From the UK's Daily Telegraph (link).
Al Qaeda actively seeking 'dirty' bombs - WikiLeaks documents
AL-QAEDA is attempting to procure nuclear material and recruit rogue scientists in order to build a radioactive "dirty bomb," leaked documents published in Wednesday's Telegraph newspaper revealed.
The cables, released by the WikiLeaks website, showed that security chiefs told a Nato meeting in January 2009 that Al-Qaeda was planning a programme of "dirty radioactive improvised explosive devices (IEDs)."
The makeshift nuclear bombs, which could be used against soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, would contaminate the surrounding area for years to come.
The leaked documents also revealed that Al-Qaeda papers found in 2007 convinced security officials that "greater advances" had been made in bio-terrorism than was previously feared.
US security personnel were warned in 2008 that terrorists had "the technical competence to manufacture an explosive device beyond a mere dirty bomb."
Also laid bare in the diplomatic cables are the attempts made to smuggle volatile materials as rogue organisations seek to get their hands on weapons-grade fuel.
The memos detailed how a freight train on the Kazakhstan-Russia border was found to be carrying weapons-grade material while a "small-time" dealer in Lisbon tried to sell radioactive plates stolen from Chernobyl.
In a separate leaked memo, which documented a January 2010 meeting between Janet Napolitano, US Secretary of Homeland Security, and European ministers, the German interior minister revealed his concerns over aircraft security.
According to the cable, Thomas de Maiziere expressed his fear that terrorists could use "children's articles to introduce bombs into airplanes."
..oh great...just great..
You know its bad enough when this assholes make these "kaboom corsets" where they pack nails, screws and ball bearings around a belt of plastic explosive and then walk into public markets to kill. Its an entire thing all together to make one of these things and then not only kill but also contaminate an area to the point where it will be uninhabitable for many years after the fact...
I have stated on this blog before that I am not much into the "survivalist" mentality as it applies to living off the land for long periods of time at a remote cabin in Montana or elsewhere. To me, the conditions that would necessitate this type of action are just too far remote or of such a nature that I probably wouldn't survive the initial event to begin with. What has been in the forefront of my mind though would be the need to evacuate to a safe location in the aftermath of some type of bioterrorism or other such calamity and the resulting break down of services in the immediate aftermath. Once again just look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the LA Riots to see how quickly societal norms and services can break down during times of great confusion and stress and see what I mean.
A so called "dirty bomb" is not a nuclear bomb by any means. If one goes off there will not be a huge fireball and mushroom cloud. What it would probably most look like would be a car bomb if it was carried out in our country. We love our cars and often arrange parking areas in close proximity to pedestrian traffic patterns for convenience. Its been a tried and true method already employed here too...WTC bombing in '93, Oklahoma City bombing in '95, attempted NYC Times Square in 2010, just to name a few. While not quite as simple as wrapping a bomb with radioactive material..that is generally the idea. Disperse radiation over a wide enough area to cause us grief and a disruption to our daily lives. Remember (like we could forget) the attacks on 9/11...the WTC attacks affected an area (ground zero) of approx. 80 acres, yet the affect was felt nationwide as airline and other traffic ground to a halt, businesses stopped producing and the entire country paused for a collective "WTF!". This is what they are aiming for, not a tactical but a strategic victory. They know they cannot claim an outright military victory face-to-face with us, but they can work against the collective will and psyche of the American public by intimidation and a show that they can hit us at home.
Imagine if a terrorist group could not only carry out a successful car bombing in NYC but also render a portion uninhabitable as well? That is a scary, scary thought.
Radiation is caused by the natural decay of materials. All matter emits some type of natural radiation. This is how we are able to carbon date organic material found in fossilized stone. While a majority of naturally occurring radiation is generally harmless to us, some of it is not. Radioactive particles fall into two categories, ionizing (they can change the make up of affected matter by knocking off electrons) or non-ionizing (generally too weak to change atomic structures). Of all types of radiation, we generally discuss 3 types of ionizing particles when considering nuclear weapons and contamination.
Alpha. The least dangerous of the 3, Alpha particles are "large and slow" and can be stopped generally by a piece of paper or your own skin. This is in contract to the .45 ACP which, while itself "large and slow" will definitely not be defeated by a single sheet of paper or your skin, unless you wear a blue leotard with a red "S" on the front of it. They can be dangerous if inhaled or ingested though, and while dust masks can reduce the absorption of radioactive particles containing alpha radiation, a better course of action is just to stay away if at all possible.
Beta. Middle of the road, dangerous and it takes more than a piece of paper to stop, try a couple of feet of dirt or a few centimeter of thick metal.
Gamma. The big gun of the three, its light and fast which means you need a lot of material to slow it down or stop it before it will be of no threat to you. You could try to hide behind several sand bagged layers of dirt and concrete, thick lead or other material.
Any of these three can make you sick if absorbed into your body where it will destroy and mutate cells. The thing is, older cells that have already been made will generally not be affected, newer cells will as their cell division will be messed up and not able to reproduce new cells will cause massive disruption to bodily functions. This is part of the reason that some exposure cases take several hours to days to reveal themselves.
