Scenario of 'dirty bomb' proves to be all too real

Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2002

After my May 22 column stating that U.S. officials had immediate concerns about a potential "dirty bomb" being assembled somewhere in the United States, I received the usual response -- "Are you crazy?"

At the time that column ran, some readers told me it was unrealistic, far too frightening and too specific to be credible. In light of the news disclosed this week, I feel compelled to revisit those criticisms. As to the May 22 story being unrealistic, it was clearly stated in the column that the dirty bomb concern was provided to the government by one-time al Qaida top lieutenant and now U.S. captive Abu Zubaydah. Information this week confirmed that it was Zubaydah who led investigators to the individuals involved in the developing plot.

My sources on this story were clear and correct when they explained that the next major and imminent threat to be assessed would be an effort to hastily create and detonate such a weapon. They did not disclose that an arrest had already been made in connection with the plot. However, we have since learned that Abdullah Al Muhajir was arrested in early May in connection with just such an attempt.

As to the May 22 column being "too frightening," I agree. The idea that dirty nuclear bombs could become a workable weapon of choice for terrorists seemed, just a month ago, only one of many potential scenarios uncovered by news agencies in abandoned caves in Afghanistan. We now know that by the time my May 22 column was published, plans were already in the "early stages" to complete such a dastardly act.

Now, the same news agencies fill the airwaves with detailed descriptions of how dirty nuclear bombs are assembled and the devastation they would bring. Frightening, indeed.

The criticism I received for being "too specific" goes to the entire heart of the issue of dealing with and writing about terrorists. The reliability of the intelligence sources for the May 22 story proved to be of the highest level conceivable. All the sources that I have relied upon never give specifics that might compromise our national security. But the information they provide helps all Americans prepare for the reality of the new world we live in.

Ironically, I wrote the column not to alarm readers but to defend the FBI, CIA and, specifically, President Bush. The fact is, the information that came to light this week reinforces the argument that our intelligence community, whether restructured or working under the current system, is capable of performing a magnificent service to the American people.

The column also addressed the idea of whether a president should issue public warnings for every possible threat a nation receives. The dirty bomb information served to illustrate intelligence that President Bush likely knew but should not have felt compelled to share with the American people. In fact, Bush and the appropriate agencies played their hand perfectly in dealing with this potential threat of monumental proportions.

So what lies ahead? There remains one part of the May 22 column that, as of the date of this writing, has yet to be confirmed. The story indicated that serious warnings of potential terrorist activity would soon be posted for the time period prior to and beyond the Fourth of July. I must note that part of this information was tied to what my sources indicated was a more time-sensitive concern over a dirty bomb scenario.

However, as was noted in the column, the level of communications between al Qaida cells has reportedly skyrocketed, suggesting that the Fourth of July may likely be the target of some other effort. It seems likely that we will soon hear of such warnings.

Finally, it seems that some of the criticism for this column may be, in part, due to the fact that I write from "outside the Beltway." But most of America, and it now seems most of those who want to destroy America, are outside of the Beltway as well. Geographic boundaries do not prevent these vicious terrorists from attempting to carry out their unbelievably cruel plots. And geographic boundaries do not prevent columnists from pursuing and reporting terrorist activities.

To accusations of being too specific and frightening -- I plead guilty. As for being unrealistic, the May 22 column was just as real then as it is today.

Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at To find out more about Matt Towery, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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