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October 6, 2006
Nuclear Terrorism Or Better Enforcement?

A disturbing report in the Times of London raises the question about whether terrorists have increased their efforts to find nuclear material, or whether the West has improved its ability to stop them. Confirmed incidents of nuclear trafficking have increased sharply since 2002, with most of the material falling into the "dirty-bomb" category:

SEIZURES of smuggled radioactive material capable of making a terrorist “dirty bomb” have doubled in the past four years, according to official figures seen by The Times.

Smugglers have been caught trying to traffick dangerous radioactive material more than 300 times since 2002, statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show. Most of the incidents are understood to have occurred in Europe.

The disclosures come as al-Qaeda is known to be intensfiying its efforts to obtain a radoactive device. Last year, Western security services, including MI5 and MI6, thwarted 16 attempts to smuggle plutonium or uranium. On two occasions small quantities of highly enriched uranium were reported missing. All were feared to have been destined for terror groups.

Scientists responsible for analysing the seizures have given warning that traffickers are turning to hospital X-ray equipment and laboratory supplies as an illicit source of radioactive material.

Unfortunately, the main component of this increase appears to come from those operating strictly from a profit motive. They have decreasing ability to get their hands on fissile material, but instead have focused on nuclear waste. That can form the basis of a dirty bomb, which uses a conventional explosive to spread nuclear contamination over a wide area.

As the Times explains, the dirty-bomb scenario probably presents no greater immediate threat to life than the explosion itself. If the explosion is strong enough, the dispersal pattern might render the contamination light enough to pose little substantial threat to civilians afterward. However, the successful contamination of a city would create the kind of panic that terrorists desire, resulting in an economic disaster for the community attacked. A dirty-bomb explosion would probably empty the area of residents and businesses, bringing economic activity for that community to a halt, perhaps for years.

The data raise a rather important question, and one that the Times cannot answer. Does the increase mean that terrorists are trying harder, or that we are more successful in stopping them? One has to presume the former rather than the latter, as it's hard to believe that terrorists would not have already used it in an attack had they acquired it. If so, then we have to understand what it means. Have terrorists multiplied in the same proportion, or do the dwindling numbers understand that the world has become inured to their attacks and that nuclear terror is their last opportunity to succeed?

Hopefully, it's the last explanation. This could indicate that the terrorists have almost played out the string. As with any war, though, it's the endgame that presents the worst scenarios.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 6, 2006 5:54 AM

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