First Chemical Weapons, Now Radioactive WMDs for ISIS?
Policy + Politics

First Chemical Weapons, Now Radioactive WMDs for ISIS?


Global concern is rising after a pair of incidents suggest that the Islamic State is inching closing to its long-stated goal of acquiring a weapon of mass destruction.

Fresh off the news that the terror group had used chemical weapons against Kurdish fighters in Iraq, Reuters reported that ISIS had stolen a laptop-sized device containing radioactive material, which the International Atomic Energy Agency has since confirmed was Iridium-192, from a site in Iraq.

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Iridium-192 has industrial applications, and has been used in medicine as a source of radiation to kill cancer cells. However, it's also one of the top commercial radioactive isotopes used in “dirty bombs,” which are detonated with conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials.

That could be done as easily as attaching a stick of dynamite to a piece of material and setting it off. The resulting explosion wouldn’t have to inflict a great loss of life because the goal of the device is to spread radiation and panic.

The extent of contamination would depend on a number of factors, including the size of the conventional explosive, the amount of radioactive material used, the means of dispersal and weather. Even low-level radioactive pollution of a city building or few blocks could take months to clean up. In certain cases, buildings may be more costly or difficult to decontaminate than to tear down and rebuild.

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The cost of reclamation could run into the billions of dollars, depending on where the device is set off.

Further compounding fears is the discovery that a suspect tied one of the ISIS agents responsible for the carnage in Paris last November was found with surveillance footage of a senior nuclear official in Belgium, according to The New York Times.

An F-15E drops one of two B-61-12 guided nuclear bomb shapes at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada on October 20, 2015. The Test demonstrated an accuracy of less than 98 feet and that the guided bomb has earth-penetrating capability against underground targets.

While authorities are still trying to determine the purpose of the footage, which amounted to 10 hours and showed the official coming and going from his home, the developments indicate the extremist network is actively hunting new ways of attacking its enemies.

These new developments, along with the news about chemical weapons, are sure to prompt fresh questions from Capitol Hill about whether President Obama is doing enough to eradicate the jihadist group.

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The loss of radioactive material in particular has to embarrass the administration, as the containment of nuclear materials was part of wide-ranging nonproliferation agenda Obama laid out shortly after taking office.

That agenda, highlighted by biennial summits heads of state and dignitaries to discuss ways to secure the world's loose radioactive materials, has largely been neglected in recent years in the wake of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, the spread of ISIS and the conflict in Syria.

The last Nuclear Security Summit is slated to take place next month in Washington. Russia has already said it will skip the three-day conference.