A shipment of uranium discovered at Heathrow could have been part of a dry run operation by Iranian terrorists to test the resilience of security measures during recent Border Force strikes, a military intelligence expert has warned.
Counter-terror police have launched an urgent investigation after the radioactive substance was identified among a shipment of scrap metal on board an Oman Air flight from Pakistan.
The consignment – bound for an Iranian-registered business in the UK – arrived at Heathrow on Dec 29, when Border Force staff were in the grip of an eight day walk-out.
The suspicious material, which could be used in the manufacture of a “dirty bomb”, was detected by officials who were not on strike using sophisticated radioactive scanning equipment.
Commander Richard Smith, the head of the Met’s counter-terror command, said: “I want to reassure the public that the amount of contaminated material was extremely small and has been assessed by experts as posing no threat to the public.
“Although our investigation remains ongoing, from our inquiries so far, it does not appear to be linked to any direct threat. As the public would expect, however, we will continue to follow up on all available lines of enquiry to ensure this is definitely the case.”
But concerns have been expressed that it could have been part of a wider plot by state-backed Iranian terrorists to smuggle deadly material into the country in order to target UK-based dissidents opposed to the regime in Tehran.
Philip Ingram, a former senior military intelligence officer, said uranium would not necessarily be the most obvious material for use in a “dirty bomb”, but the shipment could have been part of a “dry run” during the strikes to test whether a more dangerous substance could get through.
He told The Telegraph: “If you were to use depleted uranium in a ‘dirty bomb’, like any isotope it would cause a contamination issue – but there are a lot more radioactive isotopes out there that would be easier to get hold of and would have a much greater effect.
“It’s definitely a possibility that this could have been some form of reconnaissance or dry run to test how the security was operating during the industrial action.”
Mr Ingram said that while the discovery of the uranium was concerning, there was some comfort to be found in the fact that even a small amount had been successfully identified during routine checks at Heathrow.
All passengers and goods arriving in UK airports and ports are checked for traces of radioactive material.
One security source said: “It is good evidence that we don’t just catch illegal immigrants, but other things as well. We get quite a lot of hits, but a lot are false positives and you have to respond to every single one. It is unusual for it to be real.”
MI5 assisting with investigation
It is understood the uranium was contained within metal bars, and experts have said it is “pretty much unheard of” to ship scrap metal around the world by air freight because of the cost.
James Kelly, the chief executive of the British Metals Recycling Association, said: “Nearly all goods are moved around the globe by road or in shipping containers. The ships are just immense.
“They are the size of six football pitches, so they can carry thousands of containers. It’s just cost effective to send it that way. No one I have talked to has ever sent anything by air.”
The shipment was intended for an Iranian-registered business based in the UK, and while it is understood that the intended recipient has been spoken to by police, there have been no arrests. MI5 has been assisting with the investigation, and detectives have also been liaising with their counterparts in Pakistan and Oman.
Iran has been linked to a string of global terror threats in recent years, and ongoing unrest in the country has increased pressure on the hardline regime.
News of the uranium find came on the same day Tehran sentenced a British-Iranian dual national to death on charges of spying for MI6.
In November, The Telegraph revealed that an Iranian hit squad had been deployed to murder two British journalists working for a Farsi-language television station based in the UK.
In 2015, counter-terrorism police uncovered a potential bomb factory linked to Iran and Hezbollah in north-west London. Thousands of ice packs containing three metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate were found after raids on four properties. A man in his 40s was arrested but not charged.