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Tracking Islamic State

The gravest threat would come if IS were able to get its hands on nuclear materials. The greatest danger comes from the most unstable countries with the largest amounts of documented radical activity: Pakistan, Russia, and India -- with Pakistan at the top of the list.

From Fallujah to Mosul, Paris to Brussels, the terrorist organization that calls itself Islamic State (IS) murders, maims, and enslaves with wanton abandon, if not exactly impunity. By now the world has woken up to the serious threat that the group poses, not just in the Middle East but also in Europe and the United States.

Islamic State's crimes are horrific enough with its present capabilities, but a question increasingly asked among politicians and military officials is: What if IS were to acquire the unthinkable -- a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)?

Earlier this month I attended the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Amsterdam, an NGO set up to tackle exactly this type of problem. And what emerged is that the danger of IS acquiring its most fearsome weapon yet is now a significant one.

According to an expert who participated in the forum, the danger is twofold. The gravest threat would come if IS were able to get its hands on nuclear materials. These would mean, for example, the type of enriched uranium Iran uses in its nuclear program -- from which IS could theoretically make a small nuclear bomb with further enrichment -- or existing weapons-grade plutonium, from which it could do the same.

But the probability of IS being able to do this is slim. The requisite materials are located in only 24 countries and are in highly guarded facilities. Set against this fact, however, have been several lapses in security. In 2012 an 82-year-old nun and peace activist, Megan Rice, broke into the Oakridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee. Rice never got near any nuclear material but a lot of systems had to fail for her to get as close as she did. Likewise, according to a British Ministry of Defense report, guards at one of the U.K.'s nuclear facilities were caught sleeping on the job. And then there is the problem of poor levels of security at a host of nuclear research centers in the former Soviet Union.

The probability of IS taking advantage of these lapses in security is low, but not insignificant. The greatest danger comes from the most unstable countries with the largest amounts of documented radical activity: Pakistan, Russia, and India -- with Pakistan at the top of the list.

Moreover, as retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, a chief researcher at the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told me: "there is a lot of illegal activity, trafficking in illegal natural material...so [IS] could either pull off a purchase for a significant amount of money or intercept illegal trafficking. Plus, they seem to have enough money to recruit scientists to build a rudimentary nuclear device. Not a nuclear warhead, but an explosive nuclear device; it may, in fact, only weigh a few tons but it's still something you could assemble close to an urban area, or on a vessel that could then be brought to U.S. or European shores."

Many Ways To Dirty Bomb

Another problem would be a conventional weapons attack on a nuclear facility, which could conceivably cause a Chernobyl-like disaster or worse. It remains nearly impossible to attack a nuclear power plant, as they have substantial protection, but attacking nuclear-research facilities that have reactors filled with nuclear materials is far easier, and a lot of cities have these. According to Dvorkin even bombing a nuclear-storage facility with a relatively small bomb would mean the destruction of buildings within a 3-4-kilometer radius and fallout covering a much larger area and creating a lasting effect.

The second and far more immediate threat is that of attack with a radiological device. The materials for this are located in over a 100 countries and, critically found not just in specialized facilitates but in hospitals and research centers used, for example, in treating cancer -- places that, unlike major nuclear facilities, don't have gates, guards, and guns. The expert who attended the forum warned me that IS has many such facilities within the land it already controls and that is where the "dirty bomb" (a radiological as opposed to nuclear bomb) threat is now unequivocally real.

One can easily use conventional resources to make a dirty bomb, use agents to plant it in a major urban center, then simply watch it ignite and cause billions of dollars of damage. The loss of life would likely be modest -- only those in its immediate vicinity would die. But the psychological element would be huge; as a nuclear specialist told me, the public hears "radiological" and immediately panics. Then there would be the cost of demolishing and rebuilding the buildings that had been contaminated in a far wider area.

While nothing is certain when dealing with what is clearly a fanatical organization, it is clear that IS is organized and thinks strategically. As Dvorkin points out, the chances of IS using even a rudimentary nuclear device are accordingly slim. First, it would risk alienating even Sunni Muslim communities across the Middle East that might presently have some sympathy with its aims. Second, what is now a fractious coalition fighting against IS would almost certainly unite and bring its combined weight to utterly annihilate the organization.

