Just when it seemed that the Syria's proxy war would remain confined within the "comfortable" realm of conventional weaponry, moments ago Reuters gave the first hint of a potential, and radioactive escalation, when it reported that Iraq is searching for "highly dangerous" radioactive material stolen last year, according to an environment ministry document and seven security, environmental and provincial officials. The loss is significant because in already setting the next steps of the narrative, Reuters reports that the same officials "fear it could be used as a weapon if acquired by Islamic State."
It is unclear why a "highly dangerous" radioactive substance was located in Iraq, but as Reuters adds, the material, stored in a protective case the size of a laptop computer, went missing in November from a storage facility near the southern city of Basra belonging to U.S. oilfield services company Weatherford, the document obtained by Reuters showed and officials confirmed (incidentally this is the same Weatherford which two weeks ago fired 15% of its employees after warning of "lower for longer" oil prices).
Reuters attempts to probe further were promptly contained: a spokesman for Iraq's environment ministry said he could not discuss the issue, citing national security concerns. A Weatherford spokesman in Iraq declined to comment, and the company's Houston headquarters did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
More details on the theft from Reuters:
The material, which uses gamma rays to test flaws in materials used for oil and gas pipelines in a process called industrial gamma radiography, is owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey, according to the document and officials.
An SGS official in Iraq declined to comment and referred Reuters to its Turkish headquarters, which did not respond to phone calls.
The document, dated Nov. 30 and addressed to the ministry's Centre for Prevention of Radiation, describes "the theft of a highly dangerous radioactive source of Ir-192 with highly radioactive activity belonging to SGS from a depot belonging to Weatherford in the Rafidhia area of Basra province".
A senior environment ministry official based in Basra, who declined to be named as he is not authorized to speak publicly, told Reuters the device contained up to 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of Ir-192 "capsules", a radioactive isotope of iridium also used to treat cancer.
The material is classed as a Category 2 radioactive source by the International Atomic Energy Agency, meaning if not managed properly it could cause permanent injury to a person in close proximity to it for minutes or hours, and could be fatal to someone exposed for a period of hours to days.
Reuters adds that the ministry document said it posed a risk of bodily and environmental harm as well as a national security threat.
And with this highly radioactive substance stolen, concerns arise that it may have fallen in the hands of ISIS, from where it could promptly be used to make a dirty bomb.
According to Reuters, large quantities of Ir-192 have gone missing before in the United States, Britain and other countries, stoking fears among security officials that it could be used to make a dirty bomb.
"We are afraid the radioactive element will fall into the hands of Daesh," Reuters cited a senior security official with knowledge of the theft, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
"They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb," said the official, who works at the interior ministry and spoke on condition of anonymity as he is also not authorized to speak publicly.
For now, there has been no indication the material had come into the possession of Islamic State, which seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 but does not control areas near Basra. However, in case of a dirty bomb going off somewhere on the Syria-Turkey border, in close proximity to a battalion of Russian solders, well...
Attempts to contain a potential panic appears somewhat muted: the security official, based in Baghdad, told Reuters there were no immediate suspects for the theft. But the official said the initial investigation suggested the perpetrators had specific knowledge of the material and the facility: "No broken locks, no smashed doors and no evidence of forced entry," he said.
Almost as if it wasn't actually "stolen."
Meanwhile, everyone is searing for the deadly substance: "a spokesman for Basra operations command, responsible for security in Basra province, said army, police and intelligence forces were working "day and night" to locate the material. The army and police have responsibility for security in the country's south, where Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias and criminal gangs also operate."
Reuters also notes that ISIS does not actually have to make a dirty bomb with the material: besides the risk of a dirty bomb, the radioactive material could cause harm simply by being left exposed in a public place for several days, said David Albright, a physicist and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
The senior environmental official said authorities were worried that whoever stole the material would mishandle it, leading to radioactive pollution of "catastrophic proportions".
A second senior environment ministry official, also based in Basra, said counter-radiation teams had begun inspecting oil sites, scrap yards and border crossings to locate the device after an emergency task force raised the alarm on Nov. 13.
Two Basra provincial government officials said they were directed on Nov. 25 to coordinate with local hospitals. "We instructed hospitals in Basra to be alert to any burn cases caused by radioactivity and inform security forces immediately," said one.
Something tells us any burn cases will not afflict local Iraqis; however if we were Russian soliders in Syria or Iraq's vicinity, we would be concerned.
The final word belongs to the abovementioned David Albright who said that "if they left it in some crowded place, that would be more of the risk. If they kept it together but without shielding," he said. "Certainly it's not insignificant. You could cause some panic with this. They would want to get this back."
Unless causing some panic, and a panicked counterresponse, is precisely the intention.