of nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II: There is a big difference. The atomic explosions that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were caused by nuclear weapons. A dirty bomb, by contrast, is a conventional explosive device that has been adapted to spread radioactive material and contaminate “only” a small area. Because the material will disperse as a result of the explosion, areas near the blast will be contaminated. The level of contamination will
depend on how much radioactive material was in the bomb, as well as the weather conditions at the time of the blast.
From there, it goes on to instruct what to do should there be such a blast in your city: If a dirty bomb goes off in your city, it will probably not affect you unless the explosion is very close to your location. Keep televisions or radios tuned to local news networks for information. Remember that this bomb will likely affect a small area.
Also discussed is what to do if you are close to such a detonation: The biggest danger is from the force of the explosion. As with any exposure to potential contamination, the following precautions will reduce your risk.
• Move away from the immediate area—at least several blocks from the explosion—and go indoors. This will reduce exposure to any radioactive airborne dust.
• If feasible, remove your clothes and seal them in a plastic bag. Save them to allow for future testing of the clothing for radiation contamination.
• Take a shower (using a mild soap) to wash off dust and dirt. This will reduce total radiation exposure if the explosive device contained radioactive material.
• More information involving emergency response is given, including telephone numbers and a variety of websites that provide additional information. The most prominent of these, apart from Atlanta's CDC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Radiation Protection Program (www.nrc. gov;  415-8200) is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA (www.fema.gov;  646-4600).
Although European cities tend to be a lot more low key with regard to such threats, there is no question that every major European conurbation has made preparations for just such an eventuality. However, for obvious reasons, details are kept secret.
I recall being in San Francisco when I got word that a major security exercise would be taking place the next day. I applied to attend, and even though I had been given access to various sensitive American government installations over the years, I was denied access. After the terror bombings of the World Trade Center in New York, there were many changes to the kind of security measures (or lack thereof) previously imposed. What immediately came into effect within all U.S. government
agencies was that foreign nationals like myself (with a British passport) were, in the ordinary course of events, required to give three months’ notice of visiting any facility regarded as “classified.”
PUNDITS IN BOTH LONDON AND WASHINGTON TELL US THERE IS AN 80 PERCENT CHANCE OF SUCH A DEVICE EXPLODING IN EITHER CITY WITHIN THE MEDIUM-TERM FUTURE. THAT COULD MEAN ANYTHING FROM ONE TO THREE YEARS.
EFFECTS OF DIRTY BOMBS
In medical terms, Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) is a collection of health effects that are present within a day or so of exposure to high amounts of ionizing radiation. The radiation causes cellular degradation due to damage to DNA and other key molecular structures within the cells in various tissues. In turn, this destruction, particularly because it affects the ability of cells to divide normally, causes the symptoms. The symptoms can begin within one or two hours and could last for several months. These medical terms refer to acute medical problems rather than ones that develop after a prolonged period.
The onset and type of symptoms depend on the radiation exposure. Relatively smaller doses result in gastrointestinal effects, such as nausea and vomiting, as well as symptoms related to falling blood counts, and predisposition to infection and bleeding. Relatively larger doses can result in neurological effects, including—but not limited to—seizures, tremors, lethargy and rapid death.
Treatment of Acute Radiation Syndrome is generally supportive, with blood transfusions and antibiotics, along with some more-aggressive treatments (such as bone marrow transfusions) being required in extreme cases.
It is also worth mentioning that Israel carried out a four-year series of tests on nuclear explosives to measure the effects, were "hostile forces" ever to use them against Israel (according to Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper on June 8, 2015). Indeed, while the average Israeli is not prepared to discuss the issue with those who visit their country, the reality that weapons of destruction, especially dirty bombs, might be deployed against their cities is palpable. Speak to those in the know, and they will give details as to how this threat has progressed in other countries. Russia apart, the United States, as we have seen, is also on the firing line.
ACCESSIBILITY OF RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS
Apart from convicted terrorist Dhiren Barot, take another example: In January 2009, a leaked FBI report described the results of a search of the Maine home of James G. Cummings, a white supremacist who had been shot and killed by his wife. Investigators found four 1-gallon containers of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, uranium, thorium, lithium metal, aluminum powder, beryllium, boron, black iron oxide and magnesium. Also found was literature on how to build dirty bombs and information about cesium 137, strontium 90 and cobalt 60—all radioactive materials. Officials confirmed the veracity of the report but stated that the public was never at risk.
