The Islamic State nuclear doomsday
The emergence of jihadist known to be searching for nuclear and radiological (NR) material has lent a tone of urgency to the debate about ways to prevent nuclear terrorism. At the same time, the supply side of the equation has grown from inchoate attempts at smuggling to a more organized market in NR material. This combination of factors has arguably increased the probability of spectacular attack in the not so distant future. The reason for this assessment is based on a straightforward calculation: a nuclear or radiological device is the ultimate force multiplier and a NR attack is considered “spectacular” enough for jihadists to fulfill their divine mission.
Though not publicized, anxiety about the threat of individuals acquiring sufficient materials to perpetuate such an attack intensified after September 11, 2001. When immediately after the attack, a source codenamed “Dragonfly” informed American intelligence that al-Qaida had smuggled a nuclear device into the United States, National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice described it as a “problem from hell,” evoking a previous comment referring to the “sum of all our fears.”
Producing nuclear weapons, including the required materials – plutonium and uranium – is beyond the skills of terrorist groups. The level of skills needed for the fabrication of a sophisticated weapon are judged to pose a barrier for terrorists. However, terrorists may seek to weaponize radiological materials in other ways.
Though there is a large selection of radioactive isotopes, only a few are good candidates for terrorism: cobalt-60, strontium-90, yttrium-90, cesium-137, iridium-192, radium-226 and plutonium-238.
Two types of radiological attack are possible. First, the Simple Radiological Device (SRD) involves placing a radioactive material in a public place to create an aerosol or burning it to trigger vaporization. Second, a “dirty bomb” uses conventional explosives to disperse radiological material.
While the problem has been well articulated, preventing terrorists from shopping for illicit material has been difficult. In spite of decades of US effort to institute safeguards, the supply side of the terrorism equation has actually expanded. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a haphazard business in stolen nuclear materials emerged.
The IAEA data represents only about 20 percent of all probable illicit traffic; the true number is impossible to calculate.