The Dirty Bomb Threat Heightens

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Tech Sergeant
Nov 5, 2005
A Jan. 30, 2003 report from the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) claims al Qaeda's attempts to manufacture a 'dirty bomb' are much more advanced than was previously known. The report was based on previously undisclosed evidence released to the BBC by the U.K. authorities, including intelligence reports from British agents who had infiltrated al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda training manuals detailing how to best use dirty bombs were also uncovered — as was a quantity of radioactive materials. According to the BBC, officials at the Porton Down defense research center in Wiltshire, England, where these materials were analyzed, concluded "al Qaeda had a small dirty bomb but probably not a full blown nuclear device."

Osama bin Laden's organization is believed to have acquired radioactive isotopes from the Taliban. No device has been recovered, although an al Qaeda weapons expert from the western Afghan city of Herat, where the dirty bomb development had been taking place, is still at large. Currently, it is not entirely clear if al Qaeda have actually built a bomb, as the BBC say officials at Porton Down attest, or whether work on this was just much more advanced than had hitherto been believed. Either way, the incident represents a worrying development on the terrorism front, albeit one that has gone by relatively unnoticed amid the ongoing Iraq crisis.

The BBC report comes some six months after U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a warning about the potential risk of an al Qaeda dirty bomb attack, announcing the arrest of a U.S. citizen in connection with such a strike. Within a day of this warning, issued on June 10, 2002, some officials within the Bush administration were claiming that the threat posed by such a plot may have been overstated by Ashcroft. Similarly, European security officials were later said to be "highly skeptical" that the arrested plotter, Abdullah Al Muhajir, was preparing such an attack. Meanwhile, the plot was acknowledged by Washington as not having passed beyond the most basic of stages. Just how advanced such a plan needs to be before it warrants being called one is a moot point. However, the manner and timing of Ashcroft's announcement — given the furor over alleged pre-Sept. 11 security lapses by the CIA and FBI — led to charges of its being politically motivated. Likewise, the very nature of the threat being discussed makes it especially sensitive to being seen as alarmist. Despite such factors, as the recent BBC reports highlight, the possibility of a dirty bomb attack is one that cannot be ignored.

The prospect of such an attack is but one of many nightmare scenarios to be issued forth from the Pandora's Box sprung open by al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001. Not that this is a new threat — the possibility of such an attack has long been acknowledged by many as possible if not imminent. Indeed, as nuclear devices go, a dirty bomb has been cited as among the most easily attainable additions to the terrorist arsenal. In the dirty bomb, al Qaeda may well have found the perfect 'force multiplier.' It is also, potentially, the quintessential terrorist weapon in that its psychological effects are claimed by many experts to outweigh any physical destruction it may cause. Thus, the threat of such attacks must be carefully handled by the authorities if they are to avoid unwittingly aiding the terrorists in petrifying their targets. This was evidenced in the warning over potential dirty bomb and chemical weapon attacks issued by the British government last November but later withdrawn — a move that may have been considered necessary lest the public focus on such threats to the exclusion of others in the terrorists' arsenal.

A dirty bomb — or radiological dispersion bomb — is a relatively unsophisticated device that combines radioactive materials with conventional explosives. When exploded, such a device scatters radioactive particles into the environment. No nuclear-fission reaction takes place as would occur with a true nuclear weapon, and, while anyone within the initial blast radius will probably be killed immediately, more casualties would probably result from the long-term effects of the dispersed radioactive material. According to Michael Levi, the physicist who managed a Federation of American Scientists' (FAS) study into the effects of a dirty bomb explosion, protecting yourself after such an attack is a matter of getting indoors, showering, and not eating contaminated food or breathing open air. As he put it: "It's really a matter of closing your windows and waiting for instructions." Levi also cautioned that the much-hyped potassium iodine anti-radiation pills said to be selling so well in the wake of the attorney general's announcement, are likely to be of limited use against dirty bombs, as most studies predict the use of non-iodine radiation in any such device.

