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A summary of the latest WikiLeaks revelations on nuclear terrorism. By Richard Palmer
Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are working to produce chemical, biological or radioactive weapons to attack the West, according to WikiLeaks diplomatic cables released by the Telegraph on February 1.
“Although there was a limited assessed capability for al Qaeda and other groups to acquire wmd [weapons of mass destruction], the intent was clearly present, and there were ongoing credible reports of attempts to recruit the needed expertise,” said one of the cables, a summary of North Atlantic Council meeting held on Jan. 28, 2009.
A Dirty Bomb
“A ‘dirty’ radiological ied program was assessed to be under active consideration by al Qaeda,” said the cable.
A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive device that spreads radioactive material as it explodes. This can cause lethal radiation sickness, and can contribute to cancer. However, a dirty bomb would be far more effective at spreading fear and panic than killing people.
Fear of a silent, mysterious radioactive killer combined with widespread misinformation about dirty bombs and radioactive material in general could cause mass panic in an entire city if a dirty bomb was detonated.
Such a bomb would also be a powerful economic weapon. It could costs millions, or even billions, to clean up an area contaminated by the radioactive material.
Another cable revealed that India’s National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan warned U.S. senators Russ Feingold and Bob Casey that terrorist groups were trying to get a hold of the ingredients necessary for a dirty bomb.
India has discovered a “manifest attempt to get fissile material,” although terrorist groups have not yet been successful said Narayanan, according to a cable from June 2008.
Those terrorists have “enough physics to fabricate a crude bomb beyond a dirty bomb,” he said.
Al Qaeda and other groups are also working to produce a biological weapon. Again, a biological weapon is more an instrument of terror than a means of killing people. In Japan, a terror cult tried to stage biological weapons attacks in the 1990s. They had to try several times before anyone noticed.
Nonetheless, fear of a silent and infective killer could make a biological weapon an effective tool of terror.
A cable summarizing a November 2007 arms control meeting between the United States and Japan stated that “U.S. monitoring has shown growing interest in bioterrorism methods among terrorist groups.”
The cable continued to note that “the growth of the biotech industry in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, brings many benefits, but it also makes potential biological weapons more available to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”
“Al Qaeda bioterrorism plans found in Afghanistan revealed greater advances than was previously known,” stated the cable.
Cables also show that Syria and Iran are continuing to pursue a chemical weapons program.
The released cables also contained details of where terrorists could get a hold of chemical, biological or nuclear material. A cable released in November showed that the U.S. is worried that someone working at Pakistan’s nuclear facility could “gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”
Harvard’s Matthew Bunn, author of an annual report titled “Securing the Bomb,” written for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, agrees.
“The biggest concern of major production, to my mind, is theft from the places where the material is being handled in bulk—the plants that produce it, convert it to metal, fabricate it into bomb parts, and so on,” he said. “All but one of the real thefts” of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium “were insider thefts from bulk-handling facilities—that’s where you can squirrel a little bit away without the loss being detected,” he said.
The cables also noted instances of individuals attempting to sell or transport nuclear material. One cable detailed that an informant stated that Russian customs officers found the element cobalt-60 in passenger railway carriages coming from Kazakhstan into Russia in 2009. Cobalt-60 could be used to make a dirty bomb, though the cable states that the cobalt was not weapons grade.
Another cable published last December by the Guardian reported an instance where a group may have successfully smuggled cesium-137, another element that could be used to make a dirty bomb, into Georgia.
The cables also gave reports of highly enriched uranium being smuggled across Uganda, possible nuclear material being seized in Burundi, an individual trying to sell “uranium plates” from Chernobyl and another trying to sell uranium bricks from an underwater wreck in the Philippines.
It is important to note that some, or even all, of these instances of nuclear smuggling could have involved fake material. Selling dangerous radioactive material is lucrative, so people will try and sell forgeries.
The cables reveal that even the laboratory of the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) in Austria could be a source of nuclear material for terrorists. An interagency delegation visiting Safeguards Analytic Laboratory (sal) in 2008 “was particularly struck by safety and security concerns at sal,” reported one cable.
“For example, the nuclear laboratories that handle plutonium and uranium have windows, per Austrian law, and are located in a building housing the Austria Research Center (arc),” the cable said. “There is no way to provide perimeter security to this laboratory. The lack of space and inefficient set-up of the laboratories (scattered in the arc building and the iaea-owned lab) increase the safety concerns for personnel.”
The cables also showed how Iran could get a hold of dangerous material. Officials in Uzbekistan had intercepted a railway carriage with radioactive “scrap metal” heading to Iran, according to 2007 cables.
Even more worrying was the report by American officials visiting a couple of checkpoints on the border between Turkey and Iran. It concluded: “In both posts … there is a sense that when operational capabilities are not running optimally (either because the power is out or because the capacity never existed in the first place), the border is left open to anyone who is not overtly suspicious.”
At the first border station, they found that “the power is frequently out for up to 12 hours at a time.”
Their description of the second border post—a train crossing—would have been funny if it wasn’t so serious. Here, there is no electronic scanning equipment at all. The report stated that here, “people are allowed to pass unless they do something to arouse the suspicion of the customs officer.”
The officials are so remote that their main concern is not being attacked by radical Kurdish groups. After this “they focus primarily on counternarcotics, with only cursory attention paid to countering other forms of smuggling,” stated the report.
“When asked about smuggling in the railcars, as opposed to an individual trying to smuggle things in his baggage or on his person, Kucuk [the man in charge] expressed surprise and asked why anyone would smuggle things in railcars.”
There is very little to stop Iran smuggling dangerous material in or out of Turkey.
These leaked cables show that terrorists stand a good chance of getting hold of terrifying weapons. With rogue states and jihadist groups all trying to get their hands on weapons of mass disruption, it is only a matter of time before someone succeeds.The psychological effect of this type of an attack would be huge.