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(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
With attacks by al-Qaida affiliates on targets in Eilat, Taba and most recently northern Israel, security officials now expect that the global jihad network will try this year to commit a mega-terror attack here. Already, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, has set his sites beyond the war-torn country, attacking Jordan with three suicide bombers in November.
Coincidentally, Chanan Azran, host of the investigative TV program Gilui Na'ot, has just published To Die of Fear: The "Dirty Bomb" - Nightmare Scenarios, a book filled with photographs of mushroom clouds, bio-chemical treatment exercises, the bubonic plague and unguarded Soviet-era military bases.
Azran argues that he is not peddling hysteria (though "dirty," or radiological bombs do not create mushroom clouds), but just asking uncomfortable questions - questions that are becoming more relevant by the minute. Indeed, one could disagree with much of his analyses of terrorist movements, WMDs, etc., yet agree that not enough has been done to take these issues to the public.
Do you believe it's only a matter of time before terrorists use non-conventional weapons against Israel?
As a journalist, I went to the open sources and tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and I have concluded that, bottom line, it is only a matter of time before there is a non-conventional terrorist attack.
Which sources do I rely upon? First, there's the IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, who said in the Knesset that Iran might provide al-Qaida with radioactive material. That's the first time a senior military person has publicly called a spade a spade - or in this case, a dirty bomb.
Then there are the statements of the president of the United States, the prime minister of Great Britain, and the counter-terrorism chiefs at American and German intelligence, which all speak of the inevitability of a dirty bomb attack.
What is a "dirty bomb?"
We are talking about a non-conventional weapon cooked up by terrorists. There is no dirty bomb, per se. It is a catch-all term for explosive material, say dynamite, placed in a container with germs or radioactive powder, which is then carried to a target or fired like a rocket.
You have to remember, and this the American have said themselves, America is afraid of a dirty bomb. You have to wonder why.
You cite the 2003 fatwa by radical Saudi sheikh Nasir bin Hamid al Fahd justifying the use of WMDs against infidels. How seriously should one take this statement?
Conventional terrorism - if I can use the expression - has, at least in our region, escalated from the use of knives in the 1970s up to the deployment of human bombs in the 1990s. But until now, the terrorists have not tried to tamper with the food and water supply or tamper with the soil because they tried not to harm fellow Muslims.
As soon as the sheikh allowed Muslim collateral damage, so long as the interests of jihad are furthered, then we should be ready for anything. Someone who thinks that a local Muslim population will serve as a human shield must realize that that is no longer true.
In your book, you note that suspected al-Qaida terrorists have already been caught in London with ricin. What does that mean for us?
We are talking about bio-chemical terrorism. There is a long list of deadly chemicals and bacteria that can be used. It all depends on what the terrorists can get their hands on. There are a lot of civilian sources for these chemicals - research labs and factories, for instance. There are civilian reactors.
The significance of London is that we saw that terrorists know what biological agents like ricin are, how to get a hold of them, and it is only a matter of time before they use it more effectively. In 1995, there was a cult in Japan that used nerve gas to commit a terrorist attack, and some 10 years later, we are talking about the threat of a radiological bomb.
Al-Qaida is now sitting in Lebanon and in Gaza, and if Iran's long hand also reaches here, we should worry about the network getting radioactive material. The Americans recently organized a special study, at Hadassah Hospital, about how a country deals with a biological attack.
I ask, Why in Israel? Why not New Zealand or Australia? It's fair to assume that Israel has some information about a biological weapon.
How deadly is ricin?
When we talk about bio-chemical weapons, we are talking about things that are dependent upon weather conditions, the nature of the target and how many people are around. The issue is whether the terrorists have the scientific ability to produce germs that can meet those conditions. I relied on open sources for my book, so for specific answers as to how deadly some agent is, one can go to the same sources.
What is the difference between a nuclear and a radiological bomb and how is the latter constructed?
My book does not discuss nuclear weapons, but rather what is called "the poor man's atomic bomb." Terrorist groups do not have the access to materials or scientific knowledge to produce a nuclear bomb. We are talking about making a regular bomb that spreads radioactive material.
There are those who say that a dirty bomb might only kill 100, 200 or 1,000 people, and that is not a weapon of mass destruction, but the panic it will cause and the amount of years it will take to clean up the radiation is the problem.
What type of radioactive material would most likely be used and where would one obtain it?
I'm not a scientist to say what is the ideal radioactive material, but the terrorists have their people to look for it. But I can speak about from where the material comes. The sources of the materials are from industrial sources or stockpiles from other militaries.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cold War-era military camps, where weapons are stored, can be easily accessed. Radioactive material is stolen from these bases and sold on the black market. Even [Russian] Gen. Alexander Lebed said that dozens of nuclear bombs were missing from the Cold War inventory. Where are they? The West is trying to find them.
You traveled to the former Soviet republic of Georgia in October 2003. What was the state of the Cold War-era military stockpiles there?
I was not at the camps while in Georgia; I just reported on the phenomenon. I don't need a knock on the door and someone asking me, "Where was this or that camp?"
But I can tell you, by way of photographs and documents, about what's going on there. In the Ukraine and Georgia, there are dozens of camps loaded with missiles and other weapons, which serve as a resource for terrorists.
Chechens have stolen rockets meant for meteorology and used them as weapons with their war against the Russians. There's a whole black market, especially in the Ukraine, supplied by these camps.
Wouldn't it be incredibly hard to transport undetected radioactive material from the former USSR to Israel?
No. We are talking about parts. Anyway, the Georgians and Ukrainians want to be rid of them, too.
You mention in your book that the US employs Nuclear Emergency Search Teams (NEST) to deal with the unthinkable. What sort of measures does Israel have in place to deal with radioactive contamination?
I tried to find out in my book, as much as security would allow, if Israel is prepared for such an incident. There are two parts to the question. The first is military, and it is a state secret and the best you can do is hope for the best. I just hope they don't tell, like they did during the first Gulf War, to wrap ourselves in nylon and drink water in the sealed room.
The second part deals with the medical capabilities, such as the distribution of vaccinations; in that respect, Israel is ready for a non-conventional attack. Here, and not at the military level, is also where the public should be better informed of preparations.
In the event of such a suspected non-conventional attack, what should people do?
The reason I wrote the book is that the issue is not well understood and the question to panic or not to panic needs to be addressed by a responsible authority. Now is not the time to sit on our hands or tell the public that chemical agents are just like dust.
In every Russian school, they taught the students what bio-chemical weapons are because they feared that the public might have to deal with it at some point in time. In Singapore, the government distributed information booklets. Why should Israel be any different from Singapore?