Moreover, Dr. John W. Poston Sr., professor of nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University, and chairman of a committee that produced a study on dirty bombs for the national Council on Radiation Protection, contends that the dispersal method used in such a device would so dilute the radioactive material involved as to make any radiation doses incurred non-fatal. Similarly, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1.5 pounds of radioactive cesium dispersed by detonating 4,000 pounds of TNT would only increase the amount of radiation that most of the affected people are normally exposed to by 25 percent. As Mark Gwozdecky of the International Atomic Energy Agency put it: "It's hard to imagine any kind of dirty bomb producing the kinds of mass casualties that we saw on Sept. 11." Such a device would, he added, be a weapon of mass disruption rather than a weapon of mass destruction.
These conclusions were corroborated by the FAS study, which found that, while a dirty bomb would not inflict deaths on anything like the scale of even a crude nuclear device, widespread contamination exceeding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety guidelines could result. If the risk of cancer deaths could not be curtailed to around 1-in-10,000, the EPA would probably recommend the long-term evacuation of the contaminated area. With urban areas especially difficult to decontaminate after a radiological attack, any abandonment could be permanent, potentially costing trillions of dollars. 10 In addition to this economic damage, a dirty bomb attack could also produce a psychological effect out of all proportion to the actual physical damage it would achieve on its own. The FAS report discusses a scenario wherein an americium source, such as the one used in oil well surveying, is detonated along with one pound of TNT in New York City, requiring the evacuation of 20 city blocks within 30 minutes. The panic such an evacuation would incite could lead to significant injuries in itself, as well as overload medical facilities, with people presenting themselves for treatment of real and imagined radiation sickness. 11 Such panic would be unlikely to remain localized but probably spread nationally, and would easily be fuelled by dirty and conventional bomb alerts - genuine or hoax.

A dirty bomb has never been used. However, in 1996 Chechen insurgents planted such a device in Moscow's Izmailovo Park. Although the bomb was not detonated, the incident illustrated that the possibility of such an attack was more than theoretical - something the recent BBC report also highlights. The seemingly-confirmed fear that such a weapon may feature in al Qaeda's arsenal is heightened by the widely held opinion among many experts that building a dirty bomb is a comparatively simple process, needing little more expertise than is needed to assemble a conventional improvised explosive device. According to this school of thought, the main challenge facing anyone contemplating the construction of a dirty bomb would be acquiring the needed radioactive material. Such procurement may not prove overly difficult. Indeed, according to reports in the BBC, over the last decade there have been over 175 instances of terrorists or criminals trying to obtain or smuggle radioactive substances. Some countries are widely-held to be notoriously insecure with such materials. For instance, many portable nuclear generators were allegedly abandoned in the former Soviet Union when the Cold War ended. One of these inflicted serious injuries on three men who stumbled across it in a Georgian forest in 1996. Meanwhile, in the United States business and research facilities have been estimated to have misplaced almost 1500 pieces of equipment containing radioactive materials in the past eight years. With so many non-military devices utilizing radioactive materials — from medical equipment (the apparent source of the Taliban's gift to al Qaeda) to food irradiation machines — obtaining the 'dirty' component of a dirty bomb may not be overly difficult.

Conversely, transporting and handling the materials needed for a dirty bomb safely and undetected may prove more problematic. Indeed, some sources, such as those used in food irradiation, weigh around 10,000 pounds (complete with shielding). Furthermore, with the shielding removed they would emit enough radiation to kill anyone attempting to combine the radioactive material with conventional explosives in a dirty bomb. Such difficulties have led some commentators to suggest that the additional investment needed to construct a dirty bomb make it more likely that terrorists will restrict themselves to conventional improvised explosive devices. However the chances of a dirty bomb being deployed by al Qaeda cannot be discounted, as the BBC report indicates. Given the exponential psychological and economic effects of such a weapon, the benefits of deploying one may far outweigh the costs and difficulties entailed in its construction. Moreover, if suicide bombers are prepared to die flying airplanes into buildings, it is also conceivable that they are prepared to forfeit their lives building dirty bombs. Nightmarish though it may be, the dirty bomb scenario is thus one that must be prepared for, albeit one wherein the psychological dangers appear greater than the physical. That al Qaeda appears to have made more inroads into the production of such a device than was previously believed to be the case heightens such dangers even further.

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