Domestic Terrorism: Some Considerations

The problem of domestic terrorism is distinct from that of foreign terrorism because of the constitutional protections enjoyed by U.S. persons, the Congressional Research Service explained last week.

“Constitutional principles — including federalism and the rights to free speech, free association, peaceable assembly, petition for the redress of grievances — may complicate the task of conferring domestic law enforcement with the tools of foreign intelligence gathering.” See Domestic Terrorism: Some ConsiderationsCRS Legal Sidebar, August 12, 2019.

Some other noteworthy new publications from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Convergence of Cyberspace Operations and Electronic WarfareCRS In Focus, August 13, 2019

Renewed Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense–Issues for Congress, updated August 5, 2019

U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, updated August 7, 2019

U.S.-North Korea RelationsCRS In Focus, updated August 13, 2019 (which notes that “Pyongyang appears to be losing its ability to control information inflows from the outside world.”)

Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization, August 5, 2019

Classified Anti-Terrorist Ops Raise Oversight Questions

Last February, the Secretary of Defense initiated three new classified anti-terrorist operations intended “to degrade al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated terrorists in the Middle East and specific regions of Africa.”

A glimpse of the new operations was provided in the latest quarterly report on the U.S. anti-ISIS campaign from the Inspectors General of the Department of Defense, Department of State, and US Agency for International Development.

The three classified programs are known as Operation Yukon Journey, the Northwest Africa Counterterrorism overseas contingency operation, and the East Africa Counterterrorism overseas contingency operation.

Detailed oversight of these programs is effectively led by the DoD Office of Inspector General rather than by Congress.

“To report on these new contingency operations, the DoD OIG submitted a list of questions to the DoD about topics related to the operations, including the objectives of the operations, the metrics used to measure progress, the costs of the operations, the number of U.S. personnel involved, and the reason why the operations were declared overseas contingency operations,” the joint IG report said.

DoD provided classified responses to some of the questions, which were provided to Congress.

But “The DoD did not answer the question as to why it was necessary to designate these existing counterterrorism campaigns as overseas contingency operations or what benefits were conveyed with the overseas contingency operation designation.”

Overseas contingency operations are funded as “emergency” operations that are not subject to normal procedural requirements or budget limitations.

“The DoD informed the DoD OIG that the new contingency operations are classified to safeguard U.S. forces’ freedom of movement, provide a layer of force protection, and protect tactics, techniques, and procedures. However,” the IG report noted, “it is typical to classify such tactical information in any operation even when the overall location of an operation is publicly acknowledged.”

“We will continue to seek answers to these questions,” the IG report said.

Domestic Terrorism: An Overview, & More from CRS

The problem of “domestic terrorism” is examined in a new report from the Congressional Research Service, along with an assessment of the government’s difficulty in addressing it.

“Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), domestic terrorists–people who commit crimes within the homeland and draw inspiration from U.S.-based extremist ideologies and movements–have not received as much attention from federal law enforcement as their violent jihadist counterparts,” the report says.

Among other obstacles to an effective response, “The federal government lacks a process for publicly designating domestic terrorist organizations.” See Domestic Terrorism: An Overview by CRS Specialist Jerome P. Bjelopera, August 21, 2017.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Confederate Names and Military InstallationsCRS Insight, August 22, 2017

FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act: Selected Military Personnel Issues, August 22, 2017

Human Rights in China and U.S. Policy: Issues for the 115th Congress, July 17, 2017

North Korean Cyber Capabilities: In Brief, August 3, 2017

Justice Department’s Role in Cyber Incident Response, August 23, 2017

Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP): History and Overview, updated August 17, 2017

Remedies for Patent Infringement, July 18, 2017

Russia: Background and U.S. Interests, updated August 21, 2017

Terrorism and the First Amendment, & More from CRS

Incitement to commit an imminent act of violence is not protected by the First Amendment, and may be restricted by the government. But advocacy of terrorism that stops short of inciting “imminent” violence probably falls within the ambit of freedom of speech. A new report from the Congressional Research Service examines the legal framework for evaluating this issue.

“Many policymakers, including some Members of Congress, have expressed concern about the influence the speech of terrorist groups and the speech of others who advocate terrorism can have on those who view or read it,” CRS notes. Yet, “Significant First Amendment freedom of speech issues are raised by the prospect of government restrictions on the publication and distribution of speech, even speech that advocates terrorism.”

