The so-called “dirty” or radiological bombs are conventional devices that spread radioactive contamination over large areas. Last May, the US authorities picked up a suspected al Qaeda terrorist feared to be plotting to build and set off one of these devices. Abu Zabaydah, the only senior al Qaeda operative in US hands, revealed that his organization is capable of assembling a radiological bomb. This week, a Stanford International Studies Institute research database recorded 700 cases of smuggled radioactive materials worldwide.
The “dirty bomb” threat must therefore be taken as a tangible one – for Israel like other places.
A special investigation carried out by debkafile staff found that no emergency teams had been set up to handle this menace. The directors of two leading hospitals in Jerusalem, Prof. Zvi Stern, of Hadassah medical center on MountScopus and Professor Yonathan Halevi of Shaarei Tzedek informed us that the Health Ministry had issued no directives or made preparations for a nuclear episode. Dr. Stern: “It takes time to prepare protocols, about six months.”
The Haifa area’s fire brigade chief, Moshe Ribek, admits that his organizations knows “very little” about radioactive threats, while the Ministry of Environment spokesman, Sharon Achdut, said he too had little knowledge of the subject.
Israeli authorities are more familiar with this hazard. Traces of an unidentified toxic chemical were discovered after the Jerusalem pedestrian mall bombing on December 1, 2001, in which 11 people died and 173 were injured. However, the substance was distributed too thinly by the extra-powerful blast to cause harm; or may have been incinerated.
Poisonous chemical fertilizers for making chemical bombs have turned up in Palestinian bomb-making factories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Furthermore, the Israeli charge sheet presented in Tel Aviv district court last week against Karam Abas Said, the Hamas operative – who masterminded the devastating Seder night bombing at the Netanya Park Hotel in which 29 Israelis died – contains an admission that the original planning was for a cyanide attack, using two suicide bombers instead of one.
Israeli authorities’ working premise for this danger is that a chemical attack would most probably occur without prior warning and take instantaneous effect; therefore, not much can be done in the way of prevention. However, local rescue teams – paramedics, firefighters, security forces – who are first on the scene of a terror attack – require special protection. In the last six months, Israeli rescue teams working at the scene of terrorist attacks often look like astronauts. But our investigation shows that appearances are sometimes deceptive.
Officer Ribek claims that the nine district fire brigades have between them only six heavy protective Level A protective suits for safe entry to contaminated areas. These suits are kept aboard the dangerous materials vehicles on emergency preparedness in each district. Regular firefighters are routinely equipped with disposable suits for work outside high contamination zones. Ribek complains that manpower and equipment for coping with a chemical threat are in short supply for the firefighters and that the Ministry of Environment teams responds much too slowly to emergency calls.
This week, since debkafile embarked on its investigation, Magen David Adom, whose teams were inadequately protected, have received from the Home Front Command 500 “Gold Watch” Level A suits developed in Israel for protection against chemical and biological weapons.
The Israeli police assure us they are properly equipped and briefed to deal with unconventional weapons hazards, but refuse to give out details.
The London Sunday Times reported this week that Saddam Hussein plans to supply Palestinian terrorist groups with biological weapons for striking at Israeli and American targets.
debkafile‘s investigative staff treats this information with caution.
Our military sources have reported in the past that Iraqi military intelligence agents operating undercover in the West Bank, mostly in the Ramallah area, may have these weapons, but there is no evidence that they have been handed over to Palestinians. Such a handover would have to be decided by Saddam in person out of strategic considerations of his own – not merely to help Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians out of a tight corner.
WMD are the Iragi ruler’s option for fighting off an American offensive or punishing US allies. One way he might avail himself of this option would be for a swift assault on large units of warplanes and helicopters, should the US war command park them on the air strips US military engineers are building in the Kurdish regions (as reported exclusively in another article on this page). These aircraft would improve the mobility of the US special forces operating in northern Iraq immeasurably.
To get back at Israel, Saddam would not need to deploy suicide bombers who would leave a wide trail to their senders. Iraqi military laboratories have developed a range of ingenious delivery devices – from pocket sprays that an agent can activate while walking down a crowded street, to crop spray units attached to the under-wings of Iraqi Mirage F-1 warplanes. In swift dives over the Jordan RiverValley, these planes can drop clouds of biological killer substances, lifting off within seconds for the return flight before they are caught. The Iraqi ruler would consider such action a gift too valuable to present to Arafat.
What defense is possible against this threat?
Like chemical warfare, a bio-weapon can drop out of a clear sky from an unforeseen source. But because it is difficult to deliver by missile, a large-scale distribution, broadly distributed assault will be difficult for Iraq to achieve. The anthrax outbreak in the United States, for instance, accounted for a relatively small number of victims, and there was usually enough time for the measures necessary to prevent dangerous symptoms from developing.
A particularly deadly threat is the smallpox virus. But, again, quantities of smallpox virus would scarcely survive transportation by missile. Smallpox is therefore a more suitable bio-terrorist weapon.
debkafile tried to find out whether Israel has laid in enough smallpox vaccine for the whole population. Health Ministry director general, Dr. Boaz Lev, believes stocks are sufficient for every Israeli to receive one-fifth of the regular dose, which he says would be effective enough. But some of the ministry staff disagree; they fear that stocks are short and would take months to bring up to the necessary level. There is also the danger that a small part of the population would contract the disease or some other ailment as a result of vaccination.
Alerts to the presence of a biological attack could come from three sources – all controlled by the Health Ministry and all under obligation to report to the ministry on all cases of suspected exposure to a dangerous biological substance:
1. The hospitals, which can treat an intake of from 200-400 victims – assuming 25 percent are in serious condition with sufficient supplies of antibiotic for the initial round of treatment.
2. Local public health center doctors.
3. The NationalDiseaseControlCenter, which collects statistics from public health centers and hospitals, makes periodic reports and diagnoses epidemics or biological disaster. In such instances, the center is responsible for the immediate release of antibiotics for preventive treatment in stricken areas, as well as collecting specimens from affected patients and sending them to specialist laboratories for identification. The center also deploys field researchers to discover the sources of contamination. Questioning patients and their relatives can help track down these sources and provide the data required for actively controlling and limiting the spread of the infection. A contaminated shopping mall, for example, may need to be shut down and public announcements issued to bring visitors in for treatment. Since the anthrax outbreak in the United States, we are informed that Israeli postal workers have been briefed for cautionary measures against infected mail.