The Islamic State came dangerously close to obtaining a radioactive dirty bomb, in fact the ingredients were readily available to the group for more than three years, but an apparent lack of knowledge or know-how prevented a disaster.
ISIS gained a military treasure trove after its seizure of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, in June 2014. Everything from tanks to guns were spoils of war, many of them American-made. But the most valuable prize the group unwittingly obtained were two supplies of cobalt-60, a highly radioactive substance used in cancer treatment which is also perfect for a dirty bomb, according to a report by Joby Warrick of The Washington Post published on July 22.
ISIS apparently stumbled upon the radioactive substance possibly without even know what they had. It was locked away in a storage room on a college campus contained in heavy shielding when ISIS took over the area. When Iraq Security Forces retook the campus earlier this year, they found the cobalt-60 still in storage, providing a major relief to security officials and experts who had been tracking its location.
Raw cobalt. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
"We are very relieved that these two, older albeit still dangerous, cobalt-60 sources were not found and used by Daesh. They were recovered intact recently," said the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank which compiled a dossier on the substance's whereabouts beginning in 2015, in a report published July 22.
The Institute provided its final report to the US and other "friendly governments," and ultimately decided not to publish the report at the time out of concern that ISIS could use it.
A dirty bomb is essentially a terrorist's ideal weapon. It uses a traditional explosive to spread radioactive material across a given area, in an attempt to incite panic and chaos. It is not necessarily difficult to obtain the ingredients for a dirty bomb; highly radioactive material is used in a multitude of civilian applications. A terrorist would need only to gain a suitable amount of material, combine it with a traditional explosive, and unleash it on a target area. While the death toll from the detonation of such a device would likely be low, it is the resulting fear among the targeted population that worries officials.
A 20th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter engages a simulated radioactive attack. USAF photo by Senior Airman Matt Davis
Thankfully, ISIS either was not able or aware of the cobalt-60 in Mosul.
"They are not that smart," a health ministry official told WaPo.
It is possible that ISIS was aware of the caches of cobalt-60, but did not have the know-how to remove it from its casing without exposing its own forces to the deadly radiation. It is equally possible they simply had no idea what they had. The Institute also speculated that "courageous hospital and university staff" may have worked to keep the cobalt-60 a secret from the terror group.
The cobalt-60 is not the first time ISIS has had a chance at a weapon of mass destruction. US forces conducted air strikes against two chemical weapons factories in Mosul in March 2016. Officials had been concerned that the group was possibly stolen using chemistry equipment from Mosul University, though it is unclear if that equipment was being used in the weapons factories. Despite the strikes, ISIS is known to have used chlorine and mustard gas against its enemies in Iraq and Syria.
Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Johnny Bivera
ISIS's failure to use the cobalt-60 was fortunate, but there are lessons to be learned.
"This case should lead to reinvigorated efforts to inventory and adequately protect radioactive sources throughout the world. However, as this case highlights, improving physical protection may not be enough," said the Institute's report. "It is also important for the United States and its allies to accelerate programs to identify, consolidate, and remove dangerous radioactive sources, particularly in regions of tension or where terrorists are active."