Tracing the Rumors
The Islamic State is a frightening terror cult roaming across the Levant in Toyota Hilux pickups like some biblical scourge, beheading kuffar and apostates, subjecting women to forced marriages and sex-slavery, filling mass graves in the Mesopotamian desert. Like any proper apocalyptic cult, guns and blades just aren’t tools enough to spread their message of terror: ISIS appears determined to reach full Bond-villain by building radiological bombs.
ISIS swept across the Syrian border and into Iraq in 2013. By the summer of 2014 ISIS held the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul, one of the most populace urban centers north of Baghdad. Shortly after government troops fled Mosul reports warning of the theft of nuclear materials from Mosul University began to filter through news websites. On 9 July, Reuters reported Iraqi UN Ambassador Muhammed Ali Alhakim issued the following warning to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state . . . can be used in manufacturing WMDs.” The ambassador intimated that the stolen radioactive material could be “separated . . . or used in other activities,” as though hinting at the future possibility of an ISIS nuclear bomb.
Days later, on 11 July, reports surfaced stating 40 kg of nuclear material were recovered by ISIS from Mosul. On 13 July, the Guardian reported that Mosul University may have housed nuclear materials for medical research, chemical analysis, and calibrating equipment. University staff claimed all radioactive materials used in research at the University were single-microcurie sources (about the same radioactivity as the americium in a smoke detector) and that the overall amount of radioactive research material would have been very small.
There is speculation, however, that radioactive materials dating to Saddam-era nuclear weapons research may have been stored at the university. Thirty miles west of Mosul lies the al-Jisera chemical processing facility, used to convert uranium ore received from the Akashat Mines (also currently in ISIS controlled territory), and UF6 yellowcake uranium from the Al Qaim facility. Conflicting reports indicate that UF6 produced as part of the uranium enrichment process was completed by the Jaberin Hayan General Establishment, also near Mosul. The Al Kindi General Establishment was Saddam’s missile development facility, which reportedly produced UCLH used in the refinement of enriched 235U. Al Kindi lies on the Tigris River, at Mosul.
The IAEA inspected al-Jesira post-1991 and again in 2003. The first inspection indicated an estimated 1,000kg of uranium compounds buried in the foundational structure of buildings at the UO2 plant. The UCL4 plant was emptied and dismantled and uranium compounds moved to onsite waste storage ponds. In 2003 the IAEA reported that the waste was believed to have been moved to storage at al Tuwaitha south of Baghdad, however this was not verified.
The Guardian reported speculation that process samples from radioactive materials once used at al-Jesira may have been sent to Mosul University following the 1991 air campaign against Saddam’s military facilities, along with undamaged analytical equipment from the secret labs. The samples likely included uranic compounds such as uranylacetate, UF6 yellowcake, ammonium diuranate, uranium dioxide and trioxide, and small quantities of UCl4. Although no official list of the transfer is known to exist, these are the most likely compounds to have been used in analysis and testing at al Jesira. Although toxic, the alpha radioactivity of such sources is low and easily mitigated with proper care.
Reports of stolen uranium died down in late summer only to resurface in November when accused bomb-maker Muslim-al-Britani (aka Hamayun Tariq, a former British national who fled England to join ISIS in 2012) posted the following to his Twitter: “IS has confirmed that we have acquired a dirty bomb from radioactive material from Mosul Uni!” The tweets garnered concern as Al-Britani routinely posted bomb-making plans while urging recruits to join ISIS or conduct their own acts of terror on the Western world.
Indian news sites posted the tweets as verification that ISIS possessed a radiological dispersal device (RDD), and by November 30 British tabloid Daily Mail picked up the story. New tweets in early December spurred a flurry of media attention, followed closely by experts downplaying the potential threat of an ISIS dirty bomb. It’s likely that al-Britani’s subsequent tweets followed the media hype, which treated each new tweet as a major development. On December 6 al-Britani declared that a “radioactive device has entered somewhere in Europe,” threatening attacks on London.
Twitter deactivated al-Britani’s account shortly after the threats were published. Little has been made of ISIS’ dirty bomb claims since the second week of December and it seems as though the story has been largely forgotten in major media. No mention of recovery of the stolen uranium has surfaced, nor has any news about security forces preventing a radiological attack. What happened? We know that ISIS possesses the materials, yet nothing seems to have come from all the propaganda.
Assessing the Propaganda
Does ISIS have a dirty bomb, or are the recent tweets nothing more than propaganda? The answer is likely to be some of both. Former Mosul University staff have verified that the university did indeed possess radioactive materials, and Iraq’s UN ambassador verified radioactive materials were taken by ISIS. The quantity of material remains in doubt: al-Britani claimed ISIS possesses 40kg of material while university staff do not believe the institution held that much material. Claims made by Iraq’s ambassador are difficult to verify as the government may be exaggerating the threat in order to stir international aid against ISIS, as security experts have pointed out.
Building an RDD is relatively straightforward and ISIS does possess competent bomb makers. This much of the claim can be considered true: if the terror organization possesses the material then they have the ability to create a dirty bomb, and they do possess radioactive material.
Transporting an RDD may prove more difficult for ISIS. Moving radioactive material out of the ISIS enclave and Levant might be easy with loose borders and hefty bribes, but moving it into Europe is much more difficult. Many countries maintain radiation detection equipment at ports and border crossings. Uranium is an alpha-particle emitter meaning it is easily blocked by protective shielding, therefore it is more difficult to detect than other isotopes, however modern detection equipment is quite sensitive. Also of concern, Moldova and Transnistria host major blackmarkets for weapons and uranium, and are easily accessed via the Black Sea. This region of Eastern Europe already acts as a conduit moving goods and people into Europe with few questions and even less precautions, especially with the recent troubles in neighboring Ukraine. Still, the chances are low that a large RDD (truck-bomb sized) has been smuggled into western Europe, particularly Britain.
