While the theft of a truck carrying radioactive cobalt made international headlines, this was unfortunately not the first time thieves or scavengers have exposed themselves or others to lethal radiation. Probably the most infamous case was on September 13, 1987 in Goiania, Brazil. Scavengers broke into an abandoned medical clinic and stole a disused teletherapy machine. These machines are used to treat cancer by irradiating tumors with gamma radiation typically emitted by either cobalt-60 or cesium-137. In the Goiania case, the gamma-emitting radioisotope was cesium-137 in the chemical form of cesium chloride, which is a salt-like substance. When the scavengers broke open the protective seal of the radioactive source, they saw a blue glowing powder: cesium chloride. This material did not require a “dirty bomb” to disperse it. Because of the easily dispersible salt-like nature of the substance, it spread throughout blocks of the city and contaminated about 250 people. Four people died form radiation sickness by ingesting just milligrams of the substance.
The June 18th arrest of two men for allegedly plotting to build a bizarre yet potentially deadly radiological device once again highlights the potential nexus of non-state actors with so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, much like this year’s troika of ricin-laced letters addressed to government facilities (including one to the CIA) and public officials (all three incidents targeted President Obama at his White House address), this most recent plot reveals the historical rarity and non-lethality of non-state actors and their behaviors with radiological weapons and agents. While the potential for catastrophe posed by terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons deserves ongoing and serious attention, recent events remind us how public apprehension is sometimes founded more in fear than reality; indeed, reactions based on fear are capable of far more disruption than the physical reality of the event itself. The role of science-based organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists is to educate the public about the real risks.
Of the CBRN threats, the nuclear threat is undoubtedly truly catastrophic because a nuclear weapon can cause massive destruction, but obtaining a nuclear weapon or the fissile material to make such a weapon is very hard to do. In comparison, radiological sources are far more common, but most of them would cause little or no harm to human health if dispersed by a radiological weapon because there is not enough radioactive material contained in the vast majority of each of these sources. And even those radiological sources containing highly radioactive materials would pose great difficulties for terrorists to use because they would hazard exposing themselves to lethal ionizing radiation. These latter issues, and others outlined below, are very relevant to the recent radiological plot.
By Michael Edward Walsh
The concept of emerging security challenges is not new. Mankind has always had to adapt to novel scientific and technological innovations that have changed the nature of war and violence within society. The sudden focus on emerging security challenges is then not driven by their mere emergence but rather by the context in which they are emerging. For this reason, it is critical that security experts not delink the external world from the conversation.
In the immediate aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden much attention has been focused on the fact that al-Qa‘ida, in stark contrast to its operational configuration a decade ago, is no longer a cohesive whole. It is a “franchise” many rightfully point out, even inspiring sophisticated and deadly attacks by “lone wolves”—those sharing only in al-Qa‘ida ideological and strategic vision. Consequently, it is not surprising that several informed commentators have emphasized that Bin Laden’s death does little to “tip the scales in our favor.” Indeed, there should be little doubt that long ago al-Qa‘ida transcended a single man. Highly capable and inspirational figures—Attiyatallah, Abuy Yahya al-Libi and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri—are poised to assume bin Laden’s role and continue his role as spearhead of the global jihadist movement. Moreover, in the short term it seems entirely likely that there will be an upsurge in jihadist activity, specifically a greater quantity of attacks and, quite possibly, attacks that qualitatively precipitate relatively higher death tolls and levels of terror than has been the case recently. In short, it can be strongly argued that bin Laden’s death does little to alter today’s threat assessment of al-Qa‘ida.
The long-term impact of bin Laden’s death, however, is likely to be significant for at least three reasons. First, it should be recalled that members of al-Qa‘ida swore a personal oath to bin Laden, not his organization. With his absence a certain loss of moral is to be expected. Perhaps of greater significance is the effect this will have on an embarrassing leitmotif of America’s “War on Terrorism”: bin Laden’s ability to escape capture since 1998. It is difficult to overemphasize the impact his perceived invulnerability had on his followers; in many ways it gave bin Laden an aura of sacrosanct protection by Allah. With its removal it seems likely that the jihadist movement will lose some of its momentum, even if the metrics of measuring “morale” are hard to gauge. Second, bin Laden’s death coincides perfectly with the largely secular awakening now taking place in North Africa and the Middle East. While we cannot yet predict what the mid- and long-term outcome of this mass movement will be, it is entirely possible that it will serve to weaken the jihadist movement at a time when it is suffering a major setback with the death of bin Laden. Finally, the circumstances of bin Laden’s death fully removes the thin veil obstructing a long obvious fact: Pakistan’s ISI is not only aiding the Taliban to ensure that the endgame in Afghanistan conforms to their perceived needs, elements of it are clearly intertwined with al-Qa‘ida.
It is now clear that no amount of denial or obfuscation can impede a widespread understanding that Pakistan’s ISI is actively working against U.S. interests. This has, of course, long been known. Moreover, it can be argued that this reality continues because it somehow reflects the best possible options in a very complex situation. Regardless of how one feels about the ISI’s role, the U.S. public will now weigh in on the debate. Thus, it is entirely conceivable that relations with Pakistan will continue to sour; that development could result in several outcomes, few of them good and many of them unanticipated.