The latest Wikileaks-related news concerns Al Qaeda’s pursuit of radioactive material for use in a dirty bomb. Despite the sometimes alarmist headlines, the cables made available to the newspaper The Telegraph do not point to an imminent dirty bomb attack. Instead they underline existing risks, not just dirty bombs but also nuclear and biological terrorism.
The focus on dirty bombs is understandable, as the majority of the reporting focuses on smuggled radioactive material.
Alerts about the smuggling of nuclear material, sent to Washington from foreign US embassies, document how criminal and terrorist gangs were trafficking large amounts of highly radioactive material across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
At a Nato meeting in January 2009 , security chiefs briefed member states that al-Qaeda was plotting a programme of “dirty radioactive IEDs”, makeshift nuclear roadside bombs that could be used against British troops in Afghanistan.
More troublesome, and not stressed in any of the headlines, are the nuclear terrorism-related nuggets:
An Indian national security adviser told American security personnel in June 2008 that terrorists had made a “manifest attempt to get fissile material” and “have the technical competence to manufacture an explosive device beyond a mere dirty bomb”.
Freight trains were found to be carrying weapons-grade nuclear material across the Kazakhstan-Russia border, highly enriched uranium was transported across Uganda by bus
Tomihiro Taniguchi, the deputy director-general of the IAEA, has privately warned America that the world faces the threat of a “nuclear 9/11″ if stores of uranium and plutonium were not secured against terrorists.
Senior British defence officials have raised “deep concerns” that a rogue scientist in the Pakistani nuclear programme “could gradually smuggle enough material out to make a weapon,” according to a document detailing official talks in London in February 2009.
If that is not enough bad news for you, biological weapons are also mentioned in the leaked diplomatic cables:
The briefings also state that al-Qaida documents found in Afghanistan in 2007 revealed that “greater advances” had been made in bioterrorism than was previously realized.
A lot of bad news. But not new news. The alarm about these threats has been raised repeatedly over the years. Just a few thoughts:
If a dirty bomb is detonated inside the U.S., the radioactive material will most likely have originated within the U.S. and not have been smuggled from Eastern Europe or Central Asia. There should be a greater focus on improving the security of the potentially most dangerous dirty bomb materials used within our borders and on developing technologies and techniques for cleaning up after an attack.
It is heartening to see foreign officials raising the alarm about nuclear terrorism. There exists a perception that it is a particular “American” neurosis instead of a shared risk. Expanding understanding of the risks should hopefully make it easier to take the (relatively) simple steps towards securing weapons-usable fissile material (which exists in much smaller amounts compared to radioactive sources that could be utilized in a dirty bomb).
Recent focus as been on efforts to produce anti-virals and vaccines quickly to emerging natural pathogens or even engineered bioterrorist weapons. While important, I fear that there is not enough focus on the ability to distribute these drugs or the eroding ability of public health services around the nation to detect a natural or man-made outbreak. The Trust for Americ’a Health most recent “Ready or Not” report points out that the “economic recession has led to cuts in public health staffing and eroded the basic capabilities of state and local health departments, which are needed to successfully respond to crises.”
So even if we wake up tomorrow to discover that the biomedical fairy has gifted us the ability to quickly produce the needed drugs, how sure are we that authorities could get them to the people in need in a timely manner? Or even realize that they are needed in the first place?