Is ISIL a Radioactive Threat?

In the past several months, various news stories have raised the possibility that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also commonly referred to as ISIS) could pose a radioactive threat. Headlines such as “Dirty bomb fears after ISIS rebels seize uranium stash,”1) “Stolen uranium compounds not only dirty bomb ingredients within ISIS’ grasp, say experts,”2)  “Iraq rebels ‘seize  nuclear materials,’” 3) and “U.S. fears ISIL smuggling nuclear and radioactive materials: ISIL could take control of radioactive, radiological materials”4) have appeared in mainstream media publications and on various blog posts. Often these articles contain unrelated file photos with radioactive themes that are apparently added to catch the eye of a potential reader and/or raise their level of concern.

Is there a serious threat or are these headlines over-hyped? Is there a real potential that ISIL could produce a “dirty bomb” and inflict radiation casualties and property damage in the United States, Europe, or any other state that might oppose ISIL as part of the recently formed U.S.-led coalition? What are the confirmed facts? What are reasonable assumptions about the situation in ISIL-controlled areas and what is a realistic assessment of the level of possible threat?

As anyone who has followed recent news reports about the rapid disintegration of the Iraqi Army in Western Iraq can appreciate, ISIL is now in control of sizable portions of Iraq and Syria. These ISIL-controlled areas include oilfields, hospitals, universities, and industrial facilities, which may be locations where various types of radioactive materials have been used, or are being used.

In July 2014, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a statement indicating that Iraq had notified the United Nations “that nuclear material has been seized from Mosul University.”5) The IAEA’s press release indicated that they believed that the material involved was “low-grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk.” However, despite assessing the risk posed by the material as being low, the IAEA stated that “any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”6)Ibid. The IAEA’s statement caused an initial flurry of press reports shortly after its release in July.

A second round of reports on the threat of ISIL using nuclear or radioactive material started in early September, triggered by the announcement of a U.S.-Iraq agreement on a Joint Action Plan to combat nuclear and radioactive smuggling.7)  According to a Department of State (DOS) press release on the Joint Action Plan, the U.S. will provide Iraq with training and equipment via the Department of Energy’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) that will enhance Iraq’s capability to “locate, identify, characterize, and recover orphaned or disused radioactive sources in Iraq thereby reducing the risk of terrorists acquiring these dangerous materials.”8)Ibid. Although State’s press release is not alarmist, it does state that the U.S. and Iraq share a conviction that nuclear smuggling and radiological terrorism are “critical and ongoing” threats and that the issues must be urgently addressed.9)Ibid.

While September’s headlines extrapolating State’s press release to U. S. “fears” might be characterized by some as over-hyping the issue, it is clear that both statements from the IAEA and the State Department have indicated that the situation in Iraq may be cause for concern. Did IAEA and DOS go too far in their statements? In their defense, it would be highly irresponsible to indicate that any situation where nuclear or other radioactive material might be in the hands of individuals or groups with a potential for criminal use is not a subject for concern. However, we need to go beyond such statements and determine what risks are posed by the materials that have been reported as possibly being under ISIL control in order to determine how concerned the public should be.

According to the IAEA’s press release, the material reported by Iraq was described as “nuclear material,” but this description does not imply that it is suitable for a yield producing nuclear weapon. In fact, the IAEA’s description of the material as “low-grade” indicates that the IAEA believes that this material is not enriched to the point where it could be used to produce a nuclear explosion. Furthermore, although the agency has not provided a technical description of the nuclear material, it is highly unlikely that this is anything other than low enriched uranium or perhaps even natural or depleted uranium, all of which would fit under the IAEA’s definition of “nuclear material.” If the material is not useful in a yield producing device, is it a radioactive hazard? All forms of uranium are slightly radioactive, but the level of radioactivity is so low that these materials would not pose a serious radioactive threat, (either to persons or property), if they were used in a Radioactive Dispersion Devices (RDDs). Even a “Dirty Bomb,” which is an RDD dispersed by explosives, would not be of significant concern.

Other than the nuclear material mentioned in the report to the United Nations, there are no known open source reports of loss of control of other radioactive materials. However, a lack of specific reporting does not mean that control is still established over any materials that are in ISIL -controlled areas. It would be prudent to assume that all materials in these areas are out of control and assessable to ISIL should it choose to use whatever radioactive materials can be found for criminal purposes. How do we know what materials may be at risk? Hopefully the Iraq Radioactive Sources Regulatory Authority (IRSRA) has/had a radioactive source registry in Iraq. If so, authorities should know in some detail what materials are in ISIL-controlled territories. The Syrian regulatory authority may have at one time had a similar registry that would indicate what may now be out of control in the ISIL-controlled areas of Syria. Unfortunately, there is no open source reporting of any of these materials so we are left to speculate as to what might be involved and what the consequences may be should those materials attempt to be used criminally.

