The Dirty Bomb Threat

Too Dangerous to Do Nothing

A representative of atomic energy commission holds a Geiger counter as he measures atom radiation at ground zero, the site of explosion, at the French nuclear tests' site in In-Ekker, near Ain Meguel, about 170 km (106 miles) from the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset, February 25, 2010. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

As the world braces for a new superpower nuclear arms race, something less flashy keeps security officials around the world up at night: the dirty bomb. The prospect of this radioactive device in the hands of terrorists or madmen is, according to experts, very real and very hard to combat.

The world’s post–World War II nuclear nonproliferation commitments are crumbing. Nations large and small, some with stable governments, some with shaky or autocratic regimes, want to join the nuclear club. An unintended consequence of this trend is the creation of global gray and black markets for radioactive material. And terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) are ready to buy.

Detection technology is still catching up with the problem, and coordination among international, national, and local counterterrorism officials leaves much to be desired. Of course, despite recurring terrorist attacks in the Arab world and Northern Africa, Europe, and the United States, the odds are still low that terrorists will acquire radioactive materials. But the stakes—large-scale mass death and radiation poisoning—are so high that preventing dirty bomb proliferation should be a first priority.


In one investigation in Chisinau, Moldova, samples of uranium-235 and cesium-135 were seized by police when a smuggler offered an informant who was posing as a buyer for ISIS enough cesium to contaminate several city blocks—and all for $2.5 million. An in-depth investigation into dirty bombs by the Associated Press revealed four other attempts by criminal networks to traffic radioactive materials through Moldova. Last spring, in a New York federal court, another perpetrator, this time a Colombian national, was convicted for obtaining enriched uranium with the purpose of supplying a South American–based terrorist group with a dirty bomb to attack U.S. military personnel or a U.S. embassy. What investigators from INTERPOL (the International Criminal Police Organization), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and various national intelligence agencies have found is that radioactive materials

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