How ISIS nearly got ‘dirty bomb’ in­gre­di­ent

Cobalt-60 — key el­e­ment for a ra­dioac­tive weapon — went miss­ing in Mo­sul


On the day the Is­lamic State over­ran the Iraqi city of Mo­sul in 2014, it laid claim to one of the great­est weapons bo­nan­zas ever to fall to a ter­ror­ist group: a large me­trop­o­lis dot­ted with mil­i­tary bases and gar­risons stocked with guns, bombs, rock­ets and even bat­tle tanks.

But the most fear­some weapon in Mo­sul on that day was never used by the ter­ror­ists. Only now is it be­com­ing clear what hap­pened to it.

Locked away in a stor­age room on a Mo­sul col­lege cam­pus were two caches of cobalt-60, a metal­lic sub­stance with lethally high lev­els of ra­di­a­tion. When con­tained within the heavy shield­ing of a ra­dio­ther­apy ma­chine, cobalt-60 is used to kill cancer cells. In ter­ror­ists’ hands, it is the core in­gre­di­ent of a “dirty bomb,” a weapon that could be used to spread ra­di­a­tion and panic.

West­ern in­tel­li­gence agen­cies were aware of the cobalt and watched anx­iously for three years for signs that the mil­i­tants might try to use it. Those con­cerns in­ten­si­fied in late 2014 when Is­lamic State of­fi­cials boasted of ob­tain­ing ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial, and again early last year when the ter­ror­ists took over lab­o­ra­to­ries at the same Mo­sul col­lege cam­pus with the ap­par­ent aim of build­ing new kinds of weapons.

In Wash­ing­ton, in­de­pen­dent nu­clear ex­perts drafted pa­pers and ran cal­cu­la­tions about the po­tency of the cobalt and the ex­tent of the dam­age it could do. The de­tails were kept un­der wraps on the chance that Mo­sul’s oc­cu­piers might not be fully aware of what they had.

Iraqi mil­i­tary com­man­ders were ap­prised of the po­ten­tial

as they bat­tled Is­lamic State fight­ers block by block through the sprawl­ing com­plex where the cobalt was last seen. Fi­nally, ear­lier this year, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials en­tered the bul­let­pocked cam­pus build­ing and peered into the stor­age room where the cobalt ma­chines were kept.

They were still there, ex­actly as they were when the Is­lamic State seized the cam­pus in 2014. The cobalt ap­par­ently had never been touched.

“They are not that smart,” a re­lieved health min­istry of­fi­cial said of the city’s for­mer oc­cu­piers.

Why the Is­lamic State failed to take ad­van­tage of their wind­fall is not clear. U.S. of­fi­cials and nu­clear ex­perts spec­u­late that the ter­ror­ists may have been stymied by a prac­ti­cal con­cern: how to dis­man­tle the ma­chines’ thick cladding with­out ex­pos­ing them­selves to a burst of deadly ra­di­a­tion.

More cer­tain is the fact that the dan­ger has not en­tirely passed. With dozens of Is­lamic State strag­glers still loose in the city, U.S. of­fi­cials re­quested that de­tails about the cobalt’s cur­rent where­abouts not be re­vealed.

They also ac­knowl­edged that their wor­ries ex­tend far be­yond Mo­sul. Sim­i­lar equip­ment ex­ists in hun­dreds of cities around the world, some of them in con­flict zones.

“Nearly ev­ery coun­try in the world ei­ther has them, or is a tran­sit coun­try” through which high-level ra­di­o­log­i­cal equip­ment passes, said An­drew Bieni­awski, a vice pres­i­dent for the Wash­ing­ton-based Nu­clear Threat Ini­tia­tive who once led U.S. gov­ern­ment ef­forts to safe­guard such ma­te­ri­als.

“This,” he said, “is a global prob­lem.”

A lethal dose in three min­utes

The wor­ries be­gan within hours of the Is­lamic State’s stun­ning blitz into Iraq’s sec­ond­largest city.