It goes a lot further elsewhere. In Central Asia, concern about RDDS intensified notably following disclosures made by Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-qaeda official who told his captors that the terror movement was interested in producing a dirty bomb.
"Also, they know exactly how to do it," were his words—something about which intelligence agencies everywhere took notice. He said that this knowledge included the use of cesium 137. Even worse, said a linked source, al-qaeda seriously considered arming these bombs with spent fuel cells (from dismantled former Soviet Union nuclear submarines currently being taken apart in Russia’s far northern Kola Peninsula), along with an explosive charge at the core.
Certainly, if detonated in a built-up city area such as downtown Manhattan, damage, both direct and collateral, would be catastrophic. It would possibly take years to remove all radioactive traces.
A Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for the U.S. Congress on radiological dispersal devices at about the same time all this was going down went some distance toward focusing public attention on efforts to counter the use of this weapon. It declared that an RDD attack " … might cause casualties, economic damage and, potentially, public panic.” The impact of an RDD attack, it said, “would depend on many variables, such as meteorological conditions, type and amount of radioactive material, duration of exposure and method of dispersal."
Consequently, in a sense, RDDS might be referred to as “weapons of mass disruption,” rather
than of destruction.
The report goes on: " … both the threat posed by terrorist RDD use and the magnitude of impact are matters of some contention."
Some experts believe that terrorists could, without great difficulty, obtain highly radioactive material (such as abandoned fuel cells from a former Soviet nuclear submarine being dismantled). Much of this work was done at the Russian naval base on the Kola Peninsula in the extreme northwestern corner of the country and not far from Norway. This was one of the reasons the Oslo/brussels-founded Bellona Foundation is focused on what is happening in a vast region adjacent to the city of Murmansk.
Of significant concern in this regard are the burgeoning numbers of incidents that involve internationally linked nuclear smugglers. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), they’re increasing exponentially by the year.
Prior to his retirement, the outgoing director-general of the IAEA disclosed that the Vienna-based United Nations watchdog organization was aware of hundreds of cases of nuclear smuggling each year, much of it linked to uranium or plutonium. IAEA investigators believe that those involved from former Eastern bloc countries are rarely ideologically motivated. Rather, they’re interested only in the money; and it is of little concern to many of them whether cities or people are contaminated by deadly radiation. "The fear, essentially, is that the criminals may have no qualms about selling to Jihadist groups," declared the IAEA report.
SOME EXPERTS BELIEVE THAT TERRORISTS COULD, WITHOUT GREAT DIFFICULTY, OBTAIN HIGHLY RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL (SUCH AS ABANDONED FUEL CELLS FROM A FORMER SOVIET NUCLEAR SUBMARINE BEING DISMANTLED).
PLANTING AN RDD WILL NOT BE A PROBLEM
Others assert that radiation sources intense enough to cause casualties in an RDD attack would be injurious to the terrorists during acquisition and use. The argument about terrorists falling victim to their own destructive devices is viewed by some as superfluous—or, as one authority suggested to this author, do those who compile these reports not read the daily newspapers? More to the point: Islamic zealots have proved many times in recent years that no matter what the risk, radiation sickness or otherwise, they would be happy to die for the cause in order to achieve their objectives. Suicide bombers are clearly a common feature of today’s fundamentalist Islamic world.
Al Qaeda’s Abu Hamza al-muhajir actually called for Muslim scientists to join the organization and experiment with radioactive devices for use against coalition troops.
EFFECTS OF A DIRTY BOMB
This brings us to what a radiological dispersal device or dirty bomb is all about. In the simplest terms, these devices are intended to disperse radiation. In a large RDD blast within the confines of a city, there would obviously be a number of casualties, including people exposed to the actual blast. They would succumb to the effects of the chemical explosion, as with a conventional bomb, and the shrapnel that it disperses.
As one former nuclear physicist (who wishes to remain anonymous) told me, it is extremely unlikely that there will be such a vast amount of radioactive material in the immediate vicinity of an RDD blast that people would die right there from radiation. Acute radiation effects, including death, will only appear in the days, weeks or months that follow the exposure, he explained.
The main purpose of a dirty bomb is to contaminate the surroundings and to disrupt normal commercial and other activities for an extended period. Most salient, the principle objective of detonating an RDD is to create panic on a massive scale, which would unquestionably happen should the attack take place in the heart of any major city.
