11 June 2002
Forget the 'dirty bomb' - this looks more like dirty tactics on the part of the Bush administration. There was no dirty bomb; there was no realistic prospect of a dirty bomb; and there was next-to-no possibility of a dirty bomb being detonated anywhere in the USA. Rather, the whole affair looks like a desperate attempt by Bush and co to deflect accusations that they have failed to foil terrorist attacks - and many people seem to be falling for it.
The alleged dirty bomber, Abdullah al-Muhajir (formerly Jose Padilla), was arrested on 8 May 2002. Yet US attorney general John Ashcroft only chose to announce that al-Muhajir's arrest had helped to foil a dastardly dirty bomb plot on 10 June 2002 - more than a month after al-Muhajir had been arrested, but conveniently just days after America's secret services, the FBI and the CIA, were lambasted for failing to act on pre-11 September intelligence. Indeed, Ashcroft used the dirty bomb announcement to heap praise on both the FBI and the CIA for their good work.
As the BBC pointed out: 'In recent weeks, America's key intelligence agencies have had to face a series of accusations that they failed to act properly on warning signals they received prior to 11 September. For a government under pressure to show it is getting results in its war on terrorism, the apparent foiling of an attempt to make a dirty bomb will certainly not be unwelcome to the Bush administration.'
Muhajir hardly sounds like the kind of person capable of making and detonating a radioactive device. Consider the Washington Post's potted biography: 'He was born in Brooklyn. He joined a Latino gang in Chicago, where he was involved in a killing as a teenager. He worked at a hotel in Florida, where he was sent to prison after a road-rage shooting incident. And now the menacing 31-year-old man who calls himself Abdullah al Muhajir is the first accused al-Qaeda operative with "Jose" tattooed to his right arm....' Hmmm. As Dack says, 'Jose Padilla couldn't even spell bomb, let alone make one'.
But then, pretty much no one could make a radioactive bomb. Back on 5 April 2002, scientist Fred Singer argued: 'A dirty bomb makes no practical sense. To produce significant radioactivity over an area of, say, one square mile, the concentration within a small bomb would have to be roughly 10 million times greater and would quickly kill the terrorists trying to assemble the material. The radioactivity also creates large amounts of heat energy, sufficient to melt most containers. What's more, any such bomb would be easy to detect at long distance if it emits gamma rays. We therefore conclude that a dirty bomb is mostly hype.' (Also see Iain Murray's piece on Tech Central Station.)
Now, US officials are admitting that they are 'not sure' what al-Muhajir's plans were (if any) - with FBI director Robert Mueller conceding that 'there was not an actual plan'. So what was there? A disaffected Latino youth with Islamic fundamentalist aspirations who thought about - maybe even talked about - building a nuclear device and blowing up an American city? This looks like a slightly more serious version of arresting and detaining children for writing stories about shooting their teachers - the likelihood of either happening is slim to non-existent. Padilla seemed to be engaged in little more than a fantasy, which the rest of us are only too happy to treat as a potential reality that the great guys at the FBI and the CIA managed to foil. God bless them.
Bush has now announced a 'full-scale manhunt' for anyone else believed to be 'involved in the alleged al-Qaeda plot to detonate a radioactive bomb in the USA' - indicating that he intends to make 'tackling dirty bombers' a priority. He certainly won't let facts like there being no dirty bombs, no dirty bombers and no plot stand in his way. Why should he - when much of the US and European media seem content to report this blatant attempt to save face as a spectacular new development? It is exactly nine months since the 11 September attacks - so when are journalists going to get their critical faculties back?