The glaring but largely overlooked message in the radiation poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko is that the underworld has become expert in effectively using radioactive materials for malicious purposes.
This is the first example of real or attempted radiological crime or terrorism where the perpetrators were true experts. This case should alter government's perception of radiological terrorism in the same way that 9/11 affected their overall perception of terrorism.
The plan to kill Litvinenko quietly by internal radiation poisoning required substantial expertise, especially in choosing the right radioactive material to implement the plan. Hundreds of radioactive substances exist; many are more easily attainable than polonium-210 and are more widely known.
It is not too hard to narrow the list of hundreds of radioactive substances down to a couple of dozen, but from there, the analysis becomes complex. One needs, for example, to analyze the ability of a radioactive material to deliver a harmful dose to a person once it is ingested. Different radioactive substances follow different paths inside the body. Some are expelled quite quickly; others are retained and damage critical organs. Some have half-lives that are too short; others have half-lives that are too long.
If their purpose was to kill with an internal radiation dose using a very small amount of radioactive material and leaving few traces that could point back to the source, the criminals knew exactly the right substance. The deadly effects of polonium are widely known, but before this event, even radiation experts would have been slow to select polonium.
Previously, anyone who expressed interest in using radioactive materials for terror appeared amateurish. For example, in May 2002, José Padilla was charged by the U.S. government with planning to build a radioactive dirty bomb made of uranium, which is very weakly radioactive and cannot fuel a potent dirty bomb.
And in 2004, Dhiren Barot, who recently pleaded guilty to plotting attacks in London and New York, allegedly proposed making a dirty bomb from about 100 smoke detectors. He would have needed more than a million detectors for an effective bomb.
More recently, however, last September the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir—also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri—called on nuclear scientists and explosives experts to apply their expertise in biological and dirty radioactive weapons to “the field of jihad” against American bases.
Although all the motives of the Litvinenko murder remain unclear, the perpetrators were apparently not attempting to instill terror in the public. Had the perpetrators been terrorists, they could have engineered a far more disruptive radiological attack.
As terrorists and criminals climb the learning curve involving radioactive materials, security professionals urgently need to adjust their threat assessments. Although governments have improved the security of radioactive materials after 9/11, in our view, the Litvinenko case and Masri's message should spur even greater and more rapid safety and security efforts.
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