Nuclear Terrorism And ISIS: How Scared Should We Be?

Though a massive attack with a full-fledged nuclear weapon is highly unlikely, a so-called "dirty bomb" scenario is not out of the question.

Nuclear Terrorism And ISIS: How Scared Should We Be?
Nathalie Guibert


PARIS â€" The Islamic State (ISIS) wants us to believe that terrorists will soon be equipped with nuclear weapons. Authorites in Washington, where a recent series of four summits on nuclear security was held, have expressed concern about the Syrian-Iraqi situation. And Western intelligence services know that jihadists have been trying to lay their hands on radioactive material.

There is, however, no serious precedent of nuclear terrorism. In 1995, in a Moscow park, Chechen rebels planted an unactivated device containing dynamite and caesium. In 1998, near Grozny, other Chechens made a bomb containing unidentified radioactive substances. In 2003, British intelligence services found evidence suggesting that al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan, was able to produce a small dirty bomb, but no such device was ever found.

Faced with this threat, experts advise common sense. They dismiss, for example, the possibility of terrorists capturing an existing nuclear missile, given how complex the access and the use of these weapons are. Nor do they believe that terrorist groups can manufacture a military-grade weapon â€" not without support of a state.

"If you're the glass-half-full type, you can take some solace in knowing that the most dire scenario is also the least probable," writes Elisabeth Eaves, a colunmist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

But what about an attack on a power station? "That risk is real," U.S. specialists Graham Allison and William Tobey wrote in an April op-ed piece published by The New York Times. Such an attack "wouldn’t set off a mushroom cloud or kill hundreds of thousands of people," they explained. "But it would spew large amounts of radiation, spark a mass panic and render vast swaths of land uninhabitable."

An even more credible threat, experts warn, is a so-called dirty bomb, made of radioactive components used in civilian contexts. The device would combine explosives and material collected from research reactors, medical facilities or industrial plants.

"This is one of the biggest concerns, even if the ultimate probability of use is very low," says Benjamin Hautecouverture, a researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris-based think tank. If such an attack did occur, "It would mostly lead to a panic reaction, in a limited area, and not to mass destruction," he adds. "Human damage would be less significant than what Kalachnikovs or a conventional bomb could do."

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) keeps a close watch on any incident, criminal or otherwise, related to the handling or transport of radioactive material. The list is alarming in its length: 2,734 cases noted between 1993 and 2014. Of those, however, only 442 are considered criminal acts involving illegal possession or suspicious movements in preparation for trafficking nuclear and radioactive matter. Truly troubling cases, involving highly enriched uranium (13 incidents) or plutonium (three incidents), for example, were fewer still.

Experts believe this type of trafficking isn't driven so much by organized demand as it is by supply-side interests. Such cases, in other words, involve individuals trying to cash in on their privileged access to radioactive material.

The other thing to keep in mind is the quantity involved in these cases. While a few incidents involved seizures of kilogram quantities of potentially weapons-grade nuclear material, according to the IAEA, most involved far smaller amounts â€" not enough, in other words, for effective use as a weapon component. "Great quantities are required to efficiently disperse radioactive matter through explosion," notes Hautecouverture.

In reality, say experts, dozens of kilograms would be needed â€" much more than the "apple-sized" amount that President Barack Obama made in remarks made recently in Washington. "The smallest quantity of plutonium â€" about the size of an apple â€"could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent individuals."

Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, states have remained very alert to the nuclear threat, and made concerted efforts to reduce the risk. Russia and the U.S. have taken a number of initiatives aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism. France has also made decisions accordingly, repatriating research reactors, for example, from places like Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cocody, in Ivory Coast.

At last month's summit in Washington, Obama said global efforts to improve nuclear security have removed from circulation material that is equivalent to 150 nuclear weapons, safeguarding it from extremists. "That's material that will never fall into the hands of terrorists," he said.

The most fearsome impact of a dirty bomb, say experts, would be its economic costs â€" cleaning of an area, neutralization of a vital installation â€" and psychological toll. Will that alone be enough to motivate terrorist groups given their demonstrated interest in sowing fear through high-profile displays of violence? That is precisely the question political leaders, desperate not to be caught off guard, are grappling with right now.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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