An Associated Press report describes a joint project between Eastern European authorities and the FBI to expose a nuclear smuggling ring, which tried to sell “a huge cache of deadly cesium – enough to contaminate several city blocks”– to ISIS.
According to the AP report, four attempts by gangsters with suspected Russian connections to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern terrorists have been interrupted over the past five years. This begs the question of how many sales succeeded. It does not appear that this smuggling ring has been shut down, and even the successful busts had problems:
Criminal organizations, some with ties to the Russian KGB’s successor agency, are driving a thriving black market in nuclear materials in the tiny and impoverished country of Moldova, investigators say. The successful busts, however, were undercut by striking shortcomings: Kingpins got away, and those arrested evaded long prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling, AP found.
Moldovan police and judicial authorities shared investigative case files with AP in an effort to spotlight how dangerous the nuclear black market has become. They say the breakdown in cooperation between Russia and the West means that it has become much harder to know whether smugglers are finding ways to move parts of Russia’s vast store of radioactive materials — an unknown quantity of which has leached into the black market.
“We can expect more of these cases,” said Constantin Malic, a Moldovan police officer who investigated all four cases. “As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it.”
This raises the question of why the smugglers would think they could make “big money” selling apocalyptic nuclear materials to Islamist terror cells, if every such attempt has been thwarted by law enforcement.
Furthermore, it seems the smuggling kingpins keep escaping with their deadly merchandise. Moldovan investigators conceded they do not know how much nuclear material the smugglers retain, or if they have “succeeded in selling deadly nuclear material to extremists at a time when the Islamic State has made clear its ambition to use weapons of mass destruction.”
The operation to interdict these smugglers reads like something out of an espionage novel… and the heroes are doing vodka shots to keep their nerves steady:
The cases involve secret meetings in a high-end nightclub; blue-prints for dirty bombs; and a nerve-shattered undercover investigator who slammed vodka shots before heading into meetings with smugglers. Informants and a police officer posing as a connected gangster — complete with a Mercedes Benz provided by the FBI — penetrated the smuggling gangs. The police used a combination of old-fashioned undercover tactics and high-tech gear, from radiation detectors to clothing threaded with recording devices.
Wiretaps captured conversations about plots to target the United States with dirty bombs; the Eastern European middlemen seem eager to find Islamic State buyers, because they know those animals will use the weapons. One of the ringleaders has spoken of his desire to “annihilate America.”
ISIS has money to spend, the smugglers have product to sell, both sides desperately want to make a deal happen, and their major obstacle is the outnumbered police force of an impoverished nation, whose heroic lead investigator says he was barely aware of these nuclear smuggling rings five years ago. The odds that every single transaction has been stopped seem alarmingly low.