This week, the Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, made an alarming revelation to the Australian newspaper, which was picked up by Britain’s Independent and then by the world. ISIS, she said, presently has the capacity to build a large, radioactive disbursal device known as a “dirty bomb.”
If this is true, no one doubts the willingness of the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) to use such a terror-inducing bomb on any target it wants. ISIS has bragged about its desire to obtain an actual nuclear bomb, not just a dirty bomb, on the open market from Pakistan. This aspiration was reported in a propaganda letter written last month by ISIS mouthpiece, British hostage John Cantile.
And it seems likely that ISIS has already used chemical weapons against the Kurdish fighters encircling Mosul, in the form of chlorine gas. The Kurds claimed three months ago to a Reuters reporter that ISIS had used chlorine against their Peshmerga fighters; apparently several dozen fighters had experienced "dizziness, nausea, vomiting and general weakness" after being exposed to the green gas. Kurdish officials relayed to the AP that a chemical analysis of clothing and soil near where an ISIS truck was blown up proved the presence of chlorine gas.
Then there are, of course, the chemical weapons left over from Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles. ISIS overran the al-Muthanna facility last fall, which was stuffed with discarded regime leftover shells of mustard, sarin and other chemical weapons. Al-Muthanna was a declared chemical weapons site by the post-Saddam era Iraqi government. Now it’s in the hands of ISIS.
Where would ISIS have gotten the materials for a radioactive dirty bomb? Foreign minister Bishop, citing NATO intelligence reports, said that ISIS has overrun and seized specialized, government-only “research centers and hospitals” which contain the material.
There is a question about just how destructive such a dirty bomb would be using only the conventional explosive plus radioactive materials ISIS could get its hands on from research centers and hospitals. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission describes a dirty bomb not as a weapon of mass destruction, but one of mass “disruption,” where “contamination and anxiety are the terrorists’ major objectives.” The vast majority of radioactive material found in hospitals, say, is too low-yield to be of any really lethal consequence in an explosion. The explosion itself would cause the vast majority, if not all, of the casualties. The NRCC’s website is quick to reassure the public, pointing out that “it is extremely unlikely that anyone who survives the explosion will become sick from radiation.”
But to focus on just the body count ignores the psychological effects on the city and the nation of such an attack. Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if ISIS were able to smuggle and detonate an actual dirty bomb into an American city. Large portions of that city---say Washington, D.C.—would be likely uninhabited for the foreseeable future, because the cleanup would be long and expensive. Few, it seems, would psychologically want to continue residing and working in an active radiological cleanup site, however low the actual danger to health would be.
If the target turned out to be the Capital, the federal government, as we know it, would have significantly impaired function as tens of thousands of workers flee the blast radius for a perceived safer area. Paralysis and terror would take hold nationwide as the 24-hour news cycle endlessly runs stories on the attack. And of course, that would be the point of the attack in the first place.
For her part, Foreign Minister Bishop is sounding the alarm about ISIS as loudly as possible. During the multi-nation anti-proliferation meeting last Friday in Perth, Australia, Bishop warned the world not to accept comfortable assumptions about ISIS’ capabilities:
Apart from some crude and small scale endeavours, the conventional wisdom has been that the terrorist intention to acquire and weaponise chemical agents has been largely aspirational.
[But] the use of chlorine by Daesh [the Arabic term for ISIS], and its recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the west, have revealed far more serious efforts in chemical weapons development. Daesh is likely to have amongst its tens of thousands of recruits the technical expertise necessary to further refine precursor materials and build chemical weapons.
Whether ISIS brings chemicals or the components of a dirty bomb to our shores, or those of our allies, few doubt that the outcome will be mass terror and paralysis, even if not mass death.
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