Case study: A radioactive IED
Terrorist groups realize that merely having the capability to put together a radioactive IED can tap into public fear
By Lina Kolesnikova
During the summer and autumn of 1995, Shamil Basayev, one of the most notorious Chechen guerrilla commanders, repeatedly threatened the government of the Russian Federation with new terrorist acts if various military operations of the federal forces continued. He also claimed that he had possession of seven containers of bacteriological weapons and five artillery shells containing binary munitions and radioactive materials. He stated the intent to use them against the civil population of Russia.
On October 14, 1995, during a press conference in Shali (Chechnya), he displayed a container that allegedly held radioactive materials (he did not specify what exactly was in it). He claimed that four identical containers were secretly placed in different parts of Russia. George Kaurov, the press secretary of the Ministry of Atomic Energy of the Russian Federation, made a subsequent statement that Basayev probably possessed some Cobalt-60, Caesium-137, or Strontium-90 (low- grade) materials.
On November 21, 1995, a journalist from the Russian independent television channel (NTV), Elena Masyuk, interviewed Basayev in Chechnya. During the interview, Basayev showed Masyuk a map of Izmaylovsky Park in Moscow and the exact location of an alleged explosive device containing radiological materials. On November 22 the journalist and her supporting TV crew were reportedly unable to leave the territory of Chechnya, but on November 23 they returned to Moscow. Masyuk informed the chief producer of NTV about Basayev’s claim and the journalists decided to conduct their own investigation. Using the map Masyuk reported receiving and a dosimeter, she recovered a yellow package from a snowdrift in Izmaylovsky Park. Journalists proclaimed it a radioactive device belonging to Basayev. At about 4 p. m. the same day, NTV informed the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) about the find.
According to the press offices of EMERCOM (Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters) of Russia, the radioactivity of the found container was 2 roentgen/hour at a distance of 1 centimeter, and 600 microroentgen/hour at a distance of 1 meter. The container weighed about 15 kilograms and measured 400 x 300 x 250 millimeters.
At 11 p.m. the same day, the container was sent to a chemical laboratory of the Scientific Research Institute of the FSB for additional research. EMERCOM insisted in a press release that there was no contamination in the park and surrounding areas.
The next day, Friday, November 24, a senior official of the FSB stated that it did not constitute a lethal threat to Moscovites. He insisted that the content was very low grade. He said that it was absolutely harmless even for someone within a 5-meter distance. He claimed that it contained a "radioactive element, which is used for the calibrating of radioactive equipment." Journalists, referring to unnamed sources, believed that it was Caesium-137, which is used in cancer treatment as well as for many industrial applications. However, at the same time, some Western media claimed that it was potentially lethal.
On December 22, during another press conference, Basayev displayed another container and threatened that he could "explode it in the water or in the air for (maximum) contamination."
Basayev could have obtained radioactive materials in three ways: from existing facilities in Chechnya; stealing or buying them from other facilities in Russia; or acquiring them from foreign facilities and sponsors (stealing, buying, receiving them from an accomplice). However, the majority of Russian experts believe the first scenario — that Basayev obtained radioactive materials by stealing them from facilities in the Chechen Republic.
By the time of the war for independence in 1991, there were several facilities in the Chechen Republic that contained sources of ionising radiation. Perhaps the most accessible for Chechen separatists may have been buried radioactive waste from the so-called special plant named Radon in Grozny (the capital of the Chechen Republic). This plant was built in 1964 and was one of 16 regional subsidiaries of radioactive waste disposal in the Soviet Union. It received radioactive waste from 72 enterprises in Dagestan, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingooshetiya, and Chechnya (North Caucasian area). Radon was located close to the Karakh Mountains in the northeast part of the Grozny district and 30 kilometers from Grozny, the capital. A designated sanitary-hygienic zone around the plant was about 410 hectares.
In addition to Radon, there were more than 20 facilities where one could find radioactive materials, including hospitals, research laboratories, and some factories. From the beginning of military operations in 1991, effective control of each of these places was not maintained by federal agencies. Absent security and a lack of qualified personnel left them open for guerrilla access. Since 1999 security has reportedly been improved. The Chechen government reportedly controls all accesses to such facilities with federal security services. In July 2006 Basayev, who also was responsible for hostage takings in Moscow and in Beslan, was killed in an FSB operation.
