From Fallujah to Mosul, Paris to Brussels, the terrorist organization that calls itself Islamic State (IS) murders, maims, and enslaves with wanton abandon, if not exactly impunity. By now the world has woken up to the serious threat that the group poses, not just in the Middle East but also in Europe and the United States.
Islamic State's crimes are horrific enough with its present capabilities, but a question increasingly asked among politicians and military officials is: What if IS were to acquire the unthinkable -- a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)?
Earlier this month I attended the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Amsterdam, an NGO set up to tackle exactly this type of problem. And what emerged is that the danger of IS acquiring its most fearsome weapon yet is now a significant one.
According to an expert who participated in the forum, the danger is twofold. The gravest threat would come if IS were able to get its hands on nuclear materials. These would mean, for example, the type of enriched uranium Iran uses in its nuclear program -- from which IS could theoretically make a small nuclear bomb with further enrichment -- or existing weapons-grade plutonium, from which it could do the same.
But the probability of IS being able to do this is slim. The requisite materials are located in only 24 countries and are in highly guarded facilities. Set against this fact, however, have been several lapses in security. In 2012, an 82-year-old nun and peace activist, Megan Rice, broke into the Oakridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee. Rice never got near any nuclear material but a lot of systems had to fail for her to get as close as she did. Likewise, according to a British Ministry of Defense report, guards at one of the UK's nuclear facilities were caught sleeping on the job. And then there is the problem of poor levels of security at a host of nuclear research centers in the former Soviet Union.
The probability of IS taking advantage of these lapses in security is low, but not insignificant. The greatest danger comes from the most unstable countries with the largest amounts of documented radical activity: Pakistan, Russia, and India -- with Pakistan at the top of the list.
Moreover, as retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, a chief researcher at the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told me: "there is a lot of illegal activity, trafficking in illegal natural material...so [IS] could either pull off a purchase for a significant amount of money or intercept illegal trafficking. Plus, they seem to have enough money to recruit scientists to build a rudimentary nuclear device. Not a nuclear warhead, but an explosive nuclear device; it may, in fact, only weigh a few tons but it's still something you could assemble close to an urban area, or on a vessel that could then be brought to U.S. or European shores."
Many Ways To Dirty Bomb
Another problem would be a conventional weapons attack on a nuclear facility, which could conceivably cause a Chernobyl-like disaster or worse. It remains nearly impossible to attack a nuclear power plant, as they have substantial protection, but attacking nuclear-research facilities that have reactors filled with nuclear materials is far easier, and a lot of cities have these. According to Dvorkin even bombing a nuclear-storage facility with a relatively small bomb would mean the destruction of buildings within a 3-4-kilometer radius and fallout covering a much larger area and creating a lasting effect.
The second and far more immediate threat is that of attack with a radiological device. The materials for this are located in over a 100 countries and, critically found not just in specialized facilitates but in hospitals and research centers used, for example, in treating cancer -- places that, unlike major nuclear facilities, don't have gates, guards, and guns. The expert who attended the forum warned me that IS has many such facilities within the land it already controls and that is where the "dirty bomb" (a radiological as opposed to nuclear bomb) threat is now unequivocally real.
One can easily use conventional resources to make a dirty bomb, use agents to plant it in a major urban center, then simply watch it ignite and cause billions of dollars of damage. The loss of life would likely be modest -- only those in its immediate vicinity would die. But the psychological element would be huge; as a nuclear specialist told me, the public hears "radiological" and immediately panics. Then there would be the cost of demolishing and rebuilding the buildings that had been contaminated in a far wider area.
While nothing is certain when dealing with what is clearly a fanatical organization, it is clear that IS is organized and thinks strategically. As Dvorkin points out, the chances of IS using even a rudimentary nuclear device are accordingly slim. First, it would risk alienating even Sunni Muslim communities across the Middle East that might presently have some sympathy with its aims. Second, what is now a fractious coalition fighting against IS would almost certainly unite and bring its combined weight to utterly annihilate the organization.
Nonetheless, as The New York Times reported in February, a man linked to the November 13 Paris attackers was found in possession of surveillance footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official. With IS any horror is possible, even if it is not probable.
The question more realistically facing us is not whether IS can employ a dirty bomb -- most likely in Europe or the United States -- but will it? And experts fear the worst. According to Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the Luxembourg Forum, "the threat of a terrorist group, such as Islamic State, staging a nuclear bomb attack on a major European city, such as London, is 'high.'"
Given that IS has already carried out numerous chemical-weapons attacks in Syria, its willingness to use a WMD of some kind is clearly present. As Kantor continued "the threat of a so-called 'dirty bomb' attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War."
The world should be worried.
David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war.