Extreme Islamist group ISIS have seized 90lb (40kg) of radioactive uranium in Iraq which could be used to make a dirty bomb. The Times reports that the militants seized the material after overrunning a university in the city of Mosul, which they captured last month.
Iraq’s ambassador to the UN has now appealed to the international community for help to “stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq and abroad.”
This is believed to be the first time that an Islamist terror group has been able to obtain such a large quantity of radioactive material, and security analysts now fear they could use it in so-called “dirty bombs” – conventional bombs loaded with radioactive substances.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has played down the threat, however, saying that the uranium is of relatively low radioactivity designed to be used in medical research. IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said: “On the basis of the initial information, we believe the material involved is low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk. Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”
A British former army officer and expert on weapons of mass distruction, Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, also said that the uranium could not be turned into a nuclear weapon: “The most likely terror use for it would be some dirty bomb, but a dirty bomb is not terribly effective anyway except for the psychological impact… You are more likely to die from shrapnel.”
Far more seriously, ISIS took over a military base in northern Iraq last month that contains Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of chemical weapons, including hundreds of warheads containing sarin and mustard gas.
Colonel de Gordon-Bretton said, however, that they still only pose a small threat as the bunkers are sealed in reinforced concrete, making it very difficult for the militants to gain access. The sarin gas is also likely to have degraded, although the mustard gas could still be potent.
He added that U.S. satellites would be closely monitoring the base for any evidence the militants were attempting to access the bunkers.