Jump to search Jump to main navigation Jump to main content Jump to footer navigation

Global Security Newswire

Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues

Produced by
NationalJournal logo

Al-Qaeda Close to Acquiring "Dirty Bomb," Cables Say

(Feb. 2) -Rescue workers push a person through a decontamination tent during a 2005 radiological "dirty bomb" simulation exercise. Al-Qaeda extremists are moving toward the capability to produce a dirty bomb, leaked U.S. State Department communications warn (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images). (Feb. 2) -Rescue workers push a person through a decontamination tent during a 2005 radiological "dirty bomb" simulation exercise. Al-Qaeda extremists are moving toward the capability to produce a dirty bomb, leaked U.S. State Department communications warn (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images).

The terrorist organization al-Qaeda is coming close to possessing unconventional weapons as it pursues atomic matter and draws in sympathetic scientists to construct radiological "dirty bombs," the London Telegraph reported today (see GSN, Jan. 31).

According to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables provided by the transparency organization WikiLeaks, security leaders at a 2009 NATO conference informed member countries that al-Qaeda operatives were devising a scheme to plant "dirty radioactive IEDS" -- improvised radioactive roadside explosive devices that would potentially target alliance forces in Afghanistan.

A radiological "dirty bomb" would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material across a large geographical area. The ensuing radioactive contamination could cause years of damage to the environment and public health. Though not nearly as lethal as a nuclear weapon, such makeshift weapons are considered a serious security threat.

Extremist organizations are also said to be nearing the capability to manufacture "workable and efficient" biological and chemical munitions that could cause thousands of deaths, according to records cited by the newspaper.

International Atomic Energy Agency Deputy Director General Tomihiro Taniguchi advised the United States that the international community could confront a "nuclear 9/11" should extremists gain access to stockpiles of plutonium and uranium.

In June 2008, India's national security adviser informed U.S. security officials that extremists had made a "manifest attempt to get fissile material" and "have the technical competence to manufacture an explosive device beyond a mere dirty bomb."

Several U.S. embassies sent cables to Washington detailing the smuggling of extremely radioactive substances by criminal networks and extremists organizations operating in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. One such case in September 2009 involved two workers at a uranium mine in Namibia attempting to pilfer nearly 50 percent of a ton of concentrated uranium powder.

High-ranking British security officials have broached "deep concerns" that researchers within the Pakistani nuclear sector "could gradually smuggle enough material out to make a weapon," according to a cable discussing communications with London two years ago (see GSN, Feb. 1; Blake/Hope, London Telegraph I/Vancouver Sun, Feb. 2).

Another scare occurred in November 2007 when radiation sensors put in place at the border separating Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan went off as a freight train from Kyrgyzstan bound for Iran crossed through a Nazarbek rail depot. After customs personnel halted the train, a radiation check discovered that one car seemingly filled with "scrap metal" was too radioactive to be opened. As of January 2008, the carriage was still under quarantine and had yet to be opened, according to leaked information detailed by the Telegraph.

The U.S. Embassy in London in November 2007 was contacted by a U.K. deep-sea salvage dealer who said business contacts in the Philippines had discovered in a sunken vessel six uranium "bricks" of U.S. origin. The British merchant gave the U.S. Embassy photos of the retrieved uranium and said his contacts were looking to sell the nuclear material. It is not known if the United States decided to purchase the material.

U.S. diplomats in Uganda were contacted three years ago by a gold merchant who said a Congolese contact had requested that he locate a buyer for an amount of highly enriched concentrated uranium liquid. A possible deal to sell the uranium to a Pakistani national in Kenya had been called off as a result of continuing instability in the East African state at the time. The envoys sent a nuclear trafficking notice to Washington describing how that the uranium could be soon be moved by taxi, bus or train.

A Portuguese citizen familiar to authorities as a hustler entered the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon in July 2008 and proposed a sale of six uranium plates from the Chernobyl nuclear site. A former Russian general had the plates and was reportedly employing a Portuguese judge to find a buyer. The matter was forwarded to the Portuguese authorities.

Ukrainian security officials in April 2009 apprehended two businessmen and a well-known politician in Ternopil Oblast for attempting to traffic a container filled with bomb-grade plutonium for $10 million. The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine was informed that the nuclear material could be "used by terrorists for making a dirty bomb," according to a document.

In August 2009, radiation sensors at the Georgian-Armenian border went off upon approach by three Armenian nationals traveling by car. The men were allowed to continue on when the driver told checkpoint officials he had been given a dose of radioactive isotopes for medical purposes. When the vehicle again set off sensors as it came back from Armenia, officials opted to examine the car. However, no atomic matter was found (Heidi Blake, London Telegraph II, Feb. 2).

The security chiefs also disclosed at the 2009 NATO briefing that al-Qaeda papers discovered in 2007 in Afghanistan showed that "greater advances" had been achieved in developing biological terrorism tools than had earlier been thought, the Telegraph reported.

Stored strains of lethal biological agents in Pakistan are at risk of being acquired by "extremists" who might seek to weaponize pathogens such as anthrax and foot and mouth disease for use in a bioterrorism attack, according to leaked documents. Security officials also warned that biological warfare materials could be dispersed using an aerosol can in a densely populated area.

The only remaining known stockpiles of smallpox are held by Russia and the United States. Their continued possession of the highly contagious pathogens has been criticized by "a growing chorus of voices" at World Health Assembly forums, according to the diplomatic memos (see GSN, Jan. 24; Blake/Hope, London Telegraph I).

NTI Analysis

  • Give Nuclear Security a Chance

    March 19, 2014

    In a new Project Syndicate op-ed, NTI President Joan Rohlfing calls for leaders at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit to establish a global nuclear security system.

  • Civilian HEU Reduction and Elimination Resource Collection

    Jan. 8, 2014

    This collection examines civilian HEU reduction and elimination efforts. It discusses why the continued widespread use, internationally, of HEU in the civilian sector poses global security risks, provides an overview of progress to-date in reducing and eliminating the use of HEU in the civilian sector worldwide, and examines remaining challenges to achieving this goal. The collection also includes detailed analysis of progress in eight key countries.