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Israeli defense officials are preparing for a January drill on the response to a radiological "dirty bomb" attack against a backdrop of regional instability and fears about Iran's nuclear development, the Jerusalem Post reported on Friday (see GSN, Nov. 29).

The "Dark Cloud" simulation would be the Israeli civil defense force's first exercise that deals with the fallout of a radiological attack. The exercise is being directed by ex-Israeli air force Material Command chief Brig. Gen. Zev Snir, who advises the Israeli defense minister on WMD threats.

Jerusalem has long feared a nuclear attack by extremists. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said on multiple occasions he is more concerned that the nation's enemies could smuggle an improvised radioactive weapon into the country via the Port of Haifa than of Iran launching a nuclear-tipped long-range missile at Israel.

A number of military and defense personnel from other countries are set to observe the drill in northern Israel.

"Israel is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to preparing for such attacks. But we have to test ourselves and ensure that the responses we have in place are applicable and appropriate for the wide variety of threats we face," Snir said.

Compared to an attack with a weaponized pathogen, a dirty bomb strike on Tel Aviv is expected to result in a relatively small number of casualties.

"The effect is mostly psychological. A small dirty bomb that goes off in Israel, even if just a few people are killed, could paralyze the country," a high-ranking defense official said.

An improvised radiological device would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. Such a weapon could be smuggled into Israel through its port system, airports or borders.

Though the country has developed rigorous security protocols for checking sea and air cargo, the chance remains that a compact radioactive device could be secreted away amid hundreds of shipping crates on a ship. Alternatively, terrorists could detonate a dirty bomb attached to a drone aircraft. The militant organization Hezbollah has used unmanned aerial devices before, according to the Post.

Lastly, extremists could carry a radiological device into Israel by land. Some 2,500 migrants from North Africa already illegally cross the country's borders each month so it is not hard to envision a radiological weapon being smuggled in as well.

While Jerusalem's widely assumed nuclear arsenal serves as a strong protection against a strategic strike by another nation, it is less clear that terrorists would feel similarly deterred, particularly if there is the chance they could escape attribution.

"If the source of a terrorist nuclear attack against Israel is unknown, or if it is known to originate with al-Qaeda or Iran, Israel should make it clear that its response will be unlimited and include not just major population centers but all sites of value, including those of major symbolic importance for the Muslim world," Harvard University senior fellow Chuck Freilich said.

Jerusalem has yet to issue such a clearly worded threat (Yaakov Katz, Jerusalem Post, Dec. 9).