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The Next Terrorist Atrocity

Official Washington refers to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and although this regional description is clearly out of date the fact remains that IS is a loose international association of quasi-religious thugs whose likeness to human beings is marginal and whose savagery is almost beyond comprehension. Its attack on a hospital in Kabul on March 8 was indicative of the depths to which it will sink in its contemptible campaign of terror.

President Trump has thrown down the American gauntlet at the feet of these barbarians and sworn to destroy them, which is a laudable aspiration, because they are intent on creating mayhem throughout the world.  Their declared ambition is to establish a so-called Caliphate “claiming exclusive political and theological authority over the world’s Muslims,” and although they first began to operate in the Middle East, where they are being opposed militarily and with moderate success by disparate groupings of national and cross-national forces, they have expanded well beyond their initial bases.

IS terrorist groups and affiliates are thriving most markedly in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia.  Following the US-NATO war that reduced Libya to anarchy in 2011 IS was given the opportunity to establish control over wide areas of North African territory and expand in numbers and political influence.

Their very existence is a festering crisis, a truly malignant virus that is spreading inexorably round the world, for IS’s influence is being felt in Western and Asian countries where it has pulled in followers who may be even more dangerous than those in Muslim states. The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, said it has enlisted about 45,000 followers in over 100 countries, and there is evidence that its recruiting campaign has been successful in attracting anti-social misfits from many walks of society.

Mr Trump said he instructed his administration to develop a “comprehensive plan” to defeat Islamic State, and declared that “we will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”  The Pentagon has sent the White House a preliminary proposal, described as a “framework for a broader plan aimed at countering the extremist group beyond Syria and Iraq,” but it is difficult to see how any military-based strategy is going to succeed in neutralizing the fetid octopus of Islamic State.  As with his predecessors, President Trump has made an anti-terrorist statement of well-intentioned reassurance, but it remains to be seen what direction his policy will take his country and the world.

In the meantime the terrorist threat is growing outside the Middle East.  Even while IS is being defeated in conventional warfare in Syria and Iraq, and gradually being driven out of its former safe havens, it is concentrating on extending its evil influence elsewhere, and attacks by its fanatics have had a considerable effect around the world.  The tourist industries in many countries, most notably France, Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia have suffered grievously, and the New York Times reported that in France, for example, “growth in hotel room bookings after the Paris attacks fell to single digits from 20 percent. After the Brussels bombings, bookings went negative, and after Nice, bookings fell by double digits.”  This may seem a relatively minor terrorist impact in international terms, but it is extremely serious for those directly affected, and for the economies of regions and countries.  The leaders of Islamic State are well aware of the poisonous effect of their terrorist outrages on all sectors of national communities, and continue to look for means of continuing their campaign of disruption wherever they might detect weakness. It is alarming to consider what opportunities they might seize to create further and perhaps more lasting chaos.

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It can be unwise to attempt to forecast the future.  We have recently seen major prediction errors by pollsters worldwide, notably on the outcome of Britain’s vote about leaving the European Union and the even more unexpected outcome of the US Presidential election, and the forecasting business is so suspect that some French newspapers have decided to forgo polling in the run-up to the French presidential election in April-May.

The Chinese poet Lao Tzu told the world over two thousand years ago that “those who have knowledge, don’t predict ; those who predict, don’t have knowledge,” and his sagacious observation has by and large been ignored ever since.  We tend to want to believe what we are conditioned to accept, and not the least of these beliefs is that there are experts who can actually predict the future with accuracy.  And having made it clear that such prediction is at best a risky business, I now forecast that there is going to be a terrorist attack involving what is known as a “dirty bomb”.

The dirty bomb, or radiological dispersal device (RDD) is a particularly horrible weapon that the US government describes as combining conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive material in order to create disruption and panic rather than overwhelming destruction, as effected by a ‘normal’ nuclear weapon.  It points out that a dirty bomb is “not a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ but a ‘Weapon of Mass Disruption,’ where contamination and anxiety are the terrorists’ major objectives.”

What is particularly disturbing is that the radioactive material intended for these devices need not be even close to weapons’ grade, and can be obtained from the most commonplace sources. As the Stimson Centre observes, “dirty bombs are attractive to terrorists because the materials necessary to build the weapons are relatively easy to acquire and the technology is simple. Materials with the potential for serious attacks are used in hundreds of medical, industrial, and academic applications.”

As long ago as 2002, Michael Levi and Henry Kelly wrote in Scientific American that “Radiological terror weapons could blow radioactive dust through cities, causing panic, boosting cancer rates and forcing costly cleanups” and Foreign Policy magazine recorded that “some have pointed out that if a simple radiological device had been used in conjunction with the World Trade Center explosive, large areas of lower Manhattan would still be uninhabitable.”

The attraction for Islamic State to pursue construction and explosion of radiological weapons is obvious, but what is not at all clear is what the international community is doing about preparing for the dirty bomb.

An explosion of this type in the center of most cities could be appalling because of the massive effects of panic. In some countries the effects might be containable, although there is evidence that panicked crowds are an international phenomenon.  What is certain is that in cities such as Delhi and Karachi — vast, uncontrollable metropolises — explosion of a dirty bomb, immediately followed by word-of-mouth and social media transmission of shock and alarm, would in all probability result in massive national disruption, with millions of people fleeing the unknown in sheer terror.

President Trump and his experts must certainly continue to fight the fanatics of Islamic State, and no doubt they are thinking ahead to what IS might be preparing to do to again disrupt the already shaky international order. But combating IS demands more than military expansion and improved battlefield tactics.  The major challenge is for leaders of all the world’s nations to acknowledge the possibility of a dirty bomb attack and prepare their citizens to cope with it.  Creating panic could be the Islamic State’s most effective tactic.

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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