21st Mar 2018

US to EU: Middle East and Africa pose risk of 'dirty bomb'

Countries in Africa and the Middle East are a greater threat than old nuclear facilities in former Soviet republics as sources of material for a "dirty bomb," US officials say.

"In north Africa and the Middle East you have terrorist organisations, unstable governments, in some cases actual civil conflict and lack of control over sovereign territory. In the former Soviet Union we still have remaining challenges, but we are dealing with relatively stable governments with which we have a history of engagement," Simon Limage, a non-proliferation specialist at the US state department, told EUobserver.

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  • Weapons from Libya have already spread to Mali and Syria, the US says (Photo: BRC)

His colleague in the US department of energy, Anne Harrington, added: "All of these issues you could also apply to Pakistan."

She noted: "The risk of using these things [nuclear, chemical and biological materials] in a dirty bomb or a radiological dispersal device is of great concern to us."

Limage and Harrington were in Brussels this week to launch talks with EU countries on how to stop weapons of mass destruction [WMDs] being smuggled into Western allies, such as Jordan and Turkey, or into Europe and the US.

The dialogue comes amid mounting evidence of use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Harrington gave some examples of past US projects for the kind of work the US now wants to do with EU states.

She said the US has created a secure crossing point on the Jordan-Syria border and has given it mobile detection vans to help control desert routes.

It has also beefed up security at the Jordanian port of Aqaba and trained Jordanian border officials.

"We teach them things like: 'What does a sealed radiological source look like? If you see one coming through your checkpoint, what do you do?'," Harrington explained.

She said the EU and US will also share knowledge.

"We know there are well established smuggling routes, for example from central Africa through Libya to Europe. This has been a route since the time of the caravans. The oases haven't moved," she noted.

Limage said EU states have better relations than the US with some Middle East countries, mentioning Lebanon.

"We've had a hard time building capacity with Lebanon for various reasons, but it's in such a strategic area that we can't ignore its role," he said.

He noted the importance of anti-American feeling - linked to its support for Israel and to the 2003 Iraq war - should not be exaggerated, however.

"These feelings have not prevented co-operation on matters of national security for these countries," he said.

WMDs aside, Britain and France say they will ship conventional weapons, such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, to Syrian rebels if upcoming peace talks fail.

The US is also saying "all possible options" are on the table to ensure the fall of the Syrian regime.

Limage noted that conventional arms are "the most immediate and dangerous threat" in terms of proliferation in the region.

He said one "disturbing" development is the transfer of Libyan weapons to conflicts in Mali and Syria after the 2011 Libya war.

There is speculation in Europe that Britain and France are bluffing on arms to Syria in order to get the regime to negotiate.

But with diplomatic efforts unravelling to get Syrian leaders to talk to rebels in Geneva in August or September, one EU diplomat predicted that the UK and France will go ahead.

"I don't think they would bluff on a matter of such great international importance," the EU contact said.

EU arms to Syria: what, how and if

Britain and France are since Saturday free to ship arms to Syrian rebels. But many analysts think the idea is "a bluff."


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