ISIS claims to possess a so-called dirty bomb, and has threatened to deploy the radioactive weapon in an attack on the West, probably in London, the group said last week on a Twitter account. The postings on the account, which was quickly taken offline by Twitter, are the first apparent confirmation from ISIS that the terrorists have their hands on actual nuclear material.
Even if true, however, ISIS is nowhere near producing a nuclear weapon. A “dirty bomb” is simply a conventional explosive device laden with radioactive material, supposedly designed to mimic the effects of fallout from an actual nuclear weapon.
The Twitter message went on line a little more than a week ago, and was posted by a British citizen, Hamayun Tariq, who hails from Dudley, a town of about 80,000 in England’s West Midlands region. The 37-year old Tariq fled to Syria where he now trains ISIS fighters under the pseudonym Muslim-al-Britani.
“O by the way, Islamic State does have a dirty bomb. We found some radioactive material from Mosul University,” Tariq wrote on the now-deleted Twitter feed. “We’ll find out what dirty bombs are and what they do. We’ll also discuss what might happen if one actually went off in a public area.”
ISIS — also known as Islamic State — militants seized the city of Mosul in Iraq over the summer, including the university there which apparently they looted thoroughly
Back in July, Iraq’s United Nations ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that about 88 pounds of uranium had been stolen from Mosul Univsersity.
But the International Atomic Energy Agency quickly determined that the looted uranium, which is now seemingly in ISIS hands, was of a “low grade,” that “would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk.”
The public perception of the danger of dirty bombs, thanks largely to Hollywood and inflammatory news media reports, is far different from the reality of the damage a so-called dirty bomb could actually inflict.
As the Center For Disease Control points out, “a dirty bomb is not the same as an atomic bomb.”
Where a true atomic bomb — a nuclear explosive — creates a chain reaction of splitting atoms that causes a massive explosion followed by fallout of deadly radiation, a dirty bomb is nothing more than dynamite or some other kind of conventional explosive used “to scatter radioactive dust, smoke, or other material in order to cause radioactive contamination.”
But radiation levels from a dirty bomb “would probably not create enough radiation exposure to cause immediate serious illness, except to those people who are very close to the blast site,” the CDC says.
“The main danger from a dirty bomb is from the explosion, which can cause serious injuries and property damage,” says the CDC.
The global security publication Stratfor also notes that the public fear of a dirty bomb may be the most dangerous element of a dirty bomb attack, saying, “the panic generated by a dirty bomb attack could very well result in more immediate deaths than the detonation of the device itself.”
The ISIS threats of a dirty bomb attack, while they should of course be treated seriously, are perhaps therefore not as frightening as ISIS would like them to be.