The risk of nuclear terrorism via ISIS’ supply line through Turkey

A now distinct possibility that ISIS is seeking to conduct nuclear terrorism against western cities is highlighting the role that might be played by the organization’s supply routes through Turkey in making this a reality.

On March 30, on the eve of this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, ISIS media wing al-Furat threatened to attack Germany just days after the Brussels attacks.[1]

It showed images of the German chancellor’s office engulfed in flames and an ISIS flag over Cologne Bonn Airport, with calls to “Do what your brothers in Belgium did.”

Image posted by ISIS’ al-Furat Media

Image posted by ISIS’ al-Furat Media

The terror attacks in Brussels also punctuated the issue of nuclear security, when Belgian authorities discovered ISIS was conducting surveillance of a local nuclear scientist and his family.

In November, shortly after the Paris attacks, Belgian authorities arrested Mohammed Bakkali and discovered he had video surveillance footage of a scientist at Belgian’s SCK-CEN nuclear research facility in Mol. The footage was collected by the el-Bakraoui brothers, two of the suicide bombers in the Brussels attacks.[2]

Nuke guard murdered

During the attacks, a guard who worked for G4S security at a Belgian nuclear research center was also murdered, raising the prospect of an ISIS plot to attack the facility and release radioactive waste into the atmosphere, or to steal radioactive material for a dirty bomb.

Now, two Belgian nuclear power plant workers at Doel have joined ISIS, with important knowledge of the nuclear sites that could be exploited by the terrorist group.[3]

As a result, Brussels has stepped up security and posted armed guards at the country’s nuclear facilities.

Meanwhile, the fear of ISIS and nuclear terrorism looms large at the nuclear summit, where leaders from more than 50 countries have gathered to wrestle with this daunting prospect.

The havoc a nuclear terrorist attack could wreak in an urban area like New York, London, or Berlin is urgent enough that the leaders scheduled a special session on this threat during the two-day summit.

CIA chief fingers Turkey route

However, a key remedy to address this threat was already underscored back in February by CIA Chief John-Brennan — cutting off ISIS supply line through Turkey.

On Feb. 11, during a taped interview on CBS News’s 60 Minutes, Brennan disclosed ISIS has acquired WMD attack capability, used chemical weapons on the battlefield a number of times, and may attempt to sell them to conduct attacks on western and other countries.

As such Brennan warned that “it’s so important to cut off the various transportation routes and smuggling routes that they have used.”

These routes go through Turkey; however, Erdogan is opposed to sealing ISIS’ supply line.

In a Guardian article last November entitled “Turkey could cut off Islamic State’s supply lines. So why doesn’t it?,” David Graeber questioned Ankara’s motives in keeping the supply line open through Turkey. [4]

This week, it was revealed that in a closed-door meeting with US politicians back in January, Jordan’s King Abdullah accused Turkey of exporting terrorists to Europe.[5]

The King informed US congressional members that the AKP sought a “radical Islamic solution” to the Middle East and that exporting terrorists to Europe is “part of Turkish policy,” while stoking the refugee crisis as a form of hybrid warfare to extract concessions from the EU.

He also pointed out how Turkey profits from sale of ISIS oil, an issue Russia has highlighted the past months.

China aware of threat

China shares this suspicion. Writing in CCTV, Professor Han Xudong from PLA National Defense University observed that Turkey’s invasion of northern Iraq in October was likely to keep borders open for Turkish “convoys” to enter Turkey from Iraq, since “with the increase of air power by the Russian air force, it has become more difficult for the “convoys” to enter Turkey from Syria.”[6]

By deploying troops, Turkey can thus protect the convoys entering from the Iraq side, and Han surmised “Turkey’s action may appear to the international community that Turkey intends to protect and expand the Islamic State.”

All this takes place against the backdrop of allegations that Erdogan is using ISIS as a proxy force to fight Assad and the Kurds. It’s also alleged that Erdogan’s family personally profits from sale of ISIS oil. Despite such suspicions, the US and EU in the past, have appeased the Turkish leader’s demands to shift the anti-ISIS campaign to one that is anti-Assad and anti-Kurd. However, the specter of ISIS acquiring WMD capability to conduct nuclear terrorism is a game changer.

As such, the major powers need to double down to seal the border between ISIS and Turkey. They must no longer accommodate Erdogan and hold the world’s safety hostage to his personal agenda for the Middle East.

[1] Gilad Shiloach, ‘ISIS Threatens German, Calls for Attack on International Airport’, Voactiv, March 31, 2016, http://www.vocativ.com/news/303858/isis-threatens-germany-calls-for-attack-international-airport/

[2] Patrick Tucker, Ä Nuclear-Armed ISIS? It’s Not That Farfetched, Expert Says”, Defense One, March 29, 2016, http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2016/03/nuclear-armed-isis-its-not-farfetched-expert-say/127039/

[3] Jennifer Newton, “Two Belgian nuclear power plant workers have joined ISIS leading to fears the jihadis have the intelligence to cause a meltdown disaster”, Mail Online, march 26, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3510384/Belgian-nuclear-plant-guard-murdered-security-pass-stolen-two-days-Brussels-attacks.html

[4] David Graeber, “Turkey could cut off Islamic State’s supply lines. So why doesn’t it?”, The Guardian, November 18, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/18/turkey-cut-islamic-state-supply-lines-erdogan-isis

[5] Ishaan Tharoor, “Jordan’s King Abdullah accused Turkey of sending terrorists to Europe, report says”, The Washington Post, March 28, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/28/jordans-king-abdullah-accused-turkey-of-sending-terrorists-to-europe-report-says/http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/jordans-king-accuses-turkey-sending-terrorists-europe-1687591648

[6] Han Xudong, “Four strategic aims for Turkey’s deployment of troops in Iraq”, CCTV, October 12, 2015, http://english.cntv.cn/2015/12/10/ARTI1449735091622544.shtml

Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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