Wednesday, March 05, 2008

FARC Fallout: Assessing Dirty Bomb Claims by Aaron Mannes

Among the more explosive revelations from the laptops of the late FARC leader Raul Reyes is the allegation that the FARC was trafficking in radioactive materials and according to Colombia’s Vice President was planning to build a “dirty bomb.” A dirty bomb (or a radiological dispersal device) is an explosive packed with radioactive materials that are dispersed with the explosion (for more details see below.)

No one should question the fundamental viciousness of the FARC. But the dirty bomb accusation should be investigated carefully, particularly considering the FARC’s access to international smuggling networks (they help smuggle tons of illegal drugs to the United States around the world).

From the documents released by the Colombian government (36 page pdf in Spanish), the sole reference to uranium is point number six in a memo dated February 16, 2008 to Reyes from Edgar Tovar. The other contents of the memo deal with FARC finances, operations, and possible informants. It has to be emphasized that the writing is not terribly clear (although when it is examined by experienced analysts and put into context it will undoubtedly prove to be a wealth of information about FARC operations.)

Here is a translation of the paragraph about uranium:

Another topic is about uranium. There is a gentleman who supplies me with material for the explosive that we prepare and his name is Belisario and he lives in Bogota. He is a friend of Jon 40 [possibly Jon 40 a commander of the 27th Front, which is based in the Meta Department, and is part of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc], eastern Efren [possibly the other commander of the 27th Front], Caliche of Jacobo [possibly a commander of the 9th Front, based In the Antioquia Department and part of the Northwest Bloc or someone associated with the Jacobo Arenas Urban Front, based in the Medellin region], he sent me samples and specifications and they propose to sell each kilo for 2.5 million dollars and they handle delivery and we handle who we sell to and that it be a business with a government to sell to. Arto [possibly plural] have 50 kilos ready and they can sell much more, he has direct contact with those who have the product.

Much of this is unclear.* There is minimal punctuation. The verb after Arto is plural indicating it may be a group. The original Spanish is here:

Otros de los temas es lo de el Uranio hay un señor que me surte de material para el explosivo que preparamos y se llama Belisario y vive en Bogotá es amigo de Jon 40, Efrén oriental, Caliche de la Jacobo, el me mando el muestrario y las especificaciones y proponen vender cada kilo a 2 millones y medios de dólares y que ellos entregan y nosotros miramos a quien le vendemos y que sea el negocio con un gobierno para venderle arto tienen 50 kilos listos y pueden vender mucho más, tiene el contacto directo con los que tienen el producto.

So it appears that the FARC is entering the uranium smuggling business - a logical move for them (uranium is mined in Colombia and Venezuela). But, unlike cocaine, there are far fewer buyers and the consequences of getting caught – which the FARC seems to be aware of, hence the emphasis on selecting buyers – are very high.

The Dirt on Dirty Bombs

But this doesn’t get us to the dirty bomb accusation. Uranium, apparently, is a terrible material for building a dirty bomb - in and of itself it is not radioactive. An excellent primer on dirty bombs is this CRS report from April 1, 2004 (a 6 page pdf).

In a nutshell, in all but the least developed societies there are substantial amounts of radioactive material used for innumerable medical, industrial, and mundane capacities. Acquiring the material for a dirty bomb is not that hard, but all radioactive material is not equal. Most of the material that can be readily acquired is not that radioactive and unless truly enormous quantities were obtained, would probably just raise background radiation level by a small amount. There are specific materials that could do much worse than that, however there is another problem. The radioactive material has to be converted into a form that is easily dispersed (say a fine powder.) Milling down a highly radioactive metal bar would be difficult (probably killing the workers in the process.)

The FARC could easily build a low level dirty bomb. But it is a problematic tactic, in that all it would do is raise the background radiation level and possibly causing slight long-term increases in health risks. (There is a debate among experts about the efficacy of dirty bombs – an ongoing issue for consequence management in the U.S. is that strict EPA standards might force the closure of areas hit by a dirty bomb when the practical impact on health is minimal.) In general, an unsophisticated dirty bomb would amount to a big, expensive hassle. Some experts argue that a dirty bomb, regardless of the real effects, would cause a massive panic – hopefully this proposition will never be tested, but in many stressful disaster situations social networks prove to be surprisingly resilient. For the FARC a dirty bomb might not be an attractive weapon since it would do minimal damage, while making the FARC politically radioactive.

Nonetheless, news that the FARC is entering the uranium trade is interesting and worrisome. More than any other terrorist group the FARC sits on the nexus of international crime and terrorism. This was epitomized by the deal with the IRA – drugs for weapons training – that was disrupted in August 2001. The extent of these links should be one of the many valuable things gleaned from the laptops of Raul Reyes.

*Full disclosure, my own Spanish is terrible but I work closely with a very diligent Spanish-speaking researcher.

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