Attorney General John Ashcroft announced June 10 that the FBI had captured a man who aimed to construct and set off a radiological device, or “dirty bomb,” in the United States. However, later that day senior U.S. officials backed away from Ashcroft’s characterization of the plot, emphasizing that it had not progressed past the early planning stage.
At a press conference in Moscow, Ashcroft described how FBI officials had seized U.S. citizen Abullah al Muhajir, born Jose Padilla, on May 8 as he arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport from Pakistan. Ashcroft said that al Muhajir had previously met with senior al Qaeda officials and “was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device” in the United States. Ashcroft said al Muhajir’s apprehension “disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot.”
Hours after Ashcroft’s announcement, FBI Director Robert Mueller clarified that al Muhajir had not made much progress in implementing his scheme. “There were discussions about this possible plan…. And it had not gone, as far as we know, much past the discussion stage, but there were substantial discussions undertaken,” Mueller said.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz also downplayed the extent to which al Muhajir’s plans had developed. “I don’t think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk,” Wolfowitz told CBS during a June 11 interview. “It’s not as though this was a plan that was on the verge of being executed.”
A radiological weapon uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. Such a device would not come close to causing the destruction of a nuclear weapon, which is triggered by a nuclear reaction, but it has the potential to cause widespread panic and wreak economic havoc. Areas infected by radioactive material would have to be decontaminated or perhaps abandoned for some time.
Based on interrogations of captured al Qaeda members and associates, U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the al Qaeda terrorist network “may have made greater strides than previously thought toward obtaining plans or materials to make a crude radiological device,” The Washington Post reported last December.
The United States and the former Soviet Union researched the military utility of radiological weapons during the Cold War, but Iraq is believed to be the only state to have actually constructed and tested such a device. According to the United Nations, Iraq developed and reportedly tested a radiological bomb in late 1987, but it shelved the program the following year after the test produced “disappointing” results. (See ACT, June 2001.)