Security and Defense: Preparing for nuclear terror

Israel to hold first ever civil defense drill simulating response to dirty bomb attack.

Nuclear drill military test 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Nuclear drill military test 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 reportedly closing.
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.
Already in 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 allies.
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 years.
“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 commission concluded.
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 world.
“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 the country.”
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.
It is 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 containers.
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.
And 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 capability.
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 action.
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 that passes.
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.