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A dirty bomb consists of conventional explosives combined with radioactive materials. This sort of weapon is incapable of creating a nuclear chain reaction; however, the explosion itself is not the primary means of causing damage. The explosives are the delivery mechanism for spreading lethal amounts of radioactive materials to a wide area.

Unlike conventional nuclear bombs, the type of radioactive materials that can be used in dirty bombs does not have to be weapons grade to have the desired effect. Spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants and even nuclear materials that can be obtained legally for medical applications can be used to create a functional dirty bomb. It is this comparative ease in attaining materials that makes a dirty bomb very desirable to terrorist organizations around the world.

The effects of a dirty bomb detonation are unclear. Many factors affect the scope of devastation created by such a bomb. First, the amount of contamination is dependent on the quality and quantity of the nuclear materials. The amount of traditional explosives also determines how widespread the contamination will be. Other variables such as wind make the effects of a dirty bomb nearly impossible to predict. Because of this uncertainty, there is wide dissention amongst experts on how much of a threat a dirty bomb would pose to a populated area. Experts from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA), contend that a dirty bomb could render an entire city uninhabitable until a thorough decontamination is completed. Some other experts believe that a dirty bomb would not cause much of an increase in the death toll caused by a conventional terrorist bomb attack. In fact, Abel Gonzalez, the IAEA's director of radiation and waste safety contends that the TNT used might be more deadly than the nuclear materials themselves.

Even if the weapon does not create a higher death toll than normal explosives, a dirty bomb is much more powerful as a terror weapon than a solely explosive bomb. "contamination in even small quantities could have major psychological and economic effects," Gonzalez warns.

Unfortunately, the only way we will be able to know the real effects of a dirty bomb is if it is actually used in an attack.

The prospect of a dirty bomb attack is not as farfetched as once believed. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network has claimed that it has nuclear weapons. A dirty bomb is the most likely form such weapons would exist in.
US Attorney General John Ashcroft announced this morning that on May 8, 2002, US Justice Department agents arrested an American al-Qaeda operative, as he disembarked at Chicago O'Hare International Airport from Karachi, Pakistan via Switzerland. While in the region, he and others were allegedly conspiring to research, construct and detonate a radioactive 'dirty bomb'. When arrested, al-Muhajir was carrying more than $10,000 cash, possibly withdrawn from a Swiss account. According to Defense Dept. spokesmen, 'the plan', such that it was, floundered in its most elementary planning stages. Attempts to smuggle material had been abandoned, with the suspects then intending to try stealing parts from various universities and medicals labs within the US (Reuters, 'Dirty Bomb' Suspect Not Cooperating', June 11, 2002). "This a a great PR move for the FBI & CIA," said Michael Levi of the Federation of American Scientists, in response to the arrest.

Ashcroft made the announcement while still in Moscow, stating "We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or dirty bomb, in the United States." The suspect, Abdullah Al Mujahir is being held by military police at the Goose Creek naval base, South Carolina, and despite US citizenship is now being treated as an enemy combatant (i.e. he can be held, without charges, until hostilities cease and questioned without a lawyer). Mujahir is a former Chicago Latin Kings street gang member, and formerly named Jose Padilla.1 He converted to Islam while after serving a prison term in Florida (for a road rage incident) in 1995. At the time, he and his girlfriend worked in the hotel service industry in Broward County, Florida, where he frequented a local mosque, the Darul Uloom Institute. Sometime after this, he was recruited (possibly as early as 1997), and allegedly met with al-Qaeda leaders in Egypt. For more than two years, he lived in Egypt, then travelled to Afghanistan & Pakistan to visit various madrasa under Taleban control. In 2001, he was returned to the United States to perform survey activities, where he would be permitted to travel freely on account of his citizenship and passport. The intelligence that led to Mr Mujahir’s arrest apparently came from captured al-Qaeda leader Abu Zabaydah during recent interrogations. 2

As noted above, a "dirty bomb" is much less sophisticated than a nuclear weapon, as it it uses a conventional explosion to spread radioactive material in a populated area. Considered fairly simple to build, the biggest challenge is acquiring the correct substances and assembling them safely. Damage estimates are mostly theoretical. A Centre for Defence Information report stated a TNT casket of spent fuel from a nuclear power station, detonated in Manhattan, might kill 2,000 and leave thousands more contaminated (B. Blair, What If Terrorists Go Nuclear? , http://www.cdi.org/terrorism/nuclear.cfm). Al Mujahir was apparently trained in explosives while at terrorist camps in Lahore & Afghanistan as early as 1998, and returned again in 2001 (BBC: Profile: Abdullah al-Mujahir: http://news.bbc.co.uk: June 11, 2002).

