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We Asked Two Experts if We Should Be Worried About the Islamic State Getting Nuclear Weapons

They told us that there's no reason to lose your shit about the prospect of terrorists getting "nukes" on the black market. But it would be possible for them to acquire some kinds of radioactive material.

Photo via Flickr user Ian Weddell

On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a report showing just how easy it is for radioactive material smugglers to operate in Eastern Europe. Stories of authorities busting smugglers dealing in cesium or even uranium aren't that uncommon, but they rarely stir up too much concern because the volumes being trafficked in these isolated incidents are far below what you'd need to build a nuclear device—and some of the shady types involved turn out to be scammers selling duds.

But the AP report—dominated by one undercover cop who downed vodka shots to ease his nerves before buys—suggests that Moldova is a virtual free-for-all for smugglers of radioactive material, who often dodge prison time. And perhaps most alarming of all, one of these bold dealers was determined to dish his wares directly to the Islamic State back in February.

To understand just what kind of danger these networks and deals pose, VICE reached out to Dr. Beyza Unal, an international security expert focusing on nuclear issues at the London think-tank Chatham House, and Scott Stewart, a security analyst at the geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor.

They told us that there's no reason to lose your shit about the prospect of terrorists getting "nukes" because of these black-market networks. But that's not the only kind of weapon you can make from radioactive material.

VICE: How likely is it that, if an extremist buyer did make a deal with a nuclear materials smuggler, they could make a seriously dangerous weapon?
Beyaz Unal: First of all, there's confusion between radioactive material, which is used for dirty bombs, and uranium and plutonium, which can be used for an improvised nuclear device.

Scott Stewart: We know al Qaeda was scammed and they paid a lot of money for [fake nuclear material]. Frankly, if you're a real [ex-]KGB colonel who has access to highly-enriched uranium (HEU), you're going to be able to sell it to someone better than terrorists. You'd sell it to the Iranians, North Koreans, even the CIA, because the Agency's been buying this stuff for decades.

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If terrorists aren't likely to be able to buy the stuff you need to make a nuke, what sort of materials might they actually get their hands on?
Stewart: A lot of [the material that actually gets sold to terrorists] could be something that's just slightly radioactive or even a little more potent like cesium.

Unal: It's relatively easy to acquire radiological materials because they have dual uses in hospitals, industrial facilities. And the safeguarding of hospitals is not well established.

Stewart: Because of what's happened in Syria and Iraq, groups like the Islamic State already have access to radioactive material because of emitters that were left in hospitals or other places.

So are you more worried about radioactive smuggling networks or about unattended radiological elements in hospitals?
Stewart: With the model of terrorism that we're looking at today—these radicalized people who live here, who're becoming our most common terrorist threat—I would be more worried about somebody who already works at a hospital or a construction site and has access to these things.

What kind of weapons could they make with these easier-to-access radiological materials?
Unal: In this case they could make a radiological dispersion device—a dirty bomb.

Stewart As far as the actual construction of a dirty bomb, it's very simple. It's basically strapping radioactive material to [a conventional explosive].

How destructive would these dirty bombs be?
Stewart: A dirty bomb is not a weapon of mass destruction. You're not going to cause mass fatalities. Most of the people who will die from a dirty bomb are going to die from the explosive material itself rather than radiation. The biggest dirty bomb in history was Chernobyl [where] you had some long-term deaths from cancer, but the immediate accident didn't have many deaths.

Unal: It will cause huge impacts on the psychology of the public. If it's used on a subway, they will not use the subways and people who aren't even contaminated would consider themselves [to be] contaminated and they would go to the hospitals, so the hospital system can be paralyzed.

They would disrupt the economy as well as potentially kill people. That would be the aim.

So what's the risk of an actual, successful dirty bomb attack?
Unal: Although the probability of use of radiological use is low, the consequences would be high, so the risk is high.

Stewart: While [the Islamic Sate is] good at conducing insurgent and terrorist operations within their territory, doing that remotely requires a very precise set of terrorist tradecraft and that's just not something that they've demonstrated. If I [as a hypothetical Islamic State operative] have got to go to Minneapolis instead of Mosul, I have to operate in a clandestine fashion. I have to gather and make explosives. I have to make my own mechanism for the firing chamber of the IED. We've seen al Qaeda do that, but they've struggled since 9/11 to do much in the West.

They're [both] having trouble getting operatives into the United States to commit terrorist attacks. Getting radioactive material in is another hurdle higher.

Given the scale of radiological material smuggling, especially in light of the AP story, what's the best way to mitigate the physical and psychological dangers posed by terrorists getting their hands on these materials?
Unal: Safeguarding hospitals, export controls of dual-use materials, getting more nations into the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) tracking database (today in includes only 125 states), increasing the safety and security in critical places like border control and ports is important. And for dual-use materials, there's always a non-radioactive option that could be used for commercial purposes, but because they're expensive, states do not use them. So I think we need to do more to find alternatives.

Scott Stewart: There's been a very robust effort on the part of the US government to limit access to this material. It's not something that's been neglected by any means.

There's been a long history of concern over dirty bombs. There was a huge spike around the time of José Pedilla and last year there was supposedly some cesium loose in Kazakhstan. A lot of that concern's stoked by not having a good understanding of what a dirty bomb is and what it's capable of. A lot of it is just education and keeping that in perspective with everything else.

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