It is doubtful that any radioactive materials in ISIL controlled areas are very large sources. The materials that would pose the greatest risk would probably be for medical uses. These sources are found in hospitals or clinics for cancer treatment or blood irradiation and typically use cesium 137 or cobalt 60, both of which are relatively long-lived (approximately 30 and five years respectively) and produce energetic gamma rays. It is also possible that radiography cameras containing iridium 192 and well logging sources that typically use cesium 137 and an americium beryllium neutron source may also be in the ISIL-controlled areas.  Any technical expert would opine that these sources are capable of causing death and that dispersal of these materials would create a cleanup problem and possibly significant economic loss. However, experts almost uniformly agree that such materials do not constitute Weapons of Mass Destruction, but are potential sources for disruption and for causing public fear and panic. Furthermore the scenarios that pose the greatest risk for the United States or Europe from these materials are difficult for ISIL to organize and carry out.

If ISIL were to attempt to use such materials in an RDD, they would need to transport the materials to the target area (for example in the United States or Europe), in a manner that is undetectable and relatively safe for the person(s) transporting or accompanying a movement of the material. Although in some portions of a shipment cycle there would be no need to accompany the materials, at some point people would need to handle the materials. Even if the handlers had suicidal intent, shielding would be required in order to prevent detection of the energetic radiations that would be present for even a weak RDD. Shielding required for really dangerous amounts of these materials is typically both heavy and bulky and therefore the shielded materials cannot be easily transported simply by a person carrying them on their person or in their luggage. They would probably need to be shipped as cargo in or on some sort of vehicle (car, bus, train, ship, or plane). Surface methods of transport might reach Europe, but carriage by ship or air is necessary to reach the United States.10)Note that this article is concerned only with scenarios based on potential ISIL use of materials from their controlled territory. ISIL, or any other group, would also have the potential to steal materials locally in order to engage in radiological terrorism. Aircraft structures do not provide any inherent shielding and so the most logical (albeit not only), method of transportation to the United States or Europe would be by ship, probably from a Syrian port. Even though ISIL controls a significant land area, the logistics of shipping an item that is highly radioactive to the United States or Europe would be a complex process and need to defeat significant post-9/11 detection systems. These systems, although perhaps not 100 percent effective for all types and amounts of radioactive material, typically are thought to be very effective in the detection of high-level sources.

Any materials from ISIL-controlled areas could only be used in the United States or Europe with great difficulty. It is highly probable that the current radiation detection systems would be effective in deterring any such attempted use even if there were no human intelligence that would compromise such an effort. Even if ISIL could use materials for an RDD attack, the actual damage potential of these types of attacks is relatively low when they are compared to far simpler and often used terrorist tactics such as suicide vests and truck and car bombs. The casualties that would result from any theoretical RDD would be probably less than those resulting from a serious traffic accident and that is probably on the high end of casualty estimates. Indeed, many experts feel that most, if not all, of the serious injuries from a “dirty bomb” would result from the explosive effects of the bomb, not from the dispersal of radioactive materials. The major consequence of even a fairly effective dispersal of material would be a cleanup problem with the economic impact determined by the area contaminated and the level to which the area would need to be cleaned.

Efforts by the United States to work with the ongoing government in Iraq in improving detection and control of nuclear and other radioactive materials appear to be a prudent effort to minimize any threat from these materials in the ISIL-controlled areas. To date, ISIL has not made any threats to use radioactive material. That does not mean that ISIL is unaware of the potential, and we should be prepared for ISIL to use their surprisingly effective social media connections to attempt to make any future radioactive threat seem apocalyptic. Rational discussion of potential consequences and responses to an attack scenario should occur before an actual ISIL threat, rather than having the discussion in the 24/7 news frenzy that could invariably follow an ISIL threat.


Dr. George Moore is currently a Scientist in Residence and Adjunct Faculty Member at the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a Graduate School of Middlebury College, in Monterey, California. He teaches courses and workshops in nuclear trafficking, nuclear forensics, cyber security, drones and surveillance, and various other legal and technical topics. He also manages an International Safeguards Course sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Agency in cooperation with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

From 2007-2012 Dr. Moore was a Senior Analyst in the IAEA’s Office of Nuclear Security where he was involved with, among other issues, the IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database System and the development of the Fundamentals of Nuclear Security publication, the top-level document in the Nuclear Security Series. Dr. Moore has over 40 years of computer programming experience in various programming languages and has managed large database and document systems. He completed IAEA training in cyber security at Brandenburg University and is the first instructor to use the IAEA’s new publication NS22 Cyber Security for Nuclear Security Professional as the basis for a course.

Dr. Moore is a former staff member of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he had various assignments in areas relating to nuclear physics, nuclear effects, radiation detection and measurement, nuclear threat analysis, and emergency field operations. He is also a former licensed research reactor operator (TRIGA).

Notes   [ + ]

6. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Note that this article is concerned only with scenarios based on potential ISIL use of materials from their controlled territory. ISIL, or any other group, would also have the potential to steal materials locally in order to engage in radiological terrorism.