Since the end of the Cold War era, nuclear terrorism gained mainstream attention because of the threat posed by terrorist organizations and rogue states having access to highly enriched uranium (HEU), plutonium and nukes; based on the conception that these could have gone completely unguarded and uninspected due to financial troubles and disorganization after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of the cases that raised awareness of that threat were the alleged loss of suitcase bombs after General Lebed’s comments in the mid-1990s, the interdiction in 2003 of the BBC China cargo with parts of nuclear centrifuges hidden aboard en route to Libya; the subsequent exposure of the Abdul Qadeer Khan network and a blueprint of a 10 kt Chinese bomb found during the inspections of the Gaddafi’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.
Apart from a brief focus on Al Qaeda’s intentions, in the post-9/11 few analysts considered the threat posed by a radiological dispersion device (RDD) —“dirty bomb” made of conventional explosive laced with nuclear fuel or other radioactive material— or the exposure to radiation emitted by a radiological exposure device (RED) maliciously hidden from sight. Radiological terrorism is closely related to the nuclear field because of the materials involved, but not aimed at causing a massive atomic explosion. Even if they are not comparable to nukes, RDDs and REDs could make a large area uninhabitable, which would require decontamination of the surrounding environment; eventually implying evacuation and people staying out of the area until it is clean. In fact, this is one of the reasons why they are also referred to as “weapons of mass disruption”.
During the past decade, Nuclear Security Summits saw many countries commit themselves through a number of measures known as “gift baskets” which targeted key areas of nuclear security (i.e., downblending HEU), in order to avoid illicit movement and trading networks of fissile materials and radiological sources, as well as the risk it would pose to international security the fact they could fall into the wrong hands. Even in his own 2017 National Security Strategy report, president Trump took into account the increasing danger coming from hostile state and non-state actors regarding this.
Most recently, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said SARS-CoV-2 “was not manmade or genetically modified”, suggesting it was not meant to be used as a WMD. Still, the hegemon and its allies should be considered as targets for WMD attacks per se. Despite worldwide dread amid pandemic, COVID-19 turned out to be a fast-paced scenario that clearly shows how state actors continue to pursue their own interests inflicting damage against U.S. hegemonic position; as well as the myriad ways they strive to maximize their power in an anarchical international system, taking advantage of NATO and EU vulnerabilities.
This behavior could be extrapolated to non-state actors who remain active even when it comes to fighting against each other, like Daesh and Al Qaeda affiliates in Africa’s Sahel. In fact, the current context of social hypersusceptibility may be considered as a golden opportunity for acts of terrorism, contributing to an environment of intense fear and anxiety within affected communities, destroying freedom and undermining morale. The arrest of Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary in Almería in April and the imprisonment of an alleged Daesh member looking for targets in Barcelona this month, are warning signs of this situation in which terrorist organizations —even in the form of lone-wolfs— still operate.
The only known event that could be classed as radiological terrorism to date took place in Russia in 1995, when Chechen separatists placed an RDD of around 30 kg in Izmailovsky Park (Moscow), made of a Cs-137 source and dynamite. This dangerous isotope and others such as Co-60 and Sr-90 can keep emitting radiation for decades and are commonly found in hospitals and medical research centers, apart from other uses in industry and agriculture. According to IAEA all of them are Category 1 sources, the most dangerous in terms of their potential to cause immediate harmful health effects if they are not safely managed or securely protected.
Hopefully, the RDD didn’t explode. Nevertheless, a glimpse to its potential effects on a heavily populated area could be found in the Goiânia accident in Brazil. When a cancer therapy clinic closed in 1987, the radioactive source was simply abandoned instead of being transferred to a disposal facility. Scrap metal scavengers broke into the clinic and were able to walk out with a high-activity source filled with easily dispersible talc-like Cs-137, leading to a serious accident in a city of over a million inhabitants; resulting in the death of four persons and more than a thousand people contaminated, as well as certain parts of the city. Even though this event was not a terrorist act, it was traumatic enough for its inhabitants, showing evidence of the damage radioactive materials can cause as well as how easy it is to acquire them.
As of 31 December 2019, the IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database contained a total of 3686 confirmed incidents reported by participating States since 1993. Of these 3686 confirmed incidents, there are 290 that involved a confirmed or likely act of trafficking or malicious use. One of them happened at the end of last year, when Austrian law enforcement together with the General Police Inspectorate of The Republic of Moldova (National Investigative Inspectorate) coordinated and supported by Europol; jointly arrested in Vienna an organized group of criminals when they attempted to sell a nuclear container which allegedly contained radiological material for €3 million.
The fact WMD coverage is mainly focused on the threat posed by evil-doers who already have or are suspected to look for a nuclear status should not, however, give grounds for complacency; especially when terrorists have demonstrated that they are capable of planning and executing complex international operations, while being able to recruit scientists and specialists, enjoying abundant financing and resources. Apart from their disruptive social effects, contamination generated by RDDs and REDs would require a process that can be lengthy and expensive. In fact, the cleanup operation in Goiânia cost more than US$100 million.
Incidents involving attempts to sell nuclear or other radioactive material indicate that there is a demand for such material, which makes even more surprising the fact we have not seen RDDs and REDs been successfully used yet. Preparedness for future attacks begins with understanding how real this threat is.