Recent reports regarding multiple sting operations in Moldova directed at smugglers who believed they were selling radioactive material to representatives of the Islamic State have once again generated wide interest in the threat posed by so-called “dirty bombs.” With the mainstream press doing their usual uneven job of reporting in a meaningful way on the threat posed, it behooves us, therefore, to take a few moments to talk about the reality as opposed to the hype.
Let’s begin by reviewing for a moment what is meant by the term “dirty bomb” in the first place. Experts in weapons of mass destruction typically prefer to use the term radioactive dispersal device (RDD). RDD’s potentially come in a variety of forms limited only by the mad imagination of the individual building them. A sophisticated device, which reduced radioactive material to a fine powder and then released it to be carried by the wind over an urban area, would be an RDD. A radioactive source left in a subway station so that the targets — riders of the subway — would walk by it and thereby be exposed, would be another, entirely different form of RDD.
Usually when we are talking about RDD’s, though, we are talking about the so-called dirty bomb. This is basically a conventional improvised explosive device strapped to a container with a dangerous radioactive material inside. When the device explodes, it spreads radioactive material over a wide area. Fires and wind then spread the material further, contaminating potentially many, many city blocks. It sounds simple. It could be devastating.
So, what is the real probability of us seeing a “dirty bomb” used here at home or in other countries abroad?
The first things to consider are motivation and intent. There can be absolutely no doubt as to the aspirations of terrorist groups, particularly Islamic organizations like ISIS, to acquire and use any and all weapons of mass destruction they can. ISIS holds an apocalyptic worldview. It is not simply in a battle with the West — it is in the final battle. They believe the world is literally coming to an end, and any and all means necessary must be employed to ensure they emerge victorious. There is no such thing as too far or too horrific.
The material needed to make a dirty bomb is literally almost everywhere. When the Soviet Union fell, the United States mounted a massive effort to try to safeguard material related to the Soviet nuclear weapons and nuclear power programs. That was comparatively easy. We were working with a finite amount of material. It was possible to put in place measures to keep track of nuclear fuel, enriched uranium and the like.
Nothing of the kind, though, has ever been done for the types of material that terrorists want to use in a “dirty bomb.” Nothing of the kind ever will be. Cobalt, Cesium, Strontium and similar materials are used for a host of industrial and medical applications all over the planet. New sources are manufactured all the time. Recent media reports concerning material coming out of Russia via Moldova has attracted attention, but last year there was a theft of a deadly radiological source in Mexico City.
As suggested above, the technological sophistication of a “dirty bomb” is minimal. Design, manufacture and assembly of an atomic bomb require some significant engineering expertise and an understanding of nuclear physics. A “dirty bomb” requires none of these things. The design is crude and simple and can be replicated easily. If you have a bomb maker and radiological material, you have a “dirty bomb.”
Finally, there should be no doubt about the ability of groups like ISIS to get a “dirty bomb” to its target. Even if the goal is to attack a city inside the United States, the act of moving the necessary material to the target is relatively simple. To begin with, the United States is littered with radiological sources just as is the rest of the world. There is no need to acquire a source from a smuggler in Moldova when you can steal everything you need from a hospital or a pipeline company right here at home.
Even if the material is acquired abroad, anyone who thinks there would be real obstacles to moving that material into the United States has not been paying attention. The amount of material in question could be contained in a relatively small container. This is something that could be moved by an individual. We are not talking about a shipping container here.
The border to be crossed is penetrated every day by narcotics smugglers moving tons of product and by thousands of average Central American families seeking a new life. If a husband and wife from Honduras can make their way through the teeth of our defenses with two kids and suitcases in tow, I am pretty sure committed ISIS operatives can pull off the same feat.
What all of the above adds up to is this. “Dirty bombs” are not the stuff of science fiction. This is not a threat that will materialize at some distant date. This is the real world; it could happen tomorrow. I would, in fact, be shocked if we make it more than another few years without seeing such an attack, likely first in Europe or a Middle Eastern nation like Turkey.
For those individuals charged with collection and analysis and preventing such attacks, the lesson is this: Take every threat seriously. Anyone and everyone talking about “dirty bombs” is a threat to be pursued aggressively.
When I ran CIA’s terrorist weapons of mass destruction unit, my charge to the troops was “run everything to ground.” We probably dealt with at least one lead related to loose radiological material every day.
Some were real. Some were bogus. But it didn’t matter — we chased them all. I would recommend the same policy to anyone working this beat.
For those individuals charged with reacting to a disaster the lesson is, be prepared. This is one of the situations in which we are going to go from talking about it to handling it overnight. The learning curve is going to be steep, and there is no such thing as being too ready.
A “dirty bomb” packed with radiological material and detonated on the Mall in Washington, DC would likely contaminate most of the heart of the city. Even if only a handful of people were killed in the initial explosion, the resulting radiation would necessitate the evacuation of the entire area. We would then be forced to choose between spending billions of dollars on cleanup, or abandoning the entire area for up to a decade.
Imagine the US government forced to work for years from temporary quarters outside the city. Imagine the heart of our nation’s capital turned into a ghost town; an American Chernobyl. That is a horrifying vision, but one that delights groups like ISIS dedicated to our destruction.
If we want to keep that vision from ever becoming reality, we need to act now. They are committed to the fight. We need to match that commitment.
Charles Faddis is a retired CIA covert operations officer and former head of the Agency’s WMD counterterrorism unit. He is author of, In the War On Terrorism, There is No Finish Line.
Editor’s note: Homeland Security Today previously reported that a detailed technical profile of the consequences of a dirty bomb using the highly radioactive isotope Cobalt 60 revealed that, depending on wind and other environmental conditions, a Cobalt 60 RDD detonated near the US Capitol building could contaminate a huge southward swath encompassing part of the Capitol grounds and narrowly missing the White House.
But if the RDD was detonated at a different location, stated the technical brief prepared by Aristatek, Inc., a leading provider of hazardous materials planning and response solutions, wind could carry 1,000 millirems to 500 millirems of Cobalt 60 over the White House and numerous federal buildings.
The occupational limit is a maximum of 5,000 millirems per year. Aristatek noted that because “Cobalt 60 has a half-life of ~ 5.3 years, this area would need to remain uninhabitable for over ten years, allowing sufficient time for the radiation to reach suitable levels.”
The technical profile — prepared for first responders — was in response to the theft of a medical device containing Cobalt 60 in Mexico in December 2013.
Editor’s Note: Faddis and HomelandSecurity Today Editor-in-Chief Anthony Kimery appeared in "Biopocalypse," an episode of the SyFy Channel TV series, "Joe Rogan Questions Everything," to discuss bio-terrorism, designer-hybrid pathogenic threats and unregulated DIY-bio genetics labs.Click here to watch the interview
Photo top: Members of the New York National Guard CERFP prepare to decontaminate "victims" of a simulated dirty bomb incident during training at the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control Training Site in Colonie, NY.
Photo bottom: Medical device containing Cobalt 60 stolen in Mexico, but later retrieved.