In the absence of leads to perpetrator, motive or method, the death in London on Nov. 1 of the Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko in London from polonium 210 poisoning has generated a limitless crop of conjecture.
Still running around in circles, Scotland Yard on Thursday, Dec. 7, announced the death was being treated as a murder inquiry. The funeral ceremony for the victim was held according to the Muslim rite at the Regents Park mosque in London in keeping with his deathbed request.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts, three developments have emerged from the increasingly puzzling case which are worthy of notice – all of them relevant to the world of terror and counter-terror and all doubtless of compelling interest to al Qaeda, which must be watching every twitch of the British investigation.
1. The first nuclear attack at the heart of an important Western city, London’s prestigious Mayfair, may have been the work of a West European or a Russian, but certainly not of al Qaeda.
2. The hand behind the murder succeeded in strewing traces of polonium 210 far and wide across London, in the Emirates Stadium – London home of the Arsenal soccer club, aboard civilian airliners and as far afield as the British embassy in Moscow. Public health authorities in the UK were forced to examine large numbers of citizens to screen them for contamination risks.
They included 33,000 travelers, who after taking British Airways return flights between London and Moscow and London and Rome in the course of a week at most (Oct. 25 to Nov. 1), were exposed to radiation. No al Qaeda attack by any conventional weapon, even the 9/11atrocity, endangered so many victims.
Seen through the cold eyes of al Qaeda’s tacticians, the Litvinenko killing demonstrated that Western city centers are vulnerable to nuclear assault, as too are major international airports and airliners plying main international routes. Airports and civilian planes are not fitted with systems capable of detecting nuclear substances.
A big hole in Western defenses against radiological warfare
Exposed to Al Qaeda, therefore, for the fourth time in the 12 years since Osama bin Laden first started planning large-scale terrorist attacks by airliners, was a big hole in the anti-terror screen protecting Western air ports and air traffic.
The first hole was to have been exploited by Ramzi Yusouf in 1994 to hijack 12 air liners taking off from Far East ports in order to crash them over American cities. It was thwarted.
The second time resulted in the Sept 11 2001 calamity.
Then, on Aug. 2006, the British claimed to have uncovered a plot to plant liquid explosives aboard airliners bound for the United States. The discovery, never fully verified, created havoc in British and US international airports.
3. The British investigators have failed to establish how the massive radioactive isotope dose was administered to Litvinenko – by food, drink or released into the air.
Al Qaeda would have resorted to the obvious medium: a suicide jihad devotee carrying the dose in a tiny container, who would knowingly sign his own death warrant when he opened the container and administered the lethal substance.
Al Qaeda’s observers must have drawn two important operational lessons from studying the British investigation:
One: It is possible to fell thousands of victims in a single stroke without having to shop around for a dirty bomb or any other high-priced device. All that is needed is an ampoule of a lethal radioactive isotope which is scattered invisibly in busy town centers, airliners, or any densely crowded locations.
Two: This method of mass murder does not call for the complicated organization, logistics and the training in Hamburg, Germany or a flying school near Philadelphia of large networks of suicide bombers. A mega-attack can be executed by a lone suicide killer.
The British police – and by inference al Qaeda too – are scratching their heads over where the polonium 210 came from. The terrorists must be waiting to see what the British detectives discover. They can also be presumed to be watching the wrangle between London and Moscow in the hope of picking up clues from the scraps of data dropped in their race for points in terms of public sympathy.
Moscow passes the ball to… America
Moscow insists the polonium 210 in London could not have come from Russia.
The heavyweight head of Russia’s state atomic emergency agency Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko went into some detail to the government daily Rossiskaya Gazeta on Dec. 1: “Russia produces only 8 grams of Polonium 210 a month,” he said. “The whole of this amount goes to US companies through a single authorized supplier, Tekhsnabexport company.”
The Russian prosecutor general repeated the assertion on Tuesday, Dec. 5.
Moscow thus chucked the ball into the American court, implying that the lethal substance ended up there.
But if the British investigation can prove that the radioactive poison was obtained somehow by Russian secret service FSB plotters for the murder of the former spy, that tip would also be of use to the Islamist terrorist organization. It would imply that radiological elements capable of mass murder are obtainable from Russian crime rings, with some of which al Qaeda has promoted good connections for some years.
A radical Islamist angle on the Litvinenko mystery is not as fanciful as it may sound.
The dead man’s father admitted this week to astonished British reporters that shortly before his death, the ex-spy had decided to convert to Islam and asked to be buried in the Muslim tradition. His wish was carried out Thursday.
The Sunday Express claimed that the ex-spy had been involved in attempts by al Qaeda to create a “dirty radioactive bomb.” According to the publication, the Italian professor Mario Scaramella told the British authorities that in 2000, Litvinenko helped to organize a batch of contraband radioactive materials from Russia to Zurich, Switzerland. Scaramella, one of the last people the ex-spy met on the day he was poisoned, was taken to a London hospital after traces of polonium 210 were found in his body.
The truth of all these claims and reports cannot be established at this point.
They may have been planted as a false trail, or to build up an impression – true or false – for the benefit of al Qaeda or others, that Litvinenko, rather than being the target of a bizarre Russian poison plot, succumbed to his own merchandize as an important purveyor of nuclear components.
This would suggest that a nuclear black market network was thriving again like the one once run by the Pakistani nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan. Could the “Russian ex-spy” have been in fact a cog in an underground network financed by a cabal of Russian oligarchs for trading in illicit nuclear weapons or parts thereof?
Whether or not al Qaeda makes use of the data spilling out of the investigation for its own plots and mounts a radiological attack, its masterminds will have registered the impression that nothing has changed in the West since 2000. The international black market in nuclear materials looks as lively as ever.