The closest call publically reported to date with such a weapon was in 1995, when Islamic separatists from Chechnya placed a 32 kg "dirty bomb" using Caesium 137 in Ismailovsky Park, a popular tourist site in Moscow. It was recovered and destroyed before detonation, but Chechen forces claim they have still captured large caches of radioactive material from former Soviet labs. The timing of the announcement is not unrelated to US-Russian negotiations now underway over funding the long-term security of all former Soviet nuclear stocks and research; the primary reason for Ashcroft`s current mission to Moscow. Ashcroft also heavily stressed the cooperative nature of the arrest, citing close CIA, FBI and Department of Justice involvement, which follows closely last week`s sweeping proposals by Bush to create a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Defense with a wide anti-terror mandate. However, the president's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, asserted that absolutely no political considerations were involved in timing the sudden announcement, over a month after the arrest.3
Notes:
1 One would think a nice, boring name would be retained, along with passport & citizenship, if you really wanted to make a go at destroying your motherland, but apparently the 31 year old Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican ex-gang banger* felt the tense political climate required a name change, and that his new anti-American ethos would be better carried out under a Moslem name. This alias, presumably, along with the charges he`d originally been jailed for (FBI officials said he was arrested five times in Chicago for assault and other crimes ca. 1985-1991), and the sudden international flights to the Middle East, actually managed to tip off an embassy official in Karachi when he reported his passport stolen in February and applied for another. CIA were shadowing him from then on, while FBI agents began questioning various al-Queda officials already in custody about Mujajir. (Washington Post: An Unusual Odyssey U.S.-Born Latino Turns Islamic Terror Suspect: http://www.washingtonpost.com : June 11, 2002 & Al Muhajir Alleged to Be Scouting Terror Sites, June 12, 2002).

* If the terrorist sprees of the 1970s in Europe are any indicator, Padilla (Jose's childhood nick was "Pucho," or pudgy) and John Walker Lindh are only the first wave of Americans who will go this route. The new islamist cool, in other words, has already replaced gangsta and the Militia Movement as the ne plus ultra of disenfranchised male rebellion. Call it terrorist chic.

2 These are the same interrogations which last week corroborated that Mohammed Atta and his cell members had all actually sought loans from the US government itself to purchase crop duster planes (Reuters, Sept. 11 Hijacker Sought Loan to Buy Plane, http://www.reuters.com, June 6, 2002). The story was 'leaked' to ABC's World News Tonight who interviewed Johnell Bryant, a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan officer in Homestead, Florida. Atta reportedly came to her office and explained his organization wanted a small plane, which it planned to refurbish with chemical holding tanks. He asked about U.S. landmarks, inquired about Washington, mentioned bin Laden and outlined the structure and goals of the al-Qaeda network, in May 2000. Ms. Bryant never reported anything to her superiors or law enforcement, even after Atta offered to buy an aerial photograph of Washington on her office wall, asked her about security at the World Trade Center and what she knew of Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles, and showed particular interest in the open-topped Texas Stadium. According to Abu Zubaydah, one of bin Laden`s chief co-ordinators now held by the US in Pakistan, it was this failure to secure small planes that forced the cell to move to the riskier hijacking plan. In the following weeks, Marwan Al-Shehhi, Ahmed Alghamdi and Fayez Rashid Ahmed Hassan al Qadi Banihammad, all of whom died in the 2001 WTC attack, tried to get similar agricultural development loans.

"He mentioned al-Qaeda, he mentioned Osama bin Laden," said Bryant. "I didn't know who Osama bin Laden was … He could have been a character on Star Wars for all I knew." In the end however, after an hour-long discussion, she refused his loan request due to his non-US citizenship. The refusal angered Atta, and he asked her how she would like to see the destruction of the US capital, pointing to the picture on the wall. Byant finishes her interview with the following statement: "...the scary thing is, is that they look like you and I. Not necessarily as, as, as an American, but they just look like people. They don't, they don't look like an evil monster." The story, and this last phrase in particular, follows on the June 3, 2002 launch of The NSA's information security awareness campaign: complete with WWII-era posters (Loose Lips Can Sink Ships -- Again : NSA Launches Ad Campaign Urging Secrecy : http://www.adage.com/images/random/lips01_big.jpg).

3During a late April interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the former field commander of al-Qaeda, the CIA learned of the ploted delivery of a "dirty" bomb in the United States. When smuggling was deemed to difficult, assembly on US soil was proposed. See Walter Pincus, Washington Post, Agency Teamwork, Bin Laden Aide's Clues Led to Arrest, June 11, 2002, Page A09, and Patrick E. Tyler, A Message in an Arrest, New York Times, June 10, 2002.

Other sources:
ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/wnt : "Face to Face With Atta", June 6, 2002 - The Times: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/ : "US foils al-Qaeda 'radioactive bomb' plot", June 10, 2002 - Ananova: http://www.ananova.com/news/ : "Al-Qaida suspect arrested" - New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com : "U.S. Arrests American Accused of Planning 'Dirty Bomb' Attack" - The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk : "Al-Qaida 'dirty' bomb plot thwarted" and "US to interrogate 'dirty bomb' suspect" - National Post: http://www.nationalpost.com/ : "U.S. says it has arrested man suspected of plotting terrorist attack"

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