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Radiological Dispersal Devices for Jihad

Written by Al Venter.


The ambition of British Muslim Dhiren Barot to explode a "dirty" nuclear bomb in Britain is eye- opening. "For the time being we do not have the contacts to enable us to purchase such items," Barot wrote before his arrest.1

William Broad of the York Times previously reported that Iraq under Saddam Hussein "tested a one-ton Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) in 1987 to assess its military usefulness." 2

Barot’s terror activities, of which British author Christopher Andrew gives us a glimpse, had been the basis of a major paper on the subject by Robert Wesley [Medina] in Kashmir, Barot declared that one way to counter "Western interference in Muslim lands" 3 would be to conduct large-scale attacks that might include radiological materials.

What sets the RDD apart from weapons employed by other dissident political groupings is that al-Qaeda and by some accounts, now ISIS (ISIL) have shown an unusual interest in these weapons. Taking a cue from among the staunchest of al-Qaeda’s allies, anti-Russian Islamic Chechen dissidents have tried several times to detonate RDDs in recent years.

In the late 1990s, a "dirty bomb" containing highly radioactive caesium-137 was placed in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park by a group of Chechen militants under the command of Shamil Basayev. The device was not exploded; somebody in the group tipped off the media. The RDD was apparently intended as a warning that the rebels had the wherewithal to cause serious damage, and if their hand was "forced" by Moscow’s intransigence, they would go forward. Having been involved in an attack that killed scores of children at a school a short while later, the threat appears to be credible. I believe there was another attempt in or around Moscow afterward, but neither detail nor confirmation was ever made public.

Another RDD was uncovered a year earlier at Argun, a town near the capital of Chechnya. Unexploded, it was examined by Russian 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 Soviet TM-57 anti-tank mines.

A Stratfor Report on RDDs mentioned this incident and reveals that the two Chechen militants involved were incapacitated after carrying the extremely radioactive container for a short distance; one subsequently died. It was believed that had the Grozny RDD been detonated, it would probably have affected an area about three or four city blocks in extent and taken a year or more to decontaminate the area.

Al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla was arrested in Chicago in May 2002 while on a scouting mission for an al-Qaeda operation in preparation for an attack with an RDD. He was tried, found guilty, and is currently serving a prison sentence.

Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-Qaeda official in American custody, said that al-Qaeda was interested in producing a "dirty bomb." He said, "They know how to do it" and that this knowledge included the use of caesium-137. A linked source alleged al-Qaeda considered using spent fuel cells from dismantled Soviet nuclear submarines being taken apart in Russia’s Kola Peninsula.

There has been a constant flow of intelligence emanating from both the Middle East and Central Asia with regard to al-Qaeda’s intention to use weapons of mass destruction against the West. In America’s case, the idea is to smuggle a bomb or possibly pathogens such as anthrax onto American soil. The most common scenario suggested would be to bring it across the porous Mexican border, or secreted in a shipping container routed through a major U.S. port.

A typical example of this kind of activity—without delivery details—was found in some of the research completed by the same convicted British terrorist Dhiren Barot mentioned before. Robert Wesley’s Jamestown Institute thesis elaborates on the activities of the British Islamic terrorist Dhiren Barot. 4

"Barot initially conceptualized the decision to incorporate radioactive materials into his attack scenarios much in the same way as one would decide between attaching nails or ball bearings to a pipe bomb (i.e. as an after-thought)." He quickly discovered that radioactive materials had enough potential to be addressed as a primary weapon rather than simply as a secondary consideration. "Barot was able to obtain numerous public documents concerning the potential effects of RDDs, including employment scenarios. The literature available greatly assisted Barot’s investigation of the core obstacles that would need to be overcome for a successful [radiological] operation." He continued, "the [Barot] recommended that acquisition of radioactive sources should be based on ease of access rather than the hazardous effects of the source. The inference was that high activity sources (usually the most harmful) were also the most difficult to secure access to, and thus were to be in most cases avoided in favor of less radioactive, yet more accessible sources."

A recent CRS Report for the United States Congress on Radiological Dispersal Devices went some distance in focusing public attention on efforts to counter the use of this weapon.5 It declared that an RDD attack "might cause casualties, economic damage, and, potentially, public panic."

The impact of an RDD attack, it stated, "would depend on many variables, such as meteorological conditions, type and amount of radiological material, duration of exposure, and method of dispersal."

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 radioactive material and construct an RDD …others assert that radiation sources intense enough to cause casualties in an RDD attack would be injurious to the terrorists during acquisition and use. Most experts agree that few casualties would be likely to directly result, generally only among those close to the device, but many disagree on how attractive an RDD would be to a terrorist."