THE PRINCIPLE OBJECTIVE OF DETONATING AN RDD IS TO CREATE PANIC ON A MASSIVE SCALE, WHICH WOULD UNQUESTIONABLY HAPPEN SHOULD THE ATTACK TAKE PLACE IN THE HEART OF ANY MAJOR CITY.
HOW ARE WE COUNTERING THE THREAT?
That raises the question: What is the government doing about the threat? The answer basically is: A lot! There are few governments that have not given serious attention to the possibility of an attack by terrorists who might wish to detonate an RDD device.
In the West, there have been multiple strides toward creating emergency bodies that would deal with such emergencies. They are classified and rarely make the news—for several reasons. In the first place, the authorities do not want the enemy to be aware of specifics of countermeasures; and secondly, when such things are made public, they tend to alarm the populace.
With dirty bombs, it is important to accept that there is a series of measures in place that would go into effect as soon as unwarranted radioactivity is detected. These include:
The National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is able to almost immediately map the probable spread of hazardous material accidentally or intentionally released into the atmosphere. According to its website, its primary function is to support Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Defense (DOD) sites, as well as DOE consequence management (CM) teams for radiological releases through the Doe's Atmospheric Release Advisory Capability (ARAC) program. This security body is able to provide a series of multi-scale atmospheric flow and dispersion models for a wide range of hazards, and it can do this on a local, regional and a continental scale (which would cover the entire United States) or internationally.
The National Guard WMD Civil Support Team has been quietly and efficiently established for rapid deployment to assist a local incident commander in determining the nature and extent of an attack or incident. This organization is geared to provide expert technical advice on WMD response operations, as well as to help identify and support the arrival of follow-on state and federal military response assets. Essentially, these are joint units and can consist of both Army and Air National Guard personnel, with some of these units commanded by Air National Guard lieutenant colonels.
The Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams (WMD-CST) supports local and state authorities at domestic WMD/NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical warfare) incident sites by identifying agents and substances, assessing current and projected consequences, advising on response measures and assisting with requests for additional military support.
Above: This is an information sheet from the Centers for Disease Control that explains radiological dispersal devices, or “dirty bombs.” (Courtesy of https://emergency. cdc.gov/radiation/pdf/ Infographic_ Radiological_ Dispersal_device.pdf)
Right: U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents train in the detection and handling of hazardous materials, including radioactive dispersion devices (RDDS).
Below: There are virtually no restrictions to the size or shape of dirty bombs. While it's unlikely bad actors would try to smuggle an RDD across a U.S. border, agents from Customs and Border Patrol include that possibility in their training.
Far left: The author discusses dirty bombs in great detail in his book, Nuclear Terror: The Bomb and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Wrong Hands.
Near left: This book provides comprehensive explanations of threats posed by a dirty bomb attack and includes information for preparing a response should you be exposed to such an event.
Right: An RDD could be built to fit into a harmless-looking piece of luggage.
Bottom: Bags that contain radioactive waste from the nuclear power plant accident in Fukushima, Japan, await movement to a more secure location.
Below: The components for a dirty bomb are relatively simple to assemble once the radioactive material has been acquired.
Far left: Two trainees check the condition of a "victim" of an RDD attack.
Near left, top: Radiation detection devices will enable first responders and investigators to determine the scope and severity of the attack.
Near left, bottom: First responders, who typically run toward the danger zone, will be among those at greatest risk to injury and illness from RDD attacks.
Near left: Mexican authorities investigate a vehicle that was involved in the theft of radioactive materials from a laboratory in Tultepec, Mexico.
Far left: This casing of a spent cancer-treating radiation device was found in a village in Mexico after it was stolen and its radioactive cobalt 60 was removed.
Above: Spent nuclear fuel rods are routinely transported to storage facilities via railroad and other methods. Many are concerned that these methods are not secure enough from determined terrorists who would use these materials to construct dirty bombs.
Abandoned Soviet-era nuclear submarines might be a source for radioactive materials for RDDS.
This Soviet submarine is being scavenged for any number of materials. Its nuclear fuel could be among the items being removed from it.
This warning sign is posted outside Pripyat, Ukraine, where the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred in 1986.While this event was significantly more powerful than a likely dirty bomb, a potent RDD will contaminate an area for years.