In January, a “Dark Cloud” will descend on northern Israel. The name for a civil
defense exercise, Dark Cloud will be Israel’s first simulated response to a
radioactive dispersal device attack, the official term for what is more commonly
known as a “dirty bomb.”
While defense officials have gone out of their
way in recent weeks to downplay the significance of the drill, saying that it is
part of the ministry’s regular training regimen, the timing cannot be ignored –
it comes as the window of opportunity to stop Iran’s nuclear program is
The threat of nuclear terrorism has been on Israel’s
agenda for a number of years.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for example,
has said numerous times that while Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear
weapon it is not because of the possibility that it will fire a long-range
ballistic missile immediately into Tel Aviv.
Rather, Barak has said, the
possibility that cargo ship carrying a dirty bomb inside a shipping container
will sail into Haifa Port and explode is far more concerning.
the early 2000s, Western intelligence agencies began to warn of nuclear
terrorism. In 2003, the US National Strategy for Combating Terrorism warned that
the risk of nuclear terrorism had increased significantly and that it posed one
of the greatest threats to the national security of the US and its
But 2008 was the year that brought a much bigger blow. In
December, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction
Proliferation and Terrorism, established by the US Congress about a year
earlier, issued its first earth-shattering report warning that a nuclear or
biological terrorist attack was likely to occur within the next five
“Unless the world community acts decisively and with great
urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be
used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” the
Al-Qaida, possibly the only terrorist organization
capable of developing a dirty bomb on its own, has spoken openly of a “holy
duty” to use nuclear weapons against the US. Rudimentary sketches of improvised
nuclear devices were found in a number of al- Qaida hideouts in Afghanistan. If
Iran went nuclear, al Qaida would not be alone and Hezbollah would also be a
constant suspect of possessing such capabilities.
The Dark Cloud exercise
is being overseen by Brig.-Gen. Zev Snir, a former head of the air force’s
Materiel Command and today an adviser to Barak on defending against nuclear,
biological and chemical warfare.
Israel, Snir said, works very closely
with the US and other allies. The Dark Cloud exercise, for example, will be
attended by defense officials and military officers from around the
“Israel is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes
to preparing for such attacks,” Snir said. “But we have to test ourselves and
ensure that the responses we have in place are applicable and appropriate for
the wide variety of threats we face.”
Unlike biological attacks, which
can spread like wildfire, assessments are that the number of casualties would be
fairly low in a radioactive dirty bomb attack in Tel Aviv.
“The effect is
mostly psychological,” a senior defense official explained. “A small dirty bomb
that goes off in Israel, even if just a few people are killed, could paralyze
That is why when Israel thinks of a nuclear Iran, it is not
just concerned about the change in the balance of power in the region and the
constant threat under which it would have to get used to living.
also concerned by the threat of nuclear terrorism – the possibility that Iran
will hand off a crude device, or dirty bomb, to one of its proxies. This way it
will be able to maintain some level of deniability.
There are three main
ways to launch a nuclear terrorist attack against Israel – by sea, by air or by
land. While Israel maintains tight control of its maritime borders, a dirty bomb
is small in size and could easily be hidden on a cargo ship carrying hundreds of
Israel also has tight security at the airport, but it is
possible for a device to be installed on an unmanned aerial vehicle, like the
ones Hezbollah has used in the past to penetrate Israeli airspace.
finally, there are the land borders.
If over 2,500 North African migrants
are capable of infiltrating Israel on a monthly basis, the defense establishment
cannot rule out the possibility that somebody carrying a dirty bomb could one
day try to do the same.
Preventing nuclear terrorism is also slightly
more complicated than stopping a country with nuclear means. While deterrence
could possibly be effective between one country and another, it is questionable
whether terrorist organizations could be as easily deterred.that would hold
Iran, for example, responsible for any nuclear attack, regardless of who it was
that pressed the trigger.
“If the source of a terrorist nuclear attack
against Israel is unknown, or if it is known to originate with al-Qaida or Iran,
Israel should make it clear that its response will be unlimited and include not
just major population centers but all sites of value, including those of major
symbolic importance for the Muslim world,” said Freilich.
Israel has yet
to make such a policy known and this will likely remain the case as long as
efforts are focused on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear
While Barak, among others, has voiced concern that the US is
coming to terms with the possibility of a nuclear Iran and is more in favor
today of containment, Israel will still likely wait to see how the current
international move against Iran plays out before taking any unilateral
Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu believe that time is
running out to stop Iran, which is fortifying its facilities and dispersing its
capabilities, making a military strike potentially less effective with every day
On the other side are officials like former head of the
Mossad Meir Dagan and former head of Military Intelligence Maj.- Gen. (res.)
Amos Yadlin, who believe that Israel should not lead efforts to stop Iran but
should move aside for the US and Europe to take action either with sanctions or
with military force.
They argue that only once Iran begins enriching
uranium to high military-grade levels – reaching what is known as the “breakout
stage” – should a military strike be considered. Both schools of thought share
the same goal: stopping Iran. The question is, under which scenario will Israel
pay the lowest price.