General event affects
OK. So a small group of radicals or a lone nut job come to Ohio and blow up a car bomb laden with both high explosives and radioactive material. What happens next? Depends on a few different factors:
1. The dispersion of the material.
Despite the use of nuclear material..a dirty bomb will not blow up any more due to the presence of the radioactivity than if it was not there at all. The explosion and blast effects will almost totally be the result of the base explosive material used in the making of the bomb. While the initial shock and awe factor of the explosion will certainly be a major issue getting the exposure the terrorist group wants, and while upwards of hundreds may be killed by the blast and resulting shrapnel, its affects are going to generally be second to the real affect of the radiation contained. In order for this affect to provide maximum affect and disruption to the society targeted the material must be dispersed over a wide enough area so that decontamination and containment efforts are strained. This will be determined by exactly how much explosive power is used to propel it from the initial blast site.
2. How much radioactive material was used.
Again, just having radioactive material is not necessarily going to guarantee a nuclear catastrophe. In order for the affect to be big enough you will need enough of the right type of material to be adequately spread by the above mentioned explosion to present enough of a hazard to cause a mass disruption. Luckily for us it appears that no large amounts of material are easily available on the black market in the form that these groups seem to be looking for.
3. The type of material used.
Not all radioactive material is created equal. Ever have a toy or watch that glowed in the dark? Well, that was radioactivity there in action, but of such a weak nature that it presents no real danger to us. Some types of radioactive materials decay faster or produce stronger types of particles than other. A group would need to not only acquire enough material (see above) to adequately cover the intended target zone, but also have the correct radioactivity to actually produce casualties in its dispersed ratio and contaminate it as well. A large amount of material that primarily emits Alpha particles will not be as affective as a small amount of highly radioactive material spewing massive amounts of Gamma particles dispersed in the same explosion.4. How quick the authorities will be to recognize the unseen hazards of the radiation.As first responders our fire, EMS and police are trained to rush to the aid of victims with little regard for their own safety in many cases. Just look at how many of them died rushing into the burning towers on 9/11 doing their duties as required by both their positions and their own moral codes prescribed. I am sure that they are more aware now than then, but radioactive contamination is probably not the first thing that they think about when they roll up onto a scene of mass carnage. I am sure that they have equipment to identify nuclear material now but I wonder how quickly they will be able to recognize the dangers? Back in the Army our BDU uniforms had a small opening at the top of the left front pocket on the shirt (called a blouse). Many people used to stick a pen in there with the silver button sticking out (the infamous "penmanship" badge) but what that was for was a device called a IM-93 Radiacmeter. This device would measure the total cumulative amount of radiation that an individual had received over a specific time. When in suspected areas we were supposed to check it regularly and only get the "allowable" exposure (enough to kill us slowly over time instead of right then before we could complete mission I guess). These same type of devices are routinely used by both nuclear operators in power plants, research labs and submarines. Have first responders equipped with these could be advantageous.
I would also hope that vehicles are equipped with Geiger counter type devises in them with give discrete immediate readings which would alert any unit coming into an area that radioactive danger was afoot. Hopefully we are cognizant of the threat enough now to have procedures in place to immediately check for both nuclear and chemical contamination whenever responding to a suspected terrorist activity.
In addition, the response by police, fire, EMA and other entities to an actual attack is important. All of these groups have contingency plans for quarantine, decontamination, and evacuation in these cases, but again, how often are they practiced and how effective are they really with the general populace involved. Generally speaking, a person may be smart, but people are not when grouped up. Just look how people mindlessly drove away from New Orleans (or at least tried) when Katrina was upon them just blindly following the car in front of them. The same thing may happen in this type of scenario, especially when it becomes known that just staying in the "red zone" can kill you without the additional need of a hurricane, fire or what have you. People may panic and cause a hell of a mess. Someone leaving the "red zone" without properly being decontaminated of radioactive particles will not only continue to suffer the affects themselves but also sicken others as the particles are spread.
So..what the hell can I do about this crap?
Glad you asked. In short, be prepared, be vigilant, be responsive.
Be prepared. Have a plan ready in case you need to get out of town fast to escape a catastrophe. Both my wife and I work in downtown Columbus so any attack in the heart of the city is going to be very bad for both of us. Knowing multiple avenues of egress from here has not only helped me prepare for the unlikely event of this type of attack, but has also helped in navigating our sometimes unpredictable rush hour traffic. Even once we get home we need to get our daughter and make arrangements to leave town if need be. I have a "bug out" location in mind and we have enough food and water on hand at any time be self sufficient for a few days if need be.
Be Vigilant. Take note of what is happening in other parts of the world and stories about nuclear material being stolen and/or being used elsewhere. Be like that guy who noticed the black SUV sitting unattended in Times Square and called the police. Don't be a sheep, be a alert sheep if that is all you can be. Encourage our policy makers to provide funding for nuclear tracking and monitoring as well as providing funding for EMA and WMD teams to be ready to respond.
Be responsive. When the time comes to take action, do it. Don't hesitate for fear of looking "strange" to other people. When most of the WTC towers were wondering what to do after the plane hit Morgan Stanley, led by Rick Rescorla (who I have profiled here before) got up and left, as a result, the vast majority of them lived while others died. Rick didn't worry about looking bad if the evacuation wasn't needed, he just ordered it and made it happen. Don't look to the authorities to tell you to get out...if a suspected terrorist attack happens near you, evacuate quickly but safely. It may be hours before any official notice of contamination or evacuation is released to the public..and by that time you may wind up sitting in a fallout zone unable to get to due to traffic gridlock (you do have a good pair of walking shoes with you now right?)
Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get me....
Anyway, I am probably being just paranoid again. I mean who would think of coming to Ohio and blowing up something...right? Oh wait, oh yeah..that's right...IT ALMOST HAPPENED HERE!!