There are reports today that a second American soldier in the army of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been killed in combat. ISIS is believed to have recruited dozens, possibly as many as 100, Americans along with nearly 1,000 Western Europeans. Spokesmen for the terrorist/insurgent organization have made it clear that they intend to bring the kinds of death and destruction they have perpetrated on the peoples of Syria and Iraq to the West, particularly the United States. Striking at the vulnerable U.S. homeland may become an imperative for ISIS as this country ratchets up its military operations against the group, most notably attacking leadership targets and infrastructure in Syria.
ISIS poses a qualitatively different and more serious threat to the U.S. homeland than other groups, including Al Qaeda. It is better organized, better financed, better equipped and more ruthless than the others. The presence in its ranks of so many foreign, but specifically Western, fighters, also gives ISIS potentially much greater access to and intelligence on U.S. targets and more opportunities to exploit the global trading and transportation systems to insert agents and even bombs into the United States. We already have had experiences with other terrorist groups trying to put explosive devices and even suicide bombers on airplanes for the purpose of detonating them in the skies over an American city. If there ever was a group with the potential to deliver a weapon of mass destruction into the United States, it is ISIS.
Terrorism experts are warning that U.S. intelligence organizations and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will need to intensify their efforts to prevent ISIS from making good on its threat to carry its war to America. This means eliminating the gaps in our defenses. One area that cries out for attention and investment is screening all cargo bound for the United States. DHS already screens all airline passengers but almost none of the cargo on those same aircraft. Some seven years after Congress passed a law requiring 100 percent screening of cargo, only around five percent actually gets examined. Critics of the law assert that there is no technology that can easily and cheaply detect nuclear materials or large quantities of explosives hidden in cargo containers. DHS is seeking to have the law repealed arguing that intelligence-based screening of just the most potentially dangerous containers would be good enough.
Yet, the technology does exist to provide rapid, cheap and highly accurate cargo screening. In fact, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office in DHS is conducting operational testing of just such a system. This is the Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS) created without government money by Decision Sciences International Corporation. The MMPDS relies on naturally-occurring high energy neutron particles as its source and a simple detector array to measure the change in the path of the particles based on their interactions with the material inside a container. Dense materials such as uranium and plutonium cause greater changes in the paths compared to less dense materials. The MMPDS can even detect shielded nuclear materials. Because the system is passive, meaning it doesn’t have to generate high energy particles such as x-rays, it is fast, relatively cheap, extremely accurate, safe and easy to operate. Change the system’s software package and it can also detect high explosives and people.
The same technology that goes into the MMPDS can also be used for other purposes. For example, Toshiba, the Japanese company tasked to clean up the Fukushima site, needs to know with great accuracy what happened to the nuclear materials inside the damaged reactors before it can safely dismantle the facility. Deployed in a large array outside the reactors and allowed to scan for a fairly long period of time, the Decision Sciences’ system could produce an accurate three-dimensional image of the interior of the Fukushima reactors distinguishing concrete, steel and water from uranium, plutonium and other very heavy materials.
The threat is becoming more serious and the technology is available. It is time for DHS to obey Congress’s direction and put in place a system to screen all cargo containers coming to the United States whether by air, sea or land.
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