Nonetheless, as The New York Times reported in February, a man linked to the November 13 Paris attackers was found in possession of surveillance footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official. With IS any horror is possible, even if it is not probable.

The question more realistically facing us is not whether IS can employ a dirty bomb -- most likely in Europe or the United States -- but will it? And experts fear the worst. According to Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the Luxembourg Forum, "the threat of a terrorist group, such as Islamic State, staging a nuclear bomb attack on a major European city, such as London, is 'high.'"

Given that IS has already carried out numerous chemical-weapons attacks in Syria, its willingness to use a WMD of some kind is clearly present. As Kantor continued "the threat of a so-called 'dirty bomb' attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War."

The world should be worried.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war

Russia's Unhelpful Game In Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Damascus on June 18.

On June 16, U.S. F-18 fighter jets scrambled to intercept a group of Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers that had just conducted an air strike against a camp of soldiers who are central to the mission of the United States and the United Kingdom in their efforts to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

The camp that was hit was relatively new, and a British newspaper had just recently broken the news that British special forces regularly operate there, though it's unclear whether British or U.S. soldiers were in the camp at the time. Regardless, the commanders of the U.S.-led coalition believed that the Russian air strikes needed to be stopped, and they sent fighter jets to stop them.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the F-18s reached the Su-34s on emergency broadcast frequencies and told them to cease their activities, a capability the United States and Russia put in place in order to avoid accidental conflicts or midair collisions. But when the F-18s left the area to refuel, the Russian bombers ignored the U.S. threats and conducted a second bombing raid on the same camp.

If this story played out in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, during the NATO mission to end genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 or in Kosovo in 1999, this incident would have made front-page news, with 24/7 coverage of the growing threat of war plastered across every television in the United States.

But since the incident occurred in 2016, in a small desert town in Syria called Al-Tanf, near the border with Jordan and Iraq, the Western media and political apparatus does not seem to care. Perhaps some are confused by the complicated conflict and don't know who to trust on the topic of Syria. Perhaps some have bought the Russian line, echoed by some Western politicians, that Russia is fighting IS. For sure, everyone is tired of headlines about war in the Middle East.

To be sure, the Pentagon addressed the issue with both the Russian Defense Ministry and the press, expressing its "strong concerns about the attack." A U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times that this was "an egregious act that must be explained." The unnamed source continued: "The Russian government either doesn't have control of its own forces or it was a deliberate provocative act. Either way, we're looking for answers."

It appears Russia is continuing to focus exclusively on preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even if that means drawing out the conflict, or even allowing terrorism to flourish. I argued previously that Russia's bombing campaign, which started in September 2015, was nearly exclusively focused on bombing anti-Assad rebel groups, including groups that were backed by the United States and which played a major role in ejecting IS from northeastern Syria.

In May, Russia did indeed assist the pro-Assad coalition in recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra from IS. As I noted, those actions served to accomplish three aims, all of which strengthen the Assad regime: to consolidate territory, to secure access to the energy-rich fields of central Syria, and to propagate the myth that Russia and Assad are primarily locked in a battle against terrorists.

That was six weeks ago. As my new analysis of the work done by the Institute for the Study of War shows, since then there has been a significant increase in Russian air strikes, almost exclusively against civilians or rebel groups that have been trained and armed by the United States. Russia has largely returned to its pattern of ignoring IS. Russian air strikes, by crippling Western-backed rebels that oppose IS, have allowed the terrorist organization to expand into new territory.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former special adviser for transition in Syria at the U.S. State Department, says that "Russia's decision to bomb an anti-[IS] unit trained by the U.S. and the U.K. illustrates two points: the low priority Moscow places on fighting [IS]; and the contempt in which today's Russia holds the U.S."

He continues: "Assad and the Russians see [IS] as Assad's ideal adversary: a horrific organization that may serve as Assad's ticket back to polite society, notwithstanding all of the regime's war crimes.... Moscow's assessment of American leadership emboldens it and encourages it to act in ways that may prove -- during the time left to this administration or in the next -- reckless, destabilizing, and dangerous."

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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