By Fred Burton
Since the 9/11 attacks catapulted al Qaeda to
the top of the evil-doers' list in the United States, one constant question
has remained: What is al Qaeda planning now? High among the public's fears,
fanned by certain events widely reported in the media, is that the jihadist
network or another like-minded group or individual will unleash a
radiological dispersion device (RDD), commonly referred to as a "dirty bomb,"
on U.S. soil.
Among the events that heightened this public interest in
RDDs early on was the intense media coverage of the May 2002 apprehension of
so-called al Qaeda "dirty bomber " Jose Padilla.
Since 9/11, the public awareness of RDDs -- and interest in
attacks that might utilize them -- has ebbed and flowed in cycles that often,
though not always, are initiated by incidents or statements that get a great
deal of media coverage. After the initial excitement dies down, the awareness
and concern gradually falls -- until the next incident.
We now find ourselves in one of those periods of heightened awareness, this one spurred
by Internet rumors of al Qaeda operatives and materials coming into the
United States via Mexican smuggling routes for the purpose of creating an "American Hiroshima."
Meanwhile, an audio statement was released Sept. 28 by al
Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Hamza al-Muhajer,
who called for scientists to join his group's efforts
against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, advising them that the large U.S.
bases there are good places to "test your unconventional weapons, whether
chemical or 'dirty' as they call them."
Considering the ease with
which an RDD can be manufactured, it is only a matter of time before one is
employed. In fact, it is quite surprising that one has not been successfully
used already. Certainly, the time is ripe to discuss what RDDs are and are
not -- and to consider the mostly likely results of such an attack.
Dirty Bombs are RDDs
An RDD, simply, is a device that
disperses radiation. Depending on the motives of those involved in planning
the incident, such a device could be a low-key weapon that surreptitiously
releases aerosolized radioactive material, dumps out a finely powdered
radioactive material or dissolves the radioactive material into water. It
would be intended to slowly expose as many people as possible to the
radiation. However, unless large amounts of a very strong radioactive
material are used, the effects of such an exposure are more likely to be
long-term rather than sudden and dramatic: people dying of cancer rather than
acute radiation poisoning.
By its very nature, however, this kind of
RDD will not generate immediate panic or the type of press coverage coveted
by most terrorists. Therefore, they more likely will opt for a RDD that
delivers a more "spectacular" punch -- a dirty bomb, in other words. The
opposite of a surreptitious device, a dirty bomb is intended to immediately
cause panic and mass hysteria.
A dirty bomb is simply a RDD made of a
traditional improvised explosive device (IED) with a radiological "kicker"
added. In a dirty bomb attack, radioactive material not only is dispersed,
but the dispersal is accomplished in an obvious manner, and the explosion
immediately alerts the victims and authorities that an attack has taken
place. The attackers hope notice of their attack will cause mass panic.
Effects of a Dirty Bomb
Perhaps the biggest
misconception about dirty bombs -- and there are many -- has to do with their
effects. Although radioactive material is utilized in constructing them, they
are not nuclear or atomic weapons. They do not produce a nuclear chain
reaction and, therefore, the employment of such a device will not produce an
"American Hiroshima." In fact, there can be a wide range of effects produced
by a dirty bomb depending on the size of the IED and the amount and type of
radioactive material involved. Environmental factors such as terrain, weather
conditions and population density would also play an important role in
determining the effects of such a device.
Generally, a dirty bomb
that uses a large quantity of highly dangerous radioactive material such as
plutonium-238 or cesium-137 will produce more (and stronger) contamination
than a device that uses less material or material that is not as radioactive.
However, the most highly radioactive materials are the hardest to obtain and
the most difficult to work with. Some materials are so dangerous that even
suicide bombers would die before they could use one if they were not properly
shielded. For example, in September 1999, two Chechen militants who attempted
to steal highly radioactive materials from a chemical plant in the Chechen
capital of Grozny were incapacitated after carrying the container for only a
few minutes each; one reportedly died.
There are, however, many
more-common, less-dangerous materials, such as americium-241 or strontium-90,
that would be easier to obtain and work with. It is therefore widely believed
that terrorists wanting to construct a dirty bomb would be more likely to use
one of them.
According to experts from organizations such as the
National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, unless a large
quantity of a very highly radioactive material is used, not many people will
be immediately killed by the radiation released by a dirty bomb. Rather, the
initial casualties will be a result of the explosive effects of the IED, just
as they would be in a conventional IED attack without a radiological
component. While exposure to very strong sources of radiation at close range
could cause fatalities, a dirty bomb by design disperses its radiation over a
larger area. Therefore, most of the deaths caused by the radiation in a dirty
bomb will most likely be from causes like cancer that will take years to
develop. Most people who quickly leave the area contaminated by the dirty
bomb will have minimum exposure to radioactivity and should not suffer
permanent health consequences.
Keep in mind, however, that a dirty
bomb is intended to cause a panic -- and the explosion of such a device in a
heavily populated urban area could very well result in a panic that could
kill more people than the IED or the radiation it disperses.
should also be noted that the radiological effects of a dirty bomb will be
larger than the killing radius of the IED itself, and will persist for far
longer. The explosion from a conventional IED is over in an instant, but
radiation from a RDD can persist for decades. While the radiation level may
not be strong enough to affect people who are exposed briefly in the initial
explosion, the radiation will persist in the contaminated area and the
cumulative effects of such radiation could prove very hazardous. (Here again,
the area contaminated will depend on the type and quantity of the radioactive
material used. Materials in a fine powdered form are easier to disperse than
solid blocks of material and some radioactive materials possess a far longer
half-life than others.) Due to this contamination, it will be necessary to
evacuate people from the contaminated area in many, if not most, cases
involving a dirty bomb. People will need to stay out of the area until it can
be decontaminated, a process that can be lengthy and expensive.
