Text size

The arrest in Bangkok on June 13 of a Thai national, Narong Penanam, who had 30 kilograms of radioactive material (cesium-137) in his possession, has again placed on the international agenda as one of the most frightening threats posed by terrorist organizations - the use of a "dirty bomb."

"The fact that no terrorist organization has made use of a dirty bomb so far is a riddle to me," said Professor Graham Allison of Harvard University, who was assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration. To explain, he said it is quite simple to make such a bomb and the information involved can even be found on the Internet.

Allison is not alone in expressing concern about a possible quantum leap to the use of dirty bombs by terrorists. In an unusually blunt public statement four days after the Thailand capture, Eliza Mannigham-Buller, head of Britain's MI5 espionage agency, said it is "only a matter of time" until a terrorist attack is perpetrated using a dirty bomb.

A dirty bomb, also known as a radiological bomb, consists of conventional explosives wrapped in radiological materials. The detonation of the explosives disperses the radioactive particles, which can cause death, serious illness and the contamination of the area in which they are released. It needs to be emphasized that this is not a nuclear bomb, which has immeasurably greater destructive force. Still, by using a weapon that contains radioactive elements, the terrorist organizations will cross another line, and the attack will certainly have far-reaching psychological implications. Since September 11, 2001, the West has treated the possibility of a nonconventional terrorist attack very seriously.

The radiological substances that are needed to put together a dirty bomb are increasingly available, especially those that have their source in industrial plants and medical facilities. These include americium-241, strontium-90, cesium-137 and cobalt-60. The two last materials are more dangerous, because they emit gamma rays, which are capable of penetrating the human body and destroying tissue, leading to cancer and death. In the United States alone, there are some 2 million facilities and industrial plants that are licensed to make use of radioactive materials; every year, there are 300 reported cases of theft or loss.

It is more difficult to obtain radioactive materials, such as uranium or plutonium, which originate in nuclear reactors. However, in the light of the poor safeguards - such as at the reactors in the former Soviet Union - this should be considered a feasible mission. In the past decade, the International Atomic Energy Agency documented some 400 cases of trade in radioactive materials, and those were only the ones that were discovered.

Based on evidence that was uncovered at Herat, Afghanistan, which included detailed charts and drawings, American and British intelligence experts concluded that members of Al-Qaida succeeded in building a small dirty bomb shortly before the American invasion of the country. Abu Zubaida, a deputy of Osama bin Laden who was captured by the Americans, told his interrogators that the organization is in possession of such a weapon.

As early as November 1995, Chechen rebels placed a container holding cesium in a Moscow park. The Chechens informed the media about the radioactive container, which was then located and removed, but it could just as easily have been detonated and caused large-scale losses. In December 1998, the Russian security services discovered a container filled with radioactive material hooked up to a land mine, which had been placed next to the railway track about 16 kilometers east of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Again, the device was safely disarmed. In September 1999, two burglars tried to steal a container of radioactive material from a chemical plant near Grozny. One of them died half an hour after being exposed to the container's contents, while the other collapsed and was hospitalized but recovered. The Chechen authorities declined to discuss this case on the record, and the exact type of material involved is still not known.

In June 2002, a warning light flashed in the United States when an American citizen named Jose Padilla, who was known to have ties with Al-Qaida, was arrested on suspicion of planning to build a dirty bomb and set it off in a U.S. city. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation discovered that Padilla had undergone training in Pakistan, where he learned how to build a dirty bomb.

Less than a week after the seizure of the cesium-137 in Thailand, the Georgian police arrested a taxi driver in Tbilisi after finding a large amount of radioactive material in the trunk of his cab. An official communique of the Georgian government stated that strontium-90 and cesium-137 had been found.

Although most of the cases of theft, smuggling and attempts to make use of radioactive materials have occurred in East Asia, what surprises Allison is the fact that no attempt has yet been made to detonate a dirty bomb in the Middle East. "This is especially surprising in the case of Israel because there are people there who are willing to commit suicide," he said. "They probably also have the [dirty] bomb, but for some reason they are not going on to the next stage. But I am afraid that it is only a matter of time."

We have to hope that Allison's prognosis is incorrect and that his analyses of our region are too pessimistic. It's very possible that he is wrong in his view that the Palestinian organizations already have a dirty bomb or radioactive materials. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that, if the war in the territories continues, the Islamic terrorist organizations will move in the radiological direction. For those still looking for reasons to reach a settlement, this is another one.