Posted: 6/12/2002 4:37:31 PM EDT
June 12, 2002
[b]The Dirty Secret of 'Dirty Bombs'
By KHIDHIR HAMZA[/b]
The arrest of a "dirty bomb" suspect in Chicago has focused attention once again on al Qaeda. But it would be a mistake to ignore possible state links, especially with Saddam Hussein.
During Iraq's long war with Iran it became clear that terrorizing the Iranian troops by using chemical weapons was much more effective than all the artillery and aerial bombardment that we could muster. Newly transferred to the Military Industrialization Corp. headed by Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law, I discovered that a team from the Atomic Energy Commission was already working on radiation weapons on the theory that they could achieve the same effect.
It was 1987 and Iran's troops were entrenched in Iraq's only seaport, Fao. No amount of bombardment could dislodge them. The trick was to cut off their supply lines by contaminating the border region with Iran.
Recognizing that this was wartime, and thousands were dying in battles daily, I could not immediately dismiss the idea. Not having a powerful enough reactor, the Atomic Energy team resorted to using reactor materials that had already been irradiated, such as the Zirconium in the reactor channels. They could not use the spent reactor fuel since it was checked regularly by the international inspectors. But a test was made in a desert region after enough radioactive material was assembled. As expected, the radioactive materials dispersed too fast and the lethal zone was almost nonexistent outside the blast area. Within a few days there was no more than background radiation outside a very small area. Another test gave the same results and the project was dropped.
But it was recognized at the time that while a dirty bomb is not an effective weapon of war, it remains an effective weapon of terror. A contaminated building is a different story than an explosion in the desert sands. Sure enough, I started hearing reports that Iraqi intelligence was inviting some of our nuclear chemists to inquire about how much is a lethal dose and what are the best sources of radiation. They soon realized that the best way to kill someone with radiation was not to spread it widely over a big area; a person could wander through a radiated area for years without noticeable effects. But if someone inhales radioactive materials such as plutonium dust even in tiny quantities, he will most probably be doomed to disease and death. Thus it's much more effective to release radioactive materials, not in the desert, but in a confined environment such as a building where it's more likely to poison people.
Too busy at the time pursuing the nuclear weapons option, Atomic Energy personnel were stopped from meeting intelligence experts. However, I am sure the intelligence agency pursued the subject more diligently by creating its own research team. Thus I was not surprised at the recent news that a defector from the Mukhabarat, Iraq's intelligence organization, was part of a team buying Russian radioactive material routed through an African country.
Nuclear materials were handled in a very cavalier fashion in Iraq. Radioactive materials were carried in personal cars without much protection most of the time. Neutron sources for oil well logging (a method of studying the composition of potential bore holes) were dispersed without much training, leading to some accidents that resulted in large contaminated areas. My guess is that if the U.S. nuclear industry is missing some materials, the story is much worse in countries like Iraq, Iran, Libya, Pakistan and the former Soviet republics. This creates an environment in which countries can claim lack of discipline of their workers as a cover for many missing radiation sources.
The only serious controls over the smuggling of radioactive materials out of Russia now are the many sting operations by the Russian intelligence services rather than the actual control over the materials themselves. However, such operations are much less in evidence in the other former Soviet republics. Thus, according to one Russian expert, there are more sellers than buyers of nuclear materials in these countries.
This environment is ideal for countries like Iraq to train and support a terrorist operation using radiation weapons with complete deniability. If anthrax spores were used to terrorize the U.S., plutonium particles are more effective. No high technology is needed to create plutonium dust and once tiny quantities of plutonium are lodged in the lungs, there is no known cure. Most probably the victim will not even know that he is afflicted till it is too late. There will be no measurable radiation emanating from his body since the emitted radiation from plutonium is short-range. His lung tissues will absorb the radiation, blocking it from being detected by outside detectors. Thus, unlike anthrax, detection is much harder. And plutonium is much more available in spent reactor fuel.
Restricting the lookout for this source of terrorism to al Qaeda is taking the easy way out. No matter how much their caves and former dwellings were searched, all that was found were some primitive documents about nuclear radiation. The real expertise -- and the real stockpiles of nuclear material -- remain in countries like Iraq and Iran. With Afghanistan removed as a safe haven, terrorist training grounds and sources of expertise have to come from these countries. It is time to face the real problem and deal with it.
[i]Mr. Hamza, former director of Iraq's nuclear program, is president of the Council on Middle Eastern Affairs.[/i]
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Updated June 12, 2002