Essentially, in order for punishment of speech advocating violence to be constitutional, “the speaker must both intend to incite a violent or lawless action and that action must be likely to imminently occur as a result.”

At the same time, “government restrictions on advocacy that is provided to foreign terrorist organizations as material support have been upheld as permissible. This report will discuss relevant precedent that may limit the extent to which advocacy of terrorism may be restricted. The report will also discuss the potential application of the federal ban on the provision of material support to foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) to the advocacy of terrorism and the dissemination of such advocacy by online service providers like Twitter or Facebook.”

See The Advocacy of Terrorism on the Internet: Freedom of Speech Issues and the Material Support Statutes, September 8, 2016.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Digital Searches and Seizures: Overview of Proposed Amendments to Rule 41 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure, updated September 8, 2016

Post-Heller Second Amendment Jurisprudence, September 7, 2016

Immigration Legislation and Issues in the 114th Congress, updated September 9, 2016

Interior Immigration Enforcement: Criminal Alien Programs, September 8, 2016

The Endangered Species Act: A Primer, updated September 8, 2016

Biologics and Biosimilars: Background and Key Issues, September 7, 2016

Corporate Inversions: Frequently Asked Legal Questions, September 7, 2016

FATCA Reporting on U.S. Accounts: Recent Legal Developments, September 7, 2016

National Monuments and the Antiquities Act, updated September 7, 2016

U.S. Farm Income Outlook for 2016, updated September 7, 2016

The 2016 G-20 Summit, CRS Insight, September 8, 2016

Qatar: Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, September 7, 2016

Argentina: Background and U.S. Relations, updated September 6, 2016

Burma Holds Peace Conference, CRS Insight, September 8, 2016

EU State Aid and Apple’s Taxes, CRS Insight, September 2, 2016

Leadership Succession in Uzbekistan, CRS Insight, September 6, 2016

Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) and Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC): Background and Issues for Congress, updated September 9, 2016

Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV): Background and Issues for Congress, updated September 9, 2016

NASA: FY2017 Budget and Appropriations, September 6, 2016

Information Warfare: Russian Activities, CRS Insight, September 2, 2016

“Suicide attack on Pakistan polio vaccination center kills 15” (Washington Post)

Fifteen people were killed and more wounded by a small militant group in Quetta, Pakistan. The suicide bomber targeted a polio vaccination center as teams prepared for a three-day immunization campaign. A spokesman for the group claiming responsibility has warned of future attacks on polio teams. More information can be found at the Washington Post:

DoD Gets Go-Ahead to Counter Islamic State Messaging

There are “substantial gaps” in the ability of the Department of Defense to counter Islamic State propaganda and messaging, the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) informed Congress earlier this year.

But now Congress has moved to narrow some of those gaps.

Until recently, the Pentagon’s authority to act in this area had been deliberately curtailed by Congress in order to preserve a civilian lead role for the State Department’s public diplomacy program.

“Congress has expressed concern with DOD engaging violent extremist propaganda on the Internet, except in limited ways,” wrote General Joseph L. Votel, the SOCOM Commander, in newly published responses to questions for the record from a March 18, 2015 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee (at page 69).

“They [Congress] tend to view… efforts to influence civilians outside an area of conflict as Public Diplomacy, the responsibility of the Department of State or Broadcasting Board of Governors.”

By contrast, “We [at US Special Operations Command] believe there is a complementary role for the Department of Defense in this space which acknowledges the need for a civilian lead, but allows DOD to pursue appropriate missions, such as counter-recruitment and reducing the flow of foreign fighters,” he wrote.

General Votel suggested that “An explicit directive from Congress outlining the necessity of DOD to engage in this space would greatly enhance our ability to respond.”

Now he has it.

Without much fanfare, something like the directive from Congress that General Votel requested was included in the FY2016 defense authorization bill that was signed into law by President Obama on November 25:

“The Secretary of Defense should develop creative and agile concepts, technologies, and strategies across all available media to most effectively reach target audiences, to counter and degrade the ability of adversaries and potential adversaries to persuade, inspire, and recruit inside areas of hostilities or in other areas in direct support of the objectives of commanders.”

That statement was incorporated in Section 1056 of the 2016 Defense Authorization Act, which also directed DOD to perform a series of technology demonstrations to advance its ability “to shape the informational environment.”

Even with the requested authority, however, DOD is poorly equipped to respond to Islamic State propaganda online, General Votel told the House Armed Services Committee.

“Another gap exists in [DOD’s] ability to operate on social media and the Internet, due to a lack of organic capability” in relevant languages and culture, not to mention a compelling alternative vision that would appeal to Islamic State recruits. The Department will be forced to rely on contractors, even as it pursues efforts to “improve the Department’s ability to effectively operate in the social media and broader online information space.”

And even with a mature capacity to act, DOD’s role in counter-propaganda would still be hampered by current policy when it comes to offensive cyber operations, for which high-level permission is required, he said.

“The ability to rapidly respond to adversarial messaging and propaganda, particularly with offensive cyberspace operations to deny, disrupt, degrade or corrupt those messages, requires an Execute Order (EXORD) and is limited by current U.S. government policies.”

“The review and approval process for conducting offensive cyberspace operations is lengthy, time consuming and held at the highest levels of government,” Gen. Votel wrote. “However, a rapid response is frequently required in order to effectively counter the message because cyber targets can be fleeting, access is dynamic, and attribution can be difficult to determine.”

No immediate solution to that policy problem is at hand, as far as is known.

The difficulty that the U.S. government has had in confronting the Islamic State on the level of messaging, influence or propaganda is more than an embarrassing bureaucratic snafu; it has also tended to expedite the resort to violent military action.

“Overmatched online, the United States has turned to lethal force,” wrote Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet of the Washington Post, in a remarkable account of the Islamic State media campaign. (“Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine,” November 20).

*    *    *

The House Armed Services Committee now produces the most informative hearing volumes of any congressional committee in the national security domain. Beyond the transcripts of the hearings themselves, which are of varying degrees of interest, the published volumes typically include additional questions that elicit substantive new information in the form of agency responses to questions for the record.

The new hearing volume on US Special Operations Command notes, for example:

*    USSOCOM currently deploys 20-30 Military Information Support Teams to embassies around the world. They are comprised of forces “specially trained in using information to modify foreign audiences’ behavior” [page 69].

*    “Only one classified DE [directed energy] system is currently fielded by USSOCOM and being used in SOF operations” [page 61]. Other directed energy technology development programs have failed to meet expectations.

*    Advanced technologies of interest to SOCOM include: signature reduction technologies; strength and endurance enhancement; unbreakable/unjammable, encrypted, low probability to detect/low probability of intercept communications; long-range non-lethal vehicle stopping; clandestine non-lethal equipment and facility disablement/defeat; advanced offensive and defensive cyber capabilities; weapons of mass destruction render safe; chemical and biological agent defeat [page 77].

Another recently published House Armed Services Committee hearing volume is “Cyber Operations: Improving the Military Cybersecurity Posture in an Uncertain Threat Environment.”


Tools for Deterring Terrorist Travel (CRS)

A new report issued by the Congressional Research Service describes the various procedures that the U.S. government can use “to prevent individuals from traveling to, from, or within the United States to commit acts of terrorism.”

See Legal Tools to Deter Travel by Suspected Terrorists: A Brief Primer, CRS Legal Sidebar, November 16, 2015.

In light of the Paris attacks, CRS also updated its short report on European Security, Islamist Terrorism, and Returning Fighters, CRS Insights, November 16, 2015.

Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo? Subscribe!

What can anyone do in response to the horrific murders of twelve persons associated with the French weekly Charlie Hebdo?

One way of expressing solidarity with the victims, and opposition to the killers, would be to purchase a subscription to the satirical (often deliberately offensive) publication, whether for yourself or for a local library.

In the U.S., subscriptions to Charlie Hebdo are conveniently available through (h/t Jack Shafer).

The surviving staff said that next week’s issue will be published on schedule.

Domestic Terrorism Again a Priority at DOJ, and More from CRS

The threat of domestic terrorism is receiving greater attention at the Department of Justice with the reestablishment in June of the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, the Congressional Research Service noted last week.

“The reestablishment suggests that officials are raising the profile of domestic terrorism as an issue within DOJ after more than a decade of heightened focus on both foreign terrorist organizations and homegrown individuals inspired by violent jihadist groups based abroad,” CRS wrote. See Domestic Terrorism Appears to Be Reemerging as a Priority at the Department of Justice, CRS Insights, August 15, 2014.

Other new or updated CRS products include the following.

Latin America: Terrorism Issues, updated August 15, 2014:

Cuba: U.S. Restrictions on Travel and Remittances, updated August 19, 2014:

Preparing for Disasters: FEMA’s New National Preparedness Report Released, CRS Insights, August 12, 2014

Export-Import Bank Reauthorization Debate, CRS Insights, August 18, 2014:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Appropriations for FY2014 in P.L. 113-76, August 15, 2014:

Senate Unanimous Consent Agreements: Potential Effects on the Amendment Process, updated August 15, 2014

Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress, updated August 15, 2014


Hezbollah and the Use of Drones as a Weapon of Terrorism

The international terrorist group Hezbollah, driven by resistance to Israel, now regularly sends low flying drones into Israeli airspace. These drones are launched and remotely manned from the Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon and presumably supplied by its patron and strategic partner, Iran. On the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations since 1995, Hezbollah has secured its presence in Lebanon through various phases. It established a strong social services network, and in 2008 it became the dominant political party in the Lebanese government and supported the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War.

Hezbollah’s drone flights into Israeli airspace

Hezbollah’s first flight of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone, into Israeli airspace for reconnaissance purposes occurred in November 2004, catching Israeli intelligence off guard. A Mirsad-1 drone (an updated version of the early Iranian Mohajer drone used for reconnaissance of Iraqi troops during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War), flew south from Lebanon into Israel, hovered over the Western Galilee town of Nahariya for about 20 minutes and then returned to Lebanon before the Israeli air force could intercept it.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted that the Mirsad could reach “anywhere, deep, deep” into Israel with 40 to 50 kilograms of explosives. One report at the time was that Iran had supplied Hezbollah with eight such drones, and over two years some 30 Lebanese operatives had undergone training at Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps bases near Isfahan to fly missions similar to the Mirsad aircraft.

The second drone flight into Israel was a short 18-mile incursion in April 2005 (again by a Mirsad-1 drone), that eluded Israeli radar and returned to Lebanon before Israeli fighter planes could be scrambled to intercept it. A third drone mission in August 2006 during the Lebanon War was intended for attack; Hezbollah launched three small Ababil drones into Israel each carrying a 40-50 kilogram explosive warhead intended for strategic targets. This time Israeli F-16s shot them down, one on the outskirts of Haifa, another in Western Galilee, and the third in Lebanon near Tyre.

Abruptly, the incursion of Hezbollah drones into Israeli airspace stopped – only to be started up again after a six year hiatus. Presumably, drone launches by Hezbollah into Israel are planned and carried out to meet the political agenda of Iran, while shielding Iran’s involvement and allowing a measure of deniability. The involvement of Shiite Hezbollah with Iran dates back to financial support and training from the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and the suicide attacks in Beirut in October 1983 on the U.S. embassy and the Marine Corps barracks attacks. This was followed by Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah attacks on the Israeli embassy and the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1992 and 1994, and the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

The drones sent out from Lebanon were small objects moving at slow speed and low elevation and as such they were difficult to detect by radar. The Mirsad-1 and the Ababil were each only about 9.5 feet in length. The low speed (120 miles per hour for the Mirsad-1 and 180 miles per hour for the Ababil) minimized the Doppler shift in the reflected radar beam and made detection difficult. The low ceiling (6,500 feet for the Mirsad-1 and 9,800 feet for the Ababil) would limit detection as it is obscured by ground clutter, glare, and other environmental conditions. In the past it has been reported that drones could penetrate Israel’s radar and air defense systems, even the Iron Dome. But ongoing upgrades in detection capability suggest progress has been made in improving sensitivity and limiting detection failure to areas lacking air defenses, or suppressed defenses, or when the drones are indeed very small.

A daring mission to the nuclear complex at Dimona

The next appearance of a Hezbollah drone on October 6, 2012, was a spectacular foray that took Israel by surprise. An Iranian drone called “Ayub” flew south from Lebanon over the Mediterranean and into Israel via the Gaza Strip, moving westward about 35 miles into the Negev and penetrating to a point near the town of Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear weapons complex. There it was shot down over a forest by Israeli aircraft. Examining the wreckage, Israeli military said that it was possible the drone could have transmitted imagery of the nuclear research center.

Observers immediately interpreted this incursion as a message from Iran that Israel’s nuclear facilities were vulnerable to attack should Israel attempt any military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Apparently the propaganda victory was significant enough for Iran to admit spying on Israel several weeks later: an influential member of the Iranian Parliament announced that Iran had pictures of sensitive Israeli facilities transmitted by the drone.

In a more recent flight in April 2013, an unmanned aircraft attributed to Hezbollah reached the coast near the city of Haifa, where an Israeli warplane brought it down, demonstrating that these drones are still vulnerable to counter-attack.

Each drone flight into Israel is potentially a significant propaganda victory for Hezbollah. As Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute has noted, “They love being able to say, ‘Israel is infiltrating our airspace, so we’ll infiltrate theirs, drone for drone.’”

Israeli drones are sophisticated, deadly and widely used in policing and assassinations of Hamas operatives in Gaza, while Hezbollah’s drones appear to lag behind. While the 145 mile excursion from Lebanon to Dimona in October 2012 showed substantial gain in Hezbollah’s reconnaissance capability, a willingness by Iran to transfer its latest designs to give Hezbollah deadly capabilities is questionable since Iran is unlikely to risk having their advanced drones shot down over Israel. In addition, Hezbollah would surely have second thoughts about using drones in an assassination campaign in Israel since this would be met with a strong military response.

Emerging strategies and possibilities

Primarily sent to cause panic in Israel, Hezbollah’s drones that were shot down in 2006 were armed with explosive warheads. As their sophistication grows, Hezbollah’s drones will be increasingly valuable for reconnaissance missions to: gather information on troop movements and facilities, in prepare for future infiltrations or rocket attacks, and calibrate the accuracy of rocket targeting in real time. Adding weight to a drone’s load reduces its range; but once developed to carry heavier loads, drones become launching platforms for guided missiles or bombs. Drones could potentially carry and launch some weapons of mass destruction — biological and chemical weapons and even radioactive “dirty” bombs. In the hands of a jihadist group such as Al Qaeda, they could be used to kill civilians as a substitute for on-ground suicide attacks.

All sides in the worldwide drone wars have been working on countermeasures to neutralize each other’s attacks. Aside from radar detection and shooting drones down with land based missiles or airplanes, one viable countermeasure is jamming the frequencies used for navigation. A further step would be to intercept or “hack” into the signal that the controller transmits via satellite/aircraft and thereby gain control of the drone and its technology. Iran claims to have done this in the mysterious landing of a U.S. RQ-170 drone in Iran in 2011.

Important legal, moral and humanitarian challenges are being raised in connection with the use of drones for targeted killings by the United States in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and by Israel in Gaza. Drones are a surgical tool that shields the people guiding them from the real horrors of war fighting. Their effectiveness in military attacks has been well demonstrated by the U.S. military in attacks to ferret out suspected terrorists. Drones are cheap, so other countries might be expected to follow suit; whether this is a desirable outcome is open to question.

Limiting drone proliferation

The export of large drones for military purposes raises issues for arms control and nonproliferation; exports are already a major multi-billion dollar business for both Israel and the United States. The sales are currently limited to drones for reconnaissance missions and civilian use, except for the U.S. supplying military attack drones to Britain. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a voluntary agreement between 34 countries that was initiated some three decades ago to stop the export of ballistic missiles with nuclear payloads greater 500 kilograms and ranges greater than 300 kilometers and was amended in 1992 to cover proliferation of UAV’s carrying all weapons of mass destruction. While Israel is not a member, it has agreed to follow the MTCR export rules. Nevertheless, there is increasing pressure on the U.S. government to liberalize and weaken controls, so that U.S. manufacturers of military aircraft are not left out of the burgeoning drone market.

The prospects for Hezbollah’s future drone force are closely aligned with political decisions made by Iran. Although information about Iran’s drone fleet remains hidden, Iran has made great strides in range, speed and lethality. In mid-2010, it unveiled the “Ambassador of Death” drone which can carry four cruise missiles or two large bombs with a range of 250 miles, and in November 2013, it announced the missile-carrying Fotros drone that could fly over 430 miles and remain aloft for 30 hours. In May 2014, Iran unveiled what it says is a reverse-engineered copy of the CIA RQ-170 stealth reconnaissance drone, which, it claims the Iranian Armed Forces’ electronic warfare unit commandeered and brought to a safe landing in Iran in December 2011. If Iran now has a copy of an advanced U.S. drone, this raises its drone capabilities to yet another level, as it seeks to play a dominant role in the Middle East.


Incursions of Hezbollah drones supplied by its patron Iran into Israel from Lebanon have occurred with increased frequency and sophistication since 2012. Now used only for purposes of reconnaissance, they have the potential for future attacks on military and civilian targets. Much depends on the political agenda of Iran. For the present, attacks on Israel from Lebanon either with drones or rockets may be receiving only divided attention from Hezbollah, as it focuses on pressing its support for Syria’s president Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war.

Only a handful of countries presently manufacture military drones; the United States and Israel are the two major manufacturers. Russia and China have shown an interest in producing drones for military purposes, and India and Pakistan may also have developed them. Now is the time to give serious thought to a convention or treaty to ban the manufacture and use of UAVs for military purposes. In the United States, drones for commercial purposes are expected to be licensed in the next few years and the “rules of the road” in space are being considered by the Federal Aeronautics Administration. A focus on ensuring the benefits of drones in civil society should take the highest priority.

“Hezbollah says it has capability to bomb Israel from air,” Haaretz, Nov 12, 2004.

Eugene Miasnikov, “Terrorists Develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environment Studies at MIPT, Dec 2004,

“Hezbollah Mirsad-1 UAV Penetrates Israeli Air Defenses,” Defense Industry Daily, April 20, 2005.

Ronen Bergman, “Hezbollah Stockpiling Drones In Anticipation of Israeli Strike,” Yediot Ahronot, Feb 15, 2013.

Yochi Dreazen, “The Next Arab-Israeli War Will Be Fought With Drones,” New Republic, March 26, 2014.

Eugene Miasnikov, Terrorists Develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.” Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environment Studies at MIPT, Dec 2004,

Chandler P. Atwood, Joshua C. Burgess, Michael Eisenstadt, and Joseph D. Wawro, “Between Not-In and All-In: U.S. Military Options in Syria,” Policy Notes 18, Washington Institute, May 2014.

Carlo Munoz, “Iran claims drones gained access to secret Israeli facilities,” The Hill, October 29, 2012.

Gil Cohen, Barak Ravid and Jack Khoury, IDF shoots down drone from Lebanon opposite Haifa coast,” April 25, 2013.

Yochi Dreazen, “The Next Arab-Israeli War,” New Republic, March 26, 2014.

“UAV Drone Unmanned Aerial Vehicle,” UAV – DRONE.NET, 2013,

Micah Zenko, Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies, Council on Foreign Relations, Council Special Report No. 65, January 2013.

Tia Goldenberg, “Israel is World’s Largest Drones Exporter,” Associated Press, June 5, 2013.

Jefferson Morley, “Drone Proliferation Tests Arms Control Treaties,” Arms Control Today, April 2014.

Brad Lendon, “Iran says it built copy of captured U.S. drone,” CNN, May 12 2014,

Ben Hubbard, “Syrian Fighting Gives Hezbollah New but Diffuse Purpose,” New York Times, May 20, 2014.

Milton Hoenig is a nuclear physicist and consultant on weapons of mass destruction and nonproliferation issues.

A Credible Radioactive Threat to the Sochi Olympics?

With the Sochi Olympics set to start on February 6th there has been an escalating concern about security threats to the Games. There are hunts for female suicide bombers (“black widows”), video threats from militant groups, etc., all of which have triggered a massive Russian security response, including statements by President Putin insuring the safety of the Games.

Many of the security concerns are raised by the proximity of Sochi  to Chechnya and relate to the threats expressed by Chechen leader Doku Umarov who exhorted Islamic militants to disrupt the Olympics.

