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Fighting Dirty: Assessing the Threat of ISIS Engaging in Radiological Terrorism

Written by Bryan R. Early.

Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria will intensify the fighting taking place within the country and increase the pressure on ISIS to defend its territories.  Backed into a corner, ISIS may be driven to pursue new tactics that could turn the tide of the conflict back in its favor and create the perception that it is once again on the offensive. One of those tactics could be the use of radiological terrorism.  ISIS has already used mustard gas in attacks against the Kurds and it possesses the organizational capacity, materials, and likely willingness to engage in radiological terrorism if sufficiently incentivized.  As the conflict between Russian-backed Syrian forces and ISIS intensifies, the threat that ISIS might resort to using radiological materials in attacks is a lot higher that previous analyses have suggested.

Radiological terrorism involves the use or release of radiological materials as part of terrorist attacks. The most well-known terrorist attacks of this variety are known as “dirty bombs,” which pair radioactive materials with conventional explosives. Yet, terrorists can also manually disperse radioactive materials in order to contaminate water supplies, poison individuals, or pollute an environment.  Experts generally consider radiological weapons as weapons of mass disruption rather of mass destruction because they tend to inflict more fear than they do damage.  Still, the use of such weapons can cause significant economic costs, inflict long-term environmental damages, cause chronic health issues, and create significant psychological distress for targeted populations.

ISIS poses a salient threat of engaging in radiological terrorism for several important reasons.  First, ISIS represents a large, capable organisation that possesses the human capital and resources necessary to pull of such non-conventional attacks.  ISIS has been able to recruit highly-trained supporters from all over the world and also controls large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.  It has to be assumed that ISIS will have access to competent individuals capable of identifying and working with radiological materials.  It also has personnel with extensive military and terrorist experience that should be more than capable of carrying out more tactically-complex radiological terrorist attacks.

Second, the greatest barrier to engaging in radiological terrorism is access to materials and that is not an issue for ISIS. ISIS almost certainly has access to at least some radiological materials that it could use in attacks.  In 2014, there were credible reports that ISIS had seized roughly 40 kilograms of uranium from Mosul University in Iraq.  ISIS could also obtain far more radioactive materials from the radiotherapy equipment housed at hospitals in the towns and cities that it controls. Finally, the group could have obtained radioactive materials from equipment used for oil exploration and drilling that it may have seized.

US troops in biological warfare gear in Kuwait. Image credit by Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly/U.S. Marine Corp.
US troops in biological warfare gear in Kuwait. Image credit by Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly/U.S. Marine Corp.

Given that ISIS almost certainly possesses the capacity to engage in radiological terrorism, the key remaining issues relate to its willingness to do so and which states it might target. In the only study of its kind, my colleagues Matthew Fuhrmann, Quan Li, and I conducted a global analysis of why states were targeted with radiological and nuclear terrorism from 1991-2007.  One of our major findings was that states in the midst of a civil war were substantially more likely to be targeted with both types of terrorist attacks. States that are in the midst of civil wars like, Iraq and Syria, lack the law enforcement capacity to detect and/or disrupt potential radiological attacks.  Given the existential nature of such struggles, groups may be driven to take on the far greater risks, costs, and—from their perspective—potential rewards of engaging in radiological terrorism against their adversaries.  Engaging in such attacks also generate substantial publicity for a terrorist group that employs them and shake public confidence in regimes unable to prevent such attacks.

Interestingly, our data also indicated that Russia was by far the most frequent target of radiological and nuclear terrorism and plotted attempts.  During the civil war that Russia experienced with Chechnya during the 1990s, Chechen separatist groups repeatedly threatened the use of and sought to engage in radiological terrorism against Russia.  Like ISIS, Chechen rebels had access to radioactive materials and were engaged in a bitter conflict with a regime that had used brutal tactics against it.  What is notable, though, is that Chechen militants never actually consummated a dirty bomb attack even though they were reported to have built such devices.

Can such restraint really be expected of ISIS? The organization has engaged in brutal torture, enslaves and sexually abuses women and children, destroys priceless antiquities, engages in suicide terrorism, and has already used chemical weapons. ISIS appears to have few ethical boundaries constraining the tactics it uses and does not appear bound by any fear of violating international laws or alienating potentially sympathetic audiences. Indeed, it has used its many outrageous atrocities as propaganda to recruit a wider international following.  Whereas other groups might view the international condemnation and outrage from a radiological attack as a deterrent to employing the tactic, ISIS might actually view such responses as a public relations boon.

All this suggests that the radiological terrorist threat posed by ISIS should be taken quite seriously.  Rather than being a security threat aimed at the United States and Western forces, though, the largest threat likely exists for the Assad regime and its forces seeking to uproot ISIS from Syrian territories.  The use of such tactics could be especially attractive if ISIS’s existence appears threatened and its leaders decide that they need a traumatic, shocking attack to make the Assad Regime rethink its offensive.  ISIS has often not been content to fight fire with fire—it likes to fight dirty with a flair for the dramatic. The international community and the Assad regime, in particular, should be prepared for the possibility that ISIS will eventually turn to the use of radiological terrorism.

Bryan R. Early is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director for the Center for Policy Research at the University at Albany, SUNY. This piece  forms part of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism‘s research program on the role of the Islamic State in the contemporary security environment. Image credit: CC by Day Donaldson/Flickr.

Published inConflict & SecurityMiddle East & North AfricaTerrorism

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