Monday, August 01, 2011

Dirty bombs remain a big worry in terrorism

The recent bomb blasts in Mumbai and last Friday’s terrible carnage in Oslo show that the plague of terrorism is, if anything, intensifying. Sooner, unfortunately, rather than later, the world community must confront the possibility of the use of nuclear, chemical or biological agents in a terrorist act. Counter-terrorism experts, whether in India,  or abroad, worry a great deal about  the possible use of a “dirty bomb,” even though as of now this remains a fear, and it has not quite translated itself into a threat. But the logic of terrorism is such that it pushes the  terrorists to think up of newer ways of shocking their victims and achieving their ends.
While at one level, the use of Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD)— another name for a dirty bomb — appears easy, no terrorist group has actually used such a device as yet. In his rambling manifesto Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik referred to the use of radiological weapons. Dhiren Barot, a Hindu convert to Islam in UK,  plotted to use a radioactive dirty bomb for attacks in the US. Chechen separatists and the Al Qaeda have experimented with such devices, though it is clear that they face difficulties that have not been overcome. These could relate to handling radioactive material, the lack of expertise in shaping a device,  and the enhanced security over radiological material.

One of the features of modern terrorism — which is a method, rather than an ideology — is the ruthless manner in which non-combatants are targeted to make a political statement. There is not much different in Al Qaeda’s targeting the World Trade Center tower, or the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba hitting the Mumbai hotels and the act of Norwegian  Anders Behring Breivik who first set off a big explosion in central Oslo to distract the police, and then carried out a  systematic massacre of defenceless young boys and girls at Uteoya island nearby. The claim of insanity made by his lawyer is only proforma.
By the standards of normal human beings, all terrorist acts can appear insane, but that does not mean that they are so. In Breivik’s case, this was not just a random act of violence such as one carried out by people who run amok; he systematically targeted the government of Norway in his bomb blast, and the ruling Labour party, whose youth wing was holding the rally in Uteoya island.
For Norway this is a hugely destructive first, an event which will no doubt become part of national memory. But in India, this month’s blasts were only one in a long line of terrorist incidents that go back to the mid-1980s with acts like the Dhilwan massacre of October 1983 when six Hindu bus passengers were taken out of a bus by radical Sikh terrorists and executed. This was the first of a series of incidents in Punjab over the next five years when Hindus were selectively targeted by Sikh extremists in a bid to divide the Hindu and Sikh communities. There were other incidents, too, even more horrific, such as the blowing up of the Air India aircraft Kanishka, killing all 329 aboard.
In the 1990s, there were  more terrifying  events — the first Bombay blasts, those of 1993 carried out by the Muslim underworld,  taking the lives of some 257 persons, the attack on the Parliament House in New Delhi in December 2001 and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba attack on Mumbai in  November 2008. And, of course, there were the bomb blasts — in Mumbai local trains in July 2006, in Delhi during the festive season in 2005 and then again in 2008, and those at Ahmedabad and Jaipur in 2008 as well.   
Most security officials in the country  believe that the most recent Mumbai blast is merely a forerunner of more serious strikes in the country. The reason is that on one hand, the local cells of the so-called Indian Mujahideen seem to have reconstituted, and on the other, in Pakistan, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba has, if anything, become stronger in relation to the Pakistan government and the army. But even as of now these attacks appear to be unstoppable, there are people who are worrying about the possible use of a radiological weapon in the country.
There has been talk of radiological dispersal devices (RDDs) for quite some time now. It is not easy to access the radionuclides that could be used as a weapon. Of 16 radionuclides, only four are widely used in biomedical research and industry — Cobalt 60, cesium 137, iridium 192 and americium 241. Most are made in specialised nuclear reactors and so terrorist access to them could come through theft, illegal purchase, or through sympathetic insiders.
 The RDD is very different from a nuclear weapon. In RDD’s radioactive material is dispersed, and it can be done by exploding a conventional bomb or, a crop spraying aircraft. An RDD can be simply placed at a strategic location and do its work. This material can be from diverted from industrial or medical sources. Last year in Mayapuri, Delhi,  an irradiator with Cobalt 60 sold as scrap came apart, killing one person through radiating sickness and injuring six.
On the other hand a nuclear weapon will have the enhanced blast and heat effects of a fission or fusion reaction, as well as the radiation associated with it. In the former case, the casualties would be fewer, though the psychological effects could be quite severe. 
 As of now, no group has really succeeded and the threat remains somewhat remote. But for India there is little comfort, primarily because its threat perceptions relate to Pakistan. In fact, in relation to India, not only do we confront a RDD threat, but one relating to nuclear weapons as well.

Pakistan says that its nuclear arsenal is secure and this position is broadly accepted by most observers. As far as RDDs are concerned, Islamabad says that the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority is implementing a National Nuclear Security Action plan in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to manage high risk radioactive sources and provide a monitoring mechanism to take care of any emergencies. Indeed, speaking at the Nuclear Security Summit of April 2010 aimed at highlighting the threat of terrorist use of nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan noted that the threat of terrorist acts involving “dirty bombs is real and it has global dimensions.” 
But that is the theory, the practice in Pakistan is likely to be quite different. The attack on the Pakistani Navy facility at Mehran in Karachi rang alarm bells around the world. But the more insidious danger is of scientific and technical personnel smuggling out material from seemingly well-guarded facilities.
India’s record in coping with the conventional terrorist threat has not been particularly impressive. There is all the more reason that it needs to be prepared for the threat of a “dirty bomb.” Preventing the RDD attack is, of course, the most important thing.
But equally germane is the need to cope with an attack, should one occur. The way the authorities reacted to the most recent Mumbai bomb attack does not inspire  much confidence in the government’s ability to cope with the psychological and physical outcome of an RDD attack.
Mail Today July 28, 2011

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