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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

UK mobile unit to confront dirty bomb threat

Officials warn of continuing efforts by terrorists to secure radioactive material

Osama bin Laden said 20 years ago it was his Islamic duty to obtain weapons of mass destruction. AFP  
Osama bin Laden said 20 years ago it was his Islamic duty to obtain weapons of mass destruction. AFP  

Britain is preparing to bolster its defences against a terrorist attack using a radioactive ‘dirty’ bomb with a rapid-response unit to detect smuggled material.

A £3.4 million government contract will see a fleet of up to ten cars fitted with detection equipment for “various national security and radiological and nuclear counter-terrorism activities”, according to a government procurement notice.

The mobile units will complement a border security programme, known as Cyclamen, which is designed to deter, detect and intercept radiological material at major ports and airports across the country.

The UK is seeking to upgrade its “outdated and unreliable” equipment while cutting costs amid renewed concerns that extremists are trying to get hold of radioactive material for a devastating attack on a major metropolis.

Experts have warned for decades about the threat from terrorist groups if they are able to secure deadly material from thousands of often poorly-protected sites such as research facilities, hospitals and construction sites that use radioactive substances for legitimate purposes.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has recorded more than 3,200 cases of suspected trafficked or malicious use of radioactive and nuclear material since 1993.

The authorities have been on guard since the chaotic break-up of the Soviet Union left sensitive military sites unprotected. Concerns were heightened when Osama bin Laden claimed in 1998 that it was his Islamic duty to seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

The mobile detection unit contract was “not in response to a specific threat”, said the UK’s interior ministry in a statement. “The use of radiological or nuclear materials in an attack by terrorists remains significantly less likely than a conventional or chemical attack.”

Combined with conventional explosives, a dirty bomb is designed to explode spreading radioactive material across a wide area. US research suggested that a dirty bomb would probably kill more people from the blast than the health impacts from the dispersal of radioactive material. But it could lead to panic and huge financial costs from a clean-up operation.

Former US president Barack Obama said in 2014 that he was more concerned by the “prospect of a nuclear weapon” going off in the Manhattan district of New York than the Russian state as a security threat.

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A senior US official said last month that his staff were seeking to disrupt attempts by terrorists to secure radioactive material on marketplaces on the so-called Dark Web, a part of the Internet that cannot be reached by mainstream search engines.

Efforts to disrupt the trade have seen countries seize weapons-usable nuclear material in various quantities on 18 occasions since the 1990s, said Dr Christopher Ford, who runs a non-proliferation unit at the US State Department.

“There have been enough real cases to make clear that we must take this challenge very seriously indeed,” he said in a speech last month.