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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

How Close Are We to Unconventional Terror Attacks by ISIS? The Dirty Bomb Scenario

Filed under: Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad, ISIS, Terrorism

How Close Are We to Unconventional Terror Attacks by ISIS? The Dirty Bomb Scenario
New York National Guard trains for dirty bomb disaster (New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs)

Early last month, world leaders attending a nuclear security summit in Washington DC expressed concern over nuclear and radiological terrorism threats. This was a formal international gathering hosted by the American president dedicated to the evolving ability of terror groups to plan and carry out mass killing attacks using unconventional means.

Publicly, the summit’s participants did not provide any substantial new information about any pending preparations among known terror groups. This raises the question how serious the threat is, and in the absence of clear leads and intelligence materials, the question is how can we assess this threat?   

The background of the global Jihad provides us with some indications, especially those efforts conducted by former Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin-Laden, to acquire nuclear materiel. His efforts included a couple of initiatives but especially worrisome was Bin-Laden’s bargaining with a former Sudanese general who claimed he could provide such nuclear materiel. According to the 9/11 Commission’s report, Bin-Laden paid $1.5 million dollars only to find that the offer was a fraud.

In most cases, the orphan radioactive sources (material no longer under regulatory control) represent a danger of “dirty bombs” – rather than actual nuclear bombs – which can contaminate large areas.

The episode – despite its failed result – taught us about Bin-Laden’s intentions. We have already learned, after the mass killing attacks on 9/11 and similar foiled plots, that it was not enough for Bin-Laden.  He sought much more spectacular attacks as a part of his Islamic revolution.

ISIS, which emerged from Al-Qaeda, is waging its battles on the same ideological foundation. The call for global Islamic revolution is the same call. The use of brutal violence is far harsher compared to past terror groups and even to Al-Qaeda. Practically, in some aspects, ISIS is much closer to securing and using unconventional weapons.

One of the major ISIS advantages concerning the development of unconventional measures is its control of large territories in northeast Syria – territories where ISIS has access to the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) installations in suburbs of Aleppo and al-Safirah. This scientific institution, functioning since 1969, was fully engaged in the development of chemical and biological agents and a variety of studies in the atomic field. The assumption should be that members of the staff working there joined or were forced to join ISIS efforts. We should assume that despite the Syrian army efforts in mid-2015 to transport or destroy the laboratories’ contents, ISIS may have succeeded in capturing at least some of it.

ISIS is attracting thousands of volunteers from Western countries, among them educated, skilled people who can contribute to ISIS’ unconventional weapons development efforts. In 2009, for example, the French authorities arrested a physicist who worked in a Swiss research center and expressed sympathy to global Jihad groups in North Africa. Such experts can be helpful not only in ISIS-controlled territories, but in Western cities as well.

Belgian official sources hinted lately about plots aiming to set off a nuclear disaster. Following the March 2016, terror attack in Brussel’s airport, Belgian authorities conducted large-scale investigations and exposed a large terror infrastructure. The authorities identified ISIS members’ intelligence-gathering as preparation for a future terror attack on a nuclear plant. The terrorist plan included attacking nuclear facilities by ground attacks or by cyber methods. This modus operandi has been familiar for years. British authorities arrested and indicted 10 years ago a group linked to Al-Qaeda preparing similar plans. ISIS, with the support of Western volunteers, is probably even dangerous and determined.

Widespread Trade in Orphan Radioactive Sources

In addition to ISIS’ potential access to nuclear materiel in their controlled territories, the opportunities to find other sources are relatively open.  Last month, Russian and Georgian media reported details of black market nuclear materiel activity.  On April 28, 2016, Georgian authorities arrested five citizens trying to sell uranium-238 and uranium-235 for three million dollars. Shipments of cesium-137 have also been intercepted in Georgia in recent years.  A Soviet power generator fueled by strontium-90 was found by woodcutters in a forest Georgia in 2001; other generators may have also been left behind when the Soviet Union disbanded. Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge is a notorious smugglers’ route between Russia, Chechnya, Georgia, Turkey and Syria for weapons, drugs and ISIS volunteers. In 2011, Moldavian authorities claimed that besides offering nuclear materiel, a Russian criminal group was ready to supply the drawings for a dirty bomb.  

Though ISIS did not invent the idea or the modus operandi, it seems much closer to unconventional terror ability than other terror groups ever had been. There is no doubt of their willingness to use these measures; the global Jihad already declared a total global war. Many spectacular mass killing terror attacks were carried out over the last 15 years all over the world. The main lesson is the radical organizations are in a state of mind to use their most fearful weapons, not just keep them for deterrence.  

In order to fight global terror, the Americans have done a lot on a worldwide scale since 9/11. They waged war on illegal money trafficking, upgraded the ability of border authorities to identify individuals on biometric bases, and established mechanisms for information-sharing between countries on terror suspects and terror threats.

But these measures that provided an answer to the threat of terror groups like Al-Qaeda are not sufficient to deal with the challenges of ISIS’ unconventional mega-terror potential. The American leadership must lead precise, efficient, and dedicated global efforts to meet this challenge.

 The strategy should contain two-integrated pillars: The first, special military operations by a Western consortium aimed at dismantling ISIS control of territories in Syria, Iraq, Sinai and North Africa.  The second, a secret intelligence effort for tracking, arresting, and/or targeting individuals linked to global terror, including criminal groups offering fissile materiel on the black market.