U.S. and Iraqi authorities have jointly ramped up their efforts to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear and radioactive materials as concerns mount that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is seeking to recover these sensitive materials and use them in a terror attack.
ISIL now controls about half of Iraq, potentially giving it access to some low-level radioactive and radiological materials, according to a State Department official.
The threat has been deemed "critical" by the U.S. State Department, which announced on Wednesday that it had inked a new deal with Baghdad to ramp up joint efforts to detect and recover sensitive nuclear materials before ISIL and other terrorist entities can get to them.
While the United States currently has no evidence that ISIL has yet to locate these types of materials, there are concerns that lawless areas under the group’s control could be used as a new smuggling route by rogue actors.
"The signing and donation of radiation detection equipment reflect the common conviction of the U.S. and Iraqi governments that nuclear smuggling and nuclear and radiological terrorism are critical and ongoing global threats that require a coordinated, global response," the State Department said in a statement. "Iraq’s central location and the challenging security environment it faces reinforce the urgency with which these problems must be addressed."
The United States, which started working on the agreement in 2012, is now providing the Iraqi government with radiation detection and identification equipment, according to the State Department. These tools are expected to help Iraqi authorities "locate, identify, characterize, and recover orphaned or disused radioactive sources in Iraq thereby reducing the risk of terrorists acquiring these dangerous materials."
The concern is that sensitive materials could be smuggled outside of Iraq and potentially used by extremists.
"There’s always a concern about radiological or radioactive sources," said a State Department official who would only discuss the issue on background.
While the United States is "not aware of any cases of these types of material being smuggled out of the country thus far," ISIL could potentially use radioactive materials found in hospitals and some medical devices to create a crude bomb, the official said.
"This is the kind of thing where if ISIL got its hands on enough radioactive sources or radioactive sources of a sufficient radioactivity level and they decided to turn it into a bomb and blow it up in a market, that would be a very unpleasant thing," the official said, noting that "there’s no indication that ISIL is planning to do that."
Yet there is evidence that terrorists stole some nuclear materials in Iraq earlier this year.
Iraqi officials revealed to the United Nations in July that insurgents had seized uranium that was being used for research purposes at an academic institution in the northern part of the country.
Nearly 90 pounds of low-level uranium was stolen from Iraq’s Mosul University by "terrorist groups," Iraq’s U.N. ambassador was quoted as saying at the time by Reuters.
"Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state," Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim wrote in a letter claiming that these material could be "used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction," according to Reuters.
However, the United States is not overly concerned about the loss of these nuclear materials because it is mostly depleted or naturally occurring. There is currently no enriched uranium "that we know of" in Iraq, according to the State Department official.
"It continues to be our assessment that there is no indication ISIL has gotten hold of any material that would pose a nonproliferation threat, and no indication frankly that they are actively [seeking it out] … even if they do control some significant portion of territory in Iraq," the official said. "There’s been no indication, thankfully, that they are on the lookout for what we would consider to be a WMD."
"And even if they found it they wouldn’t know what to do with it," the official added.
Concern about these materials slipping into the wrong hands seems to have become more pressing for the United States and Iraq in recent months as ISIL gains control of more Iraqi territory, mainly in the northern and central parts of the country, including Mosul and Falluja.
"There are some concerns about the rule of law and security control in parts of the country, that they can’t necessarily control what’s going through they’re territory, [and] suddenly, even though we haven’t seen radioactive or nuclear smuggling, there’s a concern that if you’re a smuggler from the Middle East, or from the Caucasus, or Central Asia, you’d have a new smuggling route you might want to avail yourself of," according to the State Department official.
Reports also indicate that ISIL has stolen chemical weapons from a facility in Muthanna, though the United States has no evidence to confirm this.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned earlier this week that ISIL cannot be left to seize any more areas in Iraq and Syria, where it also controls about half the country.
The terror group will not end its radical mission "unless the U.S. along with our partners and coalitions stop it," Hagel said Wednesday during a speech.
"You gotta destroy it. Because if we don’t destroy it, it will get worse. And it will get wider and deeper," Hagel said, warning that more than 100 U.S. citizens have been identified as fighting alongside ISIL in the Middle East.
American citizens fighting with ISIL currently have little trouble returning to the United States, a legal loophole that some in Congress are pushing to clamp down on.
ISIL has continued to expand outside of Iraq and Syria, with recruitment efforts ramping up in South East Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The group also is close to overtaking the international green zone in Baghdad, according to the latest reports from the Pentagon.