The argument is superfluous. Islamic zealots have proved many times in recent years that no matter what the risk—radiation sickness or otherwise—some would be happy to die for "a magnificent" cause in order to achieve their objectives. Suicide bombers are as much a feature of today’s jihadi environment as is their five-times-a-day call to prayer.

Dr. Nic von Wielligh, who for some years was associated with Vienna’s IAEA, was advisor to the Director General and a member of Dr. Al Baradei’s Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation. Another source consulted was Dr. Mike Foley, a geologist who has made a career specializing in nuclear-related issues.

Based at Washington’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory until he retired, Dr. Foley hosted me on one of several fact-finding missions for Jane’s International Defence Review, as well as Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, from where I reported on measures being taken to counter the overland movement of potentially harmful radioactive materials that might have been stolen or smuggled.

Dr. Foley’s simple warning was that weapons-radioactive materials "could be used in terror acts as pollutants rather than as fissionables." The problem why this matter is not being addressed, he suggests, is because the effort needed would be immense. It would also be expensive, he declared, explaining that "all countries would need to expand coverage to everything including radon waste storage sites, medical waste and the rest … there is an incredible amount of radioactive waste about … not all of it safeguarded and in the Former Soviet Union, [guarded] very badly."

Of significant concern in this regard are the burgeoning numbers of incidents that involve internationally-linked nuclear smugglers. According to the IAEA, they are increasing. The Vienna-based UN watchdog organization IAEA is aware of hundreds of cases of nuclear smuggling each year, much of it linked to uranium or plutonium. The IAEA claimed recently that the success rate tended to be limited to about one in ten or twelve known incidents. Unfortunately, for every known smuggling case there are even more that are not detected. In almost every case listed, people of Islamic or Middle Eastern extraction are named as receiving parties.

IAEA investigators believe that those involved from former Eastern bloc countries are rarely ideologically motivated: their interest is financial gain. One IAEA employee who was prepared to speak as long as his identity was not revealed said, "it is of little concern to most of them whether entire cities or populations are contaminated by deadly radiation." His fear was essentially that the criminals may have no qualms about selling to jihadist groups. He said they were doing so quite regularly, adding that 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 Forces while still deployed east of Suez. He also disclosed that captured al-Qaeda leaders confessed to the CIA "under duress," that they had attempted to smuggle a radioactive device into the U.S.

A report in Britain’s New Scientist June 2004 issue included details of another IAEA report. The report disclosed that there were more than 10,000 sources designed for radiotherapy, each of which contained 1000 pellets of cobalt-60. As the magazine explained, each pellet emitted 100 gigabecquerels of radioactivity, enough to put somebody over their annual safety limit within a couple of minutes. "There are also tens of thousands of large radiation sources used by industry such as gauges, sterilizers and metal irradiators," the report stated.

That was followed by the IAEA expressing concern about the security of hundreds of thermo-generators made in Russia and the West, in which heat produced by radioactive decay drives a generator to provide power in remote areas.

The IAEA’s smuggling figures did not include radiation sources that have simply gone missing. "An average of one a day is reported to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as lost, stolen or abandoned," the report read. There were still more than 1,000 radioactive sources unaccounted for in Iraq. Of 25 sources stolen from the Krakatau steel company in Indonesia in October 2000, only three were ever recovered. In Tbilisi, Georgia, a taxi driver named Tedo Makeria was stopped by police in May 2003 and found to be carrying lead lined boxes containing strontium-90 and caesium-137.

In Belarus, customs officials seized 26 radioactive cargoes, six of them from Russia. 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 who would succumb to the effects of the chemical explosion and the shrapnel that it disperses, as would be the case with a conventional bomb.

Dr. von Wielligh pointed out that it is extremely unlikely that there will be a vast amount of radioactive material in the immediate vicinity of an RDD blast, or people would die right there from radiation. Acute radiation effects including death—will likely appear in the days, weeks or months that follow the exposure.

The main purpose of a RDD is to contaminate the surroundings and to disrupt normal commercial and other activities for an extended period. The principle initial objective of detonating a "dirty bomb" is likely to create panic on a massive scale, which would unquestionably happen, should the attack take place in the heart of any major city.

While the radiation effect which follows is secondary, it is important to accept that when human tissue is exposed to radiation, energy is absorbed which could lead to a variety of harmful consequences coupled to a variety of associated symptoms. The number of casualties may not be as many as some predict: a major bomb in downtown Chicago or Berlin might result in hundreds rather than thousands of casualties, of which a limited number would die. Radiation can either have deterministic (acute) or stochastic (probabilistic) effects. Acute effects occur after high doses are delivered in a relatively short period and manifest typically within a few days.

