Missing radioactive materials in M’sia may have fallen into terrorists’ hands to make dirty bombs

It's been three days and 2018 already wants to punch you in the face.

By Sulaiman Daud | January 3, 2018

2018 has just started and we may have already been handed the most terrifying news story ever.

According to a report in Malaysia’s New Straits Times on Jan. 2, Malaysian police have recorded at least 20 cases where radioactive and nuclear materials have “gone missing” over recent years.

While some may have been retrieved, the whereabouts of many others remain unknown.

Terrorists and sympathisers of the Islamic State in Malaysia may have stolen these materials in an attempt to build “dirty bombs” for use in an attack.

Dirty bombs

A dirty bomb is a speculative radiological weapon that combines radioactive material with conventional explosives.

While the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) states that the radiation from such an explosion would not be enough to kill people directly, they might fall ill and the resulting contamination and clean-up efforts would be long and costly.

The NRC describes it as a “weapon of mass disruption”, as a dirty bomb attack in a well-populated area would cause severe disruption, shut down economic activity in the area and potentially sow panic.

In 2010, Columbia University Medical Centre’s director David Brenner said:

“The concern is that it’s not that hard to manufacture a dirty bomb. Basically you just need to get some radioactive materials.”

While there hasn’t been a dirty bomb attack — yet — there have been several close shaves. In 2006, a man pleaded guilty of conspiring to carry out dirty bomb attacks in several London financial centres.

You’re our only hope

But hang on, the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) of Malaysia is on the case.

What’s the AELB? A quick look at the profile page of the English version of their website as of Jan 3. gives us this information:

Pic from AELB.

Ok, that doesn’t exactly inspire you with confidence. Fortunately, the Malay language version of the site provides more info.

The AELB was established under the Prime Minister’s Department in Feb. 1985. In 1990, it was moved under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

Its objective is to oversee the use of radioactive materials in Malaysia for peaceful purposes, and one of its functions is to “control and monitor the activity of atomic energy.”

With that in mind, here’s what Director-General Hamrah Mohd Ali has to say about the missing material:

“We also had a case recently where AELB was called by the police following information on possible radioactive materials being disposed of at a carpark of a hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

We went there and confirmed that it was radioactive, but we have no idea where it came from.”

Gif from Tenor

Counter-terrorism unit should take the lead

To be fair, the AELB has made efforts to regulate the movement of hazardous materials in Malaysia.

Hamrah described how the Board have equipped the country’s ports and main points of entry with radiation detectors, and how Customs officers are trained to handle detection.

But the concern is that these cases should be treated as a potential terrorist threat.

The New Straits Times quoted unnamed sources within Malaysia’s “security agencies” who said that Malaysia’s counter-terrorism division, the Special Branch at Bukit Aman, should take the lead. Said these sources:

“Normally, these cases will be investigated by the police’s Criminal Investigation Department. However, it should not be treated as a usual case of theft. There is a need to trace who the perpetrators are, their background, contacts and find out their motives.

These are all vital information that must be cross-checked to ensure that these dangerous materials do not fall into the wrong hands.”

On Dec. 22, 2017, Reuters reported that the Malaysian government had arrested 20 individuals over suspected terror links. One guy was apparently planning to attack the Kuala Lumpur beer festival that was cancelled in Sept. 2017.

Across the causeway, let’s not panic, but let’s not be complacent either.

Maybe you should be taking that SG Secure app a bit more seriously after all.

Top image from Pixabay.

About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman believes that we can be heroes, if just for one day. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve. In his spare time he writes about film, pop-culture and international politics, which you are very welcome to read here.

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