Terrorists flying drones to spread highly radioactive material over a civilian area: That’s part of the nightmare scenario President Barack Obama urged world leaders to consider as they debated better ways of controlling nuclear material.
With the aid of apocalyptic fake newscasts, Obama told the group of 50 heads of state and foreign ministers in Washington on Friday to imagine that a terrorist group had bought isotopes through brokers on the so-called dark Web. One shipment was picked up in transit by radiation monitors, but others were thought to be still on the move. The terrorists were believed to be planning to use a drone to distribute the material. Would authorities react in time?
Barack Obama speaks at the Nuclear Security Summit on April 1.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
This hypothetical war-game was described by a U.K. official speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed. Obama’s aim was to push the men and women around the table to think about how their governments would respond. Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters the threat was serious.
“So many summits are about dealing with things that have already gone wrong and we are trying to put right,” he said ahead of the meeting. “This is a summit about something we are trying to prevent. The concept of terrorists and nuclear materials coming together is obviously a very chilling prospect. In the light of the Belgian attacks, we know is a threat that is only too real.”
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Discussions on the sidelines of the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Washington covered issues from the latest sanctions against North Korea to the Iranian nuclear accord. While originally a forum for Russia, the U.S. and other major powers to discuss nuclear weapons safety, counterterrorism issues dominated the official discussions in the wake of terror attacks in Brussels, Paris, West Africa, the Middle East and the U.S. over the last year.
Before reporters were asked to leave the summit meeting hall Friday, Obama said,“We will then be showing a video which focuses attention on the possible scenarios that might emerge with respect to terrorist networks, which will give us a good opportunity to test those areas where we still have work to do.”
The use of drones for everything from adventure films to covert warfare has soared worldwide. In a boom fueled largely by hobbyists, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts 2.5 million drones will be sold this year and annual sales will climb to 7 million by 2020.
The U.K. official said there’s evidence Islamic State has tried to get its hands on commercial drones. Evidence has also emerged out of Belgium that terrorists there had video footage of a senior official at the country’s Nuclear Research Center ahead of attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people.
“We must actively respond to the threat of drones being used to spread radioactive materials or infiltrate nuclear facilities,” South Korean President Park Geun Hye said at a working dinner on Thursday, according to her office. “As the threat of nuclear terrorism evolves, our responses, too, should be preemptive and creative.”
While building a traditional nuclear weapon requires a great deal of technical expertise, a “dirty bomb,” in which conventional explosives are used to scatter radioactive material over a wide area, would need little skill and could be highly effective at spreading fear.
At least 130 countries have radiological material, stored at places such as universities, hospitals, companies and research centers, which could be used in a dirty bomb, said former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, who heads the Nuclear Threat Initiative group in Washington.
That raises the possibility of radioactive material being sold in marketplaces on the dark Web, which doesn’t show up on Internet search engines and where users can buy and sell illegal products and services, from child pornography to stolen credit-card information.
At the end of the summit, Obama highlighted progress made to coordinate efforts to halt the illegal trade in nuclear material, saying the U.S. And its allies have “worked to install radiation detection equipment at more than 300 international border crossings, airports and ports, and we are developing new mobile detection systems as well.”
Nevertheless, Islamic State leaders have the intent to use any weapon they can to murder or create fear, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. The group, also known by the acronym ISIS, doesn’t currently have the capability to deploy nuclear or radiological weapons, the official added.
"ISIS’s savagery, which may have included the use of chemicals as weapons, is limitless and there is little doubt that they would weaponize radiological materials if they could,” said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. The U.S. and other countries must “ensure we have appropriate measures in place to detect the movement of radioactive material across borders.”