NBC Weapons: June 23, 2003

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The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has warned that growing problems in Africa could result in nuclear materials being sold to terrorists for the making of a "dirty bomb". Such a weapon is designed to spread radioactive material and - much more importantly, from a terrorist's perspective - create panic.

Earlier, the head of the British domestic intelligence agency MI5 warned that it is "only a matter of time" before Al Qaeda launches a "crude" nuclear, biological or chemical terror attack, since intelligence analysis suggested that "renegade scientists" had told international terrorists how to make such weapons. 

The IAEA has recorded 18 attempts to steal radioactive materials, but the Institute for International Studies researchers have accounts of nearly 700 incidents of international smuggling involving nuclear or radioactive material (and that's what they know about). In Thailand, US customs officials recently questioned a Thai man whom Thai police have accused of trying to sell 30 kilograms of caesium-137. 

In 2002, the IAEA sent missions to Nigeria and Tanzania to help the authorities there cope with materials seized from traffickers. Terrorists have used Africa in recent years to carry out attacks against western targets. The most recent event was on May 16, 2003, when five bombs went off within minutes of each other in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. East Africa has also seen bombing attacks by groups linked to Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Thousands of containers of radioactive materials used in medicine, industry and research (all potentially useful for making "dirty bombs") have been lost or stolen worldwide. Another potential source of 'dirty bomb' material are the hundreds of generators using radioactive fuels that were used to power now-abandoned beacons and lighthouses scattered around the former Soviet Union. 

During a search of a taxicab at the capital's train station on May 31, Georgian authorities discovered a box each of Cesium-137 and Strontium-90, along with a third container of brown liquid, that was later determined to be a nerve gas concentrate. These components could have been used to make a ''dirty bomb''. Georgian authorities believed that the materials were probably headed to Turkey for resale.

The General Accounting Office has criticized the Energy Department, which leads the US effort to secure nuclear materials, for not having an adequate plan to help countries facing the biggest security risks. The Energy Department has received about $37 million since fiscal year 2002 to launch a program to help other countries control their sealed sources, and is to get $22 million more this year. - Adam Geibel 

 


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