As the deadly terrorist group Islamic State had seized Iraq's second largest city, Mosul in 2014, it laid claim to various garrisons and military bases filled with huge stock of weapons such as rockets, bombs, guns and tanks. However, if that was not enough, they also found two caches of cobalt-60, a metallic substance with high levels of radiation, in a storage room of Mosul college campus. Cobalt-60 is used to kill cancer cells when it is contained within the heavy shielding of a radiotherapy machine.
However, in terrorists’ hands, it is the core ingredient of a “dirty bomb,” a weapon which could be used to spread radiation. Although Western Intelligence agencies knew about the cobalt and watched anxiously for three years for signs that the militants might try to use it. Problems intensified in late 2014 when Islamic State officials said that they had obtained radioactive material and again in early 2016 when the terrorists took over laboratories at the same Mosul college campus with the aim of building new kinds of weapons.
The Iraqi military was also apprised of the potential threat as they battled Islamic State fighters in the sprawling complex where the cobalt was last seen.
Finally, in early 2017, the Iraqi army entered the bullet-pocked campus building and peered into the storage room where the cobalt machines were kept.
The cobalt had not been left untouched by the terrorist group.However, it remains unclear why the Islamic State failed to take advantage of the cobalt at its disposal. U.S. officials and nuclear experts think that the terrorists may have been stopped by a practical concern: how to dismantle the machines’ thick cladding without exposing themselves to a burst of deadly radiation.
The danger has still not passed as despite Iraq's victory in Mosul, many IS operatives are still loose in the city.A lethal doseInternational experts around the globe were highly concerned since IS's entry into Mosul in 2014.
U.S. officials knew that the Islamic State had gained control of small quantities of natural or low-enriched uranium — the remnants of Iraq’s nuclear projects from the time of Saddam Hussein’s presidency — as well as some relatively harmless radioactive iridium used in industrial equipment.
However, global intelligence agencies were concerned du to the existence in Mosul of at least one powerful radiotherapy machine used for cancer treatment, one that could potentially provide the Islamic State with a potent terrorist weapon.
However, US officials and private researchers were unable to answer where was the cobalt located exactly.In the end it was Iraqi officials who offered an explanation, claiming that both machines had been in Mosul throughout the Islamic State’s occupation, but not in the places where the terrorists might have thought to look for them.
They had been placed out of commission for several years because of lack of parts and had been put in storage in a building owned by the University of Mosul, somewhere in the city’s eastern side.
Morris reported from Beirut. Mustafa Salim in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.