Stochastic effects typically occur after low doses of radiation are assimilated but will only manifest in years or decades after exposure and then probably as a form of cancer. As with the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, there were people still dying a generation or two after those two attacks.

Even when persons are exposed to high radiation, such as the "Blue Flash" chain reaction incident associated with a plutonium criticality accident which happened at Los Alamos during the early phase of building the bomb, it will not lead to immediate death.

The scientist who, in the 1940s, experienced the very first "Blue Flash" at Los Alamos an exposure of about 8 Gywalked unaided to the hospital where he died four weeks later. One of the facility’s security guards standing about 12 or 15 feet away suffered no lasting injury.

Using the same plutonium setup, another person involved in the Manhattan Program created a second criticality accident nine months later and he died after about a week. Death due to radiation is seldom immediate. In both of these incidents, chain reactions were generated and the plutonium actually went critical, releasing prodigious amounts of radiation.

A chain reaction in a solution of, say, enriched uranium salts in water is even more deadly. Whereas one needs scores of pounds of metal to go critical about 200 grams of HEU salts in water can become critical. Many criticality accidents in laboratories in which people subsequently died, took place in solution systems during processing.

Ideally, the radioactive material used in a "dirty bomb" terror attack should be something that might be dispersed by the initial explosion: most likely in the form of a powder, the finer the better. Solid and highly active spent fuel ceramic uranium oxide pellets would need to be crushed or remotely ground and the uranium metal/zirconium fuel plates would have to be remotely mechanically powdered to be of any practical use.

Consequently, dispersing whole ceramic uranium oxide pellets by an explosive would make clean-up much easier as the contamination will mostly be contained in the pellets. Using spent uranium-zirconium metal fuel would probably result in some shrapnel, but the contamination would also be localised and therefore not difficult to clean up.

Spent fuel elements are thus unlikely candidates for a RDD. The radioactive material in a RDD may come from medical therapeutic sources (such as caesium-137 and cobalt-60) or from industrial radiographic equipment (in which case it would probably be cobalt-60). There are many documented cases where obsolete equipment, using such sources, have ended up in scrap heaps and were subsequently melted down and incorporated in steel, rendering it radioactive. There have been instances where entire structures have had to be torn down as a consequence.

There was also a case where about 100 grams of caesium-137 in a therapeutic device from an abandoned clinic in Goiânia, Brazil was scavenged and the glowing cesium salt sold to curious buyers. That incident resulted in the death of four people. Under normal circumstances, Cs-137 is extracted in small quantities during the reprocessing of spent fuel and must be remotely handled in so-called "hot cells."

Moreover, Cs-137 is a strong emitter of penetrating gamma rays (similar to X-rays). No glove or surgical mask will provide any protection. If terrorists with little regard for their own longevity, or the deaths of others, handle this material without protection from the emanating deadly radiation, they too will die.

One nuclear scientist who was prepared to offer advice on the subject suggested that rather than go through the complicated and hazardous steps to specially prepare spent fuel in a suitable form for a RDD, it would be easier to visit a scrap yard with a wheelbarrow and search for a discarded, shielded source in a developing country where regulatory oversight is weak or nonexistent. Alternatively, he said, one could steal industrial sources in their protective containers.

It is known in the West that such industrial and medical sources disappear at an alarming rate all over the world.

The mentioned scientist recalled a case where a container with a medical isotope was stolen from the freight section at Johannesburg International Airport in South Africa.

Another possible scenario would be to get hold of the waste left after the reprocessing of spent fuel. This will not contain plutonium (extracted in the reprocessing process together with any unused uranium) but more likely, produce lots of unwanted fission products. Because it is regarded as waste, it is only protected for its hazardous properties and not for any intrinsic value. Spent fuel reprocessing facilities are little more than large industrial plants that use special materials and can be found in France, the UK, Japan and Russia. Sources for materials for Radiological Dispersal Devices are plentiful.


Mr. Venter is the author of more than 50 books and is also producer and director of TV films. His most notable effort was a one-hour documentary on the war in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion at the behest of the CIA. His latest book, Mercenaries is linked to a six part series of the same name for Discovery Channel and he recently published Portugal’s Guerrilla Wars in Africa.

Foot notes

  • 1 Christopher Andrew " Defence of theRealm: The Authorized History of MI5 " London, 2009
  • 2 William J. Broad " Document Reveals 1987 Bomb Test by Iraq " New York Times April 29, 2001
  • 3 Robert Wesley " British Terrorist Dhiren Barot’s Research on Radiological Weapons " Terrorism Focus Volume 3, Issue 44 (November 14, 2006): Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC
  • 4 Ibid. " British Terrorist Dhiren Barot’s Research on Radiological Weapons " Terrorism Focus Volume 3, Issue 44 (November 14, 2006): Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC