Monday, August 25, 2014
ISIS forces Homeland Security to review small radioactivity dispersion, or conventional EMP flux devices as attractive to some terrorists
OK, here we go again, talking about existential homeland security threats, as an anniversary of 9-11 approaches.
It is very hard to tell from the media, Pentagon, and right-wing Congressional rhetoric if ISIS (or ISIL) represents a new level of threat that we have not seen, even given the dire predictions after 9-11. The same was said about Saddam Hussein at one time. Most likely, the number of ISIS-trained US or western citizens actually in the United States right now is very small. Britain, that’s another matter.
The actions of individuals in small groups or families, like the Tsarnaev brothers, are very hard to predict. Indeed, a full trial of “Ja-har” might help us understand what really made them tick.
Furthermore, it seems extremely unlikely that a sleeper cell could actually manufacture a nuclear weapon, or could launch a high-altitude missile from off the coast (which NORAD should detect anyway).
But it is possible for terror cells (or even loan wolves) to mess with the lives of ordinary Americans, on the theory that individual people should be held “criminally” responsible if they benefit from the policies of their government. I used to hear that theory in the early 1970s, from far left wing groups like the Peoples Party of New Jersey. Ideological theories justifying an urge to punish ordinary people without warning range from religious (indeed, radical Islam as we see it, or sometimes extreme Christian fundamentalism, or even cultism), to fascistic (the “survival of the fittest”), to far-Leftist or even Maoist (everyone should experience poverty and peasantry, which is the theory that I have personally encountered the most often). They’re common in totalitarian systems.
The two most dangerous ways huge disruptions could be attempted, possibly even within a near term time frame (as a 9-11 date approaches) would seem to be radiological dispersion devices (or” dirty bombs”), and smaller non-nuclear EMP devices.
The first of these two threats was widely discussed in the media in the months following 9-11, but discussion has dropped off since about 2004. The obvious idea is that a device could make a large swath of urban real estate property worthless, particularly in a densely populated large city. Most substances that might be used probably would not result in much or even any injury to people in practice; residences could probably be lived in safely if authorities allowed it. The biggest problem would be economic and perceptual. In the suburbs, a home could become financially worthless if affected, but still be livable. In some cases, homeowners might be expected to shelter other families. Obviously securities markets would be tremendously affected.
There aren’t that many high-profile articles on the problem. Here is an April 2011 “The Hill” blog entry by Carl Robichaud, link. Security Magazine has an article by Bill Zalud from November 2012, here. An article by Walter Griffin in the Bangor Daily News reported on an arrest in early 2009 in Maine of a “lone wolf’ (apparently a right-wing white supremacist) with dirty bomb components in his home, so there is precedence for law enforcement encountering this issue. In 2008, there was a prediction in one Congressional paper that the US would encounter a dirty bomb attack by 2013, but that didn’t happen.
PBS News Hour had an 11-minute documentary, narrated by Miles O’Brien, three years ago, which speculates on the possibility of someone accumulating enough raw material from small places, and the possibility that Times Square could be closed down for months or years by a direct attack. A hobbyist’s project in Utah was shut down by authorities in 1995 when they found out he was accumulating a large quantity of small radioactive devices (like smoke detectors) for a rural “proof of concept’. The short film shows the constant monitoring of harbor and public areas for radiation by the NYPD and interviews Mike Kelly, NYPD Chief.
The other big danger could be smaller electromagnetic pulse flux devices, which usually will require a small conventional explosion. The US Army already uses these to disable IED’s overseas. In the Aug 7 posting here, I mentioned a 2001 “New Scientist” article that was curiously disseminated shortly before 9/11. They have been known for a long time. Future Sciene has a page on the issue here. Michael Maloof (“A Nation Forsaken”, Books, April 13, 2013) has an article about a cruise missile weapon that can produce an EMP attack over a city (link). The Washington Times ran a story about a device like this at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in 2009. It’s dubious or doubtful that a sleeper group could really acquire or launch such a device, but off-shore ships might be vulnerable.
One other thing: over Labor Day weekend in 2001, a bizarre email was circulated that suggested a possible incident to occur on 9-11. Most people who saw it in their inbox probably dismissed it as spam or circulated by a virus or malware. That is possible again, but if security companies or individuals see such messages, they should notify authorities. The NSA is not the enemy this time.