Charlie Stross is frightened by the Litvinenko assassination:
Astute readers of the daily fishwraps will have no doubt been aware of the Litvinenko poisoning. (Synopsis for aliens: a former FSB colonel, resident in London and noted for making serious accusations of terrorism at the Russian government, fell ill a month ago and died last week. The cause of death is now believed to be poisoning with radioactive Polonium 210, and police are treating the death as "suspicious" — legalese for "we think he was probably murdered but we don't have any evidence pointing to a specific third party so it's not technically a murder investigation, yet.")
Polonium 210 is interesting stuff. As noted in a variety of places on the web, it is entirely artificial — it doesn't occur naturally, but has to be created by irradiating bismuth in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator — and it has a half life of 138 days, decaying via alpha emission. To do any damage, it needs to be up close and personal, inside the victim, because alpha particles are absorbed very rapidly: but the biological damage they cause is much more severe than gamma radiation, neutrons, or beta radiation, precisely because all their energy gets dumped into bodily tissues promptly, rather than most of it zipping right through the victim and dissipating harmlessly in mid-air.
And the Wikipedia section on Polonium toxicity makes for sobering reading. ("250 billion times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide" is not a typo!)
Anyway, I digress.
The point is, someone with access to fresh Polonium 210 (read: less than a year old, hot from the reactor) decided to use it to bump off an enemy.
And the terrorism alert status hasn't risen a notch? Pull the other one.
Anyway, to the point: this wasn't simply an assassination. There are any number of poisons out there that would do the job painfully well but much more rapidly, and without the same scope for a diplomatic incident. Likewise, a bullet to the back of the head would have worked just as well (as witness the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya).
What this is, is a warning: "we have the capability to detonate a dirty bomb in central London any time we feel like it, so don't fuck with us". (Just take Polonium and add a little TNT.)
Who the warning is from, and who the intended recipient is, are another question entirely. I don't think it's any accident that the COBRA committee was convened the day after Litvinenko's death (on a Saturday, no less). And I don't think it's any accident that the British press have been very carefully pretending the phrase "dirty bomb" is not part of their vocabulary for the past week.
We're actually facing a national security nightmare: someone has demonstrated the capability to use radiological weapons on the streets of London and we don't know who they are. (Although we can make a couple of guesses.)
Given that Litvinenko was promoting a book that asserted FSB agents blew up two apartment buildings in Moscow and pointed the finger at Chechen rebels in order to justify Putin's subsequent war on Chechnya, one possibility that must be considered is that elements of the FSB may be responsible — and willing to use radiological terrorism as a tool of foreign affairs. It may well not have been ordered by the Kremlin: all it takes is for Vladimir Putin to mutter "will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?" over his breakfast one morning, and Shit Happens in a foreign capital thousands of kilometres away. (Or it may be entirely deliberate, merely "plausibly deniable", to use the charming CIA-surplus weasel words for "we did it but you can't prove it".)
But we don't know that. It's just a guess. It might be wrong.
And what disturbs me most is that all the other possibilities I've been able to think of are worse ...