Assessing the Threat
So what danger does an ISIS dirty bomb actually pose? The answer greatly depends on the radioactive materials used in the device. The radiological danger is directly related to the types of isotopes used in the bomb so it is difficult to state specific radiological damage assessments. The most dangerous effects from ionizing radiation occur from short but intense radiation, or long-term exposure to smaller levels of radiation. Radioactive materials acquired for use in an RDD are very unlikely to be sufficiently “hot” to produce radiation intense enough to cause major health effects in a very short period of time (before the affected areas can be evacuated). As such, non-state actors (terrorists) are more likely to acquire isotopes with long-decay periods but less intense radiation, such as americium, cesium, and cobalt. These isotopes are often used for industrial or medical equipment.
Isotopes that emit much or all of their radioactivity during a typical human lifetime (rapid decay) pose the greatest risk to human health. Isotopes with an extremely short half-life are unlikely to contaminate an area for sufficient time to cause negative health effects, while those that decay over the course of millions or billions of years usually produce too little ionizing radiation to be a major concern.
As previously stated, most of the materials stolen from Mosul University were small samples of low-grade uranium, most likely 238U in various forms. 238U represents 99.27 percent of the natural ore, and is much more stable than the 235U used in nuclear weapons. The element has a half life of 4.5×10^9 (450 billion) years rather than 235U, which clocks in around 703.8×10^6 years. Because the element takes so long to decay there is little danger from ionizing radiation. Remember that uranium isotopes must be separated and 235U enriched in order to create a working nuclear fission weapon. The compounds captured by ISIS, namely uranylacetate, UF6 yellowcake, ammonium diuranate, uranium dioxide and trioxide, and small quantities of UCl4, are deficient means of producing ionizing radiation.
In 2002 the Federation of American Scientists prepared a radiological threat assessment for RDDs. The report stated that most exposure to radioactive particles is likely to occur from inhalation of airborne material directly following the blast. Secondary exposures will occur from material deposited on surfaces as dust settles (similar to fallout from a nuclear weapon blast). Tertiary exposures are assumed in rural areas due to ingestion of contaminated food and water sources.
According to FAS, alpha-emitters are the most likely damage-causing radiological agent following an RDD incident. This is good and bad: remember, alpha particles are easily blocked by personal protective equipment (PPE) including clothes, off-the-shelf dust masks, and skin. Once inhaled or ingested, however, alpha particles can do serious cellular damage due to their size. Also troublesome are gamma-emitters that can contaminate an area with intense ionizing radiation that is more difficult to protect against than alpha-emitters, however in the case of an ISIS-built 238U RDD, alpha-emitters are the only particle to worry about. As already stated, 238U is a stable isotope with extremely long half-life, meaning it is poorly suited as a radiological weapon. Caveat: uranium is a heavy metal and as such the prospect of distributing fine particles of the substance over a densely populated area is likely to cause some amount of heavy metal toxicity among inhabitants who cannot quickly evacuate.
FAS conducted three case studies in the 2002 report. Although uranium isotopes were not among the elements examined one case study did focus on the alpha-emitter americium. According to the report people within an area 10x larger than the initial blast zone would medical attention, although this might be as little as monitoring to see if health issues develop. An immediate evacuation zone would be 30x larger than the initial blast zone. This zone should be evacuated within 30 minutes, and will contain most of the particles from the blast. The area would require decontamination efforts to remove particles. Inhalation risks would last until most of the particles were removed, as contaminated dust becomes airborne again from weather or human activities. In an urban environment, this dust could be sucked into air conditioning systems and spread throughout otherwise sealed buildings. FAS asserts that a ten-block contaminated area would result in a cancer death probability of one per one thousand. The report estimated a sixty-block area would have contamination in excess of EPA safety standards, with a cost of fifty billion dollars to demolish and rebuild structures in the zone. Bear in mind that the September 11, 2001 terror attacks cost nearly one hundred billion dollars in reconstruction, with an extended economic loss estimate of two trillion dollars. An RDD with a large explosive device placed in a densely populated urban center could produce a similar economic impact, especially considering panic induced by the lack of public knowledge about radioactivity.
The uranic materials ISIS possesses are unsuitable for an RDD due to low radioactivity and particle-type emission. It is likely that once ISIS leadership saw the tepid response to radiological threats the materials were sold on the blackmarket. Indeed, the effort to stoke nuclear fears seemed to only take root among fringe groups such as doomsday preppers, religious fundamentalists, and conspiracy theorists, all of whom seem to greatly misunderstand radiation exposure and health effects.
The overall risk presented by “dirty bombs” are exceedingly low compared to almost any other non-conventional or conventional method of terrorist attack. Such a device would surely sew panic and potentially have a major economic impact, however the countries most likely to suffer psychological and economic effects of an RDD are also the countries where it is most difficult to obtain or transport radiological material into. Still, this does not mean we should discount the potential for such an attack in the future. ISIS and al Qaeda have both shown willingness to explore non-conventional methods of attack, from chlorine gas and possible biological compounds, to using airplanes as suicide missiles. ISIS may not have constructed a doomsday device from Mosul University’s stolen uranic compounds, but it is only a matter of time before some terrorist group acquires the means of presenting a more lethal RDD attack.