Modern terrorist perspectives change. Previously, "killing was an outcome of an operation, now killing is an operation itself." As RAND (a well known research organization) defined it in 1999, we witness the paradigm of terrorism-war. More and more terrorists adopt tactics that allow them to achieve the highest possible number of victims. Such a perspective, no doubt, inspires them to obtain weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
In modern use, the term "WMD" includes biological, nuclear, chemical, and radiological weapons. In reality, biological and nuclear weapons have the potential for mass killing and causing large-scale damage. Chemical and radiological weapons, however, have somewhat limited potential from this point of view. For example, in many scenarios, neither of the two latter types of weapons can cause the same dramatic damage to the infrastructure or biosphere. On the other hand, use of conventional weapons (e.g., explosives) against specific targets might cause significant damage.
Therefore, WMD has the potential of being misleading when used in general discussion. Widely overused and sometimes confusing, WMD in the context of terrorism, however, reflects the possibility of massive destruction to civil society. Not only the actual use of WMD, but the threat of use and claims of possession by terrorists cause anxiety among the population and could provoke civil disturbances.
Development of nuclear technologies, especially for peaceful purposes, unfortunately multiplies the number of locations or access vectors that terrorists can use to take possession of WMD or their components. Even in countries with stable political situations and advanced security controls, there are incidents of loss of control and disappearance of some components that can be used by criminal or terrorist groups for threatening or even killing on a large scale. But countries experiencing political or civil unrest or insurgency movements, or countries where civil institutions cannot fulfill their roles, the risk of clandestine groups accessing WMD components becomes higher.
In addition to the acquisition of components for the creation of improvised WMD, terrorists will likely continue to attempt to acquire manufactured WMD. Both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces fielded special atomic demolition munitions (SADMs). These man-portable nuclear weapons were designed to be employed by infiltrating special operations personnel. Though rumors regarding missing Russian devices that have circulated are unproven and denied by the Russian government, one can imagine the terrible consequences of these types of devices falling into terrorist hands or similar devices being provided by emergent nuclear powers.
Fortunately, the actual creation and effective use of many WMD requires advanced skills. The majority of terrorist groups do not possess and cannot easily gain access to these skills. The followers of the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo metro with Sarin gas in 1995. Russian troops experienced two "lowscale" chemical attacks in Chechnya in 1999. Neither of these attacks caused a high toll of casualties or serious damage to infrastructure and the environment. However, it is not only the actual use, but rather the perceived capability of a terrorist group to access real WMD components, create WMD, and then use them that may profoundly change society.
Terrorists understand that well and seem eager to obtain WMD capabilities (even groups that may not intend to use the weapons). Possession of a "dirty bomb" employing radiological components seems to be a popular claim and a popular fear. A dirty bomb can create contamination and, subsequently, the disruption and anxiety that terrorists desire to pressure authorities and to realize their objectives. Not surprisingly, dirty bombs are often referred to as "weapons of mass disruption." While downplayed by governments and having had no dramatic impact on an already anxious society, the Izmaylovsky Park case of 1995 illustrates the viability of these threats.
About the author
Ms. Kolesnikova is a Russian, Brussels-based homeland security consultant. She is a Member of the Advisory Board of the Crisis Response Journal and holds a Msc in Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management (Leicester University), MA in History (Novosibirsk State University) and PgD in International and European Relations (Amsterdam University).
1 Basayev Shamil Salmanovich. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
2 Basayev demonstrates container with radioactive materials. Interfax 15 October 1995.
3 Basayev container. Retrieved on 11 February 2010.
4 Interview of Elena Masyuk on radio station Echo of Moscow. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
5 Basayev container. Retrieved on 11 February 2010.
9 "Moscow tries to play down radioactive Chechen Feat" The Irish Times, 25 November 1995; Nuke Package Raises fears of Chechen attack – but how real are they? Agence France Press, 24 November 1995.
10 NTV Today 22 December 1995 issue at 10 p.m.
11 "Homeland Security and Terrorism" J. R. White 2005.
12 "Countering the New Terrorism" Ian O. Lesser et al RAND 1999.