London’s ‘Dirty Bomb’ Scare

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 5

Indications of the seriousness of the WMD threat, or at least of the level of intentions to employ such a device, were brought a little closer to home on September 24, when British police in London arrested four men on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, following a tip-off from the News of the World newspaper. The tabloid had infiltrated one of its reporters into a group acting as middlemen for a Saudi Arabian who was apparently attempting to buy materials with which to construct a ‘dirty bomb’. The reporter on the newspaper said that the Saudi buyer was prepared to pay $540,000 for a kilogram of ‘red mercury’, a radioactive substance popularly (if not scientifically) held to have been developed by Russian scientists during the Cold War. The term ‘dirty bomb’ refers to any non-nuclear explosive device, which scatter radioactive material packed inside it. The paper also reported that the reporter was told that the device ‘was for use in the UK or the USA’.

The incident brings into focus what has become a source of increasing concern. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the issue of protection of its radioactive materials has been the subject of numerous conferences. In practical terms, the ‘red mercury’ trafficking in Europe has so far turned out to be bogus — the substance itself may be fictitious — but black market smuggling of radioactive materials certainly exists. Last week authorities in Kyrgyzstan announced the arrest of two men at Bishkek in possession of 60 small containers containing plutonium-239. As in London, the Kyrgyz security agents made the arrests as the result of a sting while posing as buyers. There were earlier arrests this year in Kyrgyzstan of smugglers attempting to sell quantities of caesium-137.

British police are on a raised state of alert following the indications of active co-ordination between al-Qaeda cells in Pakistan and cells in the United Kingdom, revealed after the arrest in July of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a communications specialist. Coded messages subsequently deciphered revealed how al-Qaeda’s number three, Abu Faraj al-Liby, had been in frequent communication with militants in the United Kingdom concerning future terror attacks. Adding to the concern is the evidence from civil defence documents drawn up last October, which show that over half of district and county authorities in England have yet to formulate mass evacuation plans, and that more than two-thirds of civil and police authorities lack strategies to deal with casualties of a dirty bomb attack.