A raid conducted against Islamist militants by Indonesian police in West Java last week assumed chilling new significance on Friday, as sources in the Indonesian government revealed to Reuters that the terrorists were working on building a radioactive “dirty bomb.”
The original police report about the arrest of five suspects claimed they were building conventional chemical bombs, but now Reuters’ sources say the gang was extracting thorium-232 from household items and hoping to “cook” it into deadly uranium-233 with microwave ovens or a medical X-ray machine. The radioactive material would then be mixed with the current terrorist explosive of choice, TATP or “Mother of Satan,” creating a “dirty bomb” that would spray the blast area with radioactive material.
According to Indonesian police, the terrorists believed it would take about three weeks to produce a dirty bomb. They were about one week into the project at the time of the raid.
Contemporaneous reports on the August 15 raid that broke up the bomb plot identified the suspects as members of JAD, or Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, a group allied with the Islamic State. The suspects reportedly aspired to bomb the presidential palace in Jakarta and a police headquarters building, among other targets.
The U.S. State Department’s official terrorist designation of JAD describes it as an umbrella organization formed in 2015 from “almost two dozen Indonesian extremist groups that pledged allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” They have carried out deadly attacks in the past.
Reuters notes that the leader of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah is an Indonesian national named Bahrun Naim who is currently believed to be working from Syria. Naim is listed as the author of an Indonesian-language bomb manual that was literally named “Nuclear for Dummies” (misspelled “Nuclear for Dummy” in the version distributed by Naim’s now-defunct blog).
The book describes a process for creating dirty bombs that is very similar to what the West Java ring was attempting. Indonesian police stated last week that the suspects they took into custody were working from a bomb-making manual written by Naim, but they did not reveal its title or contents.
“Mastering weaponry is essentially every Muslim’s duty. This paper, we hope, also can motivate the Muslim mujahideen to learn nuclear science easily and apply it,” reads the introduction to the manual, according to Reuters.
Reuters took the precaution of interviewing an expert in radiological devices, Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute, who said it was very unlikely the process laid out in Naim’s manual would work the way he described because medical X-ray machines and microwave ovens aren’t powerful enough to convert thorium into uranium.
Hayes also speculated that efforts to “cook” thorium-232 in a microwave might produce enough radioactive byproducts to inflict “painful and rapid death” upon the bomb-makers, which will not sound very comforting to those unlucky enough to live next door to aspiring dirty bomb makers.
Also not comforting: Reuters reports two of the suspects arrested by Indonesian police were migrant workers who were recently deported from Singapore and Hong Kong for posting radical Islamist material online. They evidently spent about a month in a “deradicalization shelter” before hooking up with the other radicals involved in the dirty bomb plot.