In the past weeks the region has seen Islamic militants claims that they carried out two recent suicide bombings in Volgorad which tragically killed 34 people and injured scores of others. Volgograd is about 425 miles from Sochi and although the media stresses the proximity it is a considerable distance.


Radioactive Theft in Mexico: What a Thief Doesn’t Know Can Kill Him

While the theft of a truck carrying radioactive cobalt made international headlines, this was unfortunately not the first time thieves or scavengers have exposed themselves or others to lethal radiation. Probably the most infamous case was on September 13, 1987 in Goiania, Brazil. Scavengers broke into an abandoned medical clinic and stole a disused teletherapy machine. These machines are used to treat cancer by irradiating tumors with gamma radiation typically emitted by either cobalt-60 or cesium-137. In the Goiania case, the gamma-emitting radioisotope was cesium-137 in the chemical form of cesium chloride, which is a salt-like substance. When the scavengers broke open the protective seal of the radioactive source, they saw a blue glowing powder: cesium chloride. This material did not require a “dirty bomb” to disperse it. Because of the easily dispersible salt-like nature of the substance, it spread throughout blocks of the city and contaminated about 250 people. Four people died form radiation sickness by ingesting just milligrams of the substance.

The effects could have been worse, but an extensive cleanup effort, costing tens of millions of dollars, captured about 1200 Curies of the estimated 1350 Curies of radioactivity in the disused teletherapy source. To put this Curie content in perspective, a source with 100 or more Curies of gamma-emitting radioactive material would be considered a source of security concern. The International Atomic Energy Agency has published an authoritative account of the Goiania event.

For an in-depth assessment of the radioisotopes of security concern and the commercial radioactive source industry, see the January 2003 report “Commercial Radioactive Sources: Surveying the Security Risks,” by myself, Tahseen Kazi, and Judith Perrera. In that report, we underscore that even suicidal terrorists would have to live long enough to withstand the lethal radiation of a highly radioactive substance to use it as a radiological weapon. Of course, if the terrorists or thieves have training in safely handling radioactive materials, then they would not kill themselves in the process of accessing the material and making it into a weapon.

Based on the news accounts of the recent theft in Mexico, the thieves broke open the box carrying the radioactive cobalt sources and exposed themselves to lethal radiation. They were thus unlikely to have been skilled at handling radioactive materials or even apparently knowledgeable about the cargo they had stolen.

We were lucky this time. The cobalt-60 was reportedly from an old teletherapy machine. While the Curie content has not been reported, I would estimate that it could range from a few hundred Curies to a few thousand depending on the age of the cobalt source. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.27 years, so after that amount of time has elapsed, only half the original amount of radioactivity is left. After two half-lives or about 10.5 years have elapsed, one-fourth of the radioactivity remains; three half-lives, one-eighth and so on. A fresh cobalt-60 source for a teletherapy machine could contain upwards of ten thousand Curies.

While the thieves who exposed themselves will likely die within the next few days from radiation sickness, they fortunately did not expose innocent people. Because cobalt is a solid metal, it is hard to disperse, even with explosives. But if the radioactive material had been cesium-137 in chloride form, this event in Mexico could have been a ghastly replay of the 1987 event in Goiania.

In 2008, the Committee on Radiation Source Use and Replacement of the U.S. National Research Council drew attention to the dangers of cesium chloride. In the report, published by the National Academies Press, the committee ranked cesium chloride as their number one security concern and recommended that the U.S. government take steps to replace the use of this material. Technologies that don’t use radioactive cesium such as X-ray irradiators, for example, are one potentially promising pathways to reduce the use of cesium chloride. The 2008 report discusses incentives to encourage greater development and use of alternative and replacement technologies.

Last year, I wrote a report on “Ensuring the Security of Radioactive Sources: National and Global Responsibilities,” for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. Among the recommendations, I discuss the need for more effective means of tracking shipments, training of response forces, developing replacement technologies for phasing out dispersible sources, and increasing government cooperation in sharing intelligence information about threats to radioactive materials of security concern.

Unfortunately, hijacking of trucks is common in Mexico, but the police were able to track down the truck and the sources were recovered. Without better controls on highly radioactive sources, the next time something like this happens it could be a lot worse.