The Dirty Bomb Rises to Top of the Nuclear Risk Chain
The US will conduct a comprehensive counterterrorism exercise in Arizona, Oregon and the Pacific territory of Guam on Oct. 15-19 in conjunction with Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Exercise Top Officials 4 (TOPOFF 4) will involve more than 15,000 participants.
Announcing that the exercise involved “a full-scale, simulated response to radiological dispersal device attacks,” US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said “…we are in a period of increased risk.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter terror sources report: Little did the planners of this large-scale complex maneuver designed months ago realize how close to reality those “simulated” conditions would come.
For in the meantime, Washington has been shocked into a seismic review of the nuclear threat by the discovery that Iran, Syria and North Korea, have in their arsenals bombs – and probably also medium-range surface warheads and missiles – which fit the description of “flying dirty bombs,” or “radiation dispersal devices.”
Starting out as an uneasy suspicion, the fact was borne out by solid intelligence at the end of August and confirmed shortly thereafter by US satellite imagery and sensors targeting northern Syria.
The nuclear gun pointed at the Western world was suddenly transformed into a different, much more immediate weapon in the perceptions of the United States and its allies, chiefly Israel. The prospect of an eventual Iranian nuclear bomb was pushed down to second spot by a more available, flexible, portable and easily-manufactured menace, which could be wielded at any time against US targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf and Israel.
The existence of this type of dirty bomb was finally verified in an air operation over Syria on Sept. 6 – about which nothing has been officially released thus far except that Israeli warplanes took part, but which destroyed a nuclear facility disguised as an agricultural research station at Beir al Harj (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 318 of Sept. 21).
Easily-acquired weapon for terrorists – and their sponsors
The nuclear emissions from the ruins detected by American satellites after the attack and up until the present clinched the evidence: This structure had housed Iranian and Syrian Scud missiles loaded with radioactive warheads.
Official US nuclear regulators define a “dirty bomb” as type of radiological dispersal device (RDD) that combines a conventional explosive such as dynamite with radioactive material.
Most RDDs would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause serious illness, although the dynamite would kill. It could however cause panic and contaminate property enough to make it unusable until it is cleaned up.
Prompt detection of the type of radioactive material used would greatly expedite the application of protective measures. Radiation is quickly detected with equipment already in use by emergency responders in the United States (such as the New York police).
A “dirty bomb” is nothing like a nuclear bomb, whose explosion is millions of times more powerful and whose radiation could blight areas measuring tens of hundreds of square miles; a dirty bomb’s radioactive emissions would spread within a few blocks or miles of the explosion.
Its potential for contamination and panic make the dirty bomb the perfect weapon for terrorists.
Iran, Syria and North Korea are believed to be the first nations in history to have acquired dirty bombs as operational weapons, stowing their main stock in northern Syria. This discovery has injected fresh urgency into the Bush administration’s approach to the nuclear issue. Policy-makers have been running around in circles for a strategy and options to scotch the new threat at source.
The Sept. 6 air strike over Syria was the first result; it also carried a warning to Tehran, Pyongyang and Damascus that they had better hurry up and do away with any stocks of such weapons they may have or else incur the treatment meted out to Damascus at its “agricultural research center.”
The shift to a new priority: regime change in Tehran
Syria was targeted for the air strike both as the hiding place of the bulk of the RDD stock and because there is no way its presence could be hidden unbeknownst to the ruler. The buck clearly stopped at the presidential palace in Damascus. No one therefore believed President Bashar Assad’s hasty message to Washington through undercover back doors denying he had any personal knowledge of the nefarious operation at the Beir al Harj site and had ordered it investigated.
Perhaps out of panic, Assad claimed that the site was a military structure under construction and not in use, whereas his spokesmen earlier pretended it was an innocent “agricultural research station.”
A Tehran disclaimer would have been more believable.
Iran is a very big country ruled by a clerical regime riven by sharp discord and aggressive rivalries. The supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his immediate circle are challenged by the Revolutionary Guards Corps chiefs, who strut about convinced they are the true rulers of the roost rather than the politicians and the ayatollahs. A group of IRGC generals might conceivably lay in a secret store of dirty bombs to blackmail an administration deemed too soft or too timid to go through with the development of a nuclear bomb up to the finishing line.
These considerations have generated a second radical turnabout in US administration thinking. Its heads are coming around to the proposition that instead of embarking on a military attack to wipe out Iran’s nuclear facilities, it might be more constructive to aim for changing the Islamic regime, or at least getting rid of the elements pushing for nuclear power.
This direction was strongly indicated by the former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton when he addressed the British opposition Conservative annual conference in Blackpool Sunday, Sept. 30.
He said that time was running out to halt Iran's weapons ambitions. “If the choice is between an Iran with nuclear weapons and the use of military force to prevent that then I think we have to look at a limited strike against their nuclear facilities,'' Bolton told the conference.. But the military track also has its downside, he said: it might hit some facilities and miss others. Therefore, he informed the delegates: “If we were to strike Iran it should be accompanied by an effort at regime change as well.”
A feasible nightmare: Iran-made dirty bombs in Iraq
He was cheered when he reminisced: “The U.S. once had the capability to engage in the clandestine overthrow of governments, I wish we could get it back.''
The tough-minded John Bolton holds no official position at present. But since he resigned as ambassador to the UN, earlier this year, the White House has taken at times to speaking through his mouth when it is inconvenient to go officially on record.
After the Sept. 6 air raid, for instance, the US and Israel maintained a wall of silence, unmoved by the feverish guesswork over what the Israeli bombers had hit and why. But on Sept. 17, Bolton broke the silence by saying the Israeli raid was a warning to Damascus and to Iran. He added for emphasis: “It would be very unusual for Israel to conduct such a military operation inside Syria other (than) for a very high value target and certainly a Syrian effort in nuclear weapon area will qualify.”
The raid itself and the urgency permeating Washington’s new directions signal the realization that the once almost unthinkable nightmare of dirty bombs reaching the hands of terrorists and their sponsors is assuming real form.
The IRGC’s al Qods Brigades own and manage a big factory in Khorramshar, which turns out the deadly IED road bombs wreaking havoc against US troops in Iraq in the hands of insurgents and al Qaeda. What is to stop Tehran converting their assembly lines to radioactive weapons and sending them into Iraq? Or wielding them as a threat against the United States in an escalating showdown?
Until recently, the administration and US military planners were against sending missiles to blast the factory for fear of igniting an all-out conflagration with Iran.
The bombardment of the Syrian installation has begun breaking through that barrier. It is now up to President George W. Bush to determine the next step.