Evening Standard‘s “Radioactive Dirty Bomb” Plot Report Scrutinised

Alarming news, tucked away on page 7 of the Evening Standard and on-line here, via political editor Joe Murphy:

Foiled: plot to devastate capital with a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’

…Terrorists based overseas made detailed plans to smuggle a device into Britain and detonate it in the heart of the capital, to create panic and undermine the economy.

Their plot was foiled by an operation involving British, American and Pakistani intelligence agencies. Had it succeeded, the impact on London could have been devastating.

However, several paragraphs later, one finds oneself groaning:

Former shadow security minister Patrick Mercer confirmed the existence of the abortive plot, which was kept secret. “I’m aware there was a plot to use a dirty bomb in London in 2004 that was foiled before the material got near the UK,” he told the Evening Standard.

“This led to a great deal of work by the then government on resilience planning, and the plans to evacuate not just London but also other major cities.”

Mercer, it should be recalled, has a history of “revealing” terrorist plots that wither under scrutiny: in June 2010 he claimed that the Taliban had developed HIV-bombs.

The way the report is written, it’s not clear whether Murphy was briefed by Mercer for the whole story, or whether Mercer is simply confirming something Murphy had been tipped off about. However, Murphy doesn’t name or imply any other source – and the only other outlet to follow up so far is the Daily Express, which purports to have extra information from the police:

The bomb would have included the highly toxic chemical osmium tetroxide which blinds, damages the respiratory system and turns the skin black.

But the plot was foiled in 2004 following months of surveillance by MI5 and Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command. Police believe the gang had been planning to detonate the “dirty bomb” at a major shopping centre in the South-east.

Curiously, however, the outlines of the above appear to fit perfectly with “Operation Crevice”, a March 2004 police raid which was widely reported at the time and which led to several high-profile terrorist convictions in 2007. The Islamic militants pondered the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent as a possible target, and there were initially reports that there was a plan to use osmium tetroxide. According to the Daily Mail in 2004:

Security services have foiled a terrorist plot to launch a “dirty bomb” attack on Britain.

…Security services in the UK were alerted to the plans when conversations about the chemical were picked up at the GCHQ listening centre.

Details of the gas plot were also intercepted by the National Security Agency in the US. They passed on the tip to MI5.

The phone call they overheard is thought to have taken place between Peshawar in Pakistan and Crawley in West Sussex.

Mercer is quoted in that report; so if he’s now told Murphy that he’s “aware there was a plot to use a dirty bomb in London in 2004”, he must have been referring to this rather than to a second abortive plot, “which was kept secret”. Perhaps a previously unknown nuclear element has now come to light in relation to Operation Crevice, but if so we need a bit more than just an ambiguous quote from Patrick Mercer. And the timing is rather suspicious; Murphy’s report ends by noting that

New WikiLeaks revelations underline the threat posed by dirty bombs. Diplomatic files show al Qaeda is trying to secure nuclear material and rogue scientists to create a device.

Might it be the case that the 2004 chemical “dirty bomb” story has now been recycled as nuclear threat, as a convenient journalistic hook?