**Terrorists willing to pay $3 million for gram
Publishing Date: 28.11.06 09:27
By Gordon Thomas
LONDON -- Britain's secret intelligence service MI6 has learned that al-Qaida is prepared to pay $3 million a gram for Polonium 210, the deadly poison that killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
His body is still so "radiologically hot" that an autopsy cannot yet be conducted. It is stored in a lead-lined vault in a London morgue. So far three other persons are undergoing tests to establish if they have been exposed to Polonium 210.
The substance has been identified in five separate locations around the city. One is the luxury Millennium Hotel, near the U.S. Embassy. Another is a building in Mayfair that houses the office of Boris Berezovsky, a close friend of Litvinenko, and now an avowed enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the government has insisted there is no cause for panic, MI6 and Britain's internal security service, MI5, have jointly launched a top-priority hunt on how further quantities of Polonium 210 could be smuggled by al-Qaida.
The hunt began last Sunday in Peshawar. The ancient Pakistan city hosts a joint MI6/CIA surveillance operation supported by America's National Security Agency satellite surveillance. Using the latest cyber-technology, the intelligence officers in Peshawar picked up a short-burst transmission from somewhere in Peshawar's Old Town. It was in response to a call that appeared to have come from beyond the towering Khyber Pass, possibly from Afghanistan.
The call was automatically recorded on one of the computers in the offices the MI6/CIA team share. Just as automatically, it was dispatched down the line through cyberspace to GCHQ, the British Government Headquarters in the Cotswold town of Cheltenham. Simultaneously it reached America's NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland.
The words from Peshawar were part of the trillions of words in 500 languages that the GCHQ/NSA super computers are programmed to listen to, shift, reject or retain so they can be analyzed by the thousands of experts both GCHQ and NSA employ.
By late Sunday, MI6 knew of al-Qaida's offer to purchase Polonium 210.
Scientists working for both MI6 and MI5, began to ask and answer vital questions:
How could a terrorist use Polonium 210?
Ideally it would need to be deposited on another metal. Copper would be the ideal choice. Mixed with copper shavings it would be easier to disguise it in food. But not in a liquid. To disguise it as a polonium-chloride solution to add to water supplies would be difficult. The resulting distinctive pale yellow-green colour would make it easily spotted.
How can it be transported?
It cannot be carried in ordinary laboratory glassware. A special form of silicon glassware must be used. This is only usually available in a laboratory working with nuclear materials. Any form of transporting polonium 210 is highly dangerous and difficult because of the intense heat generated by the radioactivity. Even a small quantity of polonium 210, say two or three millilitres, would bubble away like a fizzy drink and the heat would be felt.
So how did the element that poisoned Litvinenko enter Britain?
Ideally it was processed in a laboratory with access to a nuclear reactor. There are a number of these in Russia and China. In one of them the substance would have been irradiated or bismuth was subjected to a similar bombardment of nuclear particles to weaponize it.
How feasible then is it to smuggle?
Professionally secured in an isotope carrier, it could be smuggled in through a diplomatic bag. Al-Qaida is known to have contacts with a number of countries who have diplomatic links to Britain.
How could it be used?
First and foremost it is a "weapon of panic." Slivers of the weapon - no larger than a few grains of salt - could be left in subway systems or areas where down-and-outs sleep rough. Many of these have skin sores that would allow polonium 210 to enter the body. It is unlikely their condition would be discovered before they were dying or dead.
Gordon Thomas, a regular contributor to G2B, is the author of "Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad," the new edition of which will be published in January 2007. He specializes in international intelligence matters.