Jane VaynmanSneaky Terrorists and Smoky Bombs

Given my prior obsession with the Litvinenko polonium-210 poisoning case, this op-ed in IHT, “How to Stop Radiation Terrorism” caught my attention. The authors, Peter D. Zimmerman, James M. Acton and M. Brooke Rogers, outline some of the dangerous radiological substances and how they could be used by terrorists. (The op-ed is a preview to a forthcoming article in Survival. There will be a discussion in London next week.)

I suppose a perpetrator of a radiological attack could be, as the authors describe, a terrorist. But given the opportunities for a sneaky, subtle, and highly malicious act, the perpetrators could just as well (and perhaps even more likely) be serial-killers, crazies, or hit-men.

The authors point out that radiological substances could be used in public way to kill only a few people but cause panic. Ok, this is in line with the concept that terrorists want a lot of people watching but not a lot of people dead.

But the example of the Litvinenko case and the point in the article that these attacks could also be “sneaky, unaccompanied by a flash and bang,” suggests another question. Who is the kind of terrorist who wants to hide an attack so that neither responsibility nor the goal is really known? In the Litvinenko case, there are no clear conclusions to be drawn from the fact that a radiological method was used over a conventional one. To make some point? As a publicity stunt? In favor of whom?

The recommendations in the article on protecting radiological sources do apply regardless of perpetrator, even if he is a KGB goon. I am just noticing how we all like to talk about terrorists so much. Clearly, they take away your PhD if you can’t manage to incorporate “terrorism” into your op-ed title.

Also, I can’t help but wonder… terrorism by ingestion, inhalation, or immersion is a lot of work. (Plus, as Litvinenko’s killers know, you have to be real careful touching that radioactive stuff.) Seems like there are so many other, and equally scary ways to terrorize a population.

The article has some great terms though, including “smoky bomb” and “I-cubed attack” (aka ingestion, inhalation, immersion). I only realized at the end that while reading it I had been saying “ice-cube attack” in my head. Yeah, the ice-cubes are coming to get you too.


  1. James Acton (History)

    The problems with op-eds is, of course, the lack of space so I’ll claim a right of reply and clarify a couple of things.

    When we say that the onset of an attack might not be accompanied by a ‘flash and bang’ we don’t mean that the entire attack will be secret. Once it’s clear that people are getting ill, the world will start watching and terrorists’ll get their publicity. However, unlike a dirty bomb, there’s no big event that marks the start of an I-cubed attack. Therefore the attack site may not be sealed off quickly, and radiation could be spread very widely exacerbating the clean-up costs.

    Also, I-cubed attacks need not be hard work. Some are much, much less work than a dirty bomb and would kill many more. Indeed, that’s the reason why we’re worried about I-cubed attacks…

    Your point that we need to worry about ‘serial-killers, crazies, or hit-men’ as well as terrorists is well taken.

  2. Eric Hundman (History)

    While I haven’t read the article yet, I tend to agree that terrorists don’t have much to gain, in most cases, by being “subtle.”

    But more importantly, where is that picture from? It is AMAZING.

  3. Haninah (History)

    As always, Eric, I disagree (:P). A single terror attack can very rarely be catastrophic enough to single-handedly affect the policies and way of life of its target society (9/11, 3/11 and 7/7 were all exceptions). More often, the goal is to disrupt the society by means of recurrence and unpredictability, to create anxiety about potential future attacks. A classic example is the Beltway sniper incident (if you want to consider that terrorism), but really, that’s the basic strategy at work any time you see a sustained series of small- to medium-scale attacks (like the attacks on Israeli buses and cafes in 2000-2004).

    In that context, an I3 type of attack is perfect for generating the type of unfocused dread and pointless disruption of routine that is the goal of such attacks. Consider the effect which the anthrax mailings had, and imagine what would have happened if they’d kept up, and if the agent used were as subtle as a radiological agent can be.

