Thursday, April 03, 2008

Matt 24 watch, 52: 66 lbs of -- thankfully, depleted -- uranium captured from FARC

As March wound down, and as the war scare over Columbia's cross-border raid against a FARC base in Ecuador gradually faded from the headlines, a troubling but largely unremarked event occurred:
following up on leads tracing to computer files captured during the raid, Columbian forces, as at March 20th, have now captured 66 lbs of [thankfully depleted] uranium, from what appears to be a FARC cache just south of Bogota. [VIDEO.]
This has led to considerable speculation over whether FARC is trying to develop a radiological "dirty" bomb, or is simply trying to trade on the radioactive materials black market. Then, the question arises: whether FARC was scammed or a potential scammer in that market. (I note that since in the video, the DU was in effectively woven fibre shopping bags, those handling it knew that the degree of radioactivity was low.)

Many experts think the bomb-making scenario is unlikely, as DU is of much lower radioactivity than its more infamous cousin, highly enriched uranium [which apparently sells for US$ 2.5 millions per kg on the black market]. Plutonium by contrast, is a deadly -- though not exceptionally so -- toxin, and ingesting a tiny fraction of a gram can kill, generally by triggering cancer (over the course of years or decades). Of course, if a significant quantity of Pu dust is inhaled or otherwise ingested, acute radiation sickness could follow, killing in a matter of days or weeks, not years or decades. It is also comparable to lead as a heavy metal toxin. However, it is so ticklish to handle -- there have been several nasty and fatal critical-mass radiological event accidents with it -- that it is unlikely that a common garden variety terrorist group would be likely to play around with "Ploot." (Obviously, the major terrorism sponsoring nation, Iran, has the science and technology infrastructure to work with it, so "ploot" should not be discounted once we can see a link back to Iran. North Korea is a similar risk, and on serious concerns, is held to be a potentially dangerous risk, as they reportedly will sell literally anything to anyone.)

Technically, DU is mostly U-238, which has a half life of ~ 4.46 billion years, as opposed to U-235's ~ 704 million years. As a result, the radiation dosage from a given quantity of DU is about 60% that of a comparable quantity of natural uranium. But in any case, uranium is a relatively low radioactivity element, as half life is inversely related to intensity of radioactivity. [Many radioactive isotopes have half-lives of order years or days or less; it is these that are the obviously more serious radiological hazards.]

Now, too, Jonathan Winer reports in his counter-terrorism blog:
The FARC computers had discussed selling up to 50 kilos of uranium to unspecified governments that might be interested in acquiring it. Notably, the press accounts suggest the uranium was not weapons grade. According to the Colombia military, a sample of the uranium was provided by the military to experts at the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, who confirmed the sample to be what was characterized as "depleted uranium."
Immediately, this find further underscores the credibility of the recovered files, following on the heels of the seizure of US$ 480,000 in Costa Rica and Peru's capture of two FARC operatives. That also means that the files' remarks on US$ 300 millions given to FARC by Mr Chavez -- perhaps under the nominal heading of a "ransom" for release of several hostages -- have to be viewed with a certain measure of seriousness.

Also, on the main point of the recovered uranium, we need to reckon that the point of terrorism -- as its very name suggests -- is psychological not military. Just simply to hear that a dirty, radiological bomb has gone off would be enough to evoke mass panic, regardless of the actual physical hazard involved. So, common sense tells us that black market trading and terrorism could both be involved.

Winter went on to remark:
. . . the latest revelation, should it be validated [cf the above linked video], provides further reason to believe that narco-terrorists with nuclear material are no longer the merely confined to Hollywood thrillers, but are dangerously real-world, requiring a real-world response, including from Colombia's neighbors, who need to decide whether they are serious about confronting terrorists in their midst.

FARC's operational, financial, logistical, and political networks now face exposure, and those who have directly facilitated terrorist or criminal activity -- regardless of their political position -- need to face practical consequences. Such consequences can include such responses as the imposition of economic sanctions and asset freezes, the bringing of criminal indictments, the loss of the right to travel in countries registering objections to those doing business with or supporting terrorists. But there have to be consequences, and they need to be multilateral, not confined to issuance by Bogota and Washington.

First, some honesty about what happened. Then, after the dose of reality, practical steps to deter those with public responsibilities who have chosen to become partners with an organization that specializes in drug trafficking and bombings.
Given what has now also come out on Mr Chavez's links to FARC -- and to Iran (and Hezbollah), we here in the Caribbean plainly need to do some very serious fact-checking and re-thinking of our diplomatic alignments and geopolitical inclinations.

But, there is an underlying issue: nuclear terrorism cannot any longer be viewed as a speculative scenario, for we see here a terrorist group in Columbia with 66 lbs of - thankfully, depleted -- uranium, acquired by plainly black market means.

However, though the situation is not a bad as it could have been, the ongoing global war with Islamist militants plainly just moved up another notch on the scale of escalation. END

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