Iraqi authorities are searching for “highly dangerous” radioactive material that went missing from a US-owned oil company facility, sparking fears the Islamic State terror group could use the material in a dirty bomb, according to a Wednesday report.
Environment ministry documents reported on by the Reuters news agency reveal the material, stored in a laptop-sized case, went missing in November while in the possession of oil industry contractor Weatherford in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
“We are afraid the radioactive element will fall into the hands of Daesh,” a senior security official told Reuters, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb,” he said.
The environment ministry document described “the theft of a highly dangerous radioactive source of Ir-192 with highly radioactive activity belonging to SGS from a depot belonging to Weatherford in the Rafidhia area of Basra province.”
An unnamed ministry official told the news agency the device contained up to 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of Ir-192 “capsules,” a radioactive isotope of iridium also used to treat cancer.
The material, which uses gamma rays to test flaws in materials used for oil and gas pipelines in a process called industrial gamma radiography, is owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey.
The International Atomic Energy Agency classifies the stolen material as Category 2, meaning that if not managed properly it could cause permanent injury or death to anyone in close proximity to it within hours.
The leaked document did not indicate the material had come into the possession of IS.
The terror group is not know to have any significant presence in Basra, on the Persian coast south some 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of the Baghdad.
However, locals have reported that Shiite militias and armed tribal groups have increasingly taken control of the area as security forces have been redeployed to help fight the Islamic State in the country’s northwest.
A Basra security official said an Iraqi military division of about 8,000 troops redeployed from the region in late 2014 to join the fight against IS, along with a police battalion of about 500 troops, leaving nine incomplete police battalions and only one army battalion for the entire Basra province, which has a population of about 3 million.
The result, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss security matters with the media, has been a wave of armed robberies targeting homes, cars, jewelry stores and currency exchanges, as well as a resurgence in tribal clashes and an increase in drug trafficking from neighboring Iran to Gulf Arab states.
The initial investigation into the missing radioactive material indicated perpetrators had specific knowledge of how to handle the material and how to gain access to the facility, a security official told Reuters.
There were “no broken locks, no smashed doors and no evidence of forced entry,” he said.
An operations manager for Taiz, the Iraqi firm that was contracted to protect the facility, declined to comment on the theft to Reuters, citing instructions from Iraqi security authorities.
Weatherford officials said SGS was responsible for safeguarding the material.
A spokesperson for the US State Department said officials are “aware of reports,” but said there was no indication the material had fallen into the hands of jihadists.
A spokesman for the office coordinating security in Basra province, said the Iraqi army, police and intelligence forces were working “day and night” to locate the material.
The Associated Press contributed to this report