Dirty Bomb Redux

On June 10, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft called a press conference in Moscow to announce that Abdullah al-Muhajir – AKA Jose Padilla – had been arrested more than a month earlier at O’Hare International Airport by the FBI on a "material witness" warrant. Quoth Ashcroft:

"I am pleased to announce today a significant step forward in the war on terrorism. 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.

"Let me be clear: We know from multiple independent and corroborating sources that Abdullah al-Muhajir was closely associated with al-Qaeda and that as an al-Qaeda operative he was involved in planning future terrorist attacks on innocent American civilians in the United States.

"The safety of all Americans and the national security interests of the United States require that Abdullah al-Muhajir be detained by the Defense Department as an enemy combatant."

Finally, last week, the Justice Department got around to charging Padilla and four others – apparently subject to FBI surveillance since at least 1996 – with operating and/or participating in a North American "support cell" that sent money and mujahideen recruits to overseas conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Somalia, and elsewhere.

In particular, the indictment alleges that in July 2000, Padilla (who had been in Egypt since 1998) filled out a "Mujahideen Data Form" – under the name Abdullah al-Espani – "in preparation for violent jihad training in Afghanistan."

What about the "dirty bomb"?

According to the Department of Justice, Padilla, while in Afghanistan, had suggested to his al-Qaeda "handler," Abu Zubaydah, that he construct a real nuke, using "plans" Padilla had found on the Internet.

Zubaydah allegedly didn’t think Padilla – or anyone else in al-Qaeda– was capable of doing that. However, Zubaydah allegedly did think Padilla might be able to construct a radiological dispersal device (i.e., "dirty bomb") consisting of "uranium wrapped with explosives."

How did Ashcroft know what Padilla allegedly suggested to Zubaydah? And how did Ashcroft know what Zubaydah allegedly thought?

Well, Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan in April 2002 – a month before Padilla showed up in Chicago with $10,000 in cash – and has been held for interrogation ever since in one of those secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency.

So maybe the CIA has extracted the truth from Zubaydah, and maybe they haven’t.

In particular, if uranium is actually the "radiological agent" that Zubaydah suggested Padilla use, then Zubaydah doesn’t know diddly-squat about nukes – "dirty" or otherwise.

You see, uranium is only weakly radioactive, emitting principally alpha particles, which won’t even penetrate rubber gloves. True, uranium is a heavy metal, but unlike lead, is not a "bone seeker." In fact, if ingested in any form other than a fine aerosol, uranium passes right through the body.

Shortly after 9/11, the dirty bomb "experts" at the Federation of American Scientists told the world how to make one that would work.

The FAS "dirty bomb" was a "coffee jar" containing about a thousand curies of a true radiological material such as cobalt-60.

(That’s about the radiological source-strength of a medical radiotherapy unit used to irradiate cancer patients.)

A successful bomb would have to be designed with great sophistication, first to break open the "coffee jar," then to gradually heat the radioactive source so that it vaporized, and finally to scatter it to the winds.

No explosion? Gradually heat the radioactive source? Scatter vapor to the winds?

What’s terrifying about that?

The only person who would die right away would be the dolt who transported a thousand-curie gamma-ray source into the mall in a coffee jar.

There are estimated to be more than 10,000 medical radiotherapy units and 12,000 industrial radiographic units in operation worldwide. Many are "orphans." That is, no one knows where many of them – still potentially dangerous – are.

Thieves have stolen several medical radiotherapy units – not knowing what they had stolen – and sold them as scrap metal. The lead shielding weighs about a ton.

In the worst incident – in 1987 in Brazil – the thieves removed the highly radioactive source from the shielded unit. Result? Five persons died within days and others got life-threatening doses of radiation.

How many might Padilla’s "dirty bomb" have killed? Well, that would depend upon how much explosive he used.

So, if Padilla is convicted, it certainly will be "a significant step forward in the war on terrorism." Ashcroft will probably get the Medal of Freedom.


Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.