Therefore, while a dirty bomb is not truly a weapon of mass
destruction (WMD) like a nuclear device, many authorities refer to them as
"weapons of mass disruption" or "weapons of mass dislocation" because of the
fact that they temporarily render the contaminated areas uninhabitable. The
vast expense of decontaminating a large, densely populated area, such as a
section of Manhattan or Washington, would also make a dirty bomb a type of
Due to the ease of
constructing a dirty bomb -- which is really just an IED plus a source of
radioactivity -- such a device could be employed by almost any terrorist
actor ranging from a "lone-wolf" domestic terrorist to a transnational
militant organization such as al Qaeda. However, when considering that the
effects of such a device are more likely to be symbolic and economic, the
equation begins to shift toward the al Qaeda side, as symbolic targets that
harm the U.S. economy are dead in the center of the jihadist network's
targeting sweet spot. Al Qaeda also has a history of planning to use such
In his recent statements about using dirty bombs against
U.S. bases in Iraq, al-Muhajer did not present a novel idea. Many in the
jihadist universe have a strong fascination with WMDs, and many jihadist Web
sites, such as chat rooms and online magazines, regularly post information on
how to produce chemical agents, biological toxins, RDDs and even improvised
nuclear weapons. Some posts provide instructions on where to obtain
radioactive material and, in cases where it cannot be obtained, even purport
to provide instruction on how to extract radioactive material from commercial
materials, such as distilling radium from luminescent industrial paint.
More specifically to al Qaeda, evidence uncovered in Afghanistan
following the U.S. invasion demonstrated that the group was actively pursuing
a WMD program that included research on chemical, biological, nuclear and
radiological weapons. Based on this evidence, and information obtained from
the interrogations of captured high-level al Qaeda members, U.S. intelligence
agencies have specifically and repeatedly warned since late 2001 that al
Qaeda intends to produce and employ a RDD. When these reports surface, the
flow cycle of public concern over RDDs begins anew.
simplicity of manufacturing dirty bombs, however, they are not often used,
possibly due at least in part to their ineffectiveness. Governments such as
that of Iraq that experimented with dirty bombs for military purposes
abandoned them because they were not effective enough to be militarily
significant as a weapon or provide much of a deterrent.
group that has used or attempted to use RDDs the most is the Chechen
militants. In November 1995, Chechen militants under commander Shamil Basayev
placed a small quantity of cesium-137 in Moscow's Izmailovsky
Park. Rather than disperse the material, however, the Chechens used the
material as a psychological weapon by directing a television news crew to the
location and thus creating a media storm. The material in this incident was
thought to have been obtained from a nuclear waste or isotope storage
facility in Grozny.
In December 1998, the pro-Russian Chechen
Security Service announced it had found a dirty bomb consisting of a land
mine combined with radioactive materials next to a railway line. It is
believed that Chechen militants planted the device.
Analytically, based upon the ease of manufacture and the
jihadist interest in dirty bombs, it is only a matter of time before
jihadists employ one. Since the contamination created by such a device can be
long-lasting, more rational international actors probably would prefer to
detonate such a device against a target that is outside of their own country.
In other words, they would lean toward attacking a target within the United
States or United Kingdom rather than the U.S. or British Embassy in their
Since it is not likely to produce mass casualties, a
dirty bomb attack would likely be directed against a highly symbolic target,
such as one representing the economy or government, and designed to cause the
maximum amount of disruption at the target site. Therefore, it is not out of
the question to imagine such an attack aimed at Wall Street or the Pentagon.
The bomb would not destroy these sites, but would deny access to them for as
long as it takes to clean up the sites.
Due to the history of RDD
threats, the U.S. government has invested a great deal of money in radiation
detection equipment, and has strategically located that equipment along the
border at ports of entry and near critical sites. If the rumors of
radioactive materials being smuggled over the Mexican border are true, the
terrorists would want to detonate the device in a city close to the border
out of fear that this network of detection systems would allow the material
to be detected and seized by U.S. authorities before it could be employed.
The Importance of Contingency Plans
The possibility of an RDD attack underscores the importance of having personal contingency plans.
This is especially important for those who live or
work near one of these potential targets. In the case of a dirty bomb attack,
it will be important to stay calm. Panic, as we have said, could potentially
kill more people than the dirty bomb itself. The best countermeasure against
irrational panic is education. People who understand the capabilities and
limitations of dirty bombs are less likely to panic than those who do not.
People caught in close proximity to the detonation site, then, should
avoid breathing in the dust as much as possible and then calmly leave the
area, paying attention to the instructions given to them by authorities. If
possible, they also should bathe and change clothes as soon as possible, and
implement their personal or family emergency plan. People not in the
immediate vicinity of the dirty bomb should seek shelter where they are --
making sure to close windows and doors and turn off air conditioners --
unless they are instructed to go elsewhere.
communication from the authorities break down or the authorities not provide
instruction, the three most important things to remember about protecting
oneself from radiation are time, distance and shielding. That means
minimizing the time of exposure, maximizing the distance between the person
and the radiation source and maximizing the amount of shielding between the
person and the radiation source.
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