The Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC last week put the threat of ISIL using some sort of fissile and/or radioactive material right at the top of the international media terror spotlight. If ISIL could build an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) and/or a ‘Dirty’ bomb they would certainly use it and all the better for them if this would be in New York, London, Paris etc. It would appear that the ISIL terror attacks in Belgium 2 weeks ago were originally planned to have some sort of nuclear element, but through good intelligence gathering and some luck this nightmare scenario was avoided, just, for now.
It is possible that some that of the +15,000 nuclear warheads, quoted by Eric Schlosser in his recent book ‘God’s of Metal’, may be poorly guarded and could fall into terrorist hands but it is highly improbable. Not least of all, because at the end of the Cold War international efforts were made to secure the most vulnerable storage locations, such as the removal of 600kg of weapons grade uranium under Project Sapphire from Kazakhstan to the US.
Having been involved in nuclear security in the UK, I am acutely aware of the challenges and hurdles required for a terror group to successfully smuggle a viable device to a suitable target location and then override the numerous safety features to detonate such a weapon. In my opinion the areas of concern in future are, firstly, the development of North Korea’s nuclear capability and its ‘apparent’ inter-continental ballistic missile programme, secondly, highly enriched weaponised isotopes falling into terrorist hands through the black market or dark web to build an IND, and thirdly, using commonly available radiological sources to create a dirty bomb.
I am relatively confident that the P5, and in particular the US, are keeping a very close eye on North Korea and would take offensive action if it appeared that this country was near to or about to launch some kind of nuclear tipped missile. It would appear that N Korea is still some way from this. The next concern is the possibility that nuclear weapons grade viable material is acquired by ISIL, and fashioned into an IND. 15-20 KGs of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), with a simple ‘gun-gadget’ initiation device could yield a blast equivalent to 2000 tonnes TNT. This would be enough to flatten several blocks, and technically, is probably within the capabilities of ISIL’s scientists in Iraq and Syria. I very much doubt they [ISIL] could explode this type of weapon in a P5 nation except perhaps Russia. It is here [Russia] that ISIL would most likely get the HEU, and it is the Chechen Jihadists who appear to be at the heart of ISIL chemical, radiological and nuclear weapons programmes. It is the Russians who are the Chechens greatest enemy and they [Chechens] have previously used fissile material before to attack the Russian State. With this in mind it is somewhat surprising that President Putin decided to boycott the Nuclear Summit which aims to prevent such an attack.
What the public appear most afraid off, and is the most likely threat outside Syria and Iraq from ISIL, is the ‘Dirty’ Bomb. However, the fear of ‘Dirty’ bomb attack is misguided, as the only immediate casualties would likely be from the blast rather than radiation, which would be unlikely to have many short or long term medical effects. Though radiological material is relatively easy to source, the sophisticated Security Services, Counter Terror Police and Special Forces operations in the UK for example, would make it extremely unlikely that ISIL could detonate such a bomb here.
In sum, the threat to the UK from an ISIL nuclear device is extremely low, and though only slightly higher for a dirty bomb attack, the psychological impact would outweigh the physiological by many times.
Adapted from an article at the Daily Telegraph.com
Hamish De Bretton-Gordon is a former commander of NATO’s CBRN Brigade.