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Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 07/19/2010

South Africa's 'dirty bomb' mystery

By Washington Post staff

If dirty bombs are such an overblown threat, and radioactive material so easily available, why are people still trying to steal it?

South African police are investigating what the five mokes busted with a Cesium-137 device at a Pretoria gas station last week were up to.
All of them are South African citizens, but not much else is known about them, police said.

Indeed, much about the July 9 incident is a mystery.

Authorities said the "industrial nuclear device" found with the men contained a small amount of radioactive material. The men intended to sell the device to parties unknown for 45 million Rand, the equivalent of $6 million to $7 million. Police said the men were also planning to sell a larger nuclear device, which police are searching for, according to South African reports.

“We don’t know what these suspects’ intentions were, and we need to find the device quickly,” police said, according to Canada's online Digital Journal.

Likewise, South African authorities told SpyTalk over the weekend that “the origin of the device is still not known.”

South African reporter Graeme Hosken says the substance was of a type of Cesium used in South Africa’s mining industry. Cesium is also used in nuclear medicine and is manufactured in significant quantities at the Pelindaba nuclear plant near Pretoria.

Pelindaba was involved in another mysterious incident in 2007, when its highly guarded operations center was broken into by two armed gangs. One official was shot during the attack, which some believe was aimed at stealing highly enriched uranium. The case remains unsolved.

In last week’s incident, “there are no known linkages of the suspects with any groupings or persons from foreign countries,” according to a South African investigative file made available to SpyTalk. “None of them ever traveled across the SA borders.”

One of the suspects, Andre Le-Sar, 37,“ previously worked at the YSCOR arms factory in Van Der Bijl Park [an industrial zone south of Johannesburg],” according to one of the South African investigators, “but was unemployed at a stage and is now a self-employed plumber.”

No details could be learned about the four others being held, beyond their ages and residences of record.

But that's just part of a larger mystery.

In 2002, U.S. intelligence sources, backed by Bush administration officials, reported in 2002 that al Qaeda had designs for a “dirty bomb.” Fears mushroomed that Washington and other Western capitals were unprepared to cope with such an attack, which involves salting conventional explosives with radioactive materials.

But the threat was hyped, many believe. The government eventually dropped its dirty-bomb conspiracy charges against American Jose Padilla, the Bush administration's poster boy for the threat.

"Dirty bombs are very overblown," says Richard Barlow, who once tracked black-market nuclear materials for the CIA and Defense Department. "There are vast quantities of available material out there if someone wanted to make one."

The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick reported in 2002 that “U.S. businesses and medical facilities have lost track of nearly 1,500 pieces of equipment with radioactive parts since 1996. …”

Security of the materials has been tightened since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but experts say determined thieves wouldn’t have a hard time obtaining them.

Outside of a couple of Chechen plots against Moscow, and notwithstanding last week's bust in Pretoria, the question remains: Why hasn't a credible dirty bomb plot surfaced in the West since 9/11?

Graham Allison, a former assistant secretary of defense, said it may just be a matter of theatrics: al-Qaeda likes things that go boom -- big, big boom. “Well, if you look at 9/11, and you look at al-Qaeda and their m.o., and you look at what they said, you know that they like big, spectacular events that kill large numbers of people,” Allison said on the PBS program “Nova” back in 2003.

A cesium plume lofted by dynamite, in other words, is peanuts compared with the real deal -- a nuclear bomb.

“The press spokesman for Mr. bin Laden put out a rather chilling statement, which said that they're required to kill four million Americans, including women and children, in order to balance the scale of the atrocities that we and the Israelis have visited upon the Arab population,” Allison said. “If you are trying to kill a lot of people at one time, you're at the high end of violence, which is nuclear. There is something almost like the moth to the flame with respect to the nuclear threat.”

Not really comforting.

That leaves the last week's mystery in Pretoria. With such hot goods virtually falling off trucks, how could even scam artists hope to fence cesium for upwards of $6 million, as the South African police believe?

Maybe the answer lies with P.T. Barnum: “There's a sucker born every minute.” But who were those suckers in Pretoria?

Update: MSNBC'S Rachel Maddow picks up the story with a shout-out to SpyTalk.

By Washington Post staff  | July 19, 2010; 10:22 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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Well considering Bush used what amounted to a Nigerian 419 scam to justify the invasion of Iraq, overblown doesn't quite cover it... The really sad thing is that there were plenty of legitimate reasons for the invasion that would have better stood the test of time that are now all but forgotten.

Bombs that employ radioactive material in a non-explosive manner have the virtue of being fairly easy to clean up, in that radioactive material is fairly easy to trace with a Geiger counter... They're more of a threat to the people trying to put one together than to people who might be temporarily exposed to their limited capacity for irradiation.

Posted by: Nymous | July 19, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

I'm afraid this threat is NOT "overblown" or "peanuts." Dirty bombs are mass disruption weapons, and can cause both fear and tremendous economic damage -- even if they do not kill many people. Contaminating with radiation a large part of a major urban area like New York, Chicago or LA could cost trillions of dollars in cleanup and economic (e.g., real estate) losses. And powdered cesium-137 is the perfect weapon for such an attack: It disperses well (heat from blast and fire would create a large plume of radioactive material), and even a small amount of ground contamination would render an area unusable. It's also exceptionally difficult to clean up, since the material chemically binds with concrete. And radiation still scares the heck out of people, even though it's not as dangerous as once thought.

This is not a small threat. No, it's not a big, dramatic and deadly "bang," but with enough high quality radioactive material, it could cost a city and a nation a great deal in anxiety, helplessness, and resources.

Posted by: biosecurityrus | July 19, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

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