  4. David Clark (History)

    I’d agree that’s a pretty amazing picture.

    Have you considered that the next step in the evolution of genocide may be anonymous genocide? To wit: we’ll wake up one morning, and a million people will be dead, and no-one will ever claim responsibility.

    Perhaps the goal will not be political; perhaps it will simply be extermination. Quite aside from the “Americans love Pepsi. We love death.” crowd, there are people out there who would regard killing as a moral good, regardless of the rationale.

  5. Eric Hundman (History)


    Regarding the goals of terrorists: point taken. But in no way would I define explosions in Israeli buses and cafes as “subtle.” Even if you do, though, in comparison we’re talking here about radiological attacks that can be:

    1) slow to have health effects2) extremely hard to attribute3) dispersed even without explosives.

    This is a whole different degree of subtlety. Jane’s fourth paragraph makes my point, essentially: why expend so much effort on radiological methods when cruder, easier attacks will often be just as effective? This holds just as well for large attacks as for the more limited disruption-of-society goal you mention.

  6. Jonah SN (History)

    Thanks for expressing doubt on the Litivenko case. It is needlessly dangerous, costly and difficult way to kill anyone.

    I saw in the movie about the nuclear detonation in Baltimore that radioactive isotopes are often traceable to their origins. Were these ever traced?

    I tend to lump this and the Dioxin poisoning of Yushchenko.

    Both implicate Russia, and yet seem inconsistent. Dioxin poisoning, for example, would have been as detectable as a bullet.

    Sorry not on topic! I’ve been away from ACW for a while.

  7. Jacob Quamme (History)

    An interesting discussion, to say the least.

    I would first argue that the polonium-210 incident is anything but subtle. The entire world knows about it. Sure, it took a few days for word to get out, but everyone knows about it. Whoever the attacker was knew that word would get out WHO the victim was, and how they were killed.

    Russia, whether directly or indirectly, is involved here. If you ask me, the fact that Litvinenko is a Kremlin critic and was poisoned using a substance that only a few states, including Russia, have access to, tells me that either Russia wanted to make a not-so-subtle point, or that someone with access to these Russian materials wanted to make the Kremlin look responsible.

    I think that comparing bus attacks on random civilians to a highly complex and deliberately complicated assassination is a long stretch.

    Just my thoughts

  8. Carey Sublette (History)

    Attacks very similar to these outlined with radiological agents are also possible with chemical agents, particular the WWI “king of war gases” – mustard gas.

    Though famous as a casualty producing agent mustard gas is a deadly poison, about as toxic as cyanide, with a delay of some hours before any symptoms are seen. It causes severe injury by contact (“immersion”) and can be lethal by inhalation or ingestion, exactly like the radiological “I-cubed” attack. There are other blistering agents known that are even more poisonous, and with more greatly delayed effects.

    The I-cubed scenario also cites the possibility of food poisoning (one recalls perhaps the 1984 Rajneeshee salmonella salad bar attack in Oregon). In this case other insidious and highly toxic substances can be used, a particularly well-known example is ricin, which does not show symptoms for 1-2 days.

    Like radiopoisions, neither of these these slow-acting chemical poisons have any effective treatment for lethal exposure.

    While radiotoxins can have very small lethal doses, 1 microgram for polonium, and 50 micrograms for cesium-137, these agents much higher lethal doses: 50 milligrams for mustard gas, 400 micrograms for highly purified ricin-D protein. On the other hand, these chemical poisions do not require access to rare exotic materials, that are generally closely regulated and quite costly. Mustard is easily synthesized in various ways and in kilogram amounts from common industrial chemicals that are not controlled. Ricin is extracted from common wild, or cultivated, castor plants.

    My point is to keep the issue of “I-cubed” attacks in perspective. They can be conducted without the access to radioisotopes using chemical agents which present comparatively modest technical barriers. To the extent that the threat is a real one, stricter radioisotope licensing can only close one door of many.