As TV net­works showed footage of tri­umphant ter­ror­ists parad­ing through Mo­sul’s main thor­ough­fares, in­tel­li­gence agen­cies took quiet in­ven­tory of the vast ar­ray of mil­i­tary and ma­teri- al wealth the Is­lamist mil­i­tants had sud­denly ac­quired. The list in­cluded three Iraqi mil­i­tary bases, each supplied with U.S.-made weapons and ve­hi­cles. It also in­cluded bank vaults con­tain­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in hard cur­rency, as well as fac­to­ries for mak­ing mu­ni­tions and university lab­o­ra­to­ries for mix­ing chem­i­cals used in ex­plo­sives or as pre­cur­sors for poi­son gas.

U.S. of­fi­cials also were aware that the Is­lamic State had gained con­trol of small quan­ti­ties of nat­u­ral or low-en­riched ura­nium — the rem­nants of Iraq’s nu­clear projects from the time of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s pres­i­dency — as well as some rel­a­tively harm­less ra­dioac­tive irid­ium used in in­dus­trial equip­ment.

But a far big­ger ra­di­o­log­i­cal con­cern was the cobalt. In­tel­li­gence agen­cies knew of the ex­is­tence in Mo­sul of at least one pow­er­ful ra­dio­ther­apy ma­chine used for cancer treat­ment, one that could po­ten­tially pro­vide the Is­lamic State with a po­tent ter­ror­ist weapon.

Out­side ex­perts were be­com­ing aware of the threat, as well.

In 2015, the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Wash­ing­ton that mon­i­tors global nu­clear threats, be­gan con­duct­ing re­search to an­swer the ba­sic ques­tions: How many ma­chines were in Mo­sul? Where were they de­ployed? And ex­actly how pow­er­ful were they?

The group ob­tained do­cuthreat ments show­ing that two dif­fer­ent med­i­cal cen­ters in Mo­sul had ob­tained cobalt-60 ma­chines in the 1980s. Other records showed that at least one of the de­vices was in ac­tive use as re­cently as 2008, and in the fol­low­ing year Iraqi of­fi­cials had sought re­place­ment parts, in­clud­ing new cobalt60 cores, for both.

From the records, the in­sti­tute’s ex­perts could draw broad con­clu­sions about the cobalt in­side the ma­chines. In a draft re­port writ­ten in Novem­ber 2015, re­search fel­low Sarah Burkhard cal­cu­lated that the ra­dioac­tive cores, when new, con­tained about nine grams of pure cobalt-60 with a po­tency of more than 10,000 curies — a stan­dard mea­sure of ra­dioac­tiv­ity. A per­son stand­ing three feet from the un­shielded core would re­ceive a fa­tal dose of ra­di­a­tion in less than three min­utes.

The in­sti­tute qui­etly shared its find­ings with U.S. in­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials in late 2015 but de­clined to pub­lish its re­port, fear­ing that Is­lamic State oc­cu­piers would ben­e­fit from the in­for­ma­tion. The Wash­ing­ton Post be­came aware of the re­port last year but agreed to a U.S. gov­ern­ment re­quest to de­lay writ­ing about it un­til af­ter Mo­sul’s lib­er­a­tion.

Be­cause cobalt-60 de­cays over time, the po­tency of the Mo­sul ma­chines’ 30-year-old cobalt cores would have been far less than when the equip­ment was new, but still enough to de­liver a lethal dose at close range, the re­port said.

David Al­bright, the pres­i­dent of the in­sti­tute, noted that groups such as the Is­lamic State have long dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of us­ing such ma­te­rial in a dirty bomb, a sim­ple de­vice that uses con­ven­tional ex­plo­sives to spread ra­dioac­tive de­bris across densely pop­u­lated ur­ban ter­rain. Such a bomb would prob­a­bly not cause large num­bers of ca­su­al­ties, but it can be enor­mously ef­fec­tive, he said, as a weapon of ter­ror­ism.

“The worst case would have been the Is­lamic State widely dis­pers­ing the ra­dioac­tive cobalt in a city, caus­ing panic and an ex­pen­sive, dis­rup­tive cleanup,” said Al­bright, a nu­clear weapons ex­pert and for­mer U.N. weapons in­spec­tor. “There would likely not have been that many deaths, but the panic could have been pro­found, lead­ing to the emp­ty­ing of parts of the city as res­i­dents fled, fear­ful of the ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion.”

Hid­den away

There was one ques­tion that U.S. of­fi­cials and pri­vate re­searchers could never con­clu­sively an­swer dur­ing the months of Is­lamic State oc­cu­pa­tion: Where was the cobalt ex­actly?

In strife-torn Mo­sul, there were no pub­licly avail­able records about the city’s two ra­dio­ther­apy ma­chines since 2008, when one of them was men­tioned in a schol­arly ar­ti­cle. The last known ad­dresses were a teach­ing hos­pi­tal and a cancer-treat­ment clinic, both on the west­ern side of the city, in neigh­bor­hoods that were heav­ily con­tested by Is­lamic State fight­ers and were among the last to fall to Iraqi lib­er­a­tors.

Fi­nally, re­cently, Iraqi of­fi­cials of­fered an ex­pla­na­tion, say­ing that both ma­chines had been in Mo­sul through­out the Is­lamic State’s oc­cu­pa­tion, but not in the places where the ter­ror­ists might have thought to look for them. They had been placed out of com­mis­sion for sev­eral years be­cause of a lack of parts and had been put in stor­age in a build­ing owned by the University of Mo­sul, some­where in the city’s east­ern side.

They were still there when health of­fi­cials from Nin­eveh prov­ince went to look for them af­ter that sec­tor of the city was se­cure, said Laith Hababa, a physi­cian and head of the pro­vin­cial health min­istry.

The ma­chines are now in se­cure stor­age and “weren’t used by Daesh,” Hababa said, us­ing a com­mon Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State.

U.S. of­fi­cials and nu­clear ex­perts ex­pressed re­lief over what, by all ac­counts, had been a nearmiss. Some spec­u­lated that the ter­ror­ists never learned of the where­abouts of the ma­chines, although that ex­pla­na­tion seemed un­likely, given the ter­ror­ists’ ef­fi­ciency in loot­ing university build­ings across the city.

Al­bright said the task of re­mov­ing the cobalt cores may have been viewed as too dif­fi­cult or too risky. Or maybe the group’s com­man­ders were just too busy, es­pe­cially dur­ing the later months of the oc­cu­pa­tion, as gov­ern­ment troops closed in.

“Its lead­ers were pre­oc­cu­pied else­where,” Al­bright said, “and [per­haps] did not learn about the sources in Mo­sul, or have a chance to think through the op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Lead­ers of the Is­lamic State and al-Qaeda are known to have sought ma­te­ri­als for a dirty bomb, a threat that has added ur­gency to ef­forts by U.S. agen­cies and pri­vate groups to im­prove se­cu­rity for ma­chines with heavy con­cen­tra­tions of cobalt-60, or other ra­dioac­tive ele­ments such as ce­sium-137, which comes in a pow­dery form that is even eas­ier to dis­perse.

The ma­chines are a nec­es­sary fix­ture in many cancer clin­ics around the world, but in West­ern coun­tries ef­forts are un­der­way to re­place the most dan­ger­ous mod­els with new tech­nol­ogy that can­not be eas­ily ex­ploited by ter­ror­ists, said Bieni­awski, the for­mer En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cial. His or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Nu­clear Threat Ini­tia­tive, has raised money to try to speed up the tran­si­tion, but for now, he said, older ma­chines such as the ones in Mo­sul are com­monly found in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries where the risk of theft or ter­ror­ism is great­est.

“The ones we see over­seas are in the high­est cat­e­gory — the high­est lev­els of curies — and they are also por­ta­ble,” he said. “They are ex­actly the ones we are most wor­ried about.”

“Nearly ev­ery coun­try in the world ei­ther has them, or is a tran­sit coun­try . . . . This is a global prob­lem.” An­drew Bieni­awski, of the Nu­clear Threat Ini­tia­tive


A class­room at the University of Mo­sul af­ter the city’s lib­er­a­tion in June. Is­lamic State oc­cu­piers tried to use labs to build weapons.


Peo­ple walk amid the de­struc­tion at the University of Mo­sul, which was burned dur­ing a bat­tle with Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in April.

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