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Smuggling nuke into U.S. remains challenging — for now

A Hezbollah operative who bribed a nuclear power plant employee in Argentina to steal plutonium conspires with a rogue Mexican cartel jefe to smuggle the materials into the U.S. to be used to blow up MacDill Air Force Base.

Steven Sin’s nightmare scenario is a spy thriller come true — a jihadi getting ahold of nuclear material and then being able to smuggle it into the United States to be used as a weapon.

The bad news, says Sin, is that al-Qaida, Hezbollah and groups like it really, really want to make that happen.

The good news, he says, is that there are so many roadblocks on the path to setting off even a dirty bomb, let alone a nuclear device, that the concept remains, for now, in the realm of spy thrillers.

But it won’t forever.

And that creates nightmares for Sin. As senior researcher in the unconventional weapons and technology division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism — START for short — Sin is a guy who makes his living tracking such things.

Last week, Sin released a study about the nexus between drug organizations, crime groups and violent extremists and the trafficking in radiological and nuclear materials.

It was produced for the Strategic Multi-layer Assessment program which “assesses and studies challenging ‘hard problems’ associated with planning and operations of U.S. Department of Defense, military services, and government agencies.”

Clearly, a violent extremist organization blowing up a dirty bomb, or worse, a nuclear device at, say, MacDill Air Force Base — home to U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command — is a hard problem.

The bottom line up front from Sin is that if he were a betting man, he would bet against a violent extremist group detonating a dirty bomb or nuclear device in the U.S. in the next five years.

That’s because right now it ain’t easy.

While many groups would love to set off either kind of device here — including the Islamic State — al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) are the three most likely organizations, in terms of motivation and capability, to obtain a radiological or nuclear device.

Those are groups Sin describes as hybrid organizations, a meld between the ideological and criminal, driven primarily by the ideological and using the criminal to fund its ideological actions. Fortunately, even they are still a long way off from being able to do so, Sin says.

And of those groups, only al-Qaida and Hezbollah would be likely to use such a device in the U.S., says Sin, because the FARC makes too much money selling cocaine to users in the U.S. to want to reign down radioactive armageddon on its best customers.

There are strong ties between drug traffickers, criminal organizations and violent extremists. Those ties are being examined here in Tampa, by Socom, and even Congress is now watching, recently creating The Bipartisan Task Force to Investigate Terrorist Financing with a goal to “work on improving United States efforts to choke off terrorist financing.”

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Lakeland) is a member.

Sin says despite those close ties, the tremendous amount of money gained from drug smuggling and other illicit activities makes it far less likely that Mexican drug cartels, for instance, would want to risk their income, and induce the wrath of the U.S. by smuggling radiological or nuclear materials. Former CIA analyst Scott Schlimmer, who specialized in counter threat financing, told me the same thing last year.

But Sin says that doesn’t mean a rogue high-ranking member of a drug trafficking or transnational criminal organization might not go all broken arrow and use his or her cred to leverage the organization’s capability to smuggle radiological or nuclear devices.

So smuggling the stuff won’t be easy. But an even bigger impediment to a radiological or nuclear weapon being detonated in the U.S. is access to the base materials.

A radiological device, or dirty bomb, is a conventional explosive with radioactive materials — like Cesium 137 — attached.

A nuclear device involves splitting the atoms of radioactive material, like highly enriched uranium, which is far more technically challenging (witness the sturm und drang of the recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons ambitions that resulted in a framework the administration says will forestall those ambitions). Nuclear weapons are so far something only in the provenance of nation states (like the U.S. which to date remains the only entity to employ such devices).

There are big differences between dirty bombs and nuclear bombs.

Even a relatively small 10-megaton nuclear device, if detonated near MacDill, for instance, would be devastating, rendering the base unusable and spreading cancer-causing radiation across a wide radius that would include St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Plant City, Brandon, Bradenton and Zephyrhills among other places.

By comparison, the radioactive output of a dirty bomb would do little more than create panic, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which says aside from the affects of the explosives, such device would merely “contaminate facilities or places where people live and work, disrupting lives and livelihood” and “cause anxiety in those who think they are being, or have been, exposed to radiation.”

Still, to groups like al-Qaida and Hezbollah , panic is a good thing, especially since widespread panic will play havoc with the U.S. economy.

(Sin says it is unclear at this point, what, if any affect, the recent framework agreement over Shia Iran’s nuclear ambitions will have on its Shia jihadi allies like Hezbollah , which it supplies with weapons and training).

Regardless, Sin offers more good news on the dirty bomb front. While relatively simple to construct, obtaining the requisite material, though fairly common place in devices like MRI and X-Ray scanners, is still a challenge, says Sin.

Sin’s nightmare is based on a dark reality. There are several instances from the past illustrating the will, if not the ability, of jihadi groups to seek out these devices.

In 1995, Chechen extremists threatened to bundle radioactive material with explosives to use against Russia in order to force the Russian military to withdraw from Chechnya, according to the NRC.

“While no explosives were used, officials later retrieved a package of cesium-137 the rebels had buried in a Moscow park,” the organization says in its dirty bomb fact sheet.

Since 9/11 “terrorist arrests and prosecutions overseas have revealed that individuals associated with al-Qaida planned to acquire materials” for a dirty bomb, says the commission. “In 2004, British authorities arrested a British national, Dhiren Barot, and several associates on various charges, including conspiring to commit public nuisance by the use of radioactive materials.”

Two years later, he was found guilty and sentenced to life.

“British authorities disclosed that Barot developed a document known as the “‘Final Presentation,” according to the commission. “The document outlined his research on the production of ‘dirty bombs,’ designed to “‘cause injury, fear, terror and chaos,’ rather than to kill. “

U.S. federal prosecutors indicted Barot and two associates for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against persons within the United States, in conjunction with the alleged surveillance of several landmarks and office complexes in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Newark, according to the NRC.

And in a separate British police operation in 2004, “authorities arrested British national, Salahuddin Amin, and six others on terrorism-related charges,” according to the NRC. “Amin is accused of making inquiries about buying a ‘radioisotope bomb”’ from the Russian mafia in Belgium; and the group is alleged to have linkages to al-Qaida.”

While nothing became of those inquiries, and while “neither Barot nor Amin had the opportunity to carry their plans forward to an operational stage, these arrests demonstrate the continued interest of terrorists in acquiring and using radioactive material for malicious purposes,” the NRC points out.

So forgetting the aspirational, and whatever machinations the FBI and other organizations use to disrupt plots, here’s the most likely way a nuclear or dirty bomb would be detonated in the U.S., says Sin.

First, someone with access to the base materials would need to be bribed or coerced by violent extremists.

“Everybody has a price,” says Sin.

Then the extremists would have to convince a rogue member of a cartel — someone with enough access that he or she wouldn’t raise suspicions with superiors — to facilitate the smuggling of the materials across the U.S. border, to a bad actor with the ability to weaponize the materials.

And that would turn a spy thriller into nonfiction.

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The Pentagon announced no new deaths in either of the operations in the Centcom region.

There